FAQs, myths & misconceptions

"In my early youth I heard, as ninety-nine-hundredths of the world do, only the evidence on one side, and became impressed with a veneration for religion which has left some traces even to this day. I have since heard and read much on both sides, and pondered much upon the matter in all its bearings...I have since wandered among men of many races and many religions. I have studied man, and nature in all its aspects, and I have sought after truth. In my solitude I have pondered much on the incomprehensible subjects of space, eternity, life and death. I think I have fairly heard and fairly weighed the evidence on both sides, and I remain an utter disbeliever in almost all that you consider the most sacred truths. I will pass over as utterly contemptible the oft-repeated accusation that sceptics shut out evidence because they will not be governed by the morality of Christianity. You I know will not believe that in my case, and I know its falsehood as a general rule...To the mass of mankind religion of some kind is a necessity. But whether there be a God and whatever be His nature; whether we have an immortal soul or not, or whatever may be our state after death, I can have no fear of having to suffer for the study of nature and the search for truth, or believe that those will be better off in a future state who have lived in the belief of doctrines inculcated from childhood, and which are to them rather a matter of blind faith than intelligent conviction." (From an 1861 letter from Wallace to his brother-in-law Thomas Sims).

Q. Why do most people think that Darwin was the sole originator of the theory of natural selection?

Letter from the Royal Society
Letter from the Royal Society to Wallace 1890. Copyright Wallace Literary Estate, The Natural History Museum, Fred Edwards

A. This is a tricky one, because the explanation has to take into account that during Wallace's lifetime he was widely acknowledged to be the co-discoverer of the theory. In fact natural selection was often called the Darwin-Wallace theory and the highest possible honours of the land were bestowed on him by the scientific establishment for his role as its co-discoverer. These include the Darwin–Wallace and Linnean Gold Medals of the Linnean Society of London; the Copley, Darwin and Royal Medals of the Royal Society (Britain's premier scientific body); and the Order of Merit (awarded by the ruling Monarch as the highest civilian honor of Great Britain). It was only in the 20th century that Wallace became totally eclipsed by Darwin. My working hypothesis to explain this is as follows: In the late 19th and early 20th century natural selection as an explanation for evolutionary change became very unpopular, with most biologists adopting alternative theories such as neo-Lamarckism, orthogenesis, or the mutation theory (also see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nl2a4C7X8l4&feature=player_embedded). It was only with the modern evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s that natural selection became the widely accepted mechanism of evolutionary change. However, by then the history of the discovery had largely been forgotten (there was a new generation of biologists) and when interest in the theory revived many wrongly assumed that the idea had first been published by Darwin in his book The Origin of Species. Thanks to the 'Darwin Industry' of recent decades Darwin's fame has been rising exponentially, overshadowing the important contributions of his contemporaries, like Wallace.

Q. Was Wallace really more Darwinian than Darwin himself?

A. Yes, if by "Darwinian" we mean an acceptance that most evolutionary change is driven by the process of natural selection. Wallace vigorously rejected Lamarckism (the inheritance of acquired characteristics), beginning with his seminal essay of 1858. He correctly insisted throughout his long life that natural selection is the primary mechanism of evolutionary change. Darwin, however, always believed that what he called "use and disuse" inheritance (i.e. Lamarckism) played a role alongside natural selection, and in 1868 he even developed an elaborate theory he called Pangenesis to explain how it might work (for more information see this paper). Ironically, the term "neo-Darwinism" was originally coined by Butler in 1880 with reference to Wallace's view of evolution i.e. that natural selection is the primary driving force and that acquired characters are NOT inherited. This very modern view of evolution should be renamed "Wallaceism" as Romanes proposed in 1889, since Wallace was the first proponent of it.

Q. Were Darwin and Wallace the first to discover natural selection?

A. No, but the situation is somewhat complex! A number of earlier authors can lay claim to the theory of adaptive evolution by natural selection (e.g. James Hutton in 1794William Charles Wells in 1818 and Patrick Matthew in 1831), but what sets Darwin and Wallace's 1858 'joint paper' apart from these previous suggestions is that it was the first explicit, well-argued and detailed proposal of the idea. Earlier suggestions were not clear or convincing enough to persuade readers to take the idea seriously and they were therefore ignored by subsequent thinkers. In contrast, Darwin and Wallace's joint papers were not ignored and persuaded scientists and others to seriously consider, and accept, their suggestion.

