Natural selection – it takes two: Darwin's rival Alfred Russel Wallace recognised at last
Explorer is finally taking his place beside Darwin in the theory of evolution
It's pretty much accepted that the origin of the theory of natural selection lies in the writings of Charles Darwin. But it seems the long-known scientific theory on evolution was itself subject to survival of the fittest. Experts are now claiming that at least some of the credit for everything we believe about how species develop should have gone to someone else.
Alfred Russel Wallace, they say, was the first to write a paper on the theory, but his efforts were crushed by the greater fame of the "gentleman naturalist" Darwin.
Dr George Beccaloni, a curator at the Natural History Museum, said yesterday: "Wallace was the one who had the paper ready for publication, and if he'd sent it directly to a journal it would have been published and natural selection would have been Wallace's discovery."
The comedian Bill Bailey, who does a stage show about the plight of Wallace and whose two-part documentary for the BBC is to be shown in March, puts it more bluntly: "He was robbed – whatever way you look at it."
Debate over who deserves credit for the theory of evolution has been re-ignited by the approach of the 100th anniversary of Wallace's death. The unveiling on Thursday by Bailey of a portrait of the Welsh-born scientist at the Natural History Museum in London opens a year-long celebration of Wallace's life and work.
Dr Beccaloni said there was no better time to recognise that, while Darwin had been working on the theory of natural selection for many years, Wallace had also been toiling away on the same idea. The two men made breakthroughs independently but Wallace was the first to write an explanation down in an essay. According to Dr Beccaloni, however, Wallace's mistake was sending the essay from Indonesia –where he had been researching for eight years – to Darwin, in the course of a correspondence between the two men.
The curator says Wallace had no idea his scientific pen pal been working on the same theory. And Darwin was apparently "horrified" when he received the paper, and immediately passed it on to his friends, two of Victorian England's most eminent scientists, Sir Charles Lyell and Dr Joseph Hooker.
The two then decided to release a joint paper containing the essay and excerpts from the writings of the much more famous and respected Darwin on natural selection. But Dr Beccaloni says their crime was that they did this without Wallace's knowledge.
In a letter to the German anthropologist A B Meyer in 1869, Wallace himself bears out this claim: "I sat down, wrote out the article, copied it, and sent it off by the next post to Mr Darwin. It was printed without my knowledge, and of course without any correction of proofs."
Dr Beccaloni said the actions of Lyell and Hooker were "pretty morally reprehensible".
Darwin's seminal On the Origin of Species was published 15 months later, in November 1859, cementing his place in history. But Bailey says: "If Wallace had not sent it to Darwin and [instead] sent it to a scientific journal, then he would have had priority and we would be talking about Wallaceism, not Darwinism."
Notes from a small island: Is Sealand an independent 'micronation' or an illegal fortress?
You thought Ryanair's attendants had it bad? Wait 'til you hear about their pilots
World news in pictures
David Cameron goes to war with newspapers over 'swivel-eyed loons' slur
Revealed: Eerie new images show forgotten French apartment that was abandoned at the outbreak of World War II and left untouched for 70 years
- 1 Heading for America? Prepare for the longest US immigration queues ever
- 2 Notes from a small island: Is Sealand an independent 'micronation' or an illegal fortress?
- 3 You thought Ryanair's attendants had it bad? Wait 'til you hear about their pilots
- 4 David Cameron goes to war with newspapers over 'swivel-eyed loons' slur
- 5 It’s official: thanks to Stephen Hawking's Israel boycott, anti-Semitism is no more
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.
£50000 - £58000 per annum + Benefits and Bonus: Progressive Recruitment: SAP F...
£30000 - £40000 per annum + BENS: Progressive Recruitment: Drupal Developer A ...
£45000 - £50000 per annum + bens: Progressive Recruitment: C# WEB DEVELOPER Le...
£240 - £260 per day: Progressive Recruitment: WPF Developer (C#, VB.Net) North...