Why is Darwin more famous than Wallace?

March 2, 2013 • 10:54 am

by Greg Mayer

The first publication of natural selection as a general mechanism of evolutionary change was a joint paper by Darwin and Wallace read to the Linnean Society in 1858. It was not a coauthored paper, but rather the simultaneous publication under a single heading of separate works by the two authors. So why does everyone know Darwin’s name, but hardly anyone knows Wallace’s?

In a piece published last week, “Why does Charles Darwin eclipse Alfred Russel Wallace?“, the BBC’s Kevin Leonard tries to answer that question.

My first reaction to the question is usually to say “But everyone does know about Wallace!” But I do find that even many biologists—especially if they are not evolutionary biologists—know little or nothing about Wallace. And in the culture at large, Darwin is well-known while Wallace is virtually invisible. (Since, at least in the United States, “Darwin” is a curse word to large swaths of the population, this may not be a bad thing for Wallace!) So there does need to be an analysis of the question of Darwin and Wallace’s relative contributions and recognition, and why Darwin is better known.

And the short answer is that their joint paper aroused little or no interest– it slipped into the waters of English natural history with scarcely a ripple. Thomas Bell, author of the herpetological volume of the Zoology of the Beagle and president of the Linnean Society in 1858, wrote at the end of the year that the Society had published no papers of special import during the year. It was the publication of the Origin of Species by Darwin the following year that made a splash heard round the world.

And there were several reasons for this: it was a work of monumental compilation and argumentation, eagerly anticipated by the leading lights of natural history both in Britain and abroad, and by a well respected and well known naturalist. It was the Origin, in fact, that forever associated Wallace with natural selection, through Darwin’s acknowledgment of Wallace’s co-discovery on page 1. Wallace himself always accepted that Darwin was primus inter pares.

The BBC piece follows the main currents of historical thinking in this regard, but makes two points worth emphasizing. First, it notes that Wallace was very well known in his lifetime, and that by virtue of his outliving Darwin he was for 30 years the sole surviving discoverer of natural selection, which enhanced his status and recognition from 1882 to 1913.

Second, it notes what Julian Huxley called the “eclipse of Darwinism”, a period in the decades around 1900 when natural selection (but not evolution) fell into disfavor (a period about which the historian Peter Bowler has written extensively), and that when natural selection was revalidated during the Modern Synthesis, Darwin was given more credit than Wallace. What is not noted in the BBC piece, but which I think may be significant, is that during the “eclipse” period, it was natural selection (i.e., Darwin and Wallace) that came under fire, but not evolution; and it was Darwin, much more so than Wallace, who convinced the world of evolution per se. So, during the “eclipse” period, Darwin was recognized for demonstrating evolution, but faulted for his mechanism of adaptive change (even T.H. Huxley sometimes inclined in this direction). In contrast, Wallace, whose chief contribution was natural selection, would simply be faulted. (Wallace’s many other contributions, especially in biogeography, were of course noted and lauded.)

The only thing that seemed off about the BBC piece was the title. Darwin did not “eclipse” Wallace, i.e., Wallace was not a shining star that some later passing dark object (Darwin) obscured. Rather, both were luminescent, and Darwin’s star had indubitably begun burning before Wallace’s. The question, then, is why was Darwin, on the public stage, more luminious than Wallace? But I suppose that the headline writer (who is almost always not the reporter) was trying to allude to the “eclipse of Darwinism” discussion, and it’s a small fault in an otherwise fine piece.

h/t Dominic


Bowler, P.J. 1992. The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution Theories in the Decades around 1900. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Bowler, P.J. 2005. Revisiting the eclipse of Darwinism. Journal of the History of Biology 38:19-32. (abstract only)

36 thoughts on “Why is Darwin more famous than Wallace?

    1. That’s the gist of it. It’s always baffled me that people want to elevate Wallace to Darwin’s level in the development of evolutionary theory. They both had the same good idea… but Darwin did the heavy lifting developing that idea. Without Darwin, evolution by natural selection is just an interesting guess; Darwin turned it into a compelling, detailed, strongly-supported theory.

      Darwin gets most of the credit because Darwin did most of the work. It doesn’t require a whole lot more explanation than that.

  1. But Wallace also didn’t accept the full implications of natural selection and at least later invoked some kind of intelligent design to explain humanity. Whereas OTOH Darwin understood the full consequences of his theory and followed those as far as was possible at the time. Likely enough without Darwin’s supporting argumentation Wallace’s malarial visions would have had little to no impact at the time.

    1. Exactly. It was Darwin who forthrightly knocked us off our perch at the center of Creation, while Wallace struggled to keep us there. So the credit for that change in worldview rightly goes to Darwin.

  2. If Wallace had to his name the publication of a work like ‘Origin of Species’, the question could be reversed. Huge data that Darwin came with in his book is the reason. Presentation style is another. Publishing someting not for scientific community alone, but for public and layman reader is the biggest cause. ‘Books’change the world, is there any denial? Scientific papers are not always books, unless it is some kind of work of Mendel, that one one may find as annexure to any Dobzhansky book on Genetics.

