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article imageWallace's incredible gift to Charles Darwin.

By W. Christopher Epler     Apr 24, 2009 in Science
Alfred Russel Wallace was in many respects a co-discoverer of the theory of evolution; specifically, the "how" of evolution, i.e., the survival of the fittest. However, he was infinitely gracious to Darwin by laying no claim to Darwin's theory.
Alfred Russel Wallace was a younger contemporary of Charles Darwin. However, more to the point he also discovered the concept of "how" species became modified.
What Darwin called "natural selection", Wallace called "the struggle for existence", but whatever the name, it had to do with the survival of the fittest.
Ironically, apparently both Darwin and Wallace were inspired to understanding the "how" of evolution by reading T. R. Malthus on factors limiting population growth.
The variability of species was well known and puzzled over long before Darwin's "Origin of the Species", but the sticking point was always how such vastly documented variability could occur. A further complication was the growing evidence that species can go extinct, as well as come into existence, which mortally offended those clergymen with claims that God had created a set collection of species with no possibility of new creations -- which was decried as "transmutationism".
The parallel theories of Darwin and Wallace are reminiscent of the conflict between the English Newton and the German Leibnitz about the invention of calculus. This conflict, however, was anything but civilized, and led to much bad blood between the dedicated followers of each. Newton himself had contempt for his alleged competitor.
Another odd similarity between Newton and Darwin is that each kept their fabulous insights secret for years and only revealed them when events "forced their hands".
Well, the event that forced Darwin's hand was a manuscript he received in 1858 from Wallace which basically laid out the fundamentals of evolutionary theory, including the elusive "how" of species variation, with a request by Wallace that Darwin show it to the British scientific community.
For both men this variation was forced upon them by naturalist journeys. Wallace sought new species near the Amazon for several years, and the Beagle experience of Darwin is already well known. The point is that in both cases, these experiences showed a variation of species unknown in peaceful England.
One consequence of Darwin's reception of Wallace's traumatic letter is that he lamented to his friend, Charles Lyell, "All my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed."
However, it was arranged that a manuscript of both Darwin and Wallace would be read to the Linnean Society a few days later, on July 1, 1858. Neither author was present and the response was a non event.
However, on November 22, 1859, Darwin published his great work "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection" and the die was finally cast that science now took seriously that "man was descended from the beasts".
And precisely here is Wallace's gift. Unlike the acrimonious Newton and Leibnitz conflict, far from making claim to Darwin's work, he wrote, "Mr. Darwin has given the world a new science, and his name should, in my opinion, stand above that of every philosopher of ancient or modern times." To be fair, Darwin also gave credit to Wallace.
However, the bottom line of history is not the virtually unknown name of Alfred Russel Wallace, but the forever world-changing name of Charles Darwin.
A gift of limitless generosity indeed.
More about Natural selection, Origin species, Alfred russel wallace, Charles Darwin
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