Darwin's forgotten rival

Today Darwin gets the lion's share of the credit. Photo / Thinkstock
Today Darwin gets the lion's share of the credit. Photo / Thinkstock

Alfred Russel Wallace is far from a household name, but he changed the world.

Recovering from malaria on the Indonesian island of Halmahera, the young British biologist came up with an idea that would transform humanity's view of itself: he worked out the theory of natural selection.

Wallace wrote down his idea and sent it to Charles Darwin, who had been contemplating a similar theory of evolution for more than a decade. Both versions were read to members of the Linnean Society in 1858.

Today Darwin gets the lion's share of the credit for a theory that provides the mechanism to explain how a species can be slowly transformed into another. Wallace has been forgotten.

But this week curators at the Natural History Museum in London will launch Wallace 100, a project aimed at righting this wrong. Wallace's portrait - which has been kept for years in a storeroom - will be hung beside the grand statue of Darwin that overlooks the museum's main hall. Wallace's entire correspondence will also be put online.

"Now people can see just what a fine writer he was, and what a great mind he had," said George Beccaloni, a curator and expert on Wallace.

The museum's ceremony marks the beginning of its Wallace 100 programme which will mark the centenary of Wallace's death and aims to bring him back to public attention.

Wallace was born in Usk, in southeast Wales, to middle-class parents, but was forced to leave school at 13 when the family fell on hard times. He worked as a surveyor before travelling to the Amazon to collect specimens and to work as a naturalist.

Later he sailed to the Malay archipelago (now Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) where he spent nearly eight years collecting and studying the local wildlife.


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