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January 29, 2013 12:15 AM   Subscribe

Even though you've heard of Darwin, it's quite possible that you're not familiar with Alfred Russel Wallace (previously), co-discoverer of the theory of evolution (a shame; in many respects he's the more interesting of the two!). Fortunately you can now learn more about the man through transcripts and scans of his letters with family and colleagues, which the UK Natural History Museum have just published online.

This is part of the Wallace100 project, celebrating the centenary of his death.
posted by barnacles (15 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
co-discoverer of the theory of evolution natural selection. (There were other theories of evolution before them, like Lamarckism.)
posted by rory at 1:58 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I should add, that isn't meant as nit-picking. Many creationists talk about Darwin as if he were the source of the idea that species have been changing over time, ignoring that others recognised this before him and just hadn't come up with a robust explanation of how it worked. The threat that Darwin represented was that he (and Wallace!) had an explanation that worked.
posted by rory at 2:19 AM on January 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

I love large-scale digitization projects like this one. I have already determined that Wallace was slightly less keen on Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe when he re-read it in 1891. I'm not sure this is the kind of research use the NHM anticipated for these letters, but there we are.
posted by Sonny Jim at 4:02 AM on January 29, 2013

Wallace spent time in Kuching, Sarawak while doing field research. He was involved in building a natural history museum that still stands today: the Sarawak Museum. It is worth a visit!
posted by BinGregory at 4:50 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Both Darwin and Wallace were naturalists who developed their theory following observations and comparison with geology. Following his famous trip to the Galapagos, Darwin spent years writing and rewriting The Origin of Species, possibly to the detriment of his health. Wallace, on the other hand, was in the field sick with malaria when his nearly identical version snapped into his head. This fever dream of a theory is what lead Darwin to finally publish The Origin.

The contrast, to me, is fascinating.
posted by Turkey Glue at 5:41 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is wonderful, thanks for pointing it out!

Many creationists talk about Darwin as if he were the source of the idea that species have been changing over time, ignoring that others recognised this before him and just hadn't come up with a robust explanation of how it worked.

Yeah, there's a very vocal subset of Creationtists that refer to "Darwinists" or "Evolutionists", and love to point out Darwin's personal flaws and/or imperfections in On the Origin of Species, as if that makes a difference to the validity (or not) of the theory of evolution. It's a presentation of the scientific theory as a competing religious position, with Darwin as its prophet and Origin as its bible: discredit one or both, and the rest of the faith must surely crumble? It's a very powerful rhetorical twist, switching the discussion away from "my faith against your mountains of evidence" to "my Holy leader against your (human, flawed) leader; my Holy book against your book". It becomes a discussion of competing faiths, in which any reasonable person must agree that all opinions be treated with respect, and in which Christianity has a 2000 year head start.

Whether or not you think that it's an honest reflection of these creationists' worldviews -- maybe they see a lauded man and an influential book, and assume that we're following the same pattern as they are -- I can't help giving it some grudging admiration as a technique.

Darwin's story is an inspiring one: leaving home at a young age to travel the world and engage his passions, returning to help establish a theory that would shock society and provide a platform for much of modern biology and medicine. But I think that we concentrate on him too much at our peril. We need to educate people about the other aspects of the story: all the key predictions and tests of the theory over the following 150 years, and the people who were responsible.

So, even ignoring the historical value of these documents and the fun I'm going to have browsing through them over the next few evenings and weekends, I think the publication and promotion of this sort of thing is hugely important. These documents can help up to educate people about not just the theory of evolution, but the nature of science itself.
posted by metaBugs at 6:11 AM on January 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

In retrospect, I realise that I just wrote a long, deraily comment complaining that people talk about Darwin too much, in a thread that wasn't actually about him. I'll be over in the corner, trying not to drown in irony.
posted by metaBugs at 6:16 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

