The Story of Evolution

The background of the developers of "natural selection" and a new theory.

Posted Nov 27, 2020

It is well known that Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin both arrived at the principle of natural selection in evolution and both had been influenced by the population work of Thomas Robert Malthus. Although Darwin conceived the principle 20 years earlier, he fully acknowledged  Wallace's achievement in a joint report to the Linnean Society. Wallace continues to be honored and commemorated through the awarding of Darwin-Wallace Medals and the Darwin-Wallace Society.

In our current social environment and the 200-plus year celebration of Darwin's birth, however, it is worthwhile to set the record straight about the different social orientations of the two men and their different paths to the creation of the concept. Darwin had all his life been concerned about man's inhumanity to man through slavery. Wallace, however, had a more patrician attitude regarding the superiority of civilized peoples over savages as shown by his and Darwin's detailed descriptions of their formulation of the principle, as follows:

Darwin: "In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it."

Wallace: "I was [in 1858] suffering from a sharp attack of intermittent fever...One day something brought to my recollection Malthus’s 'Principles of Population' which I had read about twelve years before. I thought of his clear exposition of 'the positive checks to increase'—disease, accidents, war, and famine—which keep down the population of savage races to so much lower an average than that of more civilized peoples.

It then occurred to me that these causes or their equivalents are continually acting in the case of animals also....[I asked] the question, Why do some die and some live? And the answer was clearly, that on the whole the best fitted live...Then it suddenly flashed upon me that this self-acting process would necessarily improve the race, because in every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain—that is, the fittest would survive."

More recently, James Anthony Shapiro, a microbiologist at the University of Chicago has, on the basis of extensive research, developed an intricate and complex theory that evolution does not arise from chance alterations that then survive solely by "natural selection" as proposed by both Wallace and Darwin but that new changes and developments are produced by microscopic operating elements in both plant and animal genomes containing complete genetic instructions.

References

Darwin F. (ed.} Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. John Murray, 1887, pp.82-84

Wallace A.R. My Life. A Record of Events and Opinions. Vol.1 New York: Dodd Mead &Co. 1905 pp.361-362.