Naturalist Alfred Wallace, 200 years in Darwin’s shadow – 01/08/2023, 18:04


A copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species next to a statue of the author at the Natural History Museum in London on June 8, 2006 (AFP / SHAUN CURRY)

The theory of evolution is not only compatible with Darwin. The principle of natural selection was discovered together with another British naturalist: Alfred Russel Wallace, who was born two hundred years ago and has since been somewhat forgotten.

In 1858, while collecting thousands of animal specimens on the islands of the Malay Archipelago, his observations, along with an attack of malaria, led to what he would call an “intuition.”

This brilliant autodidact understands how species evolve. Faced with limited resources in a given area, only the individuals most adapted to the environment survive and reproduce, passing on their superior traits to their offspring.

Idea – for Cyril Langlois of the Ecole Normale in Lyon, to the tune of his “stroke of genius” shared by sending his article to his compatriot Charles Darwin.

French entomologist Jean-Marc Sor shows photographs taken in Indonesia of Ornithoptera croesus croesus, a giant butterfly discovered by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in 1859 in Muret, Haute-Garonne, November 3, 2013 (AFP / REMY GABALDA)

French entomologist Jean-Marc Sor shows photographs taken in Indonesia of Ornithoptera croesus croesus, a giant butterfly discovered by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in 1859 in Muret, Haute-Garonne, November 3, 2013 (AFP / REMY GABALDA)

The associate professor says that the latter finds the essence of his theory, which he has been improving there for 20 years without publishing anything, and he is very upset about it.

In the process, a joint presentation and joint publication of their work on natural selection is organized in London. There are no two men, Wallace knows nothing about it, but two names are well attached.

– Reading and evening classes –

Before becoming an explorer, collector, naturalist, geographer, anthropologist… Alfred Russel Wallace was born on January 8, 1823 in a poor family in Wales.

He is the eighth and penultimate child of a lawyer who never practiced, had no passion for literature, and quickly destroyed the annuitant.

Leaflet on Megachile pluto, a giant Indonesian wasp discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858 (AFP / )

Leaflet on Megachile pluto, a giant Indonesian wasp discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858 (AFP / )

Forced to drop out of school at age 14, young Wallace takes evening classes and specialized readings that will lead him to the Amazon at age 25. Objective: collect a map, butterflies, insects or birds.

He collects curious, mysterious specimens and, filling dozens of notebooks, canoes up the Rio Negro, surpassing other Europeans. But in 1852, his boat caught fire and sank in England.

Despite the loss of his collection, Wallace would publish two books of his expeditions and set out again in 1854, this time for Asia, where he spent eight years carefully traveling.

On the other side of the world, taking time (and with Wallace’s mail), Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, a true revolution.

The first print run (1,250 copies) sold out on the same day as the second.

Although Darwin caught Wallace, the two men have a mutual respect. Wallace became one of the greatest defenders of Darwinism. Even if he opposes sexual selection (related to the struggle for reproduction) and refuses – he is a follower of spiritualism – to see Man as a product of natural selection only.

Cyril Langlois explains: “Thinking that spirits can influence man, he rejected the idea that man is an animal like any other and was convinced that ‘human evolution is progressive.’

– Visionary –

However, he would remain one of the best-known British scientists of his time. In particular, for his work on the Malay Archipelago in 1862, more than 125,000 insects, birds, mammals… mostly unknown in Europe.

He was also one of the founders of biogeography—a discipline that seeks to understand the geographic distribution of species—and emphasized the existence of a boundary (known as the “Wallace line”) between the animal and plant species of islands. and Lombok is still very close.

An undated photomontage of Wallace's giant wasp (Megachile pluto, D), discovered in Indonesia and nearly four times the size of a European bumblebee, transmitted by Global Wildlife Conservation on February 21, 2019 (Global Wildlife Conservation / CLAY BOLT)

An undated photomontage of Wallace’s giant wasp (Megachile pluto, D), discovered in Indonesia and nearly four times the size of a European bumblebee, transmitted by Global Wildlife Conservation on February 21, 2019 (Global Wildlife Conservation / CLAY BOLT)

If his penchant for spiritualism or his opposition to vaccinations for all caused controversy, “Wallace was a visionary on many subjects,” Wallace’s “Malay Archipelago, cradle of the orangutan, and the bird of paradise.”

A proponent of greater social justice, an advocate of women’s right to vote, he warned against the excesses of capitalism and consumer society or the effects of colonialism on the regions he visited.

Even if one trumps the other, it is indeed the “Darwin-Wallace” medal that still today honors researchers who advance evolutionary biology.

(Sources: Encyclopedia Universalis and Larousse, Natural History Museum)

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