The Wild Side

[NY Times Blog]


by Olivia Judson


January 8, 2008,  6:52 pm


Wallace Should Hang


This week, I want to look at a figure in the history of biology: Alfred Russel Wallace. January 8th was his birthday. And 2008 is the 150th anniversary of one of the most important events in the history of biology. In 1858, Wallace wrote to Charles Darwin from the Moluccan Islands, in what is now Indonesia, where he was collecting birds, beetles, butterflies and anything else he could catch. The letter contained a manuscript in which Wallace outlined the idea of evolution by natural selection.


To celebrate this event and what it led to — of which, more in a moment — I decided to visit Wallace’s portrait in London’s National Portrait Gallery, a Who was Who in paintings, photographs, statues and busts. I hurried past an anemic young prince in doublet and hose, and shot through the large gallery of Empire where Queen Victoria is presenting a Bible to a kneeling (and anonymous) African, to arrive in the smaller gallery of Victorian science and technology.


I looked around, and felt a moment of awe. There’s Darwin as an old man, looking luminous; the painter has done a good job on his eyes, they seem to have profound depth. Charles Lyell, whose “Principles of Geology” influenced both Darwin and Wallace, is sitting thoughtfully. The ambitious and ruthless Richard Owen, coiner of the word “dinosaur” and founder of the Natural History Museum, is there, a pickled nautilus in a jar beside him, the brown-and-white shell of the unfortunate animal in his hand. Here’s Owen’s enemy, Thomas Henry Huxley, one of the great early proponents of evolution by natural selection, holding a skull.


A white marble bust, complete with prodigious whiskers (this was an age of big facial hair), stares at us. It’s Herbert Spencer, autodidact, social philosopher and, incidentally, originator of that horrible misleading phrase, “survival of the fittest.” (Why misleading? Because it appears to create a tautology: Who survive? The fittest. Who are the fittest? Those that survive.) There’s a photograph of Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, inventor of weather maps, of statistical methods in biology and, infamously, of eugenics. And there are some engineers, physicists and chemists. But no Wallace.


I went back downstairs and asked a woman at reception. She looked him up for me. “Yes, we have a portrait and a plaster medallion.”


“I’d like to see them. Where are they?”


She looked at her screen, then back at me. “In storage,” she said.


In storage? Alfred Russel Wallace is in storage? Then bring him out and hang him!


These days, Wallace is most famous for his role in galvanizing Darwin. By 1858, Darwin (who was 14 years older than Wallace) had spent 20 years working on the idea of evolution by natural selection. He’d been thinking, collecting data, doing experiments. But so far, he had published nothing on the matter. When Wallace’s letter arrived, Darwin panicked. He was about to be scooped, just as Lyell had warned him he would be.


What happened next is an oft-told tale. Darwin wrote several distraught letters to Lyell and to his friend and confidant, the botanist Joseph Hooker. Within the fortnight, Lyell and Hooker attended a meeting of the Linnean Society in London, at which they announced the discovery of evolution by natural selection. To show that Darwin and Wallace had arrived at the idea of natural selection independently, they presented excerpts of two pieces by Darwin — an essay written in 1844 but not published, and a letter written in 1857 to the American botanist Asa Gray, which contained an outline of the principle of natural selection — and Wallace’s manuscript.


Neither Darwin nor Wallace was there: Darwin was at home in Kent, mourning the death of one of his children from scarlet fever, and Wallace was now in New Guinea, hunting birds of paradise. The meeting seems to have had little immediate impact on the scientific community: in his summary at the end of the year, the president of the society remarked that the year “has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear.” But Darwin had had a fire lit under him, and less than 18 months after the Linnean Society meeting, “On the Origin of Species” was published, and the science of biology changed forever.


At the time, there were, broadly speaking, two currents of thought. There were those who believed each species had been created independently and that they were fixed entities that did not change. And there were those who thought evolution was possible, but didn’t know how it happened: they had no mechanism. Natural selection provided a mechanism.


The idea is simple. Far more organisms are born than can survive. Among small song birds such as blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus), for example, each female can lay as many as ten eggs in a clutch, each year. Yet the blue tit population doesn’t grow gigantically every year; on the contrary, it stays more or less the same. Every year, then, most blue tits die. They become food for squirrels, or cats, or maggots. Any bird that has attributes that help it to survive — sensitive hearing, a beak well suited to breaking into seeds, a knack for catching spiders and caterpillars — will have an edge over its less endowed fellows, and will be more likely to leave offspring. If those attributes have a genetic component, the offspring may (depending on how the genetic dice roll) inherit them. Over time, different populations of the same species will face different pressures and begin to diverge.


But to think of Wallace as a mere catalyst for Darwin, as “the other” guy, is to do him a gross injustice (though he himself contributed to this tendency, by always giving Darwin credit for having discovered natural selection, and referring to evolution by natural selection as “Darwinism”). Like so many of the Victorians, Wallace was a prolific writer. He published 21 books and hundreds of articles, often on subjects outside biology (such as why women should have the vote), and he was an important scientist and naturalist in his own right. For instance, besides discovering natural selection, he laid the foundations of biogeography — why you find particular plants and animals here, but not there. In the islands of Indonesia, for example, Wallace noticed that fauna and flora on one side of the deep Lombok Strait were mostly Asian, whereas those on the other side were related to Australian organisms. He reasoned correctly that this was a result of the difficulty organisms had in crossing the Strait; the discontinuity is now known as the Wallace Line.


He also made major contributions to a variety of other fields, from anthropology to the study of glaciers, and in a campaign against smallpox vaccination, which was then both compulsory and crude, he carried out one of the first large-scale statistical studies of medical evidence. In it, he remarks that “…there is much evidence to show that doctors are bad statisticians, and have a special faculty for misstating figures,” and called for proper controlled trials of the vaccine’s efficacy.


All of which is the more impressive given his upbringing and background. Born in 1823 to down-at-heel parents, he began to work for a living at the age of 14. From that point on, he was self-educated, and he worked as a surveyor, a watch-maker, a teacher and again as a surveyor before, at the age of 25, heading off aboard the “Mischief” to collect biological specimens in the Amazon. He had no official support for the trip: inspired by the adventures of other collectors, including Darwin, he and a friend just set off, intending to earn money by selling their specimens in Britain. On his return voyage about four years later, the ship caught fire, and the bulk of his collections were lost. Undeterred, he soon set off again, this time for his adventures in Southeast Asia.


Yet Wallace makes a troublesome hero. In later years, he developed beliefs that are — for a scientist — embarrassing. He regularly attended séances, and became a believer in spirits (of the ethereal type, not the ones in bottles). He was a religious skeptic, but unlike Darwin, he was unable to accept that humans were a product of the same organic forces that produced all the other beings on the planet. He insisted evolution by natural selection could not have resulted in the human moral faculty; instead, he invoked the action of a mysterious “intelligence.”


Of all the facets of his character, though, one stands out most clearly: a profound humanity. He was biting in his criticisms of colonialism — “The white men in our colonies are too frequently the savages” — and when he came back to Britain, he championed a number of hopeless social causes, such as land nationalization, in the hopes of creating a more equitable and just society. He also worried about the planet, and how we (don’t) look after it. Here’s something he wrote in 1863:


If this [scientific investigation of tropical ecosystems] is not done, future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations. They will charge us with having culpably allowed the destruction of some of those records of Creation which we had it in our power to preserve; and while professing to regard every living thing as the direct handiwork and best evidence of a Creator, yet, with a strange inconsistency, seeing many of them perish irrecoverably from the face of the earth, uncared for and unknown.






Accounts of Darwin receiving Wallace’s letter, the ensuing panic, and the meeting of the Linnean Society, can be found in any biography of Darwin or Wallace; however, my main source was:

Loewenberg, B. J. 1959. “Darwin, Wallace, and the Theory of Natural Selection including the Linnean Society Papers.” Arlington Books.

The quotation from the president of the Linnean Society can be found on page 42 of:

Browne, J. 2003. “Charles Darwin. Volume II: The Power of Place.” Pimlico.

The texts of the papers presented to the Linnean Society papers can be read here:

For other details about Wallace’s life, I drew on:

Raby, P. 2001. “Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life.” Chatto and Windus.

Berry, A. (ed). 2002. “Infinite Tropics: an Alfred Russel Wallace Anthology.” Verso.

Wallace attacked smallpox vaccination in a pamphlet called “Vaccination a Delusion; Its Penal Enforcement a Crime: Proved by the Official Evidence in the Reports of the Royal Commission” (1898). The passage I am quoting appears in the first paragraph of the section “Vaccination and the Medical Profession.” The full text can be read here:

Much of his other writing is available here:

The quotation about Europeans being savages comes from “How to civilize savages.” 1865. “Reader” 5: 671a-672a. It can be read online by searching the wku website for “How to Civilize Savages (S113: 1865/1900)”.

The “uncared for and unknown” quotation comes from the final paragraph of “On the physical geography of the Malay Archipelago.” 1863. “Journal of the Royal Geographical Society” 33: 217-34. 1863. It can be read online by searching the wku website for “On the Physical Geography of the Malay Archipelago (S78: 1863)”

The Latin name of the blue tit is at present under revision; it is still often referred to as Parus caeruleus.

77 comments so far...


1. January 8th,


10:35 pm

Great article. When on the topic of natural selection, I could never remember the name of the other guy. I think I’ll remember now. Wallace. The details of his work and of his humanity are inspiring. Thank you.


— Posted by MGL


2. January 9th,


1:24 am

Perhaps Ms. Judson should tell her readers that Wallace was in terrible straits in the late 1870s. He had no income and no way to survive. Charles Darwin, though he detested Wallace’s move to Intelligent Design, pleaded with the Linnaean Society to give Wallace a stipend for the rest of his life. After much Darwin work on his friends in the society, it did give Wallace the lifelong stipend. Wallace lived on writing until 1914. His last major work was the book, The World of Life: A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose. Sad, isn’t it? Poor Darwin was writhing in his grave.


— Posted by William B Provine


3. January 9th,


1:34 am

A delightful essay. I don’t disparage most religions, but it is discouraging that in the US the scientific method is often attacked by adherents of fundamentalist religious dogma.


— Posted by James Kennedy


4. January 9th,


4:14 am

A great article. I had never heard of Wallace until now.


— Posted by Yvette


5. January 9th,


4:40 am

Hi, Great to see you back and hope for lots of insightful articles.


Robert Wright in his book “The Moral Animal” presents a fascinating picture of how Darwin, going against character, completely perhaps ruthlessly, suppressed Wallace’s findings.


I found the book very interesting in the way it explores the genetic basis of human behaviour/psychology and also the way the author has used evolutionary psychology to explain Darwin’s action/behaviour at various stages of his life and career.


— Posted by Sridhar Kurpad


6. January 9th,


6:45 am

Yes, for goodness’ sake, get that man’s picture on the wall. If London’s National Portrait Gallery won’t do it, may I recommend the White House, with a plaque beneath if bearing that final quote about future ages?


— Posted by Mark


7. January 9th,


7:41 am

How wonderful that you have returned! I look forward to the series…


— Posted by FactsDontMatter


8. January 9th,


7:52 am

Thank you for this great story of the contributions of an underappreciated giant figure in science (defects and all).


— Posted by Paul J Cote


9. January 9th,


8:50 am

As always, thanks from a retired science teacher for your insightful book and articles. Most of all, thanks for your support to those of us who teach, and have taught, evolution in science classrooms around the world.


