Wallace Year updates

May 2, 2013 • 5:51 am

by Greg Mayer

UPDATE: Bill Bailey’s Wallace programs are available on Youtube here and here (thanks to Alex and ant for the links); and George Beccaloni has stopped by in the comments to let us know that there is a campaign to buy Wallace’s house for use as a heritage and study center– so now even not well-off Wallaceophiles can help preserve the house by pooling their resources.

This year is of course Wallace Year, the 100th anniversary of the death of Darwin’s great friend, colleague and co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. A few brief updates on Wallace Year goings on:

First, the Society for the Study of Evolution‘s annual meeting this year, to be held June 21-26 in Snowbird, Utah in conjunction with the American Society of Naturalists and the Society of Systematic Biologists (I’m a member of the first two, and was a long time member of the third, but my subscription got screwed up when they changed printers at one point and I never straightened it out), has adopted a Wallace Year theme.

The Evolution 2013 Logo.
The Evolution 2013 Logo.

Wallace was a spiritualist in later life, and thus would, I think, have appreciated his own spectral visage overlooking the Evolution 2013 meetings.

Second, The Dell, the house that Wallace built in Essex, and lived in from 1872-1876 is up for sale, listed at GBP 1.5 million. It’s a fine opportunity for the well-off WEIT reader with a passion for the history of biology– don’t forget to invite me for a visit! There’s lots of neat information about the house (and other things Wallace) at George Beccaloni’s Wallace site, including pictures– go explore!

Wallace's House
The Dell, Essex. My guess would be that the tennis courts are a later addition.

And finally, two programs about Wallace hosted by the English comedian Bill Bailey, Bill Baileys Jungle Hero: Wallace in Borneo, and Bill Baileys Jungle Hero: Wallace in the Spice Islands debuted on BBC2 last week. I don’t think they’re available in the US, but UK readers can view them here; more on the shows by George Beccaloni here.

Bill Bailey admires an arthropod.
Bill Bailey admires an arthropod.

h/t Dominic

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)

Bonus Felid: Wallace and the Bornean Bay Cat

February 24, 2013 • 9:37 am

by Greg Mayer

As part of our observations of the Alfred Russel Wallace Centenary, we have an extra felid this weekend, the Bornean Bay Cat (Catopuma [or Pardofelis] badia). It’s one the world’s rarest species of cat (see the IUCN Red List), endemic to the island of Borneo, and known (as of 2007) from only 15 localities and 10 specimens (some of the localities are sight records or photos), mostly in the center and north of the island.

Illustration of Felis badia from Gray's original description (1874).
Illustration of Felis badia from Gray’s original description (1874).

Jerry has noted them here at WEIT before (here and here). Wallace’s connection to the species is that he collected the holotype specimen in Sarawak, and sent it to the British Museum in 1856, where it was received by J.E. Gray (who was also a scientific acquaintance of Darwin). Gray hoped to study further specimens before describing it, but having received none, he finally described it in 1874 (from the wonderful Wallace Online).

To my knowledge, Wallace made only one published statement about the Bay Cat. In the second edition of Island Life (1892), he analyzed the mammalian fauna of Borneo and concluded that its fauna must have been derived by a land connection:

Nearly a hundred and forty species of mammalia have been discovered in Borneo, and of these more than three-fourths are identical with those of the surrounding countries, and more than one half with those of the continent. Among these are two lemurs, nine civets, five cats, five deer, the tapir, the elephant, the rhinoceros, and many squirrels, an assemblage which could certainly only have reached the country by land.

He goes on to list Felis badia among the relatively few mammal species peculiar to Borneo. He infers, however, that these endemic forms do not indicate a long separation of Borneo from the Asian mainland:

These peculiar forms do not, however, imply that the separation of the island from the continent is of very ancient date, for the country is so vast and so much of the once connecting land is covered with water, that the amount of speciality is hardly, if at all, greater than occurs in many continental areas of equal extent and remoteness. This will be more evident if we consider that Borneo is as large as the Indo-Chinese Peninsula, or as the Indian Peninsula south of Bombay, and if either of these countries were separated from the continent by the submergence of the whole area north of them as far as the Himalayas, they would be found to contain quite as many peculiar genera and species as Borneo actually does now.

Wallace’s zoogeographical conclusions regarding Borneo have been abundantly confirmed by subsequent discoveries, most especially in geology. It is now known that the lowering of sea level by the sequestration of water in glaciers during the most recent glaciation amounted to a worldwide lowering of about 120 m in sea level, an amount quite sufficient to drain the broad yet shallow Sunda Shelf, thus firmly uniting Borneo to the Asian mainland. According to the exquisite paleogeographic reconstructions of Harold Voris of the Field Museum and colleagues, the rising postglacial waters did not sever Borneo’s connection to the main till between 10,550 and 10,210 years ago.

The Sunda Shelf with the sea level at -30 m, 10,210 years ago (from Sathiamurthy and Voris, 2006).
The Sunda Shelf with the sea level at -30 m, 10,210 years ago; Borneo has just barely detached from the Malayo-Sumatran peninsula (from Sathiamurthy and Voris, 2006).

JAC addendum: I’ve embedded a video (nb: cheesy music) below; it has photos of the cat and some very rare video footage:


Azlan, M.J. and J. Sanderson. 2007. Geographic distribution and conservation status of the bay cat Catopuma badia, a Bornean endemic. Oryx 41:394-397. (pdf)

Gray, J.E. 1874. Description of a new Species of Cat (Felis badia) from Borneo. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1874:322-323. (pdf)

Kitchener, A.C, S. Yasuma, M. Andau, and P. Quillen. 2004. Three bay cats (Catopuma badia) from Borneo Mammalian Biology  69:349-353.  (pdf)

Sathiamurthy, E. and Voris, H. K. 2006. Maps of Holocene sea level transgression and submerged lakes on the Sunda Shelf. The Natural History Journal of Chulalongkorn University. Supplement 2:1-43.(pdf)

Wallace, A. R. 1892. Island Life. Second and revised edition. London: Macmillan and Co. (text and pdf)

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)