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23 Posts tagged with the evolution tag

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:




Flett Lecture Theatre

7 November 2013 (the 100th anniversary of Wallace's death)



To commemorate the centenary of Wallace's death, Sir David Attenborough will be giving a lecture at the Museum about Wallace's passion for birds of paradise. Wallace studied the birds during his travels in the Malay Archipelago between 1854 and 1862 and you can win one of 25 pairs of tickets to the lecture by entering our free prize draw.


To enter, visit the competition page (please be sure to read the Terms and Conditions before entering).


The closing date for entries is midnight, 27 October 2013. Winners will be notified on Monday 28 October 2013.

Please note you need to be a UK resident aged 18 and over to enter the Wallace100 lecture free prize draw.


For information about other events which are taking place at the Museum on the anniversary day visit the Wallace website.



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.



+ Richard Conniff's article Wallace: species seeker extraordinaire from issue 15 (pictured). Download the PDF.


+ Caroline Catchpole's article Letters of a naturalist: the Wallace Correspondence Project from issue 16. Download the PDF.


+ George Beccaloni's article Wallace immortalised: Museum set to receive Wallace statue 100 years later than planned from issue 17. Download the PDF.


+ Jim Costa's article On the Organic Law of Change: Alfred Russel Wallace and the book that should have been from issue 17. 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!


Copies of evolve can also be purchased from the Museum's online shop and are recevied for free by members of the Museum.


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 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!



Wallace & Darwin - Voyages to Evolution Map.jpg

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.


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


More information about it can be found in an earlier post.


A sample of the book and its contents can be seen below:

Book front.jpg

Title Page.jpg






Join the campaign for a Google Doodle to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Wallace's death. To do so, please send an email to saying that you would really like to see a Wallace-related Doodle on Google's homepage on the date of the anniversary, 7 November 2013. They did a Doodle for Darwin's 200th birthday, so they may consider one for Wallace if enough people ask them!


Ancestor's Trail and Entangled Bank Events are very kindly helping to raise the remaining £25,000 for the statue of Wallace that the Wallace Memorial Fund has commissioned and which is destined for the Museum. It will be unveiled by Sir David Attenborough on the 100th anniversary of Wallace's death - 7 November 2013.


Richard Dawkins has very generously agreed to help with the fundraising, by giving a talk on the 24th August in Bristol as part of this year's Ancestor's Trail. What follows is an excerpt from an interview Richard recently gave about the event:



Evolutionary biologist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins talks exclusively to Venue about his forthcoming visit to Bristol to take part in this year's Ancestor's Trail in August. Interview: Tom Phillips.

You’re coming to Bristol in August for the ‘Wallace in Bristol’ event which is, in turn, part of The Ancestor’s Trail. What will you be doing at this event and what else will be happening on the day?


I’ll be one of a number of speakers honouring Wallace, the “other Darwin”. The event is in aid of a good cause, raising a statue of Wallace to join Darwin’s in the Natural History Museum. My talk is called ‘Give the under surface to Mr Wallace, but yield the upper surface to Mr Darwin.’ Enigmatic, yes, intentionally so with a meaning both literal and metaphoric. All will become clear, and I shall leave plenty of time to answer questions at the end.


‘Wallace in Bristol’ is in honour of Alfred Russel Wallace: how important was his work to the study of evolution?


Natural selection is a remarkably simple yet powerful idea, and it is astonishing that it had to wait till the mid nineteenth century before anyone thought of it. And then two English naturalists thought of it at almost the same time. Charles Darwin is well known. Alfred Wallace is often forgotten, but he really did have the same idea as Darwin, at almost the same time, and he expressed it in almost exactly the same terms. Indeed, in some ways Wallace’s way of putting it was even clearer – dare I say even more Darwinian (and, by the way, Wallace coined the word “Darwinism”) than Darwin’s own.


The Ancestors’ Trail is inspired by your book ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ in which you relate the history of evolution using reverse chronology. Why did you choose to adopt that particular strategy?


Forward chronology has a pernicious weakness. It can suggest, if we are not very careful, that evolution is “aiming” at some distant future target. It becomes even more pernicious if that distant target is considered to be humanity. Since we are human, it is entirely pardonable to be especially interested in our own ancestry. I wanted to pander to this, but at the same time the last thing I wanted was to suggest that evolution was aiming towards us, or that we are “evolution’s last word” etc. When you put it like that, a solution leaps to mind. Tell the story of evolution backwards. Begin with humans and work backwards to the origin of life. We could begin with anything, hornet, hippopotamus or hummingbird and work backwards. The end point would be the same in all cases: the origin of life. That is the beauty of working backwards, and that very fact tells us something important about evolution.




The Wallace Correspondence Project has just said goodbye to 11 Harvard students who have spent the last two weeks in the library reading room transcribing Wallace letters for the project.


The students are in the UK for a total of eight weeks and are funded by the David Rockefeller International Experience Grants Program (DRIEG). They have now relocated to Oxford and are attending the Harvard Summer School Programme course called "An exploration of evolutionary biology" at Oxford University.


The students transcribed a massive 412 letters for the project, which is no mean feat when you’re grappling with Victorian handwriting. Their great contribution means we have the majority of letters Wallace wrote up to 1908 transcribed and demonstrates how important citizen science is to the project; without the help of willing volunteers we would only have a fraction of the 2,600 letters we currently have transcribed. Time will now be spent checking the transcriptions and adding them to Wallace Letters Online.


