For our second GeoNet seminar guest lecturers Paul Sochaczwski and David Hallmark joined us to discuss the work and contributions of scientist and activist Alfred Russell Wallace. Paul recounted Wallace’s heroic journey to Rio Negro and South-Asia where he collected over 125,000 species, including orang-utans, birds of paradise, butterflies and beetles. This epic journey was no mean feat for Wallace, self-financing his travels over a distance of over 22,000km. He had to overcome many obstacles including language barriers, identifying new species without taxonomy books, preserving and protecting his species collection and shipping them safely back to England.
David Hallmark carried on the interesting discoveries of Wallace by discussing the extent of his role in the development of the Theory of Selection from a legal perspective. The question of whether Charles Darwin outright stole Wallace’s idea or whether he ‘developed’ and ‘adapted’ it was discussed. Darwin became obsessed with losing priority after Wallace sent him his Ternate Paper in 1858 and thus published his own work (on the origin of species) a year later without acknowledging Wallace. David suggests that Darwin deliberately omitted Wallace, claiming the 600+ page book as an abstract to avoid having to provide attribution. After hearing the evidence provided by David from witnesses, Darwin’s personal quotes, diary edits, and the timeframe of each scientists published papers it appears that Darwin did commit plagiarism rather than just the mistaken performance of an academic.
I personally found it interesting that David considered how many academics felt that Darwin deserved to have priority due to classist attitudes at the time. However, Wallace may have agreed, and thus stepped aside in order for the more influential and powerful Darwin to establish the Theory of Natural Selection and to contradict religious beliefs at the time.
The controversial topic sparked up an interesting discussion amongst the audience, with Darwin’s integrity as a scientist and a man coming under critique. Interestingly the audience still felt empathy towards Darwin despite the evidence suggesting that he had ‘stolen’ Wallace’s idea. The conclusion seemed to be that Wallace was regarded as a ‘reluctant hero’ who himself accepted Darwinism as an ‘adopted’ idea.
However, perhaps the real question is whether the world could handle or accept Wallace as the originator of the Theory of Selection and what effects this would have on current attitudes towards scientists and societies already present mistrust.
So the next time you have a lecture in Bournemouth University’s Wallace lecture theatre you’ll know it’s named after Alfred Russel Wallace!
Charlotte Unwin (intern to GeoNet)