JAC: Last week my friend Andrew Berry, a lecturer at Harvard and expert on Darwin and, especially, Alfred Russel Wallace, was telling me about some interesting data he’d gleaned from Wikipedia about the two Fathers of Evolution. I suggested he write it up as a post for this site, and he kindly obliged:
Alfred Russel Wallace & Charles Darwin: the Wikipedia Page Hit Data
by Andrew Berry
Completely independently of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection. While Darwin was slowly grinding through the production of a major book on the subject – his summary of twenty years of thought and analysis – Wallace was in the field in Indonesia pondering similar issues. The result of this academic convergent evolution was a famous and oft recounted episode in the history of science.
In 1858, Wallace sent an outline of his ideas to Darwin, who was duly shocked to find himself about to be scooped. Darwin’s precedence was rescued, however, by the intervention by two friends, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, who arranged for a paper to be presented shortly afterwards at London’s Linnean Society, featuring Wallace’s manuscript and some hastily cobbled together material from Darwin. The product was an unusual paper: it’s not strictly speaking a joint publication, but, rather, two independent statements in the same paper of the same idea. Wallace, by now in New Guinea, knew nothing of these machinations, but was happy, retrospectively, to give them his blessing. The idea, after all, had been published, and, also, his stock had just gone up in scientific circles now that he was associated with someone as esteemed and senior as Darwin.
Given this history, it’s perhaps surprising that Darwin is so much more famous today than Wallace. Google “Evolution,” and it’s Darwin’s lugubrious bearded face that stares out at you from the search results, not Wallace’s rather less gloomy (but eventually equally bearded) visage. In terms of posterity, Darwin has well and truly trumped eclipsed (what a pity it is to have to avoid perfectly good words because of their unspeakable newfound associations) Wallace.
Having said that, it’s not as though Wallace has altogether disappeared. People know him as the “other guy.” He lives on in footnotes of biology textbooks, and is often discussed in exactly the terms of this very issue: how come these days all the credit for evolution is laid at Darwin’s door with little or no mention of Wallace? Indeed, Wallace is sometimes described as “Famous for not being famous.”
There are plenty of interesting (and contested) reasons for Wallace’s eclipse, and it’s not my intention to discuss them here. What I want to do is introduce a very 21st century metric of fame in an attempt to quantify that eclipse. Realizing, over years of writing and lecturing about Wallace, that I typically glibly asserted that, “Darwin is famous; Wallace isn’t,” I decided to try to back up that claim with some numbers. And Wikipedia – so often the first stop online if you’re gathering information about topics that aren’t directly addressed by TMZ – is surely the place to look for those numbers.
For some time, an independent website aggregated Wikipedia page hit data, and presented results graphically. (It no longer seems to be functional. The latest data I could find on Darwin’s Wikipedia page was from January of this year.) Here, for an arbitrary three month period in Fall ’14, are the data for Darwin:
Two things are immediately striking. First, there is a consistent background pattern, but there are occasional departures from that: in this instance, Darwin apparently went viral on 3 Sept 2014. Second, people are interested in Darwin only on weekdays. There is a clear decline in Darwin page hits over weekends, suggesting that a lot of the traffic is driven by homework assignments (the same pattern does not obtain for less homework-y topics, like, for example, David Bowie).
Now let’s look at Wallace’s Wikipedia page hits over the same period:
It’s nice to see that Wallace is getting plenty of traffic – like Darwin, on a weekly cycle apparently driven by homework – but note the scales of the two graphs. The y-axis for Darwin’s runs to 18,000; for Wallace’s, it runs to 1800. There is more or less an order of magnitude difference in the rate of Wikipedia page visitation between Darwin and Wallace. It is interesting to note too that, like Darwin, Wallace also has the potential to “go viral” (i.e., to have days on which his Wikipedia page’s hits vastly outnumber those on a typical day). Like Darwin, curiously, the big viral day for Wallace was 3 September 2014.
What on earth happened on 3 September 2014? Why would both pages show a spike? You can imagine that new scholarship on, say, Darwin could engender a Darwin-specific spike, without affecting the rate of flow to Wallace’s Wikipedia page. But this event affected them both.
It took a bit of digging around, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve tracked down the cause of this joint spike. On 31 August, a spoof news source published this story (it seems that the page is no longer up; this is a screen cap from earlier):
Perhaps the website did too good a job of dressing up the story as real news: over that period, I received probably a dozen emails from friends, students, and colleagues drawing my attention to this (apparently) extraordinary development in the Darwin-Wallace story. “OMG, Wallace was gay,” was the subject line of one of those emails. Everyone writing to me was completely taken in (suggesting that perhaps we have some kind of innate yearning for more sexually interesting visions of history than the ones we’re accustomed to). I’m guessing that it was this publication that caused the joint Darwin/Wallace Wikipedia traffic spike. It occurred a few days after the story was first published: a period of latency during which the world of social media was gearing up to its fully exponential dissemination of the tale.
Even when bogus stories of long concealed gayness are driving interest in Darwin and Wallace, that same close-to-tenfold difference holds. Darwin really is ten times more famous than Wallace.
Page hits for Darwin’s and Wallace’s Wikipedia pages over a 90 day period in Fall ’14, and on 3 September 2014: