Watch a video recording by the British Humanist Association of a talk about Wallace's life and work and his discovery of evolution by natural selection. I presented this talk at Ancestor's Trail 2013 on the 25 August 2013:
Watch a video recording by the British Humanist Association of a talk about Wallace's life and work and his discovery of evolution by natural selection. I presented this talk at Ancestor's Trail 2013 on the 25 August 2013:
As many of you will know, the Museum has been celebrating the life and work of Alfred Russel Wallace this year in a big way. As part of the celebrations, the Museum's magazine evolve has published four interesting articles about Wallace, and thanks to an agreement with the magazine's Senior Editor Helen Sturge, and the authors of the articles in question, they can now be downloaded as PDFs.
+ Caroline Catchpole's article Letters of a naturalist: the Wallace Correspondence Project from issue 16. Download the PDF.
Because issue 17 of evolve hasn't even been distributed yet you will get to read the two interesting articles in it before everyone else!
October's letter of the month was written by Wallace to his son William from the Quincy Hotel in Boston, America. Written on 29 October 1886, Wallace had just embarked on what was to be a ten month lecture tour around North America.
The idea for a trip to lecture in America had actually been born a few years previously when Wallace met James Lowell at Darwin’s funeral - both were pallbearers. Lowell, a few years later in 1885, invited Wallace to be a speaker at the prestigious Lowell Institute's lecture series.
In a letter written in January 1886 to Othniel Charles Marsh, with whom Wallace had also discussed the possibility of lecturing abroad, Wallace wrote that,
“... circumstances have led me to contemplate a visit to the United States next Autumn on a lecturing tour around the world."
Although Wallace now had a degree of financial security in the form of a civil pension of £200 per annum that he began receiving in 1882, he cites to Marsh that,
“Serious losses of late years have rendered it necessary for me to do anything in my power to secure a provision for my family, and it is this consideration alone that would make me encounter the risks and fatigue of such a journey at my age and with my somewhat precarious health.”
And so it was that he left Gravesend on Saturday 9 October 1886 on a steamship, docking in New York, two weeks later on Saturday 23 October.
Wallace’s letter to William came when he had been in America six days and he writes of the voyage over, and of his activities since his arrival. He writes of seeing the “great” Statue of Liberty - which had actually been dedicated the day before Wallace wrote his letter on 28 October.
He stayed in New York for four days before travelling to Boston, from where he wrote to William. He records in the letter his thoughts on Central Park, it being,
“something like Epping Forest & something like Wales -- small hills and rocks everywhere with trees & flowers, and lakes in the hollows.”
On the journey to Boston Wallace observes all around him, commenting on the landscape, “rocky but not very hilly” and likening the wooden houses in the towns and villages he passed to “toy houses”.
WCP423: Wallace's letter to William from Boston
Wallace gave his first lecture two days after this letter was written on Monday 1 November to a sold-out audience; the lecture was entitled “The Darwinian Theory”. In total he gave 41 lectures, his last being in August 1887.
He never did make it around the world - his original plan which he outlined in his letter to Marsh was to travel to New Zealand and Australia from America and then onto the Cape of Good Hope before heading home to the UK. He did, however, make it to California to see his brother John, who he hadn’t seen in more than forty years.
At the time of the lecture series, Wallace was the greatest living naturalist - Darwin having died in 1882 and he was able to use the series to talk on a variety of subjects, including Darwinism. His most popular lecture was the first he ever delivered “The Darwinian Theory”. Although the lectures were not as forthcoming as he had initially anticipated, he still managed to talk on a variety of topics, including an apparently extremely successful lecture on Spiritualism entitled “If a Man Die, Shall he Live Again?” given in San Francisco in June 1887.
The trip, no doubt also helped him organise his thoughts on Darwinism as two years after the end of his trip, in 1889, he published Darwinism, his defence of natural selection.
Although, not a very well-known chapter in Wallace’s life, the lecturing tour around America is nonetheless interesting and can be explored through the letters in Wallace Letters Online. An excellent new book, "Alfred Russel Wallace's 1886-1887 Travel Diary" by Charles Smith, has recently been published this year, giving a very detailed account of the tour.
We're still tweeting about Wallace in this anniversary year and I have two more letters to share with you before concluding my letter of the month series.
Wallace Correspondence Project.
A wonderful and unique map, showing the routes of Wallace and Darwin's journeys and explaining how both men came to discover evolution by natural selection, has just been published by Operation Wallacea in association with the Wallace Memorial Fund. An image of the map is shown below and a larger version is attached as a PDF file (see the link at the bottom of this post).
The map is being distributed free of charge as a high quality A2 size (42 x 59.4 cm; 16.54 x 23.39 inches) poster to all secondary schools in the UK as well as a further 10,000 schools worldwide - a GREAT way of increasing awareness of Wallace.
An Indonesian language version of the poster will probably also be produced for distribution to schools in Indonesia. If you would like a physical copy of the English version of the poster at cost price then please email email@example.com. The price is £1 plus postage and packing.
I will also have a limited number of copies to give away at Science Uncovered on Friday 27 September between 17.30 and 18.30. Please come and find me at the Evolution Station in the Museum's Central Hall. Come early to avoid disappointment!
The map comparing Darwin's and Wallace's travels, which led to them independently formulating their theory of evolution by natural selection.
Two frequently asked questions are 1) how famous was Wallace, and 2) was he really forgotten after his death as some people (like myself) have often said? Responses to these have been based mainly on intuition - but now, thanks to Google's Ngram Viewer - it is possible to answer them in a more quantitative way. Ngram allows users to study the frequency of certain terms (e.g. people's names) in about 5 million books over time. Several terms can be examined together on one graph, so one can compare their relative frequencies.