  3. This is Wallace’s year. However, Darwin’s success had a lot to do with access to those who had influence and the fact that he was actually in Britain.

    Wallace wasn’t. He was languishing near the equator with fevers. He had to fund himself by sending samples home to Britain whereas Darwin had his funding under wraps.

    I have a fondness for Wallace that I hold onto. I have no idea whether Wallace in the comfort of a home in the old country would have come to the conclusions that Darwin came to. At least the two could have exchanged their views. It is a cut throat world anyway.

    As it was, Wallace’s written letters to Darwin outlining his theory spurred Darwin onwards to publish first. And he had help.

    Such is life, as they say. Wallace is still in the forefront of island geography and its ramifications. The Wallace Line still exists and differentiates between deep ocean channels and continental shelves.

    I must be a champion of the underdog 🙂 Ah well, I am an Aussie after all.

    1. You should read Penny Van Oosterzee’s book Where Worlds Collide, all aboout the Wallace Line – & other lines & much more…

  4. My recollection may be faulty (often is). The thinking at the time was that there was a gradient of intelligence from tribal savages up to English male gentry. Wallace had the modern thought that tribal savages where just as intelligent at English gentry. He thought, however, that they lived simple lives which did not require the level of intelligence they had. Therefore the human brain could not be the result of natural selection. Generations of cultural anthropologists have vigorously supported the view that tribal live is as complex as it gets, and that a shaman has as much knowledge as an MD.

    1. It MIGHT be true that shaman have as much knowledge as an MD, but it is likely that each have different bodies of knowledge. Both are probably bound by what they are taught to a greater or lesser extent, but the most interesting question to me would be a comparison of the levels of belief, curiosity, and the extent to which each probe for new knowledge. I would be interested in evidence regarding the levels of UNDERSTANDING that each have of processes in their respective fields.

      1. CORRECTION:

        Please delete “shaman have as much knowledge as an MD” and replace with “shamans have as much knowledge as MD’s,”

  5. Didn’t Wallace go off the rails somewhat? At one stage he was postulating a force operating outside of the laws of natural selection which “raises Man above his fellow animals.” In correspondence with Huxley (Thomas) he wrote “— there are other and higher existences than ourselves from whom these qualities may have been derived, and towards whom we may be ever tending.”

    As regards name recognition, I would be surprised were any practising biologist to express complete ignorance of Wallace. On the other hand, unless a biologist is interested in the history of some aspect of the subject, it is unlikely that she will know much of the detail of Wallace’s work.
    I doubt that we can learn much from the ignorance of the man in the street as regards Wallace as compared to Darwin. Some names are household names whilst others of almost equal merit have not become so. Newton and Einstein, yes (so also Faraday, at least in England); but James Clerk Maxwell, no.

  6. By far, Darwin is more gregarious than Wallace, but I’m talking about my moggies, not the scientists.

  7. I find the point about Wallace’s contribution to biogeography interesting.

    Has anyone measured his impact in scientific publications during his lifetime, before and after Darwin’s death, and during the “eclipse” of Natural Selection?

    I’m asking because, even as a kid, I was familiar with “The Malay Archipelago” and assumed it to be a milestone in biogeography, long before I realised the nexus between Wallace and Darwin. I must have been influenced by the books I was reading, including some schoolbooks, so Wallace on his own must have had a schoolbook-worthy standing way back when.

    1. This is it. The discovery of natural selection, shared by Darwin and Wallace, is remarkable. But it is Darwin’s follow up work that distinguishes him from Wallace. Wallace did not, and could not given his mystical ideas regarding the human mind, write a great and provocative book like the Descent of Man.

  8. Wallace’s late in life embrace of Spiritualism put a damper on his reputation that might have made his link to evolutionary theory not one the scientific community of the time would want to acknowledge.

  9. Wallace embarrassed himself and science by his endorsement of spiritualism, which he got into in a big way in his later years. He also insisted that natural selection could not account for the human brain and Darwin wrote to him on the topic saying “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.” This was not a minor failing, the whole point of natural selection was that it held across the spectrum of life, including humans.

    Nonetheless I am sure it is the existence of “On the Origin of Species” which has made the real difference. It is easy to read and convincing, which is why it is still in print and people like Ray Comfort put out mutilated versions to try to defuse its power.

  10. Wallace also supported socialism, a Single Tax on land, and various other causes unpopular with the establishment of the day. Plus he was not university-educated.

    Still, he and Darwin were very nice to each other. Which was easy for Wallace since he was something like the world’s nicest person.

    I like to tell my classes that one indication that Wallace did not resent Darwin getting much of the credit was that when he came (in 1889) to write a book on evolution, what did he title it? Darwinism

  11. Excellent discussions of the Wallace-Darwin relationship in Rebecca Stott, Darwin’s Ghosts, and in Helena Cronin’s The Ant and the Peacock. In Stott’s account, supported by quotations from letters, Wallace acknowledged both Darwin’s priority and the importance of his role in convincing Lyell, whole IIRC Cronin quotes Wallace also acknowledging how Darwin’s reputation and mass of data were crucial in getting the key concepts accepted.

  12. I was astonished by the many myths and misconceptions about Wallace and his work in the above blog post and especially in the subsequent comments – although I am pleased that Greg generally liked my idea (published in about 2008) that Wallace’s overshadowing by Darwin was largely a result of the ‘Eclipse of Darwinism’. Since there are so many points I disagree with, and since I don’t currently have the time to try to correct them, and since most are discussed on the following webpage anyway; I would like to suggest that readers take a look at this page: http://wallacefund.info/faqs-myths-misconceptions

    1. OK, I took a look, and I find several points that many readers here (as well as out host) would take issue with, including these:

      People are entitled to their beliefs, and religious belief is not incompatible with science.

      The belief that the Earth is 6000 years old is surely incompatible with science. More generally, the idea that deep knowledge of the workings of the world can be gained by faith and revelation, without reference to evidence or reason, is fundamentally at odds with the scientific worldview.

      the existence of such a deity is scientifically untestable

      If God intervenes in the world, then such intervention should be scientifically detectable. A God who does not intervene fails the parsimony test; the world can be adequately explained without him.

      1. So you are suggesting that all the many thousands of professional scientists around the world who are also religious, are in fact not scientists after all? Do you actually understand what science is? As I say on my website “A person’s scientific work should be judged on its merits – not in relation to other, possibly irrational, beliefs that that person may also hold/have held. Otherwise we would be on a slippery slope leading to the scientific equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition. Under this regime Sir Ronald A. Fisher, who Richard Dawkins once described as “the greatest of Darwin’s successors”, would have been (metaphorically) burnt at the stake for his strongly held Christian beliefs! People are entitled to their beliefs, and religious belief is not incompatible with science. Indeed thousands of people around the world of many different religions are doing excellent science all the time. Science is not a religion – it is a powerful method of investigating the natural world.”

        I am an atheist by the way!

        1. Indeed, FWIW Darwin in his autobiography says that when he wrote On the Origin of Species he was a theist, although later (for very interesting reasons, not the obvious ones) he became an agnostic.

          I find it strange that some scientists are believers, but that’s how it is. If there is, as I think, a logical contradiction here, then presumably they are either unaware of it, or await some higher level reconciliation. Anyway, it’s their problem, not mine.

          1. I find it strange too, but it is possible to do excellent scientific work so long as the science and religion are kept separate. Incidentally, Wallace wasn’t religious per se – instead he thought that the ‘spirit world’ was part of the natural world and subject to scientific investigation. Mistaken? Probably! He was a materialist until his 40’s and only developed his extreme spiritualist ideas in his late 70’s (perhaps due to concern about his impending death?) You say Darwin was agnostic, but in fact the three top Darwin historians (Browne, Moore and van Wyhe) insist he was a deist until his death – see interviews with them here: http://wallacefund.info/faqs-myths-misconceptions

            1. Thanks, George. BUT: Darwin, autobiography, Penguin edition p 54: “The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”

              This and the paragraph leading up to it, are a relatively late insertion and refer to the limits of human judgment (Darwin gets it right where Plantinga gets it so, so wrong). On my reading the agnosticism refers to the existence of a deity, not just to the merits of the argument from OVERALL design (the very opposite of the ID clowns’ argument) that he had, earlier, including (p 53) when he was writing Origin, found convincing.

            2. “historians …insist he was a deist”.

              Can’t imagine why. Darwin’s writings are full of passages such as this:

              “I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide. I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came from and how it arose.”

              “A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.”

              Darwin was a cautious man and surely is just saying that he doesn’t know how or why the universe originated and that perhaps it is unknowable.

              Deism is in any case an ill defined concept – what’s the difference between an impersonal god and a process? Then why call it God?

              1. Darwin’s position changed over time. In his Autobiographies, he says “While thus reflecting [on the total scheme of things] I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.” [We might say Deist]

                He later adds at this point “This conclusion was strong in my mind, about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the Origin of Species … But”

                So Darwin moved from deism to the cautious agnosticism that Roq correctly describes, but while a deist he thought of God as a person, not just a process.

        2. Obviously I’m not suggesting that there are no religious scientists. What I said is that the scientific worldview is incompatible with the religious worldview. The fact that some people are able to entertain both just means that they’re good at compartmentalization, and at taking off their scientist hat when they go to church.

          By your argument, adultery must be compatible with marriage, since there are many people who practice both.

          This issue of compatibility has been discussed at length on this site before, so perhaps you’d like to look up some of those posts and acquaint yourself with our host’s thoughts on the subject.

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