Tag Archives: Alfred Russel Wallace

October 20, 1790 (a Wednesday)

On this date, the Scottish fruit-grower Patrick Matthew was born. He is notable for having proposed the principle of natural selection as a mechanism of evolution over a quarter-century earlier than did Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. However, Matthew failed to develop or publicize his ideas and Darwin and Wallace were unaware of Matthew’s work when they synthesized their own.

Patrick Matthew (1790)

Matthew’s work entitled, On Naval Timber and Aboriculture, which was published in 1831, presented in sufficiently recognizable detail “this natural process of selection among plants” (see pages 307 to 308). In an appendix to the book, he wrote:

There is a law universal in nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possible suited to its condition that its kind, or organized matter, is susceptible of, which appears intended to model the physical and mental or instinctive powers to their highest perfection and to continue them so. This law sustains the lion in his strength, the hare in her swiftness, and the fox in his wiles. As nature, in all her modifications of life, has a power of increase far beyond what is needed to supply the place of what falls by Time’s decay, those individuals who possess not the requisite strength, swiftness, hardihood, or cunning, fall prematurely without reproducing—either a prey to their natural devourers, or sinking under disease, generally induced by want of nourishment, their place being occupied by the more perfect of their own kind, who are pressing on the means of subsistence . . .

There is more beauty and unity of design in this continual balancing of life to circumstance, and greater conformity to those dispositions of nature which are manifest to us, than in total destruction and new creation. It is improbable that much of this diversification is owing to commixture of species nearly allied, all change by this appears very limited, and confined within the bounds of what is called species; the progeny of the same parents, under great differences of circumstance, might, in several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction.

In 1860, Matthew read a review of Darwin’s Origin of Species in the Gardeners’ Chronicle, including its description of the principle of natural selection. This prompted him to write a letter to the publication, calling attention his earlier explication of the theory. Darwin then wrote a letter of his own to the Gardener’s Chronicle, stating:

I freely acknowledge that Mr. Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection. I think that no one will feel surprised that neither I, nor apparently any other naturalist, has heard of Mr. Matthew’s views, considering how briefly they are given, and that they appeared in the Appendix to a work On Naval Timber and Arboriculture. I can do no more than offer my apologies to Mr. Matthew for my entire ignorance of his publication. If another edition of my work is called for, I will insert a notice to the foregoing effect.

Which he did. However, there are nearly as many deep differences between Matthew’s theory and Darwin’s as there are similarities. Matthew was a catastrophist; his geological theories were very close to those of Cuvier. According to Matthew, the earth had periodically been rocked by upheavals, which left an “unoccupied field. . . for new diverging ramifications of life.” Evolutionary change took place right after these upheavals; between catastrophes, species did not change,and natural selection would act to stabilize species, not alter them:

A particular conformity, each after its own kind, . . . no doubt exists to a considerable degree. This conformity has existed during the last 40 centuries [4,000 years]. Geologists discover a like particular conformity – fossil species – through the deep deposition of each great epoch, but they also discover an almost complete difference to exist between the species or stamp of life on one epoch from that of every other.

Matthew’s theory lacked Darwin’s concept of evolution as an ongoing, continuous process. Matthew did not see evolution as the gradual accumulation of favorable variations leading to adaptation, nor did he believe in extinction except by catastrophe. Matthew saw species as classes of similar organisms, not as interbreeding populations. He also never relinquished his belief in natural theology; he wrote to Darwin in 1871 that “a sentiment of beauty pervading Nature. . . affords evidence of intellect and benevolence in the scheme of Nature. This principle of beauty is clearly from design and cannot be accounted for by natural selection.”

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July 1, 1858 (a Thursday)

Charles Darwin, aged 51

On this date, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker presented papers by both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace on the theory of evolution by natural selection at a meeting of the Linnean Society in London, England. The so-called Darwin-Wallace 1858 Evolution Paper was later published in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society, Zoology, on August 20th of the same year.

