Evolution theorist Alfred Russel Wallace goes online

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News

Image caption,
Wallace in 1862: The naturalist spent eight years in South East Asia

The great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace now has an online presence to match that of Charles Darwin.

The two men independently formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection, and announced it in tandem in July 1858

But it is one of those quirks of history that Darwin got all the fame.

His collected works were digitised and posted on the web in 2006. Now, the writings and drawings of Wallace have received the same treatment.

The effort has been completed by the same historian, too - John van Wyhe.

But whereas Dr van Wyhe produced Darwin Online from Cambridge University, UK, he has led the new Wallace Online project from the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Wallace was a major scientific figure in South East Asia.

"What this should hopefully do is result in a major upgrade in the quality of writing about Wallace," the historian told BBC News.

"Next year is the centenary of his death. Just like 2009 was the big Darwin year, 2013 will be the big Wallace year. And I hope now that people have access to all of his literature, it will make a big difference to what they say and write about him."

Wallace Online gathers together in one place for the first time all of the naturalist's writings and illustrations.

There are 28,000 pages of searchable documents and 22,000 images. Among the online gems is that first announcement of the theory of evolution delivered to a London scientific meeting 154 years ago.

Media caption,
Dr John van Whye: "Wallace discovered evolution in south east Asia"

It remains one of the great coincidences in scientific history that the one person Wallace should choose to approach to share his ideas on natural selection was the only other scientist who separately had come to the same conclusions - Charles Darwin.

Quite why Wallace never achieved a similar level of fame has long been debated, but the lower profile should not be seen as a reflection on the man's talents or achievements, argues Dr van Wyhe.

The Wallace Online collection certainly bears testament to a prolific output. Like Darwin, Wallace was also a great traveller, spending large chunks of time in Brazil (1848-1853) and in South East Asia (1854-1862).

"It's very appropriate that we've done Wallace Online from NUS because Wallace was the pioneering figure in the study of this part of the world," said Dr van Wyhe.

Image caption,
Wallace collected 125,000 specimens of insects and birds

"He spent eight years here, using Singapore as his base. He made major discoveries - he discovered hundreds of new species, going to places no naturalist had ever gone to before. And then, of course, there is The Wallace Line."

The Wallace Line is a term still in use today and refers to the sharp division between the types of animals in Australia and those on the Asian archipelago.

Wallace identified this abrupt transition, but could not satisfactorily explain it. Nor would he have been able to.

It is only with the 20th Century theory of plate tectonics that scientists can now describe how Australia, with its unique flora and fauna, was delivered from another part of the globe and abutted to South East Asia.

Dr van Wyhe said: "Wallace is an amazing example of somebody who had no privilege, no wealth, no connections - and who went out on his own to make his own way in the world; and he discovered so many amazing things, not just evolution.

"That's why for so many people, he remains such an inspiring figure.

"He's the sort of person that you can aspire to be. You can just do it yourself through independent thinking and hard work."

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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