Tech UPTechnologyThe man in Darwin's shadow

The man in Darwin's shadow

The highest point in Singapore is a hill called Bukit Timah, 163m high. Located 10 km from the center, it is the most expensive district in the city, where it is impossible to rent a house for less than 4,000 euros. There we can find a small street, Wallace Way. A name that has little to do with the business world and more with the tiny nature reserve (little more than 1 km 2 ) found in this area. Despite its size, it contains an enormous biological variety: more than 800 species of flowers and more than 500 of animals makes it “one of the most productive places in nature”, as one of the most important naturalists of all put it. the times, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Collector by profession

With no academic training, this professional collector of natural history specimens arrived in Singapore aboard an East India Company merchant ship on April 18, 1854. He had no plans other than the obvious: to collect specimens to sell back to London. . And he hoped to have more luck than in his previous –and first- expedition to the Amazon.

In 1848 Wallace, who was 25 years old, embarked aboard the Mischief bound for South America. For more than four years he explored the Amazon and the Rio Negro, where several times he was on the verge of disappearing without a trace. And if the suffering in the South American jungles had not been little, on his way back to England his ship, the brig Helen , caught fire and Wallace lost the collection of animals and plants that he had collected with so much effort and suffering. Along with some crew members, the poor naturalist was rescued ten days later in a drifting boat.

Unable to discourage, two years after the disaster, in 1854, Wallace returned to the charge and decided to go to the unknown Malay archipelago. During eight years he traveled more than 20,000 kilometers and collected more than 126,000 specimens, of which about 80,000 were beetles. Among his most striking discoveries was the frog Rhacophorus nigropalmatus , or Wallace’s flying frog , whose huge webbed feet allow him to glide to the ground from the treetops. Wallace learned Malay and other tribal languages as he was also keenly interested in “acquainting himself with the customs, habits, and modes of thought of peoples so far removed from the European races.” But his greatest discovery was yet to come.

In February 1855, while in Sarawak on the island of Borneo, the idea occurred to him that species must change over time. There he wrote the article On the law that has regulated the appearance of new species , published in September of that year in Annals and Magazine of Natural History and with which he laid the foundations of biogeography . In it he enunciated what is sometimes known as the Law of Sarawak: “All species have come into existence coinciding in time and space with a closely related pre-existing species.” And he added: “The current situation of the organic world is the result clear of a natural process of extinction and gradual creation of species”. Today it is easy to sense in his words the conceptual change that was coming, but the article went unnoticed even by Charles Darwin . Perhaps nonchalantly, he noted in the margin of his copy of the magazine: “Nothing new, use my simile of the tree, everything seems to be created in it.” According to the biologist Miguel Delibes, it is possible that Darwin “found it very difficult to imagine that a commercial collector like Wallace would come to overshadow him”.

Error y to be resolved

Big mistake. Three years later Wallace came to the conclusion that the changes in the species were produced due to what he called the survival of the fittest . Interestingly, he followed the same path as Darwin: after reading Malthus ‘ Essay on the Principles of Population . As he confessed in his autobiography, it was his biogeographical studies that convinced him of the reality of evolution : “The problem then was not only how and why species change, but how and why they change to new and well-defined species; why and how they end up being so well adapted to different ways of life”.

In February 1858, on one of the islands of the Malay archipelago (probably Halmahera, the largest of the Moluccas), our dear English adventurer, wrapped in a blanket waiting for his malaria attack to pass, was putting his ideas about the origin of species, the problem that had obsessed him for eleven years. Recovered, Wallace sat down and in two days wrote the article titled On the Tendency of Varieties to Deviate Indefinitely from the Original Type . He put the pages in an envelope and sent it off for review by England’s greatest naturalist, Charles Darwin . He had already planned in 1844 to tell the world about the discoveries that led him to the mechanism that guides the evolution of species, which he called natural selection . But Darwin was not a man in a hurry and after 14 years he still hadn’t. In 1856, encouraged by his friends Hooker and Lyell, he began to write his definitive work entitled Natural Selection . Two years later he was about to finish the eleventh chapter when he received Wallace’s manuscript.

Darwin’s surprise was enormous : what this professional species collector had written were his own ideas, some of them expressed in a similar way. Overwhelmed, he thought a lot about what to do with that manuscript. In the end he asked his friends Lyell, England’s best geologist, and Hooker, England’s leading botanist, for advice : he would do whatever they decided was a decent solution. This led to what has been called the “delicate arrangement”: presenting Wallace’s article and the excerpt from two of Darwin’s letters in which he had outlined his views on the subject to the Linnean Society . Although Wallace’s paper was the only one actually submitted for the society, Lyell and Hooker managed to get Darwin’s letters published first. Moreover, calling it an arrangement is too much of an exaggeration, since Wallace had no idea of such an arrangement until a year later.

Both articles went unnoticed until a year later, in 1859, Darwin hurriedly finished The Origin of Species . Wallace received a copy of the book while he was still in Malaysia. When he returned to England in 1862, Darwin was short of his shirt: what would his reaction be? Would he claim priority in the formulation of the theory? I had nothing to fear. Wallace understood that the scope of Darwin’s ideas was much greater than his own , to the point that in 1889 he wrote a book, Darwinism , in which he explained and defended natural selection.


Leith, B. (1995) Darwin’s Legacy , Salvat

Huxley, J. and Kettlewell, HDB (1994) Darwin , Salvat

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