Science + Technology

Stepping out of Darwin’s shadow: UCLA celebrates the legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace

‘Rock star’ scientists highlight Nov. 15 event

Alfred Russel Wallace
Copyright G.W. Beccaloni

A painting of Alfred Russel Wallace by Henry Constantine Richter

Charles Darwin probably has received too much credit for conceiving of evolution by natural selection, says UCLA professor Daniel Blumstein.

And Alfred Russel Wallace, a Darwin contemporary, has received too little.

“But I think that’s changing,” said Blumstein, chair of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology in the UCLA College.

To celebrate Wallace’s monumental contributions to science, UCLA is hosting a series of events that roughly coincide with the 100th anniversary of his death. The celebration will be highlighted by a day-long program from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 15, at UCLA’s Schoenberg Auditorium.

The program will feature TED-style talks by “rock star scientists,” said Feelie Lee, the director of UCLA’s Wallace Centennial Celebration. It will cover Wallace’s contributions to science, as well as his views on science and religion. Speakers will include:

  • Jared Diamond, a professor of geography and environmental health sciences at UCLA, Pulitzer prize winner and author of five best-selling books about human societies and human evolution, including “The Third Chimpanzee,” “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “Collapse”.
  • Andrew Berry, an evolutionary biologist and historian of science at Harvard University, whose books include “Infinite tropics: An Alfred Russel Wallace Anthology.”
  • Frans B. M. de Waal, a biologist at Emory University known for his work on the social intelligence of primates whose latest book is “The Bonobo and the Atheist.” De