Author: Cindy Hu
From: West Orange, NJ, USA
Wallace’s Butterflies (image credit)
“I’m afraid the ship’s on fire.”
It was 1852 and British biologist Alfred Wallace had just spent four years in the Amazon studying its wildlife. He had collected everything from butterflies to birds, hoping to bring something tangible back to England to sell to museums. Not only that, but Wallace was searching for answers - answers that would explain where species came from. It was one of the most burning scientific questions of that era.
That didn’t matter, though, because Wallace lost everything and barely escaped with his own life.
And to make things worse? The question had already been answered - years ago. But pretty much no one knew about it.
Darwin and the Origin of Species
Most people associate Darwin with evolution, most notably because of his book On the Origin of Species. But while Wallace was out gathering specimens from the Amazon jungles, that book hadn’t been published yet. Although Darwin had a fairly well-developed theory supported with plenty of evidence, he was reluctant to publish his findings for fear of how the general public would react.
During the 1800s, people generally accepted a faith-based explanation of the creation of species. This explanation proposed that all species had been created by God, each one specifically tailored to its environment. Species weren’t supposed to change. Darwin himself believed this.
However, Darwin’s 1832 journey on the HMS Beagle changed that. During his long overseas trip, the HMS Beagle landed on the Galapagos Islands, but this was originally for the purpose of charting the land. Keep in mind that Darwin had not been the ship captain - he was just along for the ride. Nevertheless, Darwin showed much more interest in observing the island’s wildlife than taking notes on its geographical characteristics.
It was here when Darwin noticed a number of slight but significant differences between the wildlife on different islands. The most famous of these was the finches. The finches on one island might have thin, sharp beaks whereas those on a different island had much bigger beaks. This led Darwin to wonder if they were descended from a single species that changed over time.
While evolution is now taught in classrooms around the world, this was an unorthodox idea for Darwin’s time, so he only shared his findings with a few people. Unfortunately, Wallace was not one of them, which brings us to his next voyage:
Wallace’s Second Attempt
In 1854, Wallace set sail again, this time to the Malay Archipelago. He stayed there for the next 8 years, once again studying wildlife, taking notes, and collecting specimens.
While studying the archipelago’s butterflies, Wallace drew on his knowledge from his Amazon expedition, noting that similar species often lived in similar geographic areas. For example, the Malay butterflies were vastly different from American ones.
While Darwin mainly formulated his theory comparing species between the various islands of the Galapagos, Wallace drew his conclusions by comparing the Amazon with the Malay Archipelago. The two naturalists ultimately came to the same conclusion - species can change.
When Wallace returned to England, he immediately consulted with Darwin, who was astonished. The two of them presented their findings together, although Wallace conceded that Darwin should get most of the credit.
Perhaps that is why we remember Darwin but not Wallace when we think of evolution today. But I hope those of you reading this will remember that new scientific discoveries almost always involve teams of people rather than individual efforts. Furthermore, popularity should not be used to gauge a scientist’s contributions.
Author: Cindy Hu
Cindy is a high school junior in NJ who loves math, physics, and biology, among many other subjects. Her hobbies include reading, playing the piano, and learning to crochet.
"I am afraid the ship's on fire". (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2021, from http://wallaceletters.info/content/%E2%80%9Ci-am-afraid-ship%E2%80%99s-fire%E2%80%9D
Natural selection: Charles Darwin & Alfred Russel Wallace. (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/0_0_0/history_14
The Making of a Theory: Darwin, Wallace, and Natural Selection - HHMI Biointeractive Video. (2014, August 26). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XOiUZ3ycZwU