The events that lead up to this momentous occasion had actually begun many years earlier:

After a voyage around the world aboard H.M.S. Beagle (1831 until 1836), Darwin had settled in Cambridge and London to process his specimens, to arrange for the description of his newly found plants and animals, to write about his voyage, and to marry (in 1839) his first cousin Emma Wedgwood. In 1837 he  began a “Notebook on Transmutation of Species”, and his 1838 reading of Thomas Malthus’ (1766-1834) Essay on the Principle of Population crystallized many of his ideas into a coherent hypothesis. The importance of the observations he made aboard the Beagle began to make an impact.

In 1842, while Wallace was studying botany, Darwin wrote a “Sketch” on natural selection which he revised and had copied in 1844 (and retitled “Essay”). In January 1847, Darwin handed his friend Joseph Hooker, a fellow naturalist, a copy of the 231 page manuscript to read and comment upon. Hooker was not  immediately impressed with Darwin’s hypothesis. He essentially made no comment. Hooker was the only naturalist to whom Darwin had shown a copy of his “Essay” and without Hooker’s full support, Darwin was unwilling to move forward, especially given the reactions to the anonymously published book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, written, we now know, by Robert Chambers.

Both sides of the Darwin-Wallace medal awarded to Wallace at a 1908 Linnean Society meeting celebrating the 50th anniversary of the reading of their paper on natural selection.

In 1848, Wallace sailed to the Amazon and in 1854, he traveled to the Malay Archipelago, where he looked specifically for evidence that related species found in both the Amazon Basin and on the Archipelago. If he could find evidence that closely related species were found in widely dispersed regions of the world, this might bring into question the idea that each species was created independently.

In 1855 Wallace published a cryptic note in guarded language entitled “On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species” in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History. Here he maintained that new species arose from related, pre-existing species. Darwin did not fully comprehend what Wallace was saying and considered him to be a “creationist” but the geologist Charles Lyell, another friend of Darwin’s, had realized what Wallace had in mind. When Lyell visited Darwin shortly thereafter, Darwin discussed his “Essay” and Lyell urged him, in May of 1856, to publish immediately to establish priority.

But Darwin ignored Lyell’s advice, instead continuing to work on his “Essay”. By March of 1858, Darwin’s manuscript consisted of ten chapters and amounted to some 250,000 words.

Meanwhile, in February of 1858, while on the island of Halmahera (then called “Gilolo”) in the Moluccas, Wallace was bed-ridden and suffering from an attack of malaria. Ill and fevered, he suddenly realized the importance of Malthus’ observations on populations, and drafted his ideas on “the survival of the fittest” during a single evening. He worked over the draft the next two evenings with the idea of sending it to Darwin. On 9 March 1858 he mailed his letter by mail-boat from the island of Ternate with the request that if Darwin thought the ideas worthy that he send the letter on to Lyell.

After receiving Wallace’s letter, Darwin began composing this now-famous letter to Lyell dated 18 June:

Some year or so ago, you recommended me to read a paper by Wallace in the Annals, which had interested you & as I was writing to him, I knew this would please him much, so I told him. He has to day sent me the enclosed & asked me to forward it to you. It seems to me well worth reading. Your words have come true with a vengeance that I shd. be forestalled. You said this when I explained to you here very briefly my views of “Natural Selection: depending on the Struggle for existence.-I never saw a more striking coincidence. if Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as heads of my Chapters.

Please return me the M.S. which he does not say he wishes me to publish; but I shall of course at once write & offer to send to any Journal. So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed. Though my Book, if it will ever have any value, will not be deteriorated; as all the labour consists in the application of the theory.

I hope you will approve of Wallace’s sketch, that I may tell him what you say.

In a subsequent letter to Lyell dated 25 June, Darwin noted that Hooker had seen his 1844 “Essay” and the American botanist, Asa Gray (1810-1888), had been sent a long abstract in 1857:

I am very sorry to trouble you, busy as you are, in so merely personal an affair. But if you will give me your deliberate opinion, you will do me as great a service, as ever man did, for I have entire confidence in your judgment & honour.-

I shd. not have sent off your letter without further reflexion [sic, reflection], for I am at present quite upset, but write now to get subject for time out of mind. But I confess it never did occur to me, as it ought, that Wallace could have made any use of your letter.