Hutton proposed that races (subspecies) could evolve within a species via a process of natural selection (microevolution), whilst Matthew seems to have been the first to speculate that the same process was also the mechanism driving macroevolutionary change - thus an explanation for the origin of species. Since microevolution and macroevolution are simply labels for the opposite ends of an evolutionary continuum ("macroevolution is the product of microevolution writ large"), and natural selection is a mechanism driving evolutionary change in general (from one end of the continuum to the other), the person who deserves the lion's share of the credit is James Hutton, as it was he who discovered adaptive evolution by natural selection (although he didn't call it that). Neither Matthew, nor Darwin and Wallace in 1858, nor Darwin in his book Origin of Species, actually proposed a plausible mechanism to explain how speciation takes place - they just suggested it happened via natural selection. Interestingly it was possibly Wallace who, later on, was the first to explain how new species arise - by his theory now called the Wallace Effect. If this is correct (and more research is required) then the first person to explain the origin of new species was actually Wallace!

Here are two analogous hypothetical examples to help explain this situation:

1) Jim Hutton was a clock maker in the 15th century who invented a new mechanism to drive the mechanism of a clock - the spring (existing clocks were powered by hanging weights). He believed that clocks couldn't be made any smaller than the one-foot tall examples he produced - and the idea of a tiny device which could be slipped into a pocket was scoffed at by him and his fellow clock makers. Many years later a farmer named Pat Matthew speculated that a tiny spring-driven timepiece was possible, but he didn't make one. Technological developments in the following decades led partners Alf Wallace and Chas Darwin to actually design and build the first pocket watch, which was driven by the same design of spring that Jim Hutton had invented. Curiously, it was the invention of the spring drive which had made the pocket watch possible in the first place, since the hanging weight drive of earlier times would not have functioned in a pocket watch. So Pat had a nice idea which he never followed through, whilst Chas and Alf actually created a device which Jim didn't believe was possible, using the mechanism that Jim had invented.

2) From ancient times people noticed that when apples fell off trees they moved downwards in a straight line towards the Earth and a few even noted this observation in print. In the 18th century Jim Hutton suggested there was an invisible force of attraction between objects and that the larger one pulls the smaller one towards it (he didn't name the force). A few decades later farmer Pat Matthew described the force as "gravitational attraction" and speculated that the orbiting of the planets around the Sun might be due to it, but he didn't explain how this might work. His speculations appeared in the appendix to his book on growing turnips, and no one noticed them... Another few decades went by until collaborators Chas Darwin and Alf Wallace explained in detail how the orbiting of the planets was explainable by the operation of this force (which Darwin named "gravity") plus other factors. Later workers worked out the fine mathematical details of how the force works. So Hutton might be regarded as the discoverer of gravity, Matthews was the first person who speculated that celestial mechanics might be explainable by it, Darwin and Wallace were the first people to seriously attempt to actually explain it, and later workers were those who worked out the nitty-gritty details of how the force functions.

I should add that assigning credit according to priority of publication is merely a subjective convention - not an inalienable law of the universe. Personally I think an attribution system based on evolution itself might be preferable. So Hutton, Wells and Matthew's ideas, their memes, are dead withered twigs on the great Tree of Knowledge. They were not taken seriously by anyone and did not give rise to the vigorous intellectual lineage which is modern evolutionary theory - in marked contrast to Darwin and Wallace's memes - which were the direct intellectual ancestor of a vast radiating lineage of interesting ideas (i.e. the modern discipline of evolutionary biology).

See THIS EXCELLENT WEBSITE and THIS BOOK for more information. Also see my article about the unfounded allegations that Wallace and Darwin stole the idea of natural selection from Patrick Matthew HERE

Q. Did Wallace believe in Spiritualism, and if so, can he be taken seriously?

A. Wallace become a believer in Spiritualism when he was in his 40's. Many other intellectuals, including scientists (e.g. Darwin's cousin, the scientist Francis Galton) also became interested in Spiritualism at around the same time - the 1860's (it was fashionable). Wallace's world view was gradually transformed from one which was scientific and materialistic, to (by the early 1900's) one in which everything in "the world of life" had been preordained by a supreme intelligence and effected through a host of spiritual beings. It is surely not coincidental that Wallace developed most of his best scientific ideas before his mind was possessed (pun intended) by Spiritualism!

