The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was a contemporary of Darwin’s, fourteen years his junior, who independently discovered many of the key tenets of what would become known as natural selection. Like Darwin – indeed inspired by him – Wallace was a field man, an avid collector and recorder who traveled widely in Brazil and Southeast Asia.
He spent four years in the Amazon River basin amassing a huge collection of specimens and notes, most of which were lost in a shipboard fire on his return to England in 1852. A rough blow, that, since his “business model” was to subsidize his excursions through sales of the specimens to other naturalists and museums in the UK. Six years in the Malay Archipelago (present-day Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) followed. Hundreds of thousands of specimens were collected, birds and beetles and a flying tree frog.
During this time Wallace was also refining and, er, evolving his thoughts on what was then known as “the transmutation of species.” The romantic version of Wallace’s great insight regarding evolution holds that he awoke from a fever dream on a tropical Southeast Asian island beset by thoughts of the species’ “struggle for existence” in the face of unchecked Malthusian population growth. While the fever dream did in fact occur, the less romantic but truer full account is that Wallace had been forming his ideas on evolutionary change for over a decade. He had embraced the proto-evolutionary theories advanced by Robert Chambers in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in the mid-40s and understanding how the process worked was one of his main goals during his earlier Amazon expedition.
Wallace was an occasional correspondent with Darwin, who regarded him as a peer and fellow traveler along the more radical byways of their field. In 1858, Wallace sent Darwin a well-developed article explaining his theories on natural selection in great detail with a covering letter inviting Darwin, if he saw fit, to forward it on to others in the natural science community. Darwin was by this point partway to completion of On the Origin of Species. Respectful of how credit would later be apportioned, Darwin prepared a joint publication for presentation to the Linnean Society, then and now a premier association of natural history scholars, combining Wallace’s article with his own material.
While the paper garnered interest, it was not until the publication of On the Origin of Species fifteen months later that the concepts of natural selection, evolution, and the radical implications of a “men from monkeys” hypothesis would expand into the broader public sphere, spurring much furrowing of brows and wringing of paws, I mean hands.
What Happened Next?
Wallace did not return to England until 1862, four years after the publication of the joint article and three years after the publication of Darwin’s magnum opus. He was a vocal defender of Darwin who never begrudged him his fame nor challenged his claims to priority in the discovery of natural selection. Today, the Darwin-Wallace paper is considered the first publication explaining the phenomenon of evolution by natural selection and as such it is generally seen to establish unequivocally Wallace as a “co-discoverer.”
Wallace’s fuller views on evolution as developed in later years have been the subject of debate and he has been conscripted into some of the battles on the topic of evolution that still rage in various precincts today. In his middle years, Wallace became a Spiritualist (capital S, it was a formal-enough movement) and a fan of phrenology and mesmerism. Unlike Darwin, he believed that there was a teleological quality to evolution, that it had a design and a direction, and that natural selection alone was insufficient to explain the higher orders of human consciousness – creativity, scientific inquiry, humor. For this reason, Wallace has been championed by the intelligent design crowd, although his Spiritualism was more pagan than Christian and he was never a creationist.
The urge to play what-if with Wallace is irresistible. If Darwin had not existed, would Wallace occupy his place in the pantheon of science heroes? If you gathered a bunch of evolution scholars in a room and posed that question, they would probably say yes, but quickly qualify it by noting that 1) Wallace-ism would not have been the same as Darwinism in many important ways (notably those appeals to supra-natural forces) and 2) the question is an exercise in sophistry, so can we go now, we have butterfly wings and panda thumbs to think about?
That said, our mission here is at least partly to understand the switch-points where a contender becomes an also-ran. So we’ll limit ourselves to one more what-if. What if Wallace had not been toiling away on a Southeast Asian island in 1858?
Darwin was not in attendance at the Linnean Society when the joint paper was presented. He was grieving the death of a son. While the paper can be said to have lit a fuse, it was not the explosion of interest that ensued after the publication of the book. Indeed, the President of the Society, Thomas Bell, a noted anti-evolutionist, remarked later that there had been no revolutionary theories advanced that year. Many consider this a backhanded swipe meant to diminish a theory which he did not personally endorse.
In our alternate history, Wallace is present in London at the time. He speaks directly with Darwin and they work collaboratively to craft the presentation to the Society where they appear shoulder-to-shoulder before their peers. (Darwin will not allow his grief to threaten his claims for priority on the theory, so he’ll be there.) And the matter will be taken with the utmost seriousness. Thomas Bell will not be allowed to downplay the event, and the presentation will become known as the true coming-out party for the theory of evolution. Wallace will go on to work more closely with Darwin over the ensuing years, perhaps even collaborating on On the Origin of Species.
Darwin would likely still have gone on to maintain a position of greater prominence, but there would be a stronger shared legacy. Calling Wallace a McCartney to Darwin’s Lennon might be going too far, but it’s no great stretch to see Wallace as a George Harrison (particularly given that drift to Spiritualism.) Extending the analogy, if On the Origin of Species is the sweeping classic Sergeant Pepper’s, the Darwin-Wallace paper might have become known as the more formative, ground-breaking Rubber Soul.