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On (re-)discovering Alfred Russel Wallace

By George Beccaloni


Two of my greatest passions in life are cockroaches and Alfred Russel Wallace, so I am fortunate to not only be the curator of the London Natural History Museum’s collection of orthopteroid insects (cockroaches and their relatives) but also the director of the Wallace Correspondence Project. And I’m in good company: naturalist Sir David Attenborough is the Patron of the Wallace Correspondence Project, and comedian Bill Bailey is the Patron of the Wallace Memorial Fund, of which I am Chairman.

Cockroaches and Wallace have something in common: although both are very important and interesting, they are sadly misunderstood and underappreciated by most people.

My interest in Wallace started when I was working on my PhD in the early 1990s. One of the subjects I studied was the evolution of mimicry in glasswing butterflies, a group which lives in the tropical rainforests of South and Central America. Reading about the theories which have been proposed to explain the function and evolution of animal colours I was struck by how great a contribution Wallace made to this field. I then discovered that he was the co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of nothing less than the theory of evolution by natural selection — a fact that even many biologists don’t seem to know!

Alfred_Russel_Wallace_(1912)

Twenty years later I am still learning fascinating things about him all the time. Wallace made many major contributions to biology and to subjects as diverse as glaciology, land reform, anthropology, ethnography, and epidemiology. He is regarded as being the ‘father’ of evolutionary biogeography (the study of how plants and animals are distributed), as well as a pioneer of astrobiology (the study of life on other planets). His book The Malay Archipelago is one of the most celebrated travel writings of the Victorian era and has never been out of print. Unfortunately Wallace has been relatively neglected by historians of science and no comprehensive biography about him has been written so far.

I first met Bill Bailey when he came to the Museum wanting to know more about the great man. An intelligent, down-to-earth, good-natured, decent bloke, Bill also happens to share my desire to correct the history books and give Wallace his fair due. He wants to tell the world about Wallace’s amazing life and work, and in particular he wants to put the record straight — that the theory of evolution by natural selection wasn’t conceived by Charles Darwin alone, but it was instead jointly published in August 1858 (fifteen months before Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species) by Darwin and Wallace.

That chance came in 2011, when the BBC commissioned two films to mark the 100th anniversary of Wallace’s death in 2013. Fortunately the Museum agreed that I could spend three weeks working with Bill and the BBC crew in Indonesia on the second programme. I had an incredible time: I experienced the first earthquake of my life (scary), got up close and personal with black macaques (one even used my back as a trampoline when I bent over to photograph an insect!), was enthralled by gremlin-like tarsiers, amazed by colossal coconut crabs, and blown away by Wallace’s standardwing birds of paradise displaying only about 10 metres away from me. The Sulawesi region is now one of my favourite places – especially the national park we visited on the island of Halmahera, which strongly reminded me of Conan Doyle’s Lost World.

And now, thanks to Bill’s series, a lot more people have  heard about Wallace and perhaps some day he may even reclaim his rightful place in scientific history.

A version of this article originally appeared on the BBC and Natural History Museum websites.

George Beccaloni is Curator of Orthopteroid Insects and Director of the Wallace Correspondence Project at the Natural History Museum, London. He was the co-editor of Natural Selection and Beyond: The Intellectual Legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace with Charles H. Smith.

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Image credit: Alfred Russel Wallace (1912). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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