The other interesting contrast between Darwin and Wallace is their class differences. Unlike Darwin, Wallace was a self-made man from the middle class - one has to wonder how much that has influenced public opinion of each man, both by their contemporaries and today. These class differences arguably contributed to the manner in which their joint paper was published, and extend right through to the fact that Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey, whilst Wallace's grave was left neglected until 2000 (when two wonderful curators at the Natural History Museum came to its rescue - I had the good fortune to get to hear this story from them over a beer not that long ago, and I think they're to be heartily commended for this work). Until recently very few people were aware of Wallace's contribution to proposing a mechanism for evolution, despite his work in the field of biogeography (which, arguably, he brought to a tangible form). I work as an evolutionary scientist and I have colleagues who have not heard of Wallace, which I think is a damn shame.

Well, yes, I AM bit biased!
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 6:27 AM on January 29, 2013 [10 favorites]

The class differences of Darwin and Wallace also influenced their perception of evolution. Darwin was an aristocrat, and he grew up in an England that very much valued competition as a means of business. Also, a facet of evolutionary theory was determination of internal characteristics to justify the social strata of the day. Rich people are rich because they have good sense. Englishmen control much of the world because of the superior nature of their internal makeup. Savages are a lesser version of man because they are poor at business. Therefore, the natural world must look like the business world! Because Darwin was born into such a class, he looked for a biological justification of his Anglocentric world. It's interesting to read excerpts of The Descent of Man if only because it's obliviously racist.

Wallace, however, focused more on environmental factors that would shape a species. So, rather than individuals asserting their will due to their superior being, he saw the necessity of reacting to a change in environment (or how an environmental shift would suddenly favor one subset of individuals, who would then dominate the gene pool).

Neither is right or wrong (though Darwin's racial hierarchy reads poorly today), but each represents a different facet of the same action.

As evidenced by my lengthy Darwin aside, I wish Wallace got more attention.
posted by Turkey Glue at 6:59 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wallace was also able to pick up on the importance of variation much more quickly than Darwin was because, since he was collecting specimens to sell rather than to study, he killed many members of the same species - and noticed that they were all a little difference.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:24 AM on January 29, 2013

Darwin was an aristocrat, and he grew up in an England that very much valued competition as a means of business.

"Competition" is far more fetishized by the middle class than by "aristocats." It's really the last thing an aristocat is likely to want to believe in, when you think about it.

And, as a general comment on the thread, it's possible to give Wallace his due without denigrating Darwin.
posted by yoink at 7:28 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

It never seems to happen, though, yoink. They invariably turn into kicking Darwin.
posted by tavella at 8:20 AM on January 29, 2013

For clarification's sake, I was not trying to denigrate Darwin. He was trying to describe his world in which the Englishman was king, and the results have not aged well. It doesn't make his theory any less profound so much as illustrate that what we take for granted may one day be proven incorrect or look foolish.

Also, I'm not sure if aristocrat is the best descriptor for Darwin. Maybe "business class". I'm relaying secondhand information on a phone; read "Evolution" by Larson if you want one of my sources. Semantics aside, it was presented that Darwin grew up with power/money and Wallace did not, which affected their perception of the world.
posted by Turkey Glue at 8:21 AM on January 29, 2013

I knew about Alfred Wallace - but for a strange reason. Ellery Queen wrote a mystery where a wealthy man is tormented by a series of threatening letters, each accompanied by a cryptic clue, like the body of a dead animal. Queen deduces that each clue is alluding to the stages of evolution, and realizes that the killer must be the man who, after a bout of amnesia, chose for his new name....Alfred Wallace.

The name of the novel? The Origin of Evil.
posted by destinyland at 9:41 AM on January 29, 2013

He was trying to describe his world in which the Englishman was king, and the results have not aged well. It doesn't make his theory any less profound so much as illustrate that what we take for granted may one day be proven incorrect or look foolish.