Below are three Ngram plots which give a pretty good idea of how famous Wallace was over time relative to, firstly, 5 scientists who were his friends or colleagues and, secondly, to a selection of other very well known biologists, both living and dead. I realise that the frequency that someone's name is cited in books over time is not a direct measure of their fame, but I would argue that it is probably a pretty good surrogate. For the sake of argument I will use the term "famous" to mean "mentioned in more books than someone else".
The graph below shows a few interesting things: firstly that geologist Charles Lyell was far more famous than Charles Darwin until the early 1880's. Darwin then became and remained by far the most famous of the people shown. It is interesting that Lyell was more famous than Darwin during Darwin's lifetime (Darwin died in 1882), which is not what I would have expected.
An Ngram comparing mentions of Wallace, Darwin, Hooker, Huxley, Lyell and Owen.
(Click all Ngrams to view full-sized versions)
Removing Darwin from the graph and looking at just the period from 1990 to 2008 we see that, by 2008, Wallace and botanist Joseph Hooker are on a par and that they are more cited than Huxley and Owen, but that Charles Lyell is a bit more famous than either of them.
Comparing Wallace with some other famous biologists, living and dead, we see that he was more famous towards the end of his life (he died in 1913) than anyone else at any time period, except perhaps for Richard Dawkins. As of 2008 he was nearly as frequently cited as Gregor Mendel, and only Dawkins was (considerably!) more cited than either. Interestingly David Attenborough and Stephen J. Gould are the least cited, apart from Lamarck.
These graphs show some things I expected (e.g. that Darwin was always a lot more famous than Wallace and that Wallace's fame decreased soon after his death and is only now increasing again), as well as some that I didn't (e.g. how famous Wallace was in his lifetime relative to what I thought were even more famous people like David Attenborough). It is interesting that citations of Wallace's name start to increase again in the 1970s, and I think that the reason is that it was then that Wallace first started to be seriously studied by scholars, such as Lewis McKinney, Barbara Beddall and Wilma George.
I'm sure one could argue that there are problems with this method as a way of measuring fame, but it is the best technique I can think of.
I have sometimes heard it said that Alfred Russel Wallace coined the term "Darwinism". This is incorrect, although he did use the term (perhaps unfortunately!) as the title of an excellent book about evolution which he published in 1889. The term "Darwinism" (as relating to Charles Darwin's theories rather than to his grandfather Erasmus' ideas) was actually first used by "Darwin's Bulldog" Thomas Henry Huxley in a review he wrote of Darwin's "Origin of Species" in 1860.
Curiously, the related term "neo-Darwinism", which refers to the 'modern' view of Darwinism minus the inheritance of acquired characters (i.e. Darwinism without Lamarckism), was coined by Samuel Butler in 1880 with reference to Alfred Russel Wallace's views about evolution. Wallace rejected Lamarckism throughout his long life, correctly insisting that natural selection is the primary mechanism of evolutionary change and that traits acquired by organisms during their lifetime (e.g. a blacksmith's well developed arm muscles) are not inherited by their offspring.
Wallace's first published rejection of Lamarckism was in his 'Ternate' essay of 1858 - which formed part of the famous paper in which he and Darwin proposed the theory of natural selection for the first time. Wallace wrote:
"The hypothesis of Lamarck — that progressive changes in species have been produced by the attempts of animals to increase the development of their own organs, and thus modify their structure and habits — has been repeatedly and easily refuted by all writers on the subject of varieties and species, and it seems to have been considered that when this was done the whole question has been finally settled; but the view here developed renders such an hypothesis quite unnecessary, by showing that similar results must be produced by the action of principles constantly at work in nature...Neither did the giraffe acquire its long neck by desiring to reach the foliage of the more lofty shrubs, and constantly stretching its neck for the purpose, but because any varieties which occurred among its antitypes [ancestors] with a longer neck than usual at once secured a fresh range of pasture over the same ground as their shorter-necked companions, and on the first scarcity of food were thereby enabled to outlive them."
Perhaps surprisingly, Darwin always believed that Lamarckism (what he called "use and disuse" inheritance) played a role in evolution alongside natural selection and in 1868 he even devised a now discredited theory, called Pangenesis, to explain how it might work. I find it ironic that not only was the term "neo-Darwinism" proposed with reference to Wallace's evolutionary views, but that Wallace was actually the first ever neo-Darwinian! He was even more "Darwinian" than Darwin himself and can be regarded as the first 'modern' evolutionary biologist. The term "neo-Darwinism" should really be replaced by the term "Wallacism" instead!
Note: The term "neo-Darwinism" is usually said to have been coined by George Romanes in 1888 (often erroneously stated to be 1895 or 1896), but it in fact dates back to Samuel Butler's book "Unconscious Memory" published in 1880. Butler used it in the sense described above and cited the above passage from Wallace's 1858 essay as an example of this view (which incidentally Butler disagreed with)!
[Huxley, T.H.] 1860. Darwin On the origin of Species. Westminster Review, 17 (n.s.): 541-70.
When Alfred Russel Wallace wrote to Charles Darwin from a remote island in Indonesia in 1858, he could not possibly have imagined the consequences. Darwin forwarded the letter and its enclosed essay to Sir Charles Lyell with a despairing note: “So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.” Wallace had independently solved the problem of the origin of species, and this book relates what happened next.
“The Letter from Ternate” has just been published by Tim Preston of The TimPress. It focusses on the curious and dramatic events surrounding the publication of one of the most important articles in the history of science - Darwin and Wallace's groundbreaking 1858 paper which first proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection. It features new and highly accurate transcriptions of letters to and from Wallace, Darwin, Hooker and Lyell, plus the text of the famous 'joint paper', and Wallace’s Acceptance Speech given after receiving the gold Darwin-Wallace Medal of the Linnean Society of London in 1908.
The book is special because it is hand printed, hand bound and limited to only 100 copies. Many of the copies were pre-ordered so this is probably your last chance to buy what is a unique memento of the 2013 Wallace centenary. You won't find it in any shop or on Amazon!
Details of the book are as follows:
12.5 x 18.75cm, 96pp, printed in Caslon by hand on a Crown Folio Albion press, on Somerset Book mould-made paper from St Cuthbert's Mill, with an introduction by Dr George Beccaloni, tipped-in wood engravings, map, pictures etc. 100 copies only have been printed, of which 95 are quarter bound in leather with decorated paper covers. The cost is £80 for the quarter leather bound version and it can be ordered from Tim Preston - email firstname.lastname@example.org
More information about it can be found in an earlier post.
A sample of the book and its contents can be seen below:
This month’s selected letter in my 'Letter of the Month' series was written by Wallace to his mother, Mary, from Java on 20 July 1861, just as his Malay Archipelago adventure was coming to an end. The opening sentence reveals his plans:
“I am as you will see now commencing my retreat westwards I have left the wild and savage Moluccas & New Guinea for Java the garden of the East & probably without any exception the finest island in the world.”
WCP375: Wallace's letter home to his mother
Although coming at the end of his journey, this letter affords a great insight into the life of a travelling naturalist. He rejoices in the fact that travelling in Java and then onwards to Singapore will be a much more pleasant affair than where he has been travelling as good infrastructure made his job much easier.
“Good roads regular posting stages & regular inns & lodging houses all over the interior” make for a happy naturalist.
Wallace goes on to write he...
“...shall no more be obliged to carry about with me that miscellaneous lot of household furniture, -- bed, blankets, pots kettles and frying pan, -- plates, dishes & wash basin, coffee pots & coffee, tea sugar & butter, -- salt, pickles, rice, bread and wine -- pepper & curry powder, & half a hundred more odds & ends the constant looking after [of] which, packing and repacking, calculating & contriving, -- have been the standing plague of my life for the last 7 years. You will better understand this when I tell you that I have made in that time about 80 movements averaging one a month, at every one of which all of these articles have had to be rearranged & repacked by myself according to the length of the trip, besides a constant personal supervision to prevent waste or destruction of stores in places where it is impossible to supply them.”
Simply reading the list of everything he was required to take with him on his travels makes you appreciate what he achieved on those islands all the more but coupled with the fact he had to carry all this every time he moved on (about once a month) and also carry all specimens he collected with him, makes his feat extraordinary. He did have helpers at times which would have proved enormously useful but I really think the sheer scale of his endeavour comes to light in his letter home.
Just a few months earlier in March 1861 Wallace had written to his brother-in-law Thomas Sims about his travels and how the lure of home was growing ever bigger:
“I assure you I now feel at times very great longings for the peace & quiet of home, -- very much weariness of this troublesome wearisome wandering life. I have lost some of that elasticity & freshness which made the overcoming of difficulties a pleasure, & the country & people are now too familiar to me to retain any of the charms of novelty, which gild over so much that is really monotonous & disagreeable….. I think I may promise if no accidents happen to come back to dear & beautiful England in the summer of next year.”
And that he did, returning home to England by summer 1862, travel weary but eager to begin the next chapter in his life.
The Malay Archipelago - Wallace travelled the length and breadth of this Archipelago over eight years.
One other anecdote caught my eye in the letter home to Thomas. He was responding to a letter Thomas had written which evidently mentioned Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which you might infer from Wallace’s reply, he had been none too positive about:
“Now for Mr Darwin’s book. You quite misunderstand both Mr D’s statement in the preface & his sentiments. I have of course been in correspondence with him since I first sent him my little essay.* His conduct has been most liberal & disnterested. I think any one who reads the Linn[ean] Soc[iety] papers & his book will see it. I do back him up in his whole round of conclusions & look upon him as the Newton of Natural History”
*Yet, another outstanding example of Wallace’s modesty! The "little essay" he refers to here is his famous 1858 essay "On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection".
Darwin - the Newton of Natural History? Wallace certainly thought so!
Wallace actively wrote home to his mother and sister during his travels and we have seven surviving letters written to his mother during the eight years travelling the archipelago and 11 to his sister and brother-in-law, Fanny and Thomas. All of them can be read on Wallace Letters Online.
Wallace, his mother Mary and sister Fanny
© Wallace Memorial Fund & G. W. Beccaloni
You can follow in Wallace’s footsteps and explore his Amazon and Malay Archipelago expeditions in the museum’s Wallace Discovery Trail which was launched at the beginning of July and runs until November. You can find out more information about the Trail and download a map here.
Check back next month, when I'll delve once again into the correspondence and write about another letter that has caught my eye.
Friday 7 June saw Wallace enthusiasts descend on the University of Bournemouth for a one day conference on Wallace, fittingly held in the Alfred Russel Wallace Lecture Theatre, organised by the Linnean Society and The Society for the History of Natural History.
Entitled "Unremitting passion for the beauty and mystery of the natural world" the day included 6 talks about different aspects of Wallace’s life and work, a theatre performance by Theatr na n’Og called "You should ask Wallace" and an evening reception at Bournemouth Society for Natural Sciences.
The morning was kicked off by Andrew Sortwell and David Orr Kerr who gave a fascinating talk of following, quite literally, in Wallace’s footsteps with two expeditions to the Amazon, one in 1978 and one in 2007. They shared with us amazing photos of some of locations Wallace would have visited during his 1848-52 expedition there and shared with us photos of native boats, much like Wallace would have travelled in. In 1978 the Wallace Expedition to Amazonia spent three months in remote regions of the Amazon studying the flora and fauna and in 2007, the second expedition involved travelling to the Rio Negro and spending some time in an Indian Reserve. They also visited São Joaquim, now deserted but the village where Wallace nearly lost his life to illness during his expedition. Their talk was fascinating and it was great to see photos of specimens Wallace would have collected and also to see some of David’s beautiful watercolours from the trip.
Janet Ashdown, conservator at the Linnean Society was the next speaker and spoke about the project she worked on to conserve Wallace’s 10 notebooks from the Amazon and Malay Archipelago. The Society acquired the notebooks in 1936 after Wallace’s son William offered them via Edward Bagnall Poulton. In 2011 funding was awarded by the Mellon Foundation to digitise the notebooks, but they were in a poor state of repair and needed to be conserved first. Each notebook was in a varying state of disrepair with his Amazon notebook needing the least intervention. There were four notebooks that were really degraded with Janet commenting they had been strangely constructed with straw-board covers. There were also old repairs that had been undertaken and unfortunately old covers had to be permanently removed because of degradation, however they have been kept and the new covers have been modelled closely on the originals. This was a really insightful talk and I enjoyed learning about the method and the time it took to restore these notebooks to their former glory. These notebooks have also just been digitised and are free to view on the Linnean Society’s website.
The final talk before lunch was given by Professor Jim Costa on insights and observations into Wallace’s Species notebooks. Professor Costa’s research into these notebooks will be published in October this year in his new book entitled On the Organic Law of Change. The species notebook (held by the Linnean Society, mc. 180) covers the period 1855-1859 whilst he was in the Malay Archipelago, a period of "remarkable creativity" for Wallace as Jim put it which saw the publication of the 1855 Sarawak Law and the 1858 Ternate Essay that saw him catapulted to fame alongside Charles Darwin. Jim also highlights Wallace’s critique of Sir Charles Lyell in his notebook, showing Lyell to be an inspiration to Wallace during this time. Jim has studied, transcribed and annotated the notebook for his new book, which is bound to give new and interesting insights into Wallace and his time spent in the Malay Archipelago.
After lunch, I was lucky enough to have been asked to speak about the Wallace Correspondence Project and it was great to be able to share with so many people details about the project and to show people just what an amazing resource Wallace Letters Online is.
Also speaking in the afternoon was Annette Lord, a volunteer at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History who spoke about Oxford Wallace’s collection, which consists of over 300 paper items in the Wallace archive, mostly letters and postcards dating from 1860 to 1913 and tens of thousands of specimens collected by Wallace and numerous type specimens, including Wallace’s famous giant bee, Megachile pluto. It was really interesting to hear Annette talk about Oxford’s collections on Wallace and she recounted many great stories told in the letters, mostly to Edwards Bagnall Poulton and Raphael Meldola, all of which are available to view on Wallace Letters Online.
Some lovely specimens from the Oxford Wallace Collection
The final talk of the day was given by Dr Charles Smith and focused on Wallace and Natural Selection. Charles explored Wallace’s 1858 Ternate paper - the one which he sent to Darwin and was subsequently read with Darwin’s work on 1 July 1858 at the Linnean Society - and asked how much we really knew about Wallace’s own evolution of thought and explored Wallace being influenced by the works of Alexander von Humboldt. A thoroughly interesting talk and a great end to the presentations.
We were then treated to an excellent performance by Theatr na n’Og with a play called "You should ask Wallace". The play tells Wallace’s story, with one actor playing Wallace who recounts his childhood, early surveying career and expeditions to the Amazon and Malay Archipelago. They perform the play in schools around Wales and this year are busy with performances to a wide range of audiences. It was excellent and the actor who played Wallace bore more than a passing resemblance to the young naturalist! It’s a great way to engage a younger audience in Wallace’s extraordinary life and to inspire them also and it was really interesting seeing the play as it helps you to better imagine the challenging feats Wallace undertook.
A Q&A session with Theatr na n'Og after their great performance
To round off the day there was a drinks reception at Bournemouth Society for Natural Sciences, which gave the delegates a chance to chat to one another about the days interesting talks. It was lovely talking to people so enthusiastic about Wallace, in such interesting surroundings, with the Society’s headquarters full of interesting specimens.
The lovely surroundings of the Bournemouth Society for Natural Sciences
Wallace and Darwin both honoured at the Society's headquarters
I’d like to say a big thanks to the Linnean Society for organising such an interesting day; another great success for Wallace100!
An article I recently wrote entitled Alfred Russel Wallace and Natural Selection: the Real Story has just been put onto the Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero page on the BBC website as a downloadable pdf file. If you think you know the story of how Wallace and Darwin came to publish the theory of natural selection together you might be in for a few surprises!
This month’s letter comes from Ternate, when Wallace was 4 years into his 'Eastern journey ' exploring the Malay Archipelago. I selected this letter not just for its content, fascinating though it is, but for the story behind it and the fact that this innocent letter has caused quite a stir, albeit unintentionally.
Wallace travelled to the Malay Archipelago (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) in March 1854, eighteen months after returning from his Amazon expedition. He spent eight years exploring the islands, travelling a total of 14,000 miles and undertaking 60-70 separate journeys. In this time he amassed a huge, diverse and important collection of insects, birds, mammals and reptiles – around 25,000 specimens in total, with well over a thousand of these new to science.
The scientific observations Wallace made on these islands contributed to some of his most important work. The two volume book The Malay Archipelago published in 1869 was written about his eight years there, and was so successful that it hasn’t been out of print since its publication.
The letter in question is one from Wallace to Frederick Bates, brother of Henry Walter who was Wallace’s Amazon companion. It was written from Ternate, on 2nd March 1858 and discusses insect collecting, insect coloration and other musings on the richness of the archipelago.
Frederick, like his brother Henry, collected insects and had written to Wallace previously about the sorts of things he had been collecting, in particular exotic insects. Wallace shared details in the letter about the sorts of species he had been collecting and where they had been found. He mentioned to Bates that his second Macassar collection should reach England soon and he believed it contained "the most remarkable lot of Carabidae ever collected in the tropics in so short a time". He gives a vivid account of what life as a collector in the tropics sometimes amounted to, spending "hours daily on my knees in wet sand & rotten leaves".
Letter to Bates from Ternate, 2nd March 1858
The letter has an extremely rich entomological content, discussing species found in different localities and the research he has been conducting which will contribute to scholarly work upon his return. Musing on the richness of the archipelago, Wallace writes:
"I could spend 20 years here were life long enough, but feel I cannot stand it away from home & books & collections & comforts, more than four or five, & then I shall have work to do for the rest of my life. What would be the use of accumulating materials which one could not have time to work up?"
Luckily for us, he heeded his own words of wisdom, returning in 1862 to write and publish much on the region.
The link in the letter to the story behind it comes as he writes, "I have lately worked out a theory which accounts for them naturally". This sentence is a reference to the now famous essay he wrote whilst recovering from a fever in February 1858. The essay in question was on the theory of evolution by natural selection, which he sent together with an accompanying letter to Charles Darwin shortly after penning it, asking Darwin to forward it on to Sir Charles Lyell.
Darwin received the letter and essay on 18th June, writing to Lyell the same day asking what he should do with Wallace’s work. Knowing that Darwin had deivsed a similar theory Lyell and Joseph Hooker thought the fairest thing to do would be to read the two men’s work at a meeting of the Linnean Society. This was duly done on 1st July 1858, leading to the publication of "On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection" – thus uniting the two great scientists as co-discoverers of this ground-breaking theory.
Whether or not it was fair for the essay to be read publically without Wallace’s knowledge is a whole other blog entirely – the controversy this blog is concerned with is the date on which Darwin received Wallace's essay, 18th June 1858, and the discovery of the letter to Frederick Bates in the later decades of the twentieth century which was received by Bates on 3rd June 1858.
OK, you might say, two completely different letters to two completely different people, written around the same time – why should that cause a stir? Well, there was only one steamer a month that carried mail on its journey to the UK and it had long been thought that Wallace had sent his letter and essay to Darwin on the March steamer.
The discovery of the Bates letter confuses matters because it quite clearly has 3 postage marks on it, indicating it began its journey aboard the steamer that left Ternate on 9th March 1858. There is a mark indicating its arrival in Singapore on 21st April 1858 and then London on 3rd June, and a final mark showing that it arrived at its destination, Leicester, the same day 3rd June.
Therefore if Wallace’s letter and essay to Darwin had been sent on the March steamer they would have reached Down House also on 3rd June or thereabouts (one would assume, especially as Down House is much closer to Southampton than Leicester). Therefore, conspiracy theorists have delighted in theorising that Darwin received the essay on 3rd June but said nothing about it to anyone until the 18th, which is when he wrote to Charles Lyell saying he had received it. This would have given him time to read over Wallace’s work and use it to amend his own.
Page 4 of the letter to Bates, clearly showing the three postage marks of Singapore, London and Leicester
As unlikely as this seems, it has actually spurred four authors to write about it; McKinney (1972), Brackman (1980), Brooks (1984), and Davies (2008) and many more have questioned what really went on - did Darwin receive the letter two weeks before he said he did? Did he use Wallace’s essay to shape his own work?
Of course, this theorising wouldn’t even need to happen if we still had the letter Wallace sent to Darwin as it would no doubt have similar postage stamps to the Bates letter, charting the journey to its destination. However, we still don’t know where the letter is, or if it even survives, although the museum did launch an appeal in 2011 to try and trace this iconic piece of history.
Late in 2011, Dr. John van Wyhe and Kees Rookmaaker sought to re-investigate this thorny issue in an article they published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society "A new theory to explain the receipt of Wallace’ Ternate essay by Darwin in 1858" (2012, 105, pp. 249-252). They put forth an argument that in fact, the letter to Darwin was sent on the April steamer, not March. This is supported by evidence that Wallace’s letter (which he sent the essay) was a reply to Darwin’s letter of 22nd December 1857 (this is actually one of the few things known about the missing letter).
Davies (2008) undertook some detective work which indicated Wallace would have received this December letter from Darwin in March 1858, on the same steamer that he would have sent the letter to Bates on. As the steamer would not have stayed long at Ternate, there would therefore be no way Wallace could have written a reply and send it off to England on the 9th March steamer. Wallace’s later recollections of sending this letter to Darwin don’t allude to the month he sent it either, just that it was sent to him via the "next post".
Dr. van Wyhe and Rookmaaker chart the journey of the letter and essay via the various stops it would have made in its way back to England, finally reaching Southampton on 16th June 1858 at nine o’clock in the evening, travelling to London early on the 17th and finally reaching Down House on the 18th June.
So, this seemingly innocuous letter to Bates ended up causing quite a stir and I’m sure Wallace would have been quite amused at all the fuss! Conspiracy theories will always abound and there will always be people who prefer Darwin to Wallace and vice versa, but really if you strip all that away, what you have are two remarkable men, independently co-discovering a theory that was forever to change the way we see the world.
You can explore Wallace and Darwin’s relationship through their letters here. Check back next month when I’ll be writing about something else that’s caught my eye.
As February is the month of romance and many of us get into the spirit by celebrating St. Valentine’s Day on the 14th, I thought I would make February’s letter of the month feature all about romance and look behind the science to Wallace the man.
This month’s letter was written to Alfred Newton, who was the first Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge University, elected to the post in 1866 and one he retained until his death in 1907. Wallace and Newton corresponded extensively upon Wallace’s return to England from the Malay Archipelago on a variety of scientific and personal subjects and Wallace Letters Online features a total of 83 letters written between the two men.
However, one particular letter dated 19th February 1865 that Wallace wrote to Newton caught my eye; it was about more than science, revealing a recent heartbreak he had suffered. He writes to Newton,
“The fact is however I have done nothing for the last six months, -- having met with that "tide" Shakespear[sic] speaks of, which I had thought to have taken at the flood & been carried on, not to fortune but to happiness, -- when a wave came & left me high & dry, -- & here I am like a fish out of water.
To descend from metaphor I have been considerably cut up. I was to have been married in December, -- everything appeared serene, -- invitations were sent out, wedding dresses ordered & all the programme settled, when almost at the last moment without the slightest warning the whole affair was broken off.”
The lady in question was Marion Leslie, daughter of Wallace’s chess-playing friend Lewis Leslie. Peter Raby, in his excellent biography of Wallace theorises some possible reasons for the literal jilt at the altar, citing Wallace’s unsteady income, lack of investments and possibly some of his more ‘unorthdox’ views may have reached the family.
Wallace also speaks of his heartbreak to Darwin in January 1865, writing “you may imagine how this has upset me when I tell you that I never in my life before had met with a woman I could love, & in this case I firmly believe I was most truly loved in return.
Scarcely any of my acquaintances know of this, but though we have met so little yet I look upon you as a friend, & as such hope you will pardon my boring you with my private affairs.”
Wallace despairs in another letter to Darwin in October 1865 that he is struggling to complete his work and believes having a wife would greatly assist him with his work although he believes it “not likely” to happen. At this point, you have to really feel for Wallace, jilted at the altar and believing himself to remain a bachelor from there on in. It’s also nice to see first-hand that Wallace felt Darwin and Newton were close enough confidantes and friends that he could share such delicate affairs of the heart with them.
All was not lost, thankfully! To give the story the happy ending it deserves, he met his future wife Annie Mitten, daughter of William Mitten, an authority on bryophytes, when he visited Mitten’s home in Treeps with his friend Richard Spruce. Alfred and Annie were married on 5th April 1866 and their first son Herbert was born in June the following year, with Violet and William following in 1869 and 1871. They remained happily married for the rest of his life.
Wallace and his wife Annie
© Wallace Memorial Fund & G. W. Beccaloni
Call me a hopeless romantic but this letter really piqued my interest. When we think back to the great scientific minds of the nineteenth century, we often define them by their theories and the great scientific work they produced (and also conjure up an image of them which is invariably them in old age, bearded and be-spectacled) and forget they were just like you and me (albeit a touch more intelligent!) and I find it immensely interesting to uncover the more personal side of the scientist, the character and personality behind the science. This is just one of many reasons Wallace Letters Online is such a useful resource, as it can finally give unbiased insights into Wallace’s private life, from the man himself!
Follow the Library and Archives twitter feed where we’ll be tweeting Wallace facts weekly and check back next month when I take another leap into Wallace Letters Online for March’s letter of the month.
Wallace Letters Online (WLO), an online archive giving everyone access to the correspondence of Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, is launched today by comedian and naturalist Bill Bailey at the Natural History Museum. Bailey will also be launching Wallace100, a programme of events to mark the centenary of Wallace’s death, by unveiling an impressive portrait of Wallace in the Museum’s iconic Central Hall, near the famous statue of Darwin.
WLO brings together all surviving letters to and from Wallace, both personal and scholarly, for the first time. His unpublished correspondence is scattered across the collections of more than 100 institutions worldwide so it has been very difficult for people to study, until now.
Highlights in WLO include the fascinating letters he wrote and received during his epic trip to the Malay Archipelago between 1854 and 1862, and his complete correspondence with Charles Darwin, which has never been published in full before. Online materials will also include other important documents, such as Wallace's notebooks from the Museum’s Wallace Family Archive.
Alfred Russel Wallace is considered by many to be one of the greatest scientists of all time. Not only did he independently discover natural selection, he also founded the science of evolutionary biogeography; the study of the geographical distribution of plants and animals.
He made significant contributions to academic fields as diverse as anthropology and epidemiology, and was an intrepid traveller and avid collector of natural history specimens who sent back thousands of species new to science from South America and south-east Asia.
About 4,500 letters to and from Wallace are known to survive, with more than half of these held in the collections of the Natural History Museum (1,200) and the British Library (1,600). The Wallace Correspondence Project has so far digitised about 95 per cent of the letters, and is searching for others hidden away in libraries and private collections around the world. Wallace Letters Online is the Web interface to the Wallace Correspondence Project's electronic database of Wallace's letters.
Dr George Beccaloni, Director of the Wallace Correspondence Project and a curator here at the Museum says, ‘Collating, transcribing and making this material freely available online marks a huge advance in understanding this great man. It presents a wealth of new information for those interested in Wallace’s life, work and beliefs. I hope it will help build a new and more accurate picture of him, and help to bring him out of Darwin's shadow.'
WLO aims to catalogue and provide images and transcripts of all known letters sent to or written by Wallace (including the original envelopes and any enclosures), plus selected letters between others which contain important information pertaining to Wallace (e.g. a letter from Charles Darwin to Thomas Huxley which discusses Wallace). WLO also includes a selection of other important manuscript documents and other items which are not letters e.g. Wallace's notebooks in the Museum's Wallace Family Archive.
WLO currently contains records of 4,151 letters, of which 2,026 were written by ARW, 1,856 were sent to ARW and 269 are third party letters which pertain to ARW. It also contains details of 26 other documents such as notebooks.
WLO currently contains about 95% of Wallace's known surviving correspondence, including all of Wallace's early (pre. 1863) correspondence, and all of the surviving letters he sent or received during his epic trip to the Malay Archipelago between March 1854 and April 1862. It also includes the complete surviving Darwin-Wallace correspondence in full for the first time. Previous published compilations of the Darwin-Wallace letters (i.e. Darwin (1893), Marchant (1916)) are incomplete and the published transcripts were often heavily edited and sometimes suffer from important omissions of text.
Highlights of WLO
Note: If you would like to find an item in WLO (e.g. WCP4766), go to the Search Page and type the item number minus the "WCP" prefix (e.g. 4766), into the "WCP Number" search box.
To see the database entry for each highlight listed below, click the WCP number.
There follows a selection of key letters relating to some of Wallace's greatest discoveries: evolution by natural selection; the Wallace Line; and warning colouration.
Early life (1823-1848)
WCP346: Wallace to Henry Walter Bates, 28 December 1845. Wallace discusses his views of the book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation - the work which convinced him of the reality of evolution and started him on his quest to discover the mechanism which drives it. For more information about this letter see here.
WCP348: Wallace to Bates, 11 October 1847. This letter contains his famous statement "I begin to feel rather dissatisfied with a mere local collection - little is to be learnt by it. I sh[ould]d like to take some one family, to study thoroughly - principally with a view to the theory of the origin of species. By that means I am strongly of [the] opinion that some definite results might be arrived at." This was the prelude to Wallace suggesting to Bates that they go on a expedition to Brazil to collect birds, butterflies and beetles in order to try to discover what drives the evolution of new species. For more information see here.
Four year expedition to the Amazon Basin (1848-1852)
WCP349: Wallace to Richard Spruce, 19 September 1852. "On Friday the 6th of August...about 9 o’clock in the morning just after breakfast the Captain (who was the owner of the vessel) came into the cabin & said "I am afraid the ship’s on fire. Come & see what you think of it"". After four years in Brazil, Wallace sailed back to England taking with him the most valuable part of the collection of natural history specimens he had made whilst there. Twenty-six days into the voyage, in the mid-Atlantic, the ship caught fire and sank, taking his specimens down with it. Wallace and the crew took to the lifeboats and miraculously, were rescued 10 days later. This letter describes the sinking.
Eight year expedition to the Malay Archipelago (1854-1862)
WCP1703: Wallace to his agent Samuel Stevens, 21 August 1856. This letter is the first mention of Wallace's famous discovery of what was later named the Wallace Line - the invisible boundary between the animals of Asia and the Australian region. He says "The Birds have however interested me much more than the insects, they are proportionally much more numerous, and throw great light on the laws of Geographical distribution of Animals in the East. The Islands of Baly & Lombock for instance, though of nearly the same size, of the same soil aspect elevation & climate and within sight of each other, yet differ considerably in their productions, and in fact belong to two quite distinct Zoological provinces, of which they form the extreme limits. As an instance I may mention the Cockatoos, a group of birds confined to Australia & the Moluccas, but quite unknown in Java Borneo Sumatra & Malacca. One species however (Plyctolophus sulphureus) is abundant in Lombock but is unknown in Baly, the island of Lombock forming the extreme eastern limit of its range & that of the whole family. Many other species illustrate the same fact & I am preparing a short account of them for publication." For more information see here.
WCP1454: Wallace to Joseph Dalton Hooker, 6 October 1858. This is the only letter which survives of those surrounding Wallace's discovery of natural selection and the subsequent publication of the theory with Charles Darwin. The letter illustrates Wallace's good nature and demonstrates that he was more interested in discovering new ideas than reaping personal glory from publishing them. For more information about the events surrounding Darwin and Wallace's joint publication on natural selection see here.
Later life in England (1862-1913)
WCP609: Charles Darwin to Wallace, 23 February 1867. Darwin and Wallace became good friends. In this letter Darwin writes "On Monday evening I called on Bates & put a difficulty before him, which he could not answer, & as on some former similar occasion, his first suggestion was, "you had better ask Wallace". My difficulty is, why are caterpillars sometimes so beautifully & artistically coloured?" Darwin was puzzled because his theory of sexual selection (where females choose their mates based on how attractive they are) would not apply to caterpillars since they are immature.
Wallace replied the next day (WCP4083) with the suggestion that since some caterpillars "...are protected by a disagreeable taste or odour, it would be a positive advantage to them never to be mistaken for any of the palatable catterpillars, because a slight wound such as would be caused by a peck of a bird’s bill almost always I believe kills a growing catterpillar. Any gaudy & conspicuous colour therefore, that would plainly distinguish them from the brown & green eatable catterpillars, would enable birds to recognise them easily as at a kind not fit for food, & thus they would escape seizure which is as bad as being eaten.
Thus the concept of warning or aposematic colouration in animals was born.
WCP575: The Secretary of The Royal Society to Wallace, 6 November 1890. Informing Wallace (with unintended irony) that "... the Royal Society have awarded to you the Darwin Medal for your Independent Origination of the Theory of the Origin of Species by Natural Selection."
WCP543: The King's Private Secretary to Wallace, 2 November 1908. Informs Wallace that he is to be awarded the Order of Merit by the King "...in recognition of the great services which you have rendered to science." The Order is awarded by the ruling Monarch and is the highest civilian honour of Great Britain. It has been described as "...quite possibly, the most prestigious honour one can receive on planet Earth." There are only 24 living individuals in the Order at any given time, not including honorary appointees.
WCP4244: Wallace to the Biology Students at the University of Colorado, 12 January 1912. In this charming letter, Wallace aged 89 tells the students how "The wonders of nature have been the delight and solace of...[his]...life." and how "...nature has afforded...[him]...an ever increasing rapture, and the attempt to solve some of her myriad problems an ever-growing sense of mystery and awe". He ends by saying "I sincerely wish you all some of the delight in the mere contemplation of nature’s mysteries and beauties which I have enjoyed, and still enjoy."
B) Other documents
WCP4756: Wallace's personal annotated copy of the famous scientific paper he co-authored with Charles Darwin in 1858, in which the theory of evolution by natural selection was proposed for the first time. For more information about this historically important item see here.
WCP4766 and WCP4767: Wallace's two scientifically important 'Species Register' notebooks from his trip to the Malay Archipelago, which meticulously detail the species and specimens of insects, birds and other animals he collected on numerous islands he visited.
WCP4779 and WCP4806: Two of Wallace's address books, which cover the period from c. 1864 to his death in 1913, i.e. most of his adult life. Contacts listed include Charles Darwin, Rajah James Brooke (ruler of Sarawak) and hundreds of other, many of whom were very famous at the time.
The earlier of the address books was used by him between c. 1864 and c. 1872, both for listing addresses and for recording his investments in shares etc. The investment records occupy one end of the book and the addresses start from the other end. Also in this book are some interesting lists, such as a list of the people which Wallace sent copies of his book The Malay Archipelago to when it was first published, and a list of "Persons to whom Hampden has abused me" (John Hampden was a flat earth believer who persecuted Wallace for very many years).
The second address book has been 'opened from both ends' like the first - with address lists running from one end, and notes about garden plants starting at the other end. There are four separate lists of addresses in this book, each of which is arranged from A to Z, and between each and the next address list are various notes and lists, some of which are historically quite important.
WCP4791: Wallace's Last Will and Testament.
Darwin, F. (Ed.). 1893. Charles Darwin; His Life Told in an Autobiographical Chapter and in a Selected Series of His Published Letters. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 365 pp.
Marchant, J. (Ed.). 1916. Alfred Russel Wallace; Letters and Reminiscences. London & New York: Cassell and Co. 2 vols., 507 pp.
Press release: Natural History Museum marks centenary of Alfred Russel Wallace
DATE POSTED: 12 December 2012
‘The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death.’
Next year marks 100 years since the death of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), the often overlooked co-discoverer of the process of evolution by natural selection. He and Charles Darwin published the scientific article that first proposed the theory in 1858, one year before Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species came out. As the home of the world’s largest collection of Wallace’s specimens and manuscripts, the Natural History Museum is launching a programme of events to mark this significant anniversary, Wallace100.
Wallace is considered by many to be one of the greatest scientists of all time. Not only did he independently discover natural selection, but he founded evolutionary biogeography (the study of the geographical distribution of plants and animals) and made many significant contributions to subjects as diverse as anthropology and epidemiology. He was also an intrepid traveller and an avid collector of natural history specimens, sending back many thousands of species new to science to the UK for further study.
Wallace100 launches on 24 January 2013 with comedian and naturalist Bill Bailey unveiling an impressive portrait of Wallace in the Museum’s iconic Central Hall, near the famous statue of Darwin. Over the summer, families can follow a Wallace Discovery Trail around the Museum to see some of Wallace’s most important specimens, and also take part in lively, interactive Nature Live talks about Wallace in the Attenborough Studio. For adults, there will be monthly lectures about Wallace’s life and work by leading biologists and historians. The lecture series opens on 7 February 2013, with Professor Steve Jones, world-renowned geneticist from UCL, and builds towards a landmark lecture on 7 November 2013, the anniversary of Wallace’s death. There will be live videoconferencing for schools as part of Wallace100, and the Museum’s website will offer a range of new information and resources, including access to Wallace’s letters, beautiful images from his collections, features on Wallace’s life and importance as a scientist, and a blog by the Museum’s Wallace expert Dr George Beccaloni.
Dr George Beccaloni, curator at the Natural History Museum and expert on Wallace says, ‘This anniversary is a great opportunity to raise awareness of Wallace’s ground-breaking scientific work, his valuable collections which are still being studied today, and his amazing adventures in South America and southeast Asia in search of the process responsible for generating the astonishing diversity of life on Earth. Wallace’s remarkable accomplishments are not as appreciated today as they were in his own lifetime, and are often overshadowed by Darwin’s. The events being organised by the Natural History Museum and other organisations in the UK and abroad as part of the Wallace100 celebrations will help to bring him out of Darwin’s shadow.’
Further information about Wallace100 is available from www.nhm.ac.uk/wallace100