Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)

February 17, 2013 • 12:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

As ever-alert reader Dominic has reminded us, 2013 is the centenary of Alfred Russel Wallace’s death, and it is thus an appropriate time to reflect on the many contributions of this great scientist who was, along with Charles Darwin, the co-discoverer of natural selection.

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) in Singapore, 1862
Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) in Singapore, 1862.

Like Darwin, who was his older contemporary, Wallace’s views on natural history were developed and brought to a head by extended travel and collecting, in Wallace’s case first to the Amazon, and then the Malay Archipelago. It was in Sarawak that Wallace wrote his first staunchly evolutionary paper, “On the Law which has regulated the Introduction of New Species”. In this paper he noted that new species arise adjacent in time and space to those to which they bear closest affinity, similar to Darwin’s observations on the former and current organic inhabitants of South America. Three years later he wrote the “Ternate paper”, in which he introduced a concept of natural selection very close to Darwin’s, the receipt of which by Darwin led to the joint publication in 1858 of Wallace’s paper along with extracts from Darwin’s unpublished works.

Wallace went on to make important contributions in selection theory, adaptive coloration, behavior, systematics, and, especially, biogeography. He was also a devoted socialist and, later in life, a spiritulaist. One of his least known efforts is his involvement in the life on Mars debate: he was a strong opponent of Percival Lowell‘s views, and wrote a book arguing against life existing on Mars, especially that Lowell’s “canals” were evidence for it. (Wallace was right about the canals, though Lowell may turn out to be right about life.)

One of the most important events surrounding the centenary has already occurred, and Matthew noted it here on WEIT at the time: the launch of Wallace Online, a wonderful website modeled on Darwin Online, and, like the latter, directed by John van Wyhe of the National University of Singapore. We have long been fans of John and Darwin Online here at WEIT. I urge all of you to go right this minute to Wallace Online and begin exploring the many astounding and amazing resources available there. The place to start is John’s brief but pithy biography of Wallace. Among John’s chief collaborators are Kees Rookmaaker, who has also contributed much to the Darwin project, and Charles Smith of Western Kentucky University. We have had occasion a number of times to link to Smith’s very valuable website, the Alfred Russel Wallace Page, and I am very glad to see such accomplished Wallaceophiles collaborating on this new project.

The Natural History Museum in London (or, as we systematists with a memory know it, the BM(NH)) also has a fantastic website devoted to the centenary, with links to many documents and images, all superintended by George Beccaloni, another noted Wallaceophile, who is also keeping a “blog” on the subject. We hope to have a number of Wallaceocentric items here at WEIT in the coming year.


Darwin, C. R. and A. R. Wallace. 1858. On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection. Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London. Zoology 3 (20 August): 46-50. (pdf)

Wallace, A.R. 1855. On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species. Annals and Magazine of Natural History (ser. 2) 16 (93): 184-196. (pdf)

Wallace, A. R. 1907. Is Mars Habitable? A Critical Examination of Professor Percival Lowell’s Book “Mars and its Canals,” with an Aternative Explanation. London: Macmillan. (full text, including page imagespdf)

Rhino horn thieves foiled!

August 28, 2011 • 11:12 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry has called attention to the problem of theft of rhino horns from museums and other collections in Europe, citing a NY Times piece from Friday. Officials at the Natural History Museum at Tring (Lord Rothschild‘s former private museum) were aware of the problem, and ready for it. Thieves broke into the Museum early Saturday morning, and made off with two horns, but the horns were fakes! As the BBC put it:

Unfortunately for them [the thieves], staff at the Hertfordshire museum were aware of the string of thefts from other museums and auction houses, and had swapped the real rhino horns for carefully crafted fakes, almost indistinguishable from the real thing. And totally worthless.

Here’s one of the afflicted rhinos:

Black rhino (Diceros bicornis) at the Tring Musuem, from which thieves removed a fake horn. Photo issued by Natural History Museum.

The real horns are safe at the museum. The Associated Press provides a further account.