Zoology

A Guide to Famous Zoologists



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Alfred Russel Wallace 1823-1913. In 1858 Alfred Russel Wallace sent a copy of a scientific paper he had written to Charles Darwin. In this paper Wallace proposed that new species occurred because the fittest specimens survived and bred and passed down their beneficial characteristics to their offspring. It was exactly the theory which Darwin was to propose in the book he was preparing for publication, in 1859.

Wallace was born in England. By the age of 14 he was working as a surveyor but at the age of 21 went to work as a teacher in Leicester. Here he came to know a botanist, Henry Walter Bates and became interested in the natural world, developing an interest in the study of beetles.

Wallace and Bates planned an expedition to South America, enthused by the writings of Alexander von Humboldt ans Darwin's account of his voyage on HMS Beagle. They arrived in 1848. Their intention was to investigate the origin of species.

Wallace explored the Amazon and the Rio Negro amassing thousands of birds, beetles and other insects as specimens to take back to England for study. After four years he set off back but his collection was destroyed when his ship caught fire and sank in mid Atlantic. Wallace was rescued and returned to England but within a year set off again, this time for Malaya.

Beginning in 1854 he spent eight years exploring and built up an enormous collection of 125,000 specimens, hundreds of which were new to science. Whilst in Malaya he wrote many scientific papers. He remarked on the strange demarcation of animal distribution in the Malay Archipelago and proposed a dividing line between animals of Asian origin and animals of Australian origin.

In 1858 he was laid low by Malaria. Whilst confined to his bed, in a sudden flash of inspiration it came to him that new species came into being through the development and continuing divergence of specimens that lived longer and reproduced to pass down their advantageous characteristics. Knowing that Darwin was interested in this area of work, Wallace sent him an account of his ideas.

Darwin had been working on the question of the origin of species for 20 years. His theories had not yet been published or made public. Wallace had arrived at the same conclusions as Darwin, but completely separately. Darwin took advice from colleagues and a joint paper in both their names, setting forth the idea of evolution of species by natural selection, 'survival of the fittest' was read to the Linnaen Society in London at a public lecture.

Wallace remained in Malaya until 1862. Darwin published his book in 1859 and became famous. Both men acted generously. Wallace was and remained a great admirer of Darwin. Darwin did not try to conceal Wallace's achievements. Wallace was greatly respected in scholarly and scientific circles in Britain and became a Fellow of the Royal Society. However, today it is Darwin who is remembered and Wallace, perhaps unfairly, is less famous.

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