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Darwin's Heretic (Alfred Wallace) NEWS

Whitewashing Alfred Russel Wallace

Writing in the Telegraph, geneticist Steve Jones gets a jump on the rest of us by pointing out that this year will mark the centennial of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace ("Alfred Russel Wallace, the man who pre-empted Darwin"). He died on November 7, 1913. Jones, who is Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London, hits the right note in emphasizing the strikingly modern quality of Wallace's ideas and other accomplishments. I've made the same point here, comparing Wallace to Darwin, his co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection ("The Thoroughly Modern Alfred Russel Wallace").

Dr. Jones writes:

In 1857 [Wallace] wrote to Charles Darwin, pre-empting his idea of natural selection, and Darwin, a true Victorian gent, suggested that they present a joint paper on the idea. Wallace, in turn, became his devotee, and is remembered mainly in that role.

In truth, he did far more. He started off life as a surveyor, and set out the street plan of Llandrindod Wells, in the Welsh borders. He then designed a council building in Neath. He travelled in South America, where his brother died and the ship carrying his specimens caught fire and sank.


He wanted to nationalise the railways, worked out that the Martian "canals" could not, for physical reasons, contain water and as early as 1909 wrote a bitter attack on the use of "flying machines in war." I once tried to film an interview outside his edifice in Neath, but was interrupted by a group of terrible old ladies who hung out of the windows of the old people's home next door, and shouted out: "Film us, we're old fossils, too!"

Wallace, too, is one of those -- but his ideas, from train fares to drone attacks to geology -- have a very modern air. How many of the greats of today will be able to say the same a century from now?

Jones describes Wallace's contribution in launching the study of biogeography. Much more interesting, though, is that Wallace came to reject strict Darwinism in favor of a proto-intelligent design, or what our friend and colleague Michael Flannery calls "intelligent evolution." Of this, Jones says nothing. Nothing.

Here's a prediction. As we approach the Wallace death centennial, you will hear a lot about how he "pre-empted," but very little about he ultimately came to reject, Darwin.