— Posted by Vince


10. January 9th,


9:08 am

Excellent article on a greatly unappreciated genius. Thanks for the source material. Another fascinating site is the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge(  , which includes the text of many of the letters Darwin and Wallace exchanged.


I would also add that Wallaces’ time in Indonesia resulted in one of his greatest contributions: the successful collection and transport of hundreds of thousands of biological specimens, including many previously undescribed species, to Europe. Given the technology of the day and the harsh working conditions, one biographer has likened this accomplishment to the first summitting of Everest.


— Posted by Roland Wall


11. January 9th,


9:14 am

Kudos to Ms Judson for her review of the Darwin /Wallace saga to show how easily some of the great discoverers in science are only partially acknowledged.

It is appropriate to talk of natural selection as the Darwin-Wallace theory in the same way we talk of the Watson-Crick theory. The ID movement should anoint Wallace as their patron saint


— Posted by John Brink


12. January 9th,


9:23 am

Thank you for your excellent article on the co-discoverer of natural selection as the driving force of evolution. I think you may discover the reason for Wallace’s apparent invisibility if you compare the social origins of Darwin and Wallace. Darwin fit the British stereotype of the gifted amateur from a wealth background to a tee and his social connections to other influential members of the scientific establishment were also important. Science is a human occupation and scientists have all of the human failings.


— Posted by Robert Randell


13. January 9th,


9:45 am

Interesting piece to be sure. Always nice to get at least half the picture of the life of such as Wallace. I love the underlying tones in the beginning. Rushing past portraits of important historical figures and events to reach some more personal “holy grail”. Illusions to scientific disenchanment with those who hold to some form of intelligent or creative design. It seems that no matter how hard we try, no matter what side of the fence we fall on, there will always be the prejudice of finite thinking. Oh well, at least I now no a little more about Wallace than I did the day before.


— Posted by Jimbo


14. January 9th,


9:48 am

Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” is horribly misleading, not so much because of its tautology, but because to Spencer, Darwin, Wallace and their contemporaries “fittest” meant “best adapted” (or “fitting-est”). The sense of “fit” / “fittest” as referring to physical prowess isn’t even recorded in the OED before 1869 (and then in narrow sporting or equestrian usage), yet most people today seem to thing that Darwin meant that the “pumped up” did best! Curiously (given where Wallace’s thought ended up), it was Wallace who suggested Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” as an alternative to Darwin’s original “natural selection” precisely because the word “selection” rather left dangling the question of who or what was making active choices.


— Posted by Gary Brown


15. January 9th,


10:02 am

Ms. Judson correctly scorns the contributions of Herbert Spencer, whose “Survival of the fittest” is not really a tautology, but a reintroduction of teleology into evolutionary theory. It was a bastardization of Darwinism. What’s striking is that Wallace makes his contribution to mechanism without the fundamental insight that there is no “goal” to natural selection. That places him in roughly the same space as Spencer.


Hume and Spinoza, who both really believed in and argued for the absence of teleology from nature, made much more important contributions to Darwinism. So much for nothing being accomplished by naval gazing.


— Posted by Dan Orr


16. January 9th,


10:16 am

The poster who talked about ‘religious dogma’ is uninformed. What is being used is *not* soley religious dogma at all, it is science, the same science used by the old-earthers. The evidence against Darwinism is perfectly sound, evidence-backed science, no different from any other. Science is about inquiry and following the evidence. If that evidence shows a theory to be wrong or in need of revision, than that is what must be done. Scientists must stop stonewalling and ignoring those who know there are flaws and problems with Darwin’s theory and more and more evidence being found that proves it flat out wrong.


— Posted by MM


17. January 9th,


10:31 am

Here,here! It’s great to see your work here again and once a week is enough for you but let’s hope other voices are given this same elevated platform. A day without a thoughtfull piece regarding our scientific understanding of nature is like a day…well, like a day that the President and most world leaders in politics and religion have every day, and one we’d be better without.


— Posted by doug l


18. January 9th,


10:42 am

I really enjoy our writing again.

Where can we get links to your preceding series for the NYT?


I really enjoy your insights from biology.

Although I come from physics, computer science and astronomy

[and even theology and religion and priest]

this century will be the century of organic chemistry and biology.


We have learned a lot in the last few hundred years

but I believe the most important lesson is how little we know.


Now you have fired me up to get back to work on my book about science and the human heart. The title is probably “The sentimental stargazer”


Good luck to you. And thanks again.


— Posted by Gareth Harris


19. January 9th,


10:43 am

Thank you! A great column!


I have not read the Peter Raby biography, but a wonderful and recent biography of Wallace not cited in your notes is The Heretic in Darwin’s Court by Ross Slotten.


— Posted by RTH


20. January 9th,


10:48 am

Very excellent essay. Kerson Huang, the theoretical physicist at MIT who was at the Princeton Institute with Lee and Yang, has argued that the modern world is based on visions by Newton and Freud – the mechanistic view (which could well be seen to be inherited from Calvin). He makes the point that physics could more accurately and fully and correctly express the world through Leibniz and Jung. You could add Wallace to the Leibnitz/Jung mix and Darwin to the Newton/Freud mechanistic world view. The social sciences and virtually all Western culture since it was considered Western, evolved from the mechanistic principle conventionally misunderstood from Newton. Newton’s professional journals have even apologized for these cultural misunderstandings (and the harm they have caused) but they didn’t get the memo in the English dept. As the early Christian fathers quashed the views that did not fit their program, so our culture has censured the great original thinker Russell (much as they ignored and tried to exclude Newton’s vast writings on alchemy and the “vegetation spirit”). In Yeats’ day, one thought of “Darwin and Wallace” in the same phrase.


— Posted by Bernie Quigley


21. January 9th,


11:05 am

I add my vote for Wallace’s portrait. Those of us who cannot afford a trip to London to view his portrait, should it be displayed, may view it on-line. Just go to the gallery’s excellent website, and enter his name in the search. You can find the portraits of all the other Victorian scientists mentioned in this excellent blog, as well as other notable scientists who are also confined to storage. And if you are a real fan, you can order up a print.


— Posted by GDSmith


22. January 9th,


11:11 am

wonderful to have you back - the first selection to read wednesday mornings. thank you, you write with such eloquence.



— Posted by michael geiger


23. January 9th,


11:23 am

Thanks for the reminder of Wallace’s contributions.

In 1870, Wallace was involved in a controversy over the “Flat Earth” belief. The Wikipedia article on Wallace mentions the incident briefly. A more extended treatment appeared in the “Smithsonian Magazine of April 1978, pg 101, by Robert Schadewald.


— Posted by Mort Newman


24. January 9th,


11:29 am

Don’t discount the effect on Darwin of having read Malthus - he himself credits Malthus for planting the seed for his ideas on natural selection and evolution. Malthus provided a framework.


— Posted by LVS


25. January 9th,


11:45 am

Thank you for an enjoyable, and sympathetic, mini-portrait of Wallace.


It brings to mind that Natural Selection is an explanation of great power and complexity. The fact that so many people feel unsatisfied with it shows it is not complete and wrapped up; I’m certain there is more to be discovered in the framework of natural selection, more subtleties, more discoveries.


— Posted by Dean Portman


26. January 9th,


11:50 am

For those who are interested in reading more, “The Alfred Russel Wallace Reader”, edited by Jane Camerini, is an excellent collection of his writings with commentaries by the editor.


— Posted by Mike Sokoloff


27. January 9th,


11:54 am

I used to teach a graduate course on the history of physical anthroplogy. The mid to late 19th century is one of my favorite periods in life sciences. The concept of change, evolution, and how it ocurred rapidly gathered momentum and led to modern biological concepts and disciplines.


I look forward to more of Ms. Judson’s columns.


— Posted by Don Austin


28. January 9th,


11:57 am

“Survival of the fittest” a tautology? Not without certain assumptions.


— Posted by Jim Healey


29. January 9th,


12:14 pm

The fact that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is not perfect does not invalidate the concept of evolution nor do scientists “bury their heads in the sand” about the problems with it. Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould’s punctuated equilibrium, for example, explains the fossil record far better the gradual natural selection does in most cases. The only excuse to oppose evolution IS religious dogma, not science. Science as a method of understand the world around us has to go with the best theory that explains what we know, but it isn’t set in stone tablets, it does evolve to answer the questions that nature offers us in an ever more precise way.


I’m an admirer of Wallace and it is good to see him get credit for his insight. He had his flaws, but he was a very astute observer of nature.


Shawn Cromett


— Posted by Shawn C


30. January 9th,


12:16 pm

For all the controversy about creationism and intelligent design the following is offered.


Wednesday, January 09, 2008


I believe that on the day life appeared on Earth, God picked up a grain of sand, and pronounced “you are alive, and over the next many eons you will change, indeed, evolve, by a mechanism to be explained by Charles Darwin, Mr. Wallace and others”


Jim Shorey



— Posted by Jim Shorey MD


31. January 9th,


12:18 pm

Yes, the 150th anniversary of the Darwin and Wallace’s discovery of natural selection in 1858 is probably the most significant anniversary in the field of biology, yet sadly I am aware of very few events which are planned to mark this momentous occasion! This is in sharp contrast to the numerous events planned to mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of Species - both in 2009! In case you are moved to organize something for 2008, the two important dates are 1) 1st July, which is when Darwin and Wallace’s papers proposing natural selection were read to a meeting of the Linnean Society of London, and 2) 20th August, which is the date of publication of their papers in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society: Zoology.


— Posted by George Beccaloni


32. January 9th,


12:20 pm


Notice that “attributes that help it to survive — sensitive hearing, a beak well suited to breaking into seeds, a knack for catching spiders and caterpillars — will have an edge” are attributes relative to something else. Sensitive hearing may be useless, as may be food specific gathering behaviors. Behavior is useful only relative to the opportunity the environment offers. If it were not for the congenial environment of the Earth, none of us would be here, no matter how we like to define “fittest.” These guys you reference are certainly not the last word in evolution.


— Posted by Kurt Engelhart


33. January 9th,


12:25 pm

I agree with Mr. Kennedy, a delightful essay. As a patent attorney, former classical violinist, dancer, engineer, and so on (wife, mother, business partner), I say: High time to celebrate the creative genius and inspirational character displayed by Wallace. Few, if any? great forward-thinking advancement(s) are made without some collaboration, or push, from another (or often, from several others). It is no surprise that someone like Wallace would continue to push the boundaries of thought considered ‘rogue’ by some (especially for his time). So what?


During this anniversary week of his birth, I wish to extend ——posthumously, of course—— a personal Thank you, Mr. Wallace for your other contributions and bravery (beyond being a “scientist and naturalist”). “He published … hundreds of articles, often on subjects outside biology (such as why women should have the vote). … was biting in his criticisms of colonialism … he championed a number of hopeless social causes, such as land nationalization, in the hopes of creating a more equitable and just society. … He also worried about the planet, and how we (don’t) look after it.”


Yes, I heartily agree: Hang him!(in London’s National Portrait Gallery).


— Posted by Ms JMacheledt


34. January 9th,


12:36 pm

Before Darwin “survival of the fittest” was believed to maintain existing species. Darwin’s contribution was to show that “survival of the fittest” can create new species.


— Posted by Les Lane


35. January 9th,


12:40 pm

I am impressed with her writing and her insights. She presented him warts and all. I think it would make a great movie or mini series about this person.

The fact that he had the modesty to cede to Darwin on the idea and not be consumed in the fight for credit like so many today is great. It is also the probably reason he has faded undeservedly.

