The Evolution Debate, 1813-1870

By Charles Darwin; Alfred Russel Wallace et al. | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION TO VOLUME IX

David Knight

Wallace 1 (1823-1913) had a sketchy education before becoming a teacher in Leicester in 1844. There he met Henry Walter Bates, a keen entomologist, whom he persuaded in 1848 to go with him to the Amazon. They would collect specimens of natural history, for which there was a booming market among museums, botanic gardens, and private collectors. Wallace's ship caught fire on the return journey, his collections were lost, and he and the crew were lucky to be rescued. Undaunted, in 1854 he again set off collecting, this time in the East Indies, spending eight years there. He was particularly interested in orang-utans (the Malay word means 'wild man of the woods', Linnaeus' Homo sylvestris being a translation), and being quite free of Victorian racism, lived happily among Malays and Dyaks learning much about their lives, and collecting. 2 In 1855 he wrote and published an evolutionary essay on 'the law which has regulated the introduction of new species', which attracted the attention of Charles Darwin 3 but made little general impact. He then read Thomas Malthus' work on population, and hit upon the idea of development through natural selection, writing to Darwin about it in 1858. The shattered Darwin realised that he had been anticipated, but Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker told him he must get down to writing On the Origin of Species, and meanwhile passed on Wallace's letter and extracts from Darwin's much earlier unpublished essay to the Linnean Society of London, where they were read at a meeting and published. In his Presidential Address to the British Association in 1858, Richard Owen alluded to them, but again they attracted little note. Those papers by Wallace are reprinted here in this book. A more lengthy exposition, with evidence presented in some detail and objections foreseen and answered, was required, and this Darwin duly set about providing.

Since science is public knowledge and priority (their intellectual property) is what characteristically matters to scientists, Wallace might have claimed equality with Darwin; but he was a modest man, and conscious of his social and scientific position, who recognised that Darwin had got there first. He even wrote a book with the title Darwinism (1889). He has thus often been thought of simply as a Darwinian (or as Darwin's moon) rather than the independent thinker he clearly

-vii-

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