This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

January 2003


8 January 1823:   Alfred Russell Wallace, Welsh co-discoverer of the theory of evolution, born.

Born in the Welsh borderland county of Monmouthshire, Alfred Russell Wallace’s interest in natural history began while he was working as a surveyor for the railways, which gave him the opportunity to observe first-hand the complex terrain that would make Wales a birthplace of the new science of geology in the mid-1800s.

As gangs of “navvies” cut through the hills of Wales they did more than open routes for railways and canals. The rock strata they exposed also opened the minds of scientists to the idea that the earth might be in fact far older than the traditionally accepted figure of 6000 years. Thirty years before Wallace’s birth, in 1793, a young English canal digger made the key observation that fossils could be used to date and identify the rock layers they were found in. That canal digger, William Smith, went on to compile the first geological map of Britain, which astonished the country when it was published in 1815.

At the age of twenty five Wallace sought greater adventures than laying out railways. He signed on with the naturalist H.W. Bates on an expedition up the Amazon River basin in 1848-52 and two years after returning from the Amazon he was off on an eight year expedition to Malaya to study the plant and animal species of that peninsula. Bedridden with a tropical fever in Indonesia in 1858 he spent his downtime pondering the ideas of Thomas Malthus. In his 1798 Essay on the Principal of Population, Malthus had argued that nature, through famine and disease, exerted its own checks on the growth of populations, and from that observation Wallace independently arrived at the idea of natural selection working as the driving force of evolution, as physically weaker individuals were removed from the population and individuals with more adaptive traits lived on to reproduce.

A few month later Wallace wrote to Charles Darwin in England, sharing his developing ideas on natural selection. It was, of course, a line of thought that Darwin himself was working on. The key difference between the two was that Wallace, unlike Darwin, didn’t accept that natural selection was the only force driving the evolution of life forms. Wallace published his thoughts in a paper in 1858, but while Wallace wrote a paper, Darwin wrote the book. Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 firmly established him in the mind of the public as the originator of the theory of evolution.

Wallace gracefully accepted the situation, and Darwin for his part was always willing to acknowledge Wallace as co-discoveror. It was a rare thing in the annals of science: a case of co-discovery resolved by gentlemanly agreement rather than by litigation. Wallace, after all, would not have been the only claimant. A generation before William Smith dug his first canal, a Scotsman titled Lord Monboddo had nearly tumbled onto the theory of evolution while making observations of the humanoid characteristics of the orangutang. His co-discovery acknowledged, Wallace was content to leave evolution to Darwin as his life’s work. The restless Welshman was already moving onto other things.

Wallace’s second, and lesser-known career, was as a land reformer. Observation of conditions and events in Ireland led him to advocate the nationalization and state ownership of agricultural lands, a radical idea that reached far beyond the Irish Land League’s plans to return the land of Ireland to its individual farmers.

An increasingly radical social critic and Socialist, Wallace to his great credit rejected and vehemently argued against the late 19th century notion of “social Darwinism” that reduced the theory of natural selection to the cliche phrase “survival of the fittest” and which promoted it as a social and economic principal. Wallace ended his life fighting against the bastardization of the evolutionary theory that ironically he had helped to construct.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2003 Celtic Calendar, available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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