Scientific Methods

Thursday, June 01, 2006


Charles Darwin was 22 years old when he had signed on for a voyage on the Beagle. He had developed a keen interest in natural history, but it is said that be probably went on that voyage out of boredom or indecision. He had studied medicine and theology and was part of the establishment, coming from a wealthy family. His interest in biology started with collecting beetles. During his 5 year journey on the Beagle he concerned himself not only with biology, but also geology. He had developed his idea of evolution soon after he came back, but for more than 20 years he just tried to gather information to prove his theory, but he had not dared to publish it.

Alfred Russell Wallace came from a much poorer background. He had to leave school at the age of fourteen, due to financial constraints of his family. From there on he educated himself, partly through an apprenticeship in the surveying business, but mostly through reading books in public libraries. He became fascinated with biology and natural history. He had read amongst many Darwin's Journal and a book called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. In 1848 at the age of 25 he left on his first voyage, with one thing on his mind... to find the origin of species!

Through his travels exploring the world, funding himself by collecting beetles and other animal specimens for the collectors trade, Wallace came to almost the same conclusion as Darwin. He was a great admirer of Darwin and he had sent him a paper he indented to publish on natural selection. It is here where the conspiracy theory comes in. (Several books have been written on this "conspiracy theory", claiming that Darwin stole some of Wallace's ideas, like specie divergence, but I am not going to go into that detail.) What exactly happened after that, we will probably never know, but the result was that Darwin and Wallace jointly published and Darwin ended up getting all the credit.

So, why am I a Wallace fan? Probably because I am biased and I would rather support the underdog. Taking his background into account, the way he educated himself and fought his way up (unlike Darwin, who had a University education and knew the right people) I like to think that Wallace was the better scientist of the two (although he did do some weird stuff later in life!).

(Some Conspiracy Theory books: Just Before the Origin by John Langdon Brooks, Wallace and Natural Selection by H. Lewis McKinney, an article titled "Wallace, Darwin, and the Theory of Natural Selection" by Barbara G. Beddall published in the Journal of the History of Biology.) I cannot recommend one as I haven't read them.

Karen Marais
BCB Hons NISL student
University of the Western Cape
Private Bag X17