We wish them all luck with their studies in Oxford.


Harvard students.jpg

2013's Wallace Harvard students


The project are always looking for enthusiastic volunteers to help us transcribe more letters, so if this is something that interests you and you want to find out more, please send me an email for more information


Caroline Catchpole, Wallace Correspondence Project


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.


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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.


2013-06-07 15.50.49.jpg

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.


2013-06-07 16.43.06.jpg

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.


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The lovely surroundings of the Bournemouth Society for Natural Sciences


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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!


WallaceConference.jpgAlfred Russel Wallace and his Legacy - Wallace100 conference


A free one day conference about Wallace will be held at the Museum on Wednesday 23 October 2013. This event is aimed at people who are interested in Wallace's natural history collections and want to find out more about the Wallace-related material kept in the Museum.


In the afternoon there will be a unique chance to join an exclusive tour of the Museum Library's Rare Books Room, showcasing manuscripts, artwork, publications and specimens collected by Wallace. Places are limited, so it is essential to book your place in advance. For more information and to register go to the Museum's Wallace conference webpage.


Note that the Museum's conference follows on from a two day discussion meeting about Wallace's legacy at The Royal Society, London, which is being held on Monday 21 and Tuesday 22 October. This meeting will discuss Wallace's major scientific interests, including evolution, natural history, biogeography, animal colouration, sexual selection and astronomy. It will also examine current thinking on issues that preoccupied him, including his contributions to the social sciences. This event is intended for researchers in relevant fields. It is free to attend but places are limited.


Visit the Royal Society website for registration and more details.


A very special book is currently being produced to commemorative the Wallace anniversary this year. The Letter from Ternate is being hand printed by Tim Preston on his Victorian Albion printing press at a rate of only about two pages per day. It is a labour of love and poor Tim has been printing for five weeks so far. Fortunately the end is now in sight. Once printing is finished, the book will be professionally hand-bound and engravings and other illustrations tipped-in. There will be a pocket on the inside back cover with additional pictures and other material. The book will consist of 96pp (not 80pp, as I stated in an earlier post). It is being printed on a beautiful mould-made paper from St Cuthbert’s Mill.


The book should be of considerable interest to Wallace aficionados since it includes new transcriptions from the original manuscripts of all surviving correspondence relating to the original publication of the Ternate essay, plus the famous essay itself and the speech Wallace gave at the Linnean Society in 1908 to mark the 50th anniversary of the essay's publication. This will be the first time that accurate copies of all the surviving correspondence relating to the publication of the essay have been published together in this way.


Only 100 copies of the book will be printed. Most have been reserved already, but a few are still available at the pre-publication price of £50 (£80 after publication). All profits will be donated to the Wallace Memorial Fund. The publication date is late Spring, 2013.


Specifications are as follows: the book will measure 12.5 x 18.75cm. Printed letterpress by hand on Somerset Book Soft White 175g, quarter bound in cloth with decorated paper sides. The introduction is by yours truly (George Beccaloni).


If you are interested in a copy please contact Tim directly by email.


See my earlier post for more information about the book.

ternate 3.jpg
Title page of the book
standardwing.jpgAn illustration from the book: Wallace's standardwing bird of paradise.

Be sure to watch this on BBC2 this Sunday at 20.00!


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See the BBC's Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero pages for more details, plus clips from the series and lots more!


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!


Bill Bailey's two part TV series on Wallace is finally ready to be broadcast. It is called Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero and the first episode will be shown on BBC2 at 20.00 on 21 April, and episode 2 on 28 April. Nothing like this has ever been made about Wallace before and I am hoping that it will increase interest in his life and work considerably. I have seen an almost finished version and I think it is excellent. Bill's subtle and surreal humour works brilliantly to keep the viewer entertained, whilst not detracting from or trivialising the story. Bill's personal passion for the subject is obvious.


I was Series Consultant for the programme and my main jobs were to provide information about Wallace and to check all the facts to ensure that the script was as historically accurate as possible. Due to constraints such as not being able to film on all the islands that the Producers would have liked to, and the need to simplify the story for television, a few minor inaccuracies remain that should only be noticed by a few real Wallace geeks.

George & Coconut Crab.small.jpgMe admiring a nocturnal coconut crab (the world's largest terrestrial arthropod!) in Sulawesi.
Copyright: Jan Beccaloni.


In July last year I was lucky enough to spend 3 weeks working on the second programme with Bill and the BBC crew in Indonesia (Sulawesi, Ternate and Halmahera). I had an amazing time: I experienced the first earthquake of my life (scary), got up close and personal with black macaques (one even used my back as a trampoline when I bent over to photograph an insect!), was enthralled by gremlin-like tarsiers, impressed by colossal coconut crabs, and blown-away by Wallace's standardwing birds of paradise displaying only about 10 metres away from me. My wife Jan came out as well and we wrote a number of posts for this blog about our experiences, starting with this one.


More information about Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero, including some clips (two of which are footage which never made it in to the programme), can be seen on the BBC2 website. Put the dates in your calendar and tune in on the 21 Apr to see the first episode.

Bill&GeorgeInHalmahera.jpgMyself and Bill in the jungle in Halmahera island.
Photo by Jan Beccaloni. Copyright NHM.
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