Tuesday, October 6

The Natural Selection Coincidence Of Darwin And Wallace

Charles Darwin

The long arm of coincidence reached out between a sick man in England and another man lying ill with fever on the island of Ternate - that is, between Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

The story begins at Usk, in Wales, where Wallace was born in 1823. Interested in flowers and plants from his childhood, he was introduced to the delights of watching animals and insects by a teacher of English at a Leicester school - H.W. Bates, later to be famous as an explorer and naturalist.

Together they watched and studied insects and plants; carried home their specimens and wrote up their notebooks. When the chance arose, in 1848 Bates and Wallace went to South America as professional collectors.

For four years Wallace travelled through the country of the Amazon and it's tributaries. But those years also brought sorrow. Unknown to Wallace his brother was also exploring the Amazon. Wallace, himself ill with malaria and dysentery, learned his brother had died of yellow fever.

On a journey back to England, the vessel in which he was travelling, caught fire. Forced to take to the lifeboats, there was no chance of saving his collection of skins and specimens. The results of years of work, hundreds of specimens and laboriously written records were destroyed. Wallace never quite recovered from their loss.

It was not until he lay in enforced idleness, recovering from a severe bout of fever, that the answer to many of his questions came to him. His ideas crystallised with the principle of Natural Selection.

Meanwhile In England, Charles Darwin, never well since his voyage in the Beagle, had evolved the same principle. After years of work he had decided to publish the theory. But before he could do so, from the other side of the world - from the island of Ternate - he received Wallace's letter setting forth identical ideas.

Darwin records his astonishment at the amazing coincidence of receiving the notes, agreeing so exactly with his own that the headings of some parts contained practically the same words.

In a letter to a friend, Darwin wrote: "I never saw a more striking coincidence. If Wallace had my MS sketch, written in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract."

Darwin felt he could not go on with his own publication in the circumstances. However, two other naturalists later persuaded him to have his own and Wallace's papers published jointly and presented before the Linnean Society. Eighteen months later Darwin published The Origin of Species, with which his name will always be associated.

Not so many people know that Wallace, working independently, reached similar conclusions at the same time. He is mostly know today because of  the Wallace Line - described by Wikipedia as: "... a faunal boundary line drawn in 1859 by the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace that separates the ecozones of Asia and Wallacea, a transitional zone between Asia and Australia."  His work was recognised by the award of the Order of Merit in 1910. He died in 1913.

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