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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
A poster by Durham Constabulary
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Emily McDowell Card that reads:
artCancer survivor Emily McDowell kicks back at the clichés
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvBadalamenti on board for third series
Life and Style
Standing room only: the terraces at Villa Park in 1935
Ben Stokes celebrates with his team mates after bowling Brendon McCullum
sportEngland vs New Zealand report
Amal Clooney has joined the legal team defending 'The Hooden Men'
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine