5 June 2008

I have just learnt the very sad news that the Linnean Society has decided to change the date it awards its Darwin-Wallace medal:- from 1st July 2008 (i.e. the 150th anniversary of the reading of the Darwin-Wallace papers first proposing natural selection) to (you guessed it!) 12th February 2009 - Darwin's 200th birthday (click here for more info). The reason this is sad is because the medal was specifically created to mark the anniversary of the reading of the Darwin-Wallace papers. It is (or was!) the only award in the world to do so. Wallace was the first recipient of the medal (he was given the only gold example ever produced) on 1st July 1908, the 50th anniversary of the reading of the Darwin-Wallace papers (read his acceptance speech here). The medal was next awarded on the 100th anniversary in 1958 and it was due to be awarded again this year. From 2009 onwards the award will be presented annually on Darwin's birthday. Given that the reading of the Darwin-Wallace paper is without doubt the most famous and historically important event which has taken place at the Society in its history, it seems extraordinary that they have taken this decision.

The Darwin-Wallace medal

The Linnean Society's Darwin-Wallace medal

Before you know it the portrait of Wallace will be removed from the medal and it will be renamed "the Charles Darwin medal". I guess this would make sense, as after all it is awarded for distinguished work on 'Darwin's theory' (as natural selection is popularly known). The Soviets would be proud of the way history has been rewritten since Wallace's death in 1913!

Here are some pertinent extracts from the Linnean Society's publication which was produced to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the reading of the Darwin-Wallace papers (you can read it in full here):-

The President of the Linnean Society said:-

"We are met together to-day to celebrate what is without doubt the greatest event in the history of our Society since its foundation. Nor is it easy to conceive the possibility in the future of any second revolution of Biological thought so momentous as that which was started 50 years ago by the reading of the joint papers of Mr. Darwin and Dr. Wallace, "On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection," communicated to our Society by Sir Charles Lyell and by Sir Joseph Hooker, whom we have the happiness of seeing with us to-day.....The presence among us of Dr. Wallace, one of the two creators of the theory, and of Sir Joseph Hooker, who brought it into the world, is in itself enough to render our meeting memorable, and to ensure its success.....

In presenting the gold medal the President said:-

Dr. ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE, We rejoice that we are so happy as to have with us to-day the survivor of the two great naturalists whose crowning work we are here to commemorate.

Your brilliant work, in Natural History and Geography, and as one of the founders of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, is universally honoured and has often received public recognition, as in the awards of the Darwin and Royal Medals of the Royal Society, and of our own Medal in 1892.

To-day, in asking you to accept the first Darwin-Wallace Medal, we are offering you of your own, for it is you, equally with your great colleague, who created the occasion which we celebrate.... I ask you, Dr. Wallace, to accept this medal, struck in your honour and in that of the great work inaugurated 50 years ago by Mr. Darwin and yourself."

On presenting a silver version of the medal to Francis Galton the President said "We desire to add our own recognition of the originality and importance of your work by asking you to receive the Medal which commemorates the united discoveries of Darwin and Wallace." Galton replied "..I may say that this occasion has called forth vividly my recollection of the feelings of gratitude that I had towards the originators of the then new doctrine which burst the enthraldom of the intellect which the advocates of the argument from design had woven around us. It gave a sense of freedom to all the people who were thinking of these matters, and that sense of freedom was very real and very vivid at the time. If a future Auguste Comte arises who makes a calendar in which the days are devoted to the memory of those who have been the beneficent intellects of mankind, I feel sure that this day, the 1st of July, will not be the least brilliant."

It is a shame that Galton's words have been ignored by those ignorant or unappreciative of history....

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