Showing him as someone as a great mind but not always right is important. We she remember him but also see him as an example of how people can see but be afraid to take what they find to its logical conclusions.

Love reading her stuff.


— Posted by Mark


36. January 9th,


1:14 pm

Wallace did not fight for credit because he recognized that Darwin had been working on the theory for 20 years and had amassed a great deal of evidence and had created a much stronger theoretical framework than he had. Wallace’s paper, on the other hand, was a short sketch. The papers presented in 1858 had no impact. Darwin’s fame rests on “Origin of Species” published the following year.


While “survival of the fittest” is a tautology, in the same way “the race goes to the swiftest” is a tautology, this is something of a red herring as the phrase is only meant to emphasize the competitive aspect of nature in contrast with the prevailing belief of nature as static, harmonious and balanced.


— Posted by Mark McIntyre


37. January 9th,


1:44 pm

The power and beauty of the scientific method is that it is self correcting, and there is hardly ever a “last word” on any subject. I expect there will be fine tuning as human knowledge advances; I am impressed that evolution has met the tests of Mendelian genetics and DNA, unknown to Darwin. Evolution is well founded–it is not a “faith based” concept.


— Posted by james kennedy


38. January 9th,


1:58 pm

Thoughtful plaudits from Judson for Wallace, who indeed deserves more credit than history has accorded him.

But what about nutty old Jean-Baptiste Lamark (1744-1829)? Although recognised by Darwin and others as a genius, even a theoretical mentor, the history of science has been unkind, even unfair, and worse, he was virtually ignored in his own time and died in poverty and obscurity. I’d like to see Judson and others revisit the life and work of Mssr. Lamark, especially in light of the new emerging field of epigenetics - which will no doubt overturn prized scientific applecarts and gore a few sacred scientific cows when much more of the DNA complexities are, er, unravelled. It may well turn out that the behavior of one gneration does indeed affect the genetics of the next.



— Posted by Scott Wheeler


39. January 9th,


2:02 pm

What a nice essay, and what a refreshing break (in the essay if not in some of te comments) from some of the “Darwin-bashing” that has been popular in some circles in recent years. Wallace does indeed deserve to hang, but more for his enormously important contributions to Biogeography (a subject that occupied most of his professional life) than for his contribution -important though it is- to what really IS, in Wallace’s own words, “Darwinism”. Folks who are not familiar with the extensive & varied nature of what Darwin brought to Evolutionary thought would eb well advised to read Ernst Mayr’s wonderful “One Long ARgument” or the more recent “What Makes Biology Unique”. In the meantime, let us celebrate Wallace for the wonderful and interesting man that he was, let us fogive him his odd ideas about vaccination, phrenology, and “the Spirit” and by all means have birthday parties galore for both the people & the ideas!


— Posted by John Anderson


40. January 9th,


2:13 pm

Talk about scientists’ embarrassing beliefs. Patron Saint Newton was a convinced alchemist, who experimented with transmutation for years. Both Wallace and Newton were simnply children of their time. It is simply banal to judge them embarrassing from this century.


— Posted by JTC


41. January 9th,


2:14 pm

Wallace lives in popular literature. Read “Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded” for a discussion of Wallace’s contribution to the study of evolution and continental drift.


It also fascinating in it’s own right in describing the avalanche of evidence that leads the scientific community to believe in such ideas.


— Posted by Joe Serrano


42. January 9th,


2:23 pm

An interesting article, one of a number of such that have come out in recent years. A couple of comments… For Dr. Provine, Darwin’s support of a pension for Wallace (who was not doing well financially, but was not nearly at a point of “having no income”) came only after a friend of Wallace’s suggested the idea, and amounted to only 200 pounds a year (which, it has been observed, was less than the yearly allocation the Darwins made for meat for their dinner table). It was not nearly enough for Wallace to live on by itself. Also, Wallace’s cosmological/evolutionary understanding was one in which final, not first, causes dominated. Spiritualism has nothing to do with intelligent design (at least of the Creationist variety), nor did it affect Wallace’s basic application of natural selection principles in his biological work on any other organism. People should actually *read* Wallace, and not just the most famous works–recent biographers of his still fall rather short of capturing the depth. Ms. Judson refers to my site on Wallace several times above; it contains careful transcriptions of over 500 of his writings–so here’s your chance!


— Posted by Charles H. Smith


43. January 9th,


2:56 pm

Here’s a nice 2007 New Yorker article on Wallace:


Here’s the first paragraph of the article:


“When he was twenty-four years old, Alfred Russel Wallace, the greatest field biologist of the nineteenth century, had his head examined by a phrenologist who determined that, while his “organ of wonder” was very big, his “organ of veneration,” representing respect for authority, was noticeably small. Wallace was so struck with the accuracy of this report that, sixty years later, he mentioned it in his autobiography. It was wonder that drew him to nature, and an instinctive disregard for authority that made it easy to challenge an entire civilization’s religious convictions, as he did when, in 1858, he dashed off a paper proposing a theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Unlike Charles Darwin, who spent twenty years keeping a similar conclusion to himself in private dread, Wallace didn’t give a damn what people thought. This utter independence from public opinion is one of several reasons that he has all but vanished from popular consciousness.”


— Posted by HL


44. January 9th,


3:11 pm

From “A History of New York” by W. Irving, 1809:


“…the startling conjecture of Buffon, Helvetius, and Darwin, so highly honorable to mankind, and peculiarly complementary to the French nation, that the whole human species are accidentally descended from a remarkable family of monkies!”


Two things I found provocative about that passage; the date 1809 and the word “accidentally”.


— Posted by martin g


45. January 9th,


3:30 pm



Anything that encourages discussion of these great heroes should be given a prominent place in the Times.


— Posted by Youssef51


46. January 9th,


3:46 pm

Martin G:


Assuming your quote and the year in question are correct, the reference is to Darwin’s grandfather, whose work is all too often neglected in favor of Charles and Galton. Amazing family really, comparable only to the Huxley dynasty.


Great article about an all too overlooked man, and many really interesting comments! Thanks a million.


— Posted by Su Tungpo


47. January 9th,


3:54 pm

I’m so glad you are back, Olivia. I love reading your articles. Thank you for writing them.


— Posted by Lacy


48. January 9th,


4:02 pm

. .. I would like to add that although Alfred Russel Wallace has long been banned by the Academy he reigns as a patriarch in the hippie under culture. Lawrence and Lorne Blair, British anthropologists, adventurers and filmmakers followed Wallace’s path across Indonesia and produced a beautiful and insightful series called “Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey” which appeared on PBS channels in around 1972 and is still available. I understand that the Blair brothers couldn’t get conventional funding from corporations at the time so Ringo Starr funded their project.


— Posted by Bernie Quigley


49. January 9th,


4:47 pm

Hi Dr. Judson,

This blog looks great, and is as fun as it is informative. I looked, I couldn’t find any place on the site to contact you directly or ask questions. I’ve always wondered about certain aspects of evolutionary theory, and you seem to be quite an expert and a talented writer. Will you ever write about the evolution of non-essential attributes? Does evolutionary theory require that all attributes characteristic of a species are necessary for survival, even things like eyebrows and floppy ear lobes that are sort of useful but not really life-savers? Or are there other mechanisms of development that don’t require the eventual weeding out of all the not-quite-fittest?


— Posted by Joe


50. January 9th,


5:03 pm

When Wallace’s letter reached Darwin, Darwin had indeed not published anything about evolution. But he had already written several unpublished essays and was hard at work on his “Big Book” describing the evidence for evolution and his theory of natural selection. When Darwin received Wallace’s letter, he was indeed shocked, set aside his Big Book, and wrote the much-shorter Origin of Species in 18 months. He was able to do this because all of the material was fresh in his mind and he borrowed heavily from his already-written but incomplete book manuscript (which was never published in his lifetime).


When Wallace found out about Darwin’s 20-year priority and his half-completed giant manuscript, he generously gave Darwin full credit for natural selection. This was of course the correct decision, since Wallace discovered evolution and natural selection 20 years after Darwin. Darwin needed Wallace to spur him to publish. Without that, he might have worked on his Big Book another ten years before publishing it, which would have been a calamity.


— Posted by Steven Schafersman


51. January 9th,


5:50 pm

Dear Ms. Judson,


Wonderful essay. Odd, though, that Wallace’s invoking of a mysterious ‘intelligence’ to account for man’s moral faculty should make him a ‘troublesome hero’ in your eyes. Have you that much confidence in the ‘blind watchmaker’ of evolution? Surely the miracle of matter made conscious must inspire a bit of belief in mystery?



Sal Anthony


— Posted by Sal Anthony


52. January 9th,


6:12 pm

always delightful to read about Darwin and Wallace and their contemporaries.


It’s hard to believe that the most useful theory in sceience is scarcely 150 years old! What were people thinking before that?


Of course there was already a dawning of realization before Darwin’s first book came out, but he certainly opened the floodgates.


Some of you may have seen the exciting special exhibit on Darwin at the American Museum of Natural History in New York about a year ago. It would be nice if it could be presented again.


— Posted by Wayne


53. January 9th,


6:20 pm

Publication of ideas is all important in science and since Darwin and Wallace published their theories of natural selection simultaneously they are acknowledged to be the co-discoverers of this idea. Whilst Wallace’s 1858 paper was a fully formed essay, Darwin was forced to published some scraps of manuscript material which hadn’t been written with publication in mind! It is interesting to note that in the Victorian era natural selection was often referred to as the Darwin-Wallace theory, but in more recent times many people have forgotten Wallace’s role as the co-discoverer of the idea. It is interesting to note that whereas Wallace always vigorously rejected Lamarckism (the inheritance of acquired characteristics), Darwin increasingly adopted Lamarckian views in subsequent editions of his Origin of Species, downplaying the role of natural selection!


For more information see Kutschera, U. 2003. A comparative analysis of the Darwin-Wallace papers and the development of the concept of natural selection. Theory in Biosciences, 122 (4): 343-359


— Posted by George Beccaloni


54. January 9th,


6:34 pm

So happy to have you back! Nice tribute to Wallace who certainly deserves it.


— Posted by James F Traynor


55. January 9th,


7:43 pm

MM, in comment #16, accuses Mr. Kennedy (#3) of being “uninformed,” and then claims that “evidence-backed science” proves Darwin “flat-out wrong.” However, like every other person making such a claim, MM provides no science, no evidence, no logical argument in support of his or her wishful (religious?) thinking.


— Posted by Guy William Molnar


56. January 9th,


7:45 pm

Great article.Very informative. The last paragraph is particularly apt


— Posted by Tony casey


57. January 9th,


8:01 pm

Nowadays Wallace is little known, but during his life-time he was fairly well known and respected. He was, for example, made a member of the Order of Merit, which is one of the most prestigious British accolades.

The more interesting fact, however, is that actually there was someone who thought of natural selection before both Darwin and Wallace. It was an obscure Scotsman called Patrick Matthew. He described the basic idea of natural selection (albeit briefly) in a book published in 1831, almost 30 years before The Origin of Species!

For more check this out:


— Posted by DSP


58. January 9th,


11:32 pm

How ironic reading this, so long after Wallace’s life, and yet today a prostilitizer came to my door, asking me to believe that Adam and Eve were the first humans, a mere six thousand years ago.


— Posted by Dave Anderson


59. January 10th,


6:27 am

Great article. Sorry to read that London’s NPG does not have Wallace on show. The Linnean Society of London has a wonderful portrait of the great man (painted posthumously, from a photo in their collection), hanging next to Darwin’s, in the room where the idea of natural selection was initially presented. The Society is also the ‘guardian’ of Wallace’s grave in Dorset, southern England (the ‘headstone’ is actually a fossilized tree) and holds much of his personal library.


— Posted by L Berwick


60. January 10th,


7:15 am

Did Olivia Judson feel a pair of eyes burning into her back as she stood admiring the portraits of the Darwinians? John Burdon Sanderson rightly hangs in the Victorian Science Room of the National Portrait Gallery, opposite those of Darwin and Huxley. His studies of the cattle plague (1866) provided the essential clue for Darwin’s original hypothesis - the hypothesis of natural selection was not - the hypothesis of “pangenesis”. Sanderson, uncle of the famous J. B. S. Haldane, also mentored Darwin’s research associate, George Romanes(another missing portrait), whose hypothesis of “physiological selection” (later elaborated by William Bateson; another missing portrait) is now receiving serious attention. For more see


Donald R. Forsdyke


— Posted by Donald R. Forsdyke


61. January 10th,


12:17 pm

Wallace’s qoute at the end of the piece is as timely as it is true. Thank you for a well written article, I enjoyed it very much!


— Posted by Mo


62. January 10th,


2:04 pm

Another grad school illusion shot to hell. I believe it was Richard Hofstadter in his book “Social Darwinism” who gave the credit to Thomas Huxley for the phrase “survival of the fittest This having occured in a debate between him and Bishop Witherspoon. I am inclined to accept Prof Judson’s version, she being closer to the subject than Dr. Hofstadter and me.


— Posted by Conner Atkeson


63. January 10th,


3:33 pm

I would like to suggest that the posters review Ken Wilber’s work on Integral Theory. I think he has proposed a beautiful way to reconcile and maybe even account for both “rational

science” and the sense of awe and “mystery.” gregory daniels


— Posted by Gregory. Daniels


64. January 10th,


4:04 pm

I’m with MM (#16) here. Evolutionary theory can’t be right, because all truly informed people know that life was created by the great flying spaghetti monster. Or was it the invisible pink unicorn?


Of course, I can’t produce any evidence to indicate that either of these creatures exist, or (more importantly) describe the mechanism by which they might operate. But I defy any of you to prove me wrong!


— Posted by Brian McCormack


65. January 10th,


4:39 pm

You charming eggheads might benefit greatly from the late work of American poet and self-educated naturalist Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970–her _Collected Works_ published by UC Press in 2002). Her poems mediate many of nature’s harder-edged substances (iron, basalt, agate, coral, quartz), resilient creation (plants, birds, insects, and mammals), and the curious humans who attempt to understand their organization: Jefferson, Audubon, Darwin, and many others, including even Asa Gray of mention… In her marvelous last work, _Darwin_, she (characteristically)uses direct quotes from correspondence, blended with brilliant insight, in terse language: “He wrote Lyell: ‘Don’t forget/ to send me the carcass/ of your half-bred African cat/ should it die’” and “the universe/ not built by brute force/ but designed by laws/ the details left// to the working of chance….” Wonderful stuff– thought you might enjoy it.


As for Dr. Judson’s column– terrific! Thank you.


— Posted by inwitinthemidwest


66. January 10th,


10:32 pm

David Quammen’s “The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography In An Age Of Extiction” is an excellent book on Darwinism and evolutionary biology, and covers Alfred Russel Wallace extensively. I highly recommend it.


— Posted by dave


67. January 11th,


5:07 am

I’d like to tweak Olivia Judson’s description of the mechanism of natural selection. The main point is that of all the blue tits born at any one time, no two are precisely identical. The same is true of those blue tits who survive long enough to produce viable offspring: no two progenitors are exactly the same. If any of the traits of these progenitors are inheritable by their offspring, we say that those traits have been “naturally selected.” It is not a requirement of natural selection that each given inheritable trait must play some survival role.


— Posted by Ken Frank


68. January 11th,


10:38 am

I promise you that one day, were anyone to excavate this essay, the derisive dismissal of the role of spirit and intelligence will be viewed by intelligent people as equally ignorant and embarrassing. It is possible for immanent spirit and quantifiable matter to be compatible rather than contradictory and mutually exclusive.


— Posted by eye


69. January 11th,


11:33 am

To Jim Shorey - The whole “God as prime mover = no conflict between evolution and religion” doesn’t really cut it. If evolution is correct, then what precisely did Jesus save us from? Seems to me that the Goddies’ only option is to fight science, because the more it progresses, the more absurd it renders their worldview.


— Posted by Doug Jones


70. January 11th,


1:46 pm



Thanks for fine write-up. You point “in later years, he developed beliefs that are — for a scientist — embarrassing … became a believer in spirits” are still unfortunately rigidly true today.


The following is from a 2001 article in the medical journal The Lancet , “Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands” by Pim van Lommel et al. A coronary-care-unit nurse gave the following write-up,


During a night shift an ambulance brings in a 44-year-old cyanotic, comatose man into the coronary care unit. He had been found about an hour before in a meadow by passers-by. After admission, he receives artificial respiration without intubation, while heart massage and defibrillation are also applied. When we want to intubate the patient, he turns out to have dentures in his mouth. I remove these upper dentures and put them onto the “crash car”. Meanwhile, we continue extensive CPR. After about an hour and a half the patient has sufficient heart rhythm and blood pressure, but he is still ventilated and intubated, and he is still comatose. He is transferred to the intensive care unit to continue the necessary artificial respiration. Only after more a week do I meet again with the patient, who is by now back on the cardiac ward. I distribute his medication. The moment he sees me he says: “Oh, that nurse knows where my dentures are”. I am very surprised. The he elucidates: “Yes, you were there when I was brought into the hospital and took my dentures out of my mouth and put them into that car, it had all the bottles on it and there was this sliding drawer underneath and there you put my teeth”. I was especially amazed because I remembered this happening while the man was in a deep coma and in the process of CPR. When I asked further, it appeared the man had seen himself lying in bed, that he had perceived from above how nurses and doctors had been busy with CPR. He was able to describe correctly and in detail the small room in which he had been resuscitated as well as the appearance of those present like myself. At the time that he observed the situation he had been very much afraid that we would stop CPR and that he would die. And it is true that we had been very negative about the patient’s prognosis due to his very poor medical condition when admitted. The patient tells me that he desperately and unsuccessfully tried to make it clear to us that he was still alive and that we should continue CPR. He is deeply impressed by his experience and says he is no longer afraid of death. 4 weeks later he left hospital as a healthy man.


The scientific response to such phenomena is nicely laid out by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion where he writes “if you have had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don’t expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings”. The point here is that Dawkins like many scientist has such contempt for the possibility of a transcendental experience that they can’t even begin to engage the report. This quote was taken 8 pages after Dawkins warns readers about “Argument from Blinding by Science” and should have been preceded by a warning about “Author’s Blinded by Their Own Contempt”. The latest relevant scientific explanation cites experiments involving virtual reality goggles. It would be nice for a scientist to acknowledge that don’t have a clue about what is going on.


— Posted by Ted Christopher


71. January 12th,


12:37 am

Olivia Judson wrote a beautiful essay with the reminder that the insights and works of great people can be easily buried or forgotten.


Let us turn over the evolutionary coin on which two other names are written in the name of evolution, one of whom is remembered and the other forgotten. There is a place needed in the history of the theory of evolution for Sergey Ivanovich Korchinskii (1861-1900) as well as Hugo Marie de Vries (1848-1935).


Mutation is needed for selection to take place.


Another Wallace, Bruce Wallace, one of the leading evolutionists of the 20th century said it best: “Mutation is the only source of new variation”. Darwin, in the Origin of Species (3rd Edition, page 75): “Natural selection acts only by preservation and accumulation of small inherited modifications, each profitable to the preserved being.”


Those two comments, now aphorisms, put the two major foundations of evolutionary processes in a nutshell, i.e., mutation and selection.


So who brought mutation to the forefront for the initiation of “small inherited variations”? Korchinskii, a botanist, described variations in nature and de Vries, also a botanist, observed what he thought were spontaneous mutations in the evening primrose. They both wrote books on the importance of mutations for evolution to take place and both of them thought mutations would come to be regarded as more important than selection.


Korchinskii published his book on mutation and evolution in 1899, and de Vries published his in 1900-2003. Korchinskii is now forgotten; de Vries is remembered.

Check Wikipedia and see.


— Posted by Jack von Borstel


72. January 12th,


12:56 am

Too bad this column didn’t come out two months ago, and suggest that we all go to see Peter Parnell’s engrossing play TRUMPERY - beautifully staged by the Atlantic Theater Company - the NYT review is at chst=nyt - the review was followed by an interesting essay - r=1&scp=2&sq=Trumpery&oref=slogin -


At any rate, when the play has a London production, perhaps the National Portrait Gallery will be a major sponsor and “hang” Wallace as well!


— Posted by Peter Smith


73. January 12th,


8:16 am

Dear Olivia,


Now that you are back, I hope you will bring your broad and subtle knowledge of the natural world to two subjects that don’t receive as much attention as they deserve. Have you read Temple Grandin’s book, Animals in Translation? The whole field of animal intelligence is fascinating, both for what it reveals about animals’ extraordinary capacities, and for what it reveals about the stubborn resistance of the scientific establishment to acknowledging those capacities. I’d love to see your perspective on Alex, the talking African gray parrot.


Secondly, you mention Wallace’s early concern for the welfare of the planet. It always amazes me that the biologists of the world do not rise up in unified horror, seize the day, and stop the unprecedented, ongoing extinction of species. And now comes a new reality that biologists are collectively silent about — the huge contribution of livestock production to the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — more than all the cars, trucks, trains and planes on Earth put together. This is another fit topic for your broad, responsible, and evolutionary perspective.


— Posted by David Moody


74. January 12th,


9:52 am

Scientists must stop stonewalling and ignoring those who know there are flaws and problems with Darwin’s theory and more and more evidence being found that proves it flat out wrong.


— Posted by MM

Flat out…like the earth huh?


— Posted by J. Hutchison


75. January 12th,


4:37 pm

Anyone with a liking for history has heard of Wallace. This article leads to an understang Of who he was and his contribution to science.


— Posted by Richard Soulsby


76. January 12th,


5:00 pm

Overjoyed to find Olivia Judson back in the Times.

Her relish for life pervades her writing and enriches us all.


— Posted by H R Shawhan


77. January 12th,


7:24 pm



I add a note of unplanned resonance between the fine “Wallace Should Hang” piece and my experience with the blog (and beyond) with NYT. The gist or punchline of the scientific consensus on Wallace is that committed an unforgiveable sin by becoming “a believer in spirits” and more generally connecting with religion. In Mafia terms, “he dug his own grave”.


Anyway, about 30 hours ago I added a comment presenting a clinical (short) report on a near-death experience followed by Richard Dawkin’s assessment of such events. In tandem they were rather striking - the amazing NDE account followed by Dawkin’s summary dismissal. It was a contemporary example of science’s rigid (and uninformed) dismissal of all things religious with obvious resonance with what happened to Wallace.


So what happens? NYT refuses to print my comment. Now note, I’m no fool. I know from experience NYT would never print a substantive challenge to science in the science-versus-religion-(non)debate. Likewise for Op-Eds. (And likewise for any substantive challenge to the AMA). But I was really surprised that NYT’s Wallace-treatment extended down to the blogs. Way to go.


— Posted by Ted Christopher