You’ve heard of Charles Darwin, of course. But what about his equally remarkable contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace?
Wallace was one of the world’s most remarkable scientific adventurers, naturalists, and theorists of the 19th century – a courageous, unconventional explorer and a man of exceptional humanity.
In 1858, independently of Darwin, Wallace formed his own a theory of evolution by natural selection – “survival of the fittest.”
“Wallace was without doubt of equal importance to Darwin,” says evolutionary biologist Dr George Beccaloni, director of the Wallace Correspondence Project, whose main patron is Sir David Attenborough, aimed at raising awareness of Wallace’s life and scientific work.
When Wallace was in his mid-20s, he set out on a four-year expedition through the Amazon on a quest to discover the mechanism of evolution.
To finance the trip, he collected biological specimens for museums and wealthy patrons, but on his way home his ship sank mid-Atlantic after an on-board fire.
Wallace lost all his specimens and endured 10 harrowing days and nights in a small rowing boat.
Asked what he admires most about Wallace, the professor replies, “His single-minded dedication to science in the face of terrible adversity.”
Two years later, Wallace set out for the Malay Archipelago (now Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and East Timor).
On this extraordinary eight-year journey, he discovered countless new species and identified the divide between Asian and Australian fauna, The Wallace Line.
This led to his theory of natural selection, which came to him suddenly during a malarial fit on the now-Indonesian island of Halmahera.
Wallace wrote, “I was suffering from a sharp attack of intermittent fever, and every day during the cold and succeeding hot fits had to lie down for several hours. Then it suddenly flashed upon me that the fittest would survive.
“I became convinced that I had at length found the long-sought-for law of nature that solved the problem of the origin of species.”
Wallace wrote a succinct, yet brilliant, essay explaining his discovery, and posted it to Darwin from the neighbouring island of Ternate.
In it, he described how organisms produce more offspring than necessary, and natural selection only favours the fittest.
The ideas he’d arrived at on his own were revolutionary – and closely mirrored what Darwin had been mulling over himself.
George is working with colleagues in Indonesia on projects to erect a monument in Dodinga Village on Halmahera island where Wallace had his “Eureka” moment, and to recreate Wallace’s Ternate house, which will be used as a museum.
Receiving Wallace’s paper and realising that his work of decades might be scientifically scooped by this unknown naturalist, prompted the rivalrous Darwin to rush his own writings.
Within two weeks, his outline and Wallace’s Ternate Paperwere jointly presented to the Linnean Society in London. A year later, with Wallace still on the opposite side of the globe, Darwin published On the Origin of Species.
Dr Beccaloni would love to go back in time and ask Wallace when exactly he posted his essay and covering letter to Darwin and what happened to these documents.
“There is a great controversy among scholars about whether Wallace posted his essay in March or April 1858,” he explains.
“If he posted it in March, which seems very likely, then it means it probably arrived two weeks before Darwin admitted it did. Some argue that Darwin used the two weeks to pilfer ideas from it.
“Wallace’s original essay and accompanying letter haven’t been seen since Darwin sent them to his friend Charles Lyell soon after he received them. If we had the original letter and envelope it would clear up this mystery once and for all.”
The Wallace Correspondence Projectis currently working on Volume One of The Correspondence of Alfred Russel Wallace, which will contain annotated transcripts of all his early letters: from his childhood up until he returned to London after his epic trip to the Malay Archipelago.
“We hope to complete this volume by the time our current funding finishes in August 2020, says Dr Beccaloni. “The huge eight-volume task to publish the 5000 letters to and from Wallace will take perhaps 15 more years, and require a huge amount of additional funding – we’re not sure from where!”
When Wallace died in 1913 he left an enduring legacy to natural history, one that George is working tirelessly to ensure is accorded its rightful place in the annals of scientific discovery.
Dr George Beccaloni will be leading 12-Day cruise across eastern Indonesia in October 2019 and again in January 2020.
He will be aboard SeaTrek Sailing Adventure’s Ombak Putih, a 42-metre Pinisi sailing ship, in an all-inclusive expedition following the route of Wallace as he cruised through the Malay Archipelago.
If you would like to join him on this spectacular voyage of discovery, please click the following link and get in touch with SeaTrek for more details.
As a special offer to Starfish readers, SeaTrek is offering complimentary domestic flights on the October cruise on direct bookings from Bali to the start and end points of George Beccaloni’s cruise. Just mention The Starfish when you make your booking.