Episode 54 – Alfred Russell Wallace

Listen to Episode 54 on PodBean, Spotify, YouTube, or that other place you get podcasts … you know the one!

Darwin Day has come around again (February 12th), and bio-nerds around the world are celebrating science and natural history! Last year, we devoted an episode to Charles Darwin himself, and this year we’re joined again by Dr. Sarah Bray of the podcast Discovering Darwin. But this time, we’re highlighting the other guy, the young naturalist who arrived at the same evolutionary hypothesis as Darwin, and who shared the spotlight of discovery for a while. This episode, we’re talking about the fascinating and often overlooked Alfred Russell Wallace.

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The Origins of a Theory

Darwin’s story is very famous. He got on a boat and traveled around the world collecting notes and knowledge about life. He spent several decades meticulously putting it all together, waiting for the right moment to unleash his ideas onto the world. When he finally did, publishing On the Origin of Species in 1859, he changed our understanding of biology forever.

But lesser known is the fact that Darwin was spurred into action by a letter he received in 1858 from a younger man who had arrived at very much the same great revolutionary idea.

The credit for the discovery of “descent with modification by means of natural selection” belongs to Darwin, and also to Wallace.

Photos of Alfred Russell Wallace in 1862 (left) and 1895 (right). From Wikimedia Commons.

Alfred Russell Wallace

Like Darwin, Wallace was born in England, was interested in bug collecting, and did his best and most famous work while traveling through the tropical parts of the world.

Unlike Darwin, Wallace was not wealthy. His journeys to South America and southeast Asia weren’t just exploratory, they were business. He collected animals to study them, but also to sell his specimens.

A Dutch translation of Wallace’s map of the Malay Archipelago. The black lines show Wallace’s paths of travel. From Wikimedia Commons.

Wallace’s most famous trip took him across the islands of southeast Asia from the 1850s into the 1860s. There, he named tons of new species, arrived at incredible insights about how species differed across the islands of the region, and came up with the following wonderful realization:

Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.”

And in 1858, in the midst of terrible illness, Wallace wrote down his ideas on what would eventually become natural selection, and sent it to Darwin.

The letter shocked Darwin enough to write to his friend Charles Lyell about it. Darwin said this:

“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.”

The two men’s ideas were presented to the Linnean Society that year.

One of Wallace’s great discoveries was the “Wallace Line,” the division that separates Asian from Australian plants and animals. From Wikimedia Commons.

More info

Wallace’s life was full of science and adventure. He’s most famous for being the less famous evolution guy, but his contributions to biology were many, and his life was fascinating.

The Alfred Russell Wallace Website is exactly what it sounds like, and full of great info.

Find more about Wallace’s relationship with Darwin at the Darwin Correspondence Project.

The biography that helped Sarah prepare for our podcast discussion:
Raby, P. (2001). Alfred Russel Wallace, A Life. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press; London: Chatto & Windus. 340 pp.

Thanks as always to our listeners, our Patrons, our subject-suggesters, and this time a HUGE thanks to Dr. Sarah Bray for joining us again!

Happy Darwin Day!

If you enjoyed this topic and want more like it, check out these related episodes:

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2 thoughts on “Episode 54 – Alfred Russell Wallace

  1. Ed Culver February 13, 2019 / 11:03 am

    While Prof Bray’s knowledge of biology, Wallace, and Darwin is very impressive, she’s fallen afoul of the bizarre nature of the pronunciation of English place names.

    “Leicester” is pronounced like “lester” and “Hertfordshire” is pronounced more like Hartford-shur


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