Welsh Unsung Pioneer of Evolution Theory
Think about ‘evolution’ and you will likely think about Charles Darwin. But Welsh scientist Alfred Wallace should also come to mind, says Mike Green
CHARLES DARWIN’S journey to the Galapagos and the discoveries he made there are well documented.
At the same time on the other side of the world Alfred Wallace was building up a dossier on evolution in South-East Asia. Furthermore, it was through direct correspondence with Wallace, in late 1857, that Darwin realised he was in danger of having his priority usurped, leading him to publish his research, after years of procrastination.
Wallace was born in Llanbadoc, Monmouthshire, on January 8, 1823, the second youngest of nine children of solicitor Thomas Vere Wallace and his wife Mary.
Just like Darwin, he gained an interest in nature from an early age. For a while he earned a living as a land surveyor in the Neath Valley, before the allure of seeing the wildlife of distant lands became too great. Leaving British shores in mid-1848, he embarked on a series of scientific expeditions taking him from the depths of the Amazon rain forest to the jungles of Borneo.
During the course of his travels Wallace suffered no end of ill fortune. He was blighted with countless illnesses, was shipwrecked, he witnessed the death of a sibling (his younger brother who joined him on one voyage was taken by yellow fever), and he was almost maimed (one of his party accidentally shot him in the hand).
From examining the flora and fauna, Wallace eventually deduced that species were not fixed, but adapted to suit the environment around them. He wrote to Darwin to see whether his conclusions seemed sound.
By the time he heard of Wallace’s progress, Darwin had produced a well-defined mechanism for describing how different species developed, but worried about the religious implications (as this seemed to contradict the version in Genesis in the Bible) and the backlash he and his family might endure, he chose to hide his findings. With the realisation that his life’s work would be jeopardised by Wallace’s discovery, he set about announcing his theory to the world in 1858.
Unfortunately the Welshman was considered a mere amateur, demanding little respect from scientific peers. Darwin, on the other hand, as a member of the establishment, commanded much greater authority.
Is it fair to say that Darwin acted ungentlemanly by taking the vast majority of the acclaim? I don’t think so. Darwin just sought to protect his own interests, like anyone would have done. He had put years of toil and personal sacrifice into preparing this theory, after all. That said, Wallace showed incredible generosity in not trying to secure a greater share of glory for himself.
To some degree Wallace and Darwin needed each other. They could not have got the job done in isolation. Wallace lacked the scientific credibility to get evolutionary theory accepted on his own. Likewise, Wallace acted as a catalyst, forcing Darwin to take action.
Though not blessed with the universal acclaim of his counterpart, Wallace did not die embittered. As far as can be ascertained, he was content with playing a part in the process of informing the masses about evolution.
Although history has almost totally forgotten Wallace, he was one of the most important figures of the Victorian era, and his deeds irrevocably changed the face of science. There is little doubt he had as equal influence as Darwin in the formation of evolutionary theory. It seems fair therefore that he should receive some of the recognition.
Wallace’s story is featured in Cardiff author Mike Green’s book The Nearly Men, which investigates the dark side of innovation. It examines some of the most important inventions and scientific discoveries of the past 400 years, and attempts to uncover the stories of deceit and misfortune behind each of them. The Nearly Men (published by Tempus) is available from Amazon, WH Smith, Foyles, Borders and Blackwell