Most of what gets said about Darwin and race is hopelessly anachronistic. Yes, he believed that Europeans were a more "advanced" race than, say, Africans. To not have believed that in the mid C19th would have been roughly equivalent to being a global warming denier in today's world; virtually all the informed scientific opinion would have been firmly against you. Darwin was a scientist, and as a scientist he respected the work of other scientists and knew that his own work would have no value if it did not scrupulously take into account and attempt to build upon their work.

So, yes, if you go reading The Descent of Man as if it were something being written today you'll find plenty that will strike you as shocking. "OMG, he actually seriously entertains the possibility that the different races of man are different species; that's, like, totally evil!!!" But if you look at in the context of its period and the scientific beliefs that prevailed in the age, you'll see that in fact he's moving the scientific understanding decisively and powerfully forward towards a more liberal and progressive position. Yes, he considers the possibility that the different races should be seen as separate species, and then he concludes, from the available evidence, that this hypothesis is untenable:
Although the existing races of man differ in many respects, as in colour, hair, shape of skull, proportions of the body, etc., yet if their whole structure be taken into consideration they are found to resemble each other closely in a multitude of points. Many of these are of so unimportant or of so singular a nature, that it is extremely improbable that they should have been independently acquired by aboriginally distinct species or races. The same remark holds good with equal or greater force with respect to the numerous points of mental similarity between the most distinct races of man. The American aborigines, Negroes and Europeans are as different from each other in mind as any three races that can be named; yet I was incessantly struck, whilst living with the Fuegians on board the "Beagle," with the many little traits of character, shewing how similar their minds were to ours; and so it was with a full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate.
This is not the voice of someone pushing towards some radically new notion of the fundamental distinctions between the races.

Ironically, Wallace's conclusions about the evolution of humans are considerably more problematic. He, in fact, sees such a radical distinction between "savages" and "civilized" man that he concludes normal evolutionary processes cannot possibly account for it--and he argues that we have to bring in a special intercession by some kind of Divine power to account for it:
We have thus shown, by two distinct lines of argument, that faculties are developed in civilised man which, both in their mode of origin, their function, and their variations, are altogether distinct from those other characters and faculties which are essential to him, and which have been brought to their actual state of efficiency by the necessities of his existence. And besides the three which have been specially referred to, there are others which evidently belong to the same class. Such is the metaphysical faculty, which enables us to form abstract conceptions of a kind the most remote from all practical applications, to discuss the ultimate causes of things, the nature and qualities of matter, motion, and force, of space and time, of cause and effect, of will and conscience. Speculations on these abstract and difficult questions are impossible to savages, who seem to have no mental faculty enabling them to grasp the essential ideas or conceptions; yet whenever any race attains to civilisation, and comprises a body of people who, whether as priests or philosophers, are relieved from the necessity of labour or of taking an active part in war or government, the metaphysical faculty appears to spring suddenly into existence, although, like the other faculties we have referred to, it is always confined to a very limited proportion of the population.
The facts now set forth prove the existence of a number of mental faculties which either do not exist at all or exist in a very rudimentary condition in savages, but appear almost suddenly and in perfect development in the higher civilised races. These same faculties are further distinguished by their sporadic character, being well developed only in a very small proportion of the community; and by the enormous amount of variation in their development, the higher manifestations of them being many times--perhaps a hundred or thousand times--stronger than the lower. Each of these characteristics is totally inconsistent with any action of the law of natural selection in the production of the faculties referred to; and the facts, taken in their entirety, compel us to recognise some origin for them wholly distinct from that which has served to account for the animal characteristics--whether bodily or mental--of man.
Playing the game of "which person from a totally different era gets most brownie points for coming closest to modern day mores" is pretty nearly always pointless. Suffice it to say that neither Wallace nor Darwin was in a position to be reasonably expected to come to the same attitudes and understandings of racial difference and similarity that a modern day liberal would be likely to endorse. That is not, however, a reason to blame either man who was simply following his understanding as best he could according to the data that was available to him in the world in which he lived.
posted by yoink at 10:06 AM on January 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

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