An Irishman's Diary

 

ALFRED Wallace is almost forgotten now. But 150 years ago today, he shared joint billing at a meeting in London for an idea that would change the world.

"The most important idea to occur to a human mind," as it has been called, had occurred independently to two. The other belonged to the man posterity would choose to remember for it: Charles Darwin.

As luck decreed, neither of the great minds to think alike was present at the meeting of the Linnean Society on July 1st, 1858. Unlike his wealthy rival, Wallace needed to work for a living. While his paper was being read in London, he was in Malaysia, busy as a naturalist and supplier of specimens to the burgeoning market of collectors.

Darwin, meanwhile, was in crisis. His family had been stricken with scarlet fever. One of his daughters had diptheria. He himself was sick. And by July 1st, he was grieving the death three days earlier of his infant son, Charles.

In the authors' absence, the 30 or so scientists gathered at the Linnean seem to have been baffled by the separate papers proposing a theory of evolution by natural selection. It is said that another scientist, scheduled to present his thoughts on the unchanging nature of British flora, was so perturbed by the Wallace-Darwin idea that he withdrew his paper unread.

But for the general audience, the shock of the idea was buried under information overload. Even the president of the society seemed to miss the point. In his annual review, he wrote that 1858 had not featured "any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionise the department of science".

Nevertheless, the idea was out and the agenda for much of the future development of scientific and philosophical thought had been set. So had the issue of who would get the credit. Thirty years later, after Darwin died, an admirer described the great man's dilemma in discovering Wallace's arrival at the same idea that he had been nursing quietly for 20 years.

"It pained him acutely to think that this naturalist, a trusted correspondent, an esteemed philosophical observer, and at the very time a wanderer far from home, should be deprived of the full glory of his ingenuity; and but for the counsel of judicious friends. . .Mr Darwin would have withdrawn every claim of his own to this great discovery".

The reality was a little less noble. Under the guise of joint billing, Wallace had been politely stitched up. Had he chosen another outlet to share his insights into evolution, it might now be "Wallacism" that fundamentalist US schools would be refusing to teach students. Instead he wrote to Darwin, the one man in the world who had already arrived at the same conclusion but who had kept it to himself so far, from fear of the consequences.

Alarmed at Wallace's latter, Darwin contacted friends with whom he had shared his thoughts on evolution: influential figures in the science establishment. "So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed," he wrote.

His friends took the hint - arranging that the presentation at the Linnean would include material establishing their man's prior claim.

Then Darwin, galvanised by the shock from Malaysia, got his act together and wrote up his 20 years of notes. On the Origin of Specieswas published in 1859, and the rest was history.

It is arguable that justice was done, in the end, even if Wallace did not deserve to be so completely eclipsed. Darwin did have the idea first, after all; he had spent two decades conducting experiments to support it; and he was certainly the greater scientist.

For Wallace, by contrast, it had been a moment of blinding insight - the product, literally, of a fevered mind. "One day, while lying on my bed during a cold fit, wrapped in blankets though the thermometer was at 88 [ degrees] fahr, the problem again presented itself [ and] there suddenly flashed upon me the idea of the survival of the fittest. . .In the two hours that elapsed before my ague fit was over, I had thought out almost the whole of the theory." Crucially, it was the weight of detail Darwin had accumulated that made their idea hard to argue with. Had it rested on Wallace alone, the theory's credibility might have suffered during the rest of his long and colourful life.

A religious man, Wallace had no problem reconciling evolution with the idea of a higher power (crime enough for some Darwinians). But he was also prone to the wackier spiritualist ideas of the late Victorian era. Twenty years after revolutionising science, for example, he relocated his family on the advice - communicated through "automatic writing" -of a dead brother.

In any case, he never seems to have minded being eclipsed. Darwin was impressed at his rival's saintly lack of envy and, in a letter, told Wallace he could have written a book at least as convincing as Origin of Species"if you had my leisure". As for Wallace, he was even more magnanimous and gave the cue to posterity by referring to the theory of evolution as "Mr Darwin's principle".

Today's anniversary starts the lead-up to next year's Darwin 200, the bicentenary of the scientist's birth. Celebrations in Ireland will be co-ordinated by the Irish Science Centres Awareness Network (iSCAN), under chairman Eoin Gill. A website dedicated to the event is being set up at www.iscan.ie