Much has been written this year about Charles Darwin, whose book On the Origin of Species was published 150 years ago, in 1859. It was Darwin’s book that introduced the world to the theory of natural selection, often referred to simply as “evolution.”
Seemingly forgotten by most of the modern writers celebrating Darwin is the fact that Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist, is considered the co-originator with Darwin of the natural selection theory.
The year before Darwin’s book was released, on July 1, 1858, the joint Darwin-Wallace paper was read to The Linnean Society of London, a forum for discussions on genetics, natural history, systematics, biology, and the history of plant and animal taxonomy.
“The accompanying papers, which we have the honour of communicating to the Linnean Society, and which all relate to the same subject, viz. the Laws which affect the Production of Varieties, Races, and Species, contain the results of the investigations of two indefatigable naturalists, Mr. Charles Darwin and Mr. Alfred Wallace,” the introduction began. “These gentlemen having, independently and unknown to one another, conceived the very same, very ingenious theory to account for the appearance and perpetuation of varieties and of specific forms on the planet, may both fairly claim the merit of being original thinkers in this important line of inquiry…”
The fact that Darwin was the sole author of the 1859 book probably explains why he has received all the credit. It’s also said that Darwin had been working on the theory much longer than Wallace, although he had published nothing on the subject before he became aware of Wallace’s independent theories. But a contributing factor may be that, during the early 1860s, Wallace became interested in a fairly new quasi-religious movement called Spiritualism, which was based on communication purportedly from the spirit world transmitted through human sensitives called mediums. It was a philosophy that clearly seemed to conflict with that of materialism, the emerging “enlightened” philosophy of the scientists and scholars of the day.
“I am well aware that my scientific friends are somewhat puzzled to account for what they consider to be my delusion, and believe that it has injuriously affected whatever power I may have once possessed of dealing with the philosophy of Natural History,” Wallace wrote in the preface of his 1875 book, Miracles and Modern Spiritualism, going on to say that his views on Spiritualism were in no way inconsistent with “a thorough acceptance of the grand doctrine of Evolution, through natural selection…”
From 1854 until 1862, Wallace traveled extensively in the Malay Archipelago (now Malaysia and Indonesia), collecting more than 125,000 specimens. His 1869 book, The Malay Archipelago, was widely read and is now something of a classic in the field. During 1855, Wallace wrote an essay titled On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species, which, in effect, stated a belief in evolution. That paper came to Darwin’s attention, but he apparently gave it little heed until early 1858. As the story goes, Darwin saw Wallace as a threat to his preeminence in the field and immediately discussed the dilemma with two close friends, both of whom encouraged the presentation of Wallace’s essay along with some of Darwin’s writings at the July 1, 1858 meeting of the Linnean Society. Wallace did not learn of the presentation until after the fact, but did not object to the presentation and became friends with Darwin.
As Wallace saw it, the future welfare or misery of mankind depended on the answer to the question of whether man’s consciousness survives death, a question which science had ignored. “If the question should be finally decided in the negative, if all men without exception ever come to believe that there is no life beyond this life, if children were all brought up to believe that the only happiness they can ever enjoy will be upon earth, then it seems to me that the condition of man would be altogether hopeless,” Wallace offered on this subject, “because there would cease to be any adequate motive for justice, for truth, for unselfishness, and no sufficient reason could be given to the poor man, to the bad man, or the selfish man, why he should not systematically seek his own personal welfare to the cost of others.”
Wallace continued to promote both "Darwinism" and "Spiritualism" until his death in 1913, at age 90.