There is nothing in Wallace’s sketch which is not written out much fuller in my sketch copied in 1844, & read by Hooker some dozen years ago. About a year ago I sent a short sketch of which I have copy of my views (owing to correspondence on several points) to Asa Gray, so that I could most truly say and prove that I take nothing from Wallace. I should be extremely glad now to publish a sketch of my general views in about a dozen pages or so. But I cannot persuade myself that I can do so honourably. Wallace says nothing about publication, & I enclose his letter.-But as I had not intended to publish any sketch, can I do so honourably because Wallace has sent me an outline of his doctrine–I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man shd. think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit. Do you not think his having sent me this sketch ties my hands- I do not in least believe that that he originated his views from anything which I wrote to him.

If I could honourably publish I would state that I was induced now to publish a sketch (& I shd. be very glad to be permitted to say to follow your advice long ago given) from Wallace having sent me an outline of my general conclusions.-We differ only, that I was led to my views from what artificial selection has done for domestic animals. I could send Wallace a copy of my letter to Asa Gray to show him that I had not stolen his doctrine. But I cannot tell whether to publish noew would not be base & paltry: this was my first impression, & I shd. have certainly acted on it, had it not been for your letter.-

this is a trumpery affair to trouble you with; but you cannot tell how much obliged I shd. be for your advice.-

By the way would you object to send this & your answer to Hooker to be forwarded to me, for then I shall have the opinion of my two best & kindest friends.-This letter is miserably written & I write it now, that I may for time banish [the] whole subject. And I am worn out with musing.

I fear we have case of scarlet-fever in House with Baby.-Etty is weak but is recovering.-

My good dear friend forgive me.-This is a trumpery letter influenced by trumpery feelings.

The next day, Darwin added an extended postscript:

Forgive me for adding P.S. to make the case as strong as possible against myself. Wallace might say “you did not intend publishing an abstract of your views till you received my communication, is it fair to take advantage of my having freely, though unasked, communicated to you my ideas, & thus prevent me forestalling you-” The advantage which I should take being that I am induced to publish from privately knowing that Wallace is in the field. It seems hard on me that I should be thus compelled to lose my priority of many years standing, but I cannot feel at all sure that this alters the justice of the case. First impressions are generally right & I at first thought it wd. be dishonourable in me now to publish.- – I have always thought you would have made a first-rate Lord Chancellor; & I now appeal to you as a Lord Chancellor

Alfred Russel Wallace

Lyell and Hooker conferred. Lyell’s proposal was that some portion of Darwin’s past work be added to Wallace’s letter, and their contributions combined into a single publication. In view of Darwin’s own remarks about his “Essay” and letter to Gray, Hooker sent a note to Darwin asking for a copy of the Gray letter to which he proposed to add a section from Darwin’s “Essay.”

When the note from Hooker arrived the morning of the 29th, Darwin was in the midst of arranging to bury his son, Charles Waring Darwin, who had died from scarlet fever on the 28th. He wrote back immediately that he just could not “think” about the subject, but that same evening, Darwin wrote to Hooker again:

I have just read your letter, & see you want papers at once. I am quite prostrated & can do nothing but I send Wallace & my abstract of abstract of letter to Asa Gray, which gives most imperfectly only the means of change & does not touch on reasons for believing species do change. I daresay all is too late. I hardly care about it.-

But you are too generous to sacrifice so much time & kindness.-It is most generous, most kind, I send sketch of 1844 solely that you may see by your own handwriting that you did read it.-

I really cannot bear to look at it.-Do not waste much time. It is miserable in me to care at all about priority.-

The table of contents will show what it is. I would make a similar, but shorter & more accurate sketch for Linnean Journal.-I will do anything

God Bless you my dear kind friend. I can write no more. I send this by servant to Kew.

With Wallace’s and Gray’s letter and the 1844 “Essay” in hand, Lyell and Hooker wrote an introductory note on 30 June and arranged to have the paper read the following evening at a meeting of the Linnean Society. To thirty-some members of the Society, the Darwin-Wallace paper was read by under-secretary George Busk. Essentially no one was impressed even though both Lyell and Hooker were in attendance.