Many scientists have sought to denigrate Wallace by mocking his belief in Spiritualism, which is ironic considering that that paragon of scientific virtue, Charles Darwin, believed in a God. Darwin rejected Christianity in the latter part of his life but apparently believed in the existence of a God, probably until the end of his days, according to Darwin experts Janet Browne, James Moore & John van Wyhe. It is an interesting fact that Darwin was a deist, whilst Wallace was a materialist/agnostic, at the time they developed their 'heretical' ideas of natural selection.

For more information about Darwin's religious views see:-
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9316654 (interview with Browne)
http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/darwin/ (interview with Moore)
http://publicdomainreview.org/2011/06/28/was-charles-darwin-an-atheist/ (article by van Wyhe)
https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/belief-section (article by the Darwin Correspondence Project)

A person's scientific work should be judged on its merits - not in relation to other, possibly irrational, beliefs that that person may also hold at the time, or held in the past or the future. Otherwise we would be on a slippery slope leading to the scientific equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition. Under this regime Sir Ronald A. Fisher, who Richard Dawkins once described as "the greatest of Darwin's successors", would have been (metaphorically) burnt at the stake for his strongly held Christian beliefs! People are entitled to their beliefs, and religious belief is not necessarily incompatible with science. Indeed thousands of people around the world of many different religions are doing excellent science all the time. Science is *not* a religion - it is a powerful method of investigating and discovering the true nature of the natural world.

Scientists embrace many of Wallace's scientific ideas, such as warning colouration and natural selection, since they have withstood subsequent scientific scrutiny and have become established scientific theories. However, Wallace's Spiritualistic beliefs are rejected by scientists, since they are untestable and therefore unscientific. Scientists don't simply believe everything another scientist, however famous and well respected, might say! Ideas are only of interest to Science if they are testable and if they withstand subsequent scientific investigation. Even in the case of Darwin, Science rejects his Lamarckian theory of Pangenesis (because no evidence was found to back this idea up) and his belief in God (since the existence of such a deity is scientifically untestable).

It should be remembered that it is always necessary to 'winnow the wheat from the chaff' with respect to the ideas originated by a human mind over the course of a lifetime. Whilst most people don't ever devise any ideas which are novel, scientifically valuable and enduring, Wallace originated many such thoughts and he should be remembered for these.

On a personal note: Some may be interested in how Wallace's worldview developed over time, but what interests me is evaluating his contributions to science and crediting him with these. My position can be explained by considering the following hypothetical example: Say, for example, that Wallace was the first to discover that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the sun around the earth, and had made a convincing case for this which other scientists tested and accepted, but when he was a very old man he adopted the ancient Egyptian belief that the sun was rolled across the sky by a giant dung beetle - an idea which scientists rejected. I would argue that he should be amply credited with his earlier profound discovery, but I would not find it especially interesting to know why he changed his mind about it later in life. The history of science is littered with with erroneous ideas and science progresses by selecting out those which withstand scientific scrutiny. This process is a little like artificial, or even natural selection, so perhaps it should be called 'scientific selection'!

Q. Did Wallace come to believe in Intelligent Design (ID)? A. Well, he was never a creationist and he shed the vesitges of his belief in Christianity when he was a young man. The notion that the spirit world guides evolution (which Wallace developed when he was in his late 70's) is scientifically untestable and therefore falls outside the realm of Science. It is curious that believers in Christian Intelligent Design have adopted Wallace as their 'guru', even though Wallace was a 'table rapping' Spiritualist, not a Christian!

Note that Wallace believed that man had evolved from earlier non-human ancestors and, perhaps curiously, that the spirit world was part of the natural world and could therefore be investigated scientifically. He never believed in the 'supernatural' in the way that many religions do.

See Wallace scholar Charles Smith's answer here and Michael Shermer's answer here.

Q. Was Wallace Welsh?

This question is as difficult to answer as it is divisive.

Wallace was born in Monmouthshire near the town of Usk on January 8th, 1823. At that time Monmouthshire was part of England, although it had previously been part of Wales, as indeed it is again today. Wallace's parents were both English and had moved to the Usk area from London around 1820. Discussing his early childhood near Usk in My Life, Wallace says that he was "...exceedingly fair, and my long hair was of a very light flaxen tint, so that I was generally spoken of among the Welsh-speaking country people as the 'little Saxon.'” He also calls himself an Englishman in his writings - never once referring to himself as a Welshman! There is no disputing, however, that Wallace's time in Wales was very important for his intellectual development. His interest in natural history developed whilst he was living in the Neath area and he also became convinced in the reality of evolution during the period he was living there.

The question about Wallace's nationality is the same as asking: was the Roman emperor Trajan Roman or Spanish? Trajan was born into a family of Italian origin, in Spain - which at the time of his birth was part of the Roman Empire i.e. the province of Hispania Baetic. So if you think that Trajan was Roman, then you should regard Wallace as English, and if you think Trajan was Spanish, then you should regard him as Welsh! Perhaps it would be more logical and healthy if we broke away from our tribalistic mindset, and regarded ourselves simply as part of a globally distributed species of African origin!

For more discussion about where Wallace was English or Welsh see http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/FAQ.htm#Welsh


Misconception: Wallace sent Darwin a letter in which he briefly explained his idea of natural selection....

Correction: This is not actually true and it diminishes the importance of Wallace's contribution. Wallace actually sent Darwin an extensive and detailed scientific article describing natural selection, together with a covering letter. Wallace's paper was published in its entirety in the Darwin-Wallace paper of 1858, together with some fragments of Darwin's writings which had not originally been written for publication. To read the text of this paper click here. To download a pdf of Wallace's annotated copy of the paper click here. This copy was sent to Wallace, probably by Darwin, whilst he was in the Malay Archipelago. See chapter 4 of my book Natural Selection and Beyond: The Intellectual Legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace for an analysis of the annotations in it.

Misconception: Wallace's discovery of natural selection came from nowhere in a feverish flash in February 1858....

Correction: By Wallace's own admission the theory did occur to him whilst he was suffering from a fit of fever, but what is often not mentioned (perhaps in order to make it seem like Wallace's idea was a lucky guess!) is the fact that Wallace had been searching for the mechanism of evolutionary change since at least 1847 i.e. for eleven long years. Wallace become an evolutionist after reading Chamber's book Vestiges in 1845 and the main aim of his expedition to the Amazon with Bates in 1848 was to attempt to discover the mechanism driving evolution (for more information click here). Wallace had been actively thinking about and developing his ideas about evolution in a systematic fashion ever since 1847. He gained vital understanding of the distribution of organisms in space and time and of the variation between individuals of a species from his extensive reading and most importantly from his collecting work in Brazil and the Malay Archipelago. Indeed, he published a number of important papers on these subjects prior to his discovery of natural selection  - the best known being his famous 1855 "Sarawak Law" paper (his 1856 paper of the evolution of birds (http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S028.htm) and his 1857 paper on the natural history of the Aru islands (http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S038.htm) are also very important). The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when during his famous attack of fever, he remembered what he had read about the 'struggle for existence' in Malthus' book twelve years or so earlier. The picture was then complete: he had discovered natural selection.

Misconception: The Darwin-Wallace paper of 1858 generated very little interest after its publication.

Correction: This myth probably originated from one, or both, of two sources. The first was the famous disingenuous statement made by anti-evolutionist Thomas Bell, the President of the Linnean Society, in his presidential report published in 1859 i.e. that “The year which has passed [1858] 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.” It seems likely that his comment was intended to be a slight aimed at the Darwin-Wallace paper, but many have taken it at face value. It is frequently quoted by writers who wish to downplay the significance of the 1858 paper. The second is a well known remark made by Darwin in his autobiography:- "...our joint productions excited very little attention, and the only published notice of them which I can remember was by Professor Haughton of Dublin, whose verdict was that all that was new in them was false, and what was true was old. This shows how necessary it is that any new view should be explained at considerable length in order to arouse public attention." Well, he would say that given that he was the author of a large book on the subject! Darwin's memory must have been failing him, since it is known that he discussed many of the comments published about his and Wallace's paper in letters to his friends and colleagues in 1858 and 1859 (see his published correspondence).

This is what Darwin expert Janet Browne has to say regarding the impact of the paper: "The double paper appeared in the Linnean Society Journal (in the zoological section) in August 1858. During the next two or three months it was reprinted either in full or in part in several popular natural history magazines of the day. A number of people made their views known in letters, reviews, and journals. There were more notices than usually assumed.

Richard Owen, for example, referred to the paper in his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Leeds in September 1858, praising Wallace's explanation of the way varieties replace one another, although hastily adding that there was no reason to think that this accounted for the origin of species. Owen's published address had a wide circulation.....Another acquaintance of Darwin's, the botanist Hewett Cottrell Watson, added an excitable word or two about the new theory to the next volume of his series on British plants, Cybele Britannica. And when extracts from Darwin's and Wallace's papers were reprinted in the popular magazine Zoologist, only a few correspondents raised their eyebrows....A young naturalist called Alfred Newton, a junior fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge, sat up late into the night clutching his copy of the Journal. "I shall never forget the impression it made on me," he wrote afterwards. "Herein was contained a perfectly simple solution of all the difficulties which had been troubling me for months." Within a week he persuaded his college friend, a trainee ordinand, Henry Tristram, to agree, and Tristram prepared a short paper on the birds of North Africa for the influential ornithological journal Ibis....Hooker published comments on Darwin's and Wallace's evolutionary views in the substantial essay on Tasmanian plants that he was compiling....There, he announced his support for "the ingenious and original reasonings and theories by Mr. Darwin and Mr. Wallace." (Browne, J. 2002. The Power of Place. Vol. 2 of Charles Darwin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

Given the considerable interest that the Darwin-Wallace paper generated, there is no reason to suppose that it would not have lead to the development of the modern science of evolutionary biology, if Darwin's book Origin of Species had never been published. It just might have taken a bit longer.

Misconception: Darwin and Wallace's theories of natural selection as published in the 1858 papers weren't the same (and Darwin's theory was nearer the truth!).

Correction: A number of people have suggested that the theories of natural selection devised by Darwin and Wallace were significantly different, but a number of other people have been quick to point out that these people were incorrect! Historian Peter Bowler, for example, has argued that Wallace was a group selectionist - that the "varieties" he spoke about in his 1858 essay were actually subspecies rather than variant individuals (aberrations or sports) within a population. Bowler's assertion has, however, been comprehensively rebuked by Malcolm Kottler (1985. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace: Two decades of debate over natural selection. In David Kohn (Ed.), The Darwinian Heritage (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press): 367-432). Wallace's paper would simply not make much sense if you replaced "subspecies" for "variety"! In any case, reading entries made in 1855 in his unpublished 'Species Notebook' in the Linnean Society leaves one in no doubt that by "variety" he meant one or more individuals in a population which differ in some way from the ancestral state (also see http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=A334&viewtype=text&pageseq=11 and HERE). The current consensus is that Darwin and Wallace's concepts of natural selection were very similar if not identical - which is exactly what Darwin, Wallace and their colleagues also thought! To read a recent paper comparing the two men's theories click here.

Misconception: Darwin has priority of the theory of natural selection, because he discovered it 20 years before Wallace.

Correction: The theory of natural selection was first published by Darwin and Wallace in August 1858 (15 months before Darwin's Origin of Species was printed), so Darwin and Wallace are co-discoverers of the idea (if we discount Patrick Matthew et al - see above). The convention in Science is that publication is everything. It is irrelevant from the point of view of scientific priority that Fred Smith might have conceived the idea of natural selection four hundred years ago if he never got around to publishing it.

For a Belorussian translation by Martha Ruszkowski see http://webhostinggeeks.com/science/mythsmisconceptions-be

For a Belarussian translation by Nastasya Zemina click HERE

For a Romanian translation by Adrian Pantilimonu see http://sciencespaces.com/intrebari-frecvente-mituri-idei-preconcepute-si/

For a Hungarian tranlation by Szabolcs Csintalan see:

Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith