New book explores Wallace's legacy

21 November 2008

An important new book about Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, is published this week.

New book Natural Selection and Beyond explores Alfred Russel Wallace's legacy

New book Natural Selection and Beyond explores Alfred Russel Wallace's legacy

Natural Selection and Beyond: The Intellectual Legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace is a rich collection of writings by more than 20 historians and scientists, which reviews and reflects on  the influential work that made Wallace famous in his own time.

The 482-page book is co-edited by George Beccaloni, Wallace expert at the Natural History Museum, and Charles Smith from Western Kentucky University, USA.

150th anniversary

Natural Selection and Beyond is launched at a 1-day conference this weekend at the Linnean Society. 

Its publication coincides with the 150th anniversary this year of the presentation of Wallace's and Charles Darwin's joint paper introducing the theory of natural selection at the society in July 1858.

A man of many talents

Wallace’s evolution theory changed our view of the natural world and was a major achievement in itself. However, Wallace didn't stop there, and went on to make important contributions to several other fields, ranging from astrobiology and anthropology to glaciology and epidemiology. 

He is also regarded as being the 'father' of the science of zoogeography (the study of the distribution of animal species).

The multi-talented Wallace was also one of the most important biologists, collectors and naturalists of tropical regions in the 19th century. His famous travelogue The Malay Archipelago has not been out of print since it was first published in 1869.

Wallace’s area of interest also included topics such as land reform, socialism and spiritualism.

World's most famous scientist

During his long life Wallace wrote over 800 articles and 22 books and at the time of his death, he was probably the world's most famous scientist. 

The extraordinary range of his intellectual work is not widely appreciated today, but Natural Selection and Beyond aims to rectify this. It tells the full story of his work and examines the impact his ideas still have today.

Not forgotten

‘It is extraordinary that someone as important and well known as Wallace could have been so rapidly forgotten after their death,’ says Beccaloni.

‘I think that it was basically bad luck that various things happened which made the public, and even many biologists, forget about him and his groundbreaking work.’

‘One of these was that World War 1 started soon after his death in 1913, so people's minds were on more important things.'

'When people started to get interested in natural selection again after the war, many wrongly assumed that the theory of natural selection had first been published in Darwin's book On the Origin of Species,’ Beccaloni concludes.