In fact, the then President of the Linnean Society later remarked that the meetings of 1858 had not “been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, [our] department of science.”

Years later, in 1887, Hooker provided a recollection of the meeting to Francis Darwin:

The interest excited was intense, but the subject was too novel and too ominous for the old school to enter the lists, before armouring [sic, armoring]. After the meeting it was talked over with bated breath: Lyell’s approval, and perhaps in a small way mine, as his lieutenant in the affair, rather overawed the Fellows, who would otherwise have flown out against the doctrine.

On 24 November 1859, The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin went on sale and sold out immediately. It was greeted by a variety of widely different opinions. While the year 1858 might not have “been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize” biology, the same can not be said of 1859.

Suggested reading:

June 30, 1817 (a Monday)

Joseph Hooker (seated, far left) and on the ground next to him, Asa Gray – 2 of the first 3 men to whom Darwin revealed his theory of evolution by natural selection (July, 1877 U.S. Geological Survey at La Veta Pass, CO)

On this date, the physician, botanist, and biogeographer Joseph Dalton Hooker was born in Halesworth in the county of Suffolk, England. He trained as a doctor in Edinburgh, but his principal interest was in botany.

Joseph Hooker (1896)

Hooker was a close friend and supporter of Charles Darwin. When he realized that Alfred Russel Wallace was about to present his findings on evolution to the public which were similar to Darwin’s, he helped arrange for the shared presentation of Darwin ‘s and Wallace’s papers to the Linnaean Society of London in 1858.

Hooker came to America in 1877 to explore the flora of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. He traveled to Pueblo, Colorado with a group of colleagues including Asa Gray. Later, Hooker traveled to La Veta Pass, CO and camped with a group of naturalists and explorers. The group later traveled to the Sangre de Cristo range where Hooker and Gray conducted a plant survey and wrote a manuscript about their experience, The Vegetation of the Rocky Mountain Region and a comparison with that of other parts of the World (1880).

June 18, 1858 (a Friday)

Map from *The Malay Archipelago* by Wallace, showing the physical geography of the Archipelago and his travels. (The thin black lines indicate where Wallace traveled, and the red lines indicate chains of volcanoes.)

On this date, Charles Darwin received a paper from Alfred Russel Wallace, who was still at the Malay Archipelago. The paper was titled: “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type.”

Darwin was shocked! Wallace had come up with a theory of natural selection that was very similar to his own. The paper contained concepts like “the struggle for existence,” and “the transmutation of species.” Upon further examination Darwin saw that Wallace had some ideas about natural selection that he did not agree with. For one thing, Wallace tried to mix social morality with natural selection, proposing an upward evolution of human morals which would eventually lead to a socialist utopia (Darwin’s natural selection had no goal). What’s more, Wallace believed that cooperation in groups aided in the progress of mankind (Darwin saw natural selection as being influenced by competition). Finally, Wallace’s natural selection was guided by a higher spiritual power (there was no divine intervention in Darwin’s version).

June 7, 1893 (a Wednesday)

Mohandas Gandhi (right) with his brother Laxmidas in 1886.

On this date, Mohandas K. Gandhi, a young Indian lawyer working in South Africa, refused to comply with racial segregation rules on a South African train and was forcibly ejected at Pietermaritzburg.

Gandhi was born in Porbandar in the present state of Gujarat on October 2, 1869, and educated in law at University College, London. In 1891, after having been admitted to the British bar, Gandhi returned to India and attempted to establish a law practice in Bombay, with little success. Two years later an Indian firm with interests in South Africa retained him as legal adviser under a one-year contract in its office in Durban, SA. Here he was subjected to racism and South African laws that restricted the rights of Indian laborers.

Gandhi later recalled one such incident as his moment of truth. While traveling by train to Pretoria, a white man objected to Gandhi’s presence in a first-class carriage. Despite having a first-class ticket, Gandhi was asked to move to the van compartment at the end of the train. He refused and was thrown off the train at Pietermaritzburg station. There he spent the night in the waiting room and it is there he decided he would stay in South Africa to fight against racial discrimination. It was Gandhi’s first act of civil disobedience. From thereon, he decided to fight injustice and defend his rights as an Indian and a man.

Known as Mahatma, or “the great soul,” during his lifetime, Gandhi’s persuasive methods of civil disobedience influenced leaders of civil rights movements around the world, especially Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States.

[My favorite Gandhi quote – Ed.:]

A time is coming when those, who are in the mad rush today of multiplying their wants, vainly thinking that they add to the real substance, real knowledge of the world, will retrace their steps and say: ‘What have we done?’

Civilizations have come and gone, and in spite of all our vaunted progress, I am tempted to ask again and again, ‘To what purpose?’ Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin, has said the same thing. Fifty years of brilliant inventions and discoveries, he has said, have not added one inch to the moral height of mankind. So said a dreamer and visionary if you will–Tolstoy. So said Jesus, and the Buddha, and Mahomed, whose religion is being denied and falsified in my own country today.

[Source: Mahatma (D.G. Tendulkar) Vol. 2; 2nd edn.(1960), Publications Division; p. 29.]

February 8, 1825 (a Tuesday)

Plate from Bates’ Contributions to an Insect Fauna of the Amazon Valley: Heliconiidae (1862) illustrating Batesian mimicry between Dismorphia species (top row, third row) and various Ithomiini (Nymphalidae) (second row, bottom row).

On this date, the English entomologist Henry Walter Bates was born. Bates became friends with Alfred Russel Wallace when the latter took a teaching post in the Leicester Collegiate School. Wallace was also a keen entomologist, and he had read the same kind of books as Bates had, and as Darwin, Huxley and no doubt many others had – Thomas Malthus on population, James Hutton and Charles Lyell on geology, Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and above all, the anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which put evolution into everyday discussion among literate folk. They also read William H. Edwards on his Amazon expedition, and this started them thinking that a visit to the region would be exciting, and might launch their careers. Bates accompanied Wallace on an expedition to the Amazon in 1848.

Whereas Wallace returned to England after four years in South America and then went on to Indonesia, Bates stayed in the Amazon for eleven years but continued to correspond with him, encouraging Wallace’s developing theories on organic evolution. Bates discovered that closely related species often were separated geographically by rivers, and later realized that this was evidence of geographical speciation. His 1862 study of color patterns in butterflies established what is now called Batesian mimicry, in which non-poisonous animals mimic the bright warning coloration of poisonous animals. Bates argued that this kind of mimicry could not be produced by Lamarckian use-inheritance and was clear evidence of selection. In his book The Naturalist on the River Amazons (1863), he wrote:

on these expanded membranes [i.e., butterfly wings] Nature writes, as on a tablet, the story of the modifications of species, so truly do all changes of the organisation register themselves thereon. Moreover, the same colour-patterns of the wings generally show, with great regularity, the degrees of blood-relationship of the species. As the laws of nature must be the same for all beings, the conclusions furnished by this group of insects must be applicable to the whole world.

Bates assumed the post of Assistant Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society in 1864 where he edited the society’s Transactions and organized expeditions. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1881.

January 8, 1823 (a Wednesday)

Alfred Russel Wallace at age 24 (1848).

Alfred Russel Wallace at age 24 (1848).

On this date, the English naturalist and evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace was born.

December 22, 1857 (a Tuesday)

Charles Darwin (1855)

On this date, Charles Darwin replied to a letter that Alfred Russel Wallace had sent him on 27 September. He praised Wallace for his dedication to natural science, and for his work on the distribution of species. Darwin also told Wallace he will not discuss the topic of man’s origins, even though it would be of highest interest to naturalists. Darwin pointed out that he had been working on the problem of species origins for twenty years, but would not publish for a few years yet:

You ask whether I shall discuss “man”;—I think I shall avoid whole subject, as so surrounded with prejudices, though I fully admit that it is the highest & most interesting problem for the naturalist.— My work, on which I have now been at work more or less for 20 years, will not fix or settle anything; but I hope it will aid by giving a large collection of facts with one definite end: I get on very slowly, partly from ill-health, partly from being a very slow worker.— I have got about half written; but I do not suppose I shall publish under a couple of years. I have now been three whole months on one chapter on Hybridism!