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Science/Fiction

Alfred Russel Wallace: Evolution’s unsung hero

About the author

Described by the Times as “the world’s most enthusiastic man” and the Daily Mail as someone whose “wit and enthusiasm can enliven the dullest of topics”,  Quentin is a broadcaster, film critic and author best known for presenting the UK's most listened to science programme, The Material World on BBC Radio 4 . It’s “quite the best thing on radio”, according to Bill Bryson. You can find him on Twitter at @materialworld

Beetles collected by the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (Science Photo Library)

Beetles collected by the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (Science Photo Library)

Why do we airbrush out some of history’s most important scientists, wonders Quentin Cooper.

Recognition at last. The first ever statue of Alfred Russel Wallace was erected outside the Natural History Museum in London last week. Sir David Attenborough unveiled the statue, and I’m hosting a fundraising event for it on Saturday, featuring evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and comedian Bill Bailey. And in case that’s not commemoration enough, a newly discovered genus of wasps has been named Wallaceaphytis in his honour.

Wallace was feted during his lifetime, and has had hundreds of species, various buildings and even craters on the Moon and Mars named after him. Yet he has spent most of the century since his death in relative obscurity. This might not seem so unjust if the same fate had befallen the other guy. But in this case the other guy is Charles Darwin. And the theory they both independently devised and jointly published is that of evolution through natural selection.

The story of Wallace and Darwin is a prime example of how time and again we take collaborative, iterative achievements and present them as the work of lone geniuses with Eureka flashes of insight. Whether it’s Archimedes or Einstein, Curie or Hawking, Tesla or whoever, we celebrate them as extraordinary individuals who bucked convention and made momentous advances. Each was often years or even decades ahead of others in their field, and richly deserves their fame. But in reality we’re celebrating those who first articulated, or in some cases first popularised, ideas whose time had come. Sooner or later others would have got to the same point, and made the same, or a very similar, breakthrough.

Wallace’s contribution is not in dispute. Darwin frequently acknowledged not only that his fellow naturalist had come up with the same notions independently, but also that realising someone else was on the same trail had spurred him to stop mulling over his own ideas on evolution and get them published. Yet even within their lifetimes this theory that shook the world was often credited solely to Darwin.

So why did Wallace slip into the shadows? Darwin was already better known and a better writer, while the more modest Wallace seemed happy to let him take the lion’s share of the acclaim, even telling a friend “I really feel thankful that it has not been left to me to give the theory to the world”.

But beyond the specifics of this case, the story is part of a bigger picture which sees scientific reputations subjected to a different form of the survival of the fittest. Science, or at least popular science, loves its heroes. It’s one of the reasons schoolchildren in the UK are told television was invented by John Logie Baird, whereas ask them in Russia and they’re likely to say Vladimir Zworykin In the US Philo Farnsworth often gets the credit, while in Germany it’s Paul Nipkow. They all played a part, as many others did and still do because television continues to evolve, but we cling to the idea that ultimately it’s all down to one individual. Science is a team game but science history is fixated on a few star players.

No Nobel

It doesn’t help that most of the big awards are for one person. Even the Nobels can only be split a maximum of three ways and that’s often not enough. Hence although there was much rejoicing at Peter Higgs and François Englert sharing this year’s physics prize for work nearly 50 years earlier postulating what’s now known as the Higgs Boson, there was disappointment in some quarters that others who did key work – notably Tom Kibble, Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen and the now deceased Robert Brout – missed out. And bear in mind the award only came after the particle’s existence was confirmed at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider last year, research which has involved many thousands of scientists. How can such massive collective efforts fit with our antiquated way of honouring a few individuals?  

Already there are signs that, like Wallace, Francois Englert is being edged out of the frame so that, despite Peter Higgs’ own best effort to share the glory, he’ll end up being portrayed as another lone genius. This doesn’t only give a distorted view of how science increasingly works, it also feeds into many of the fears people have about it. Lone geniuses not only make great heroes, they make great villains, and from Dr Frankenstein to assorted Bond baddies we’ve had the image reinforced of scarily clever scientists either through hubris or malice being a danger to the rest of us. The idea of an entire research facility made up of evil scientists bent on global destruction seems somehow less plausible.

It’s a singular problem that would require a huge cultural shift to correct. I’m entirely behind the attempt to give Wallace the considerable credit he’s overdue – I wouldn’t be hosting the fundraiser if I wasn’t. But I’ve a feeling that although Darwin will remain synonymous with evolution, it’ll be a while before the name “Wallace” brings to mind anything other than “Cracking toast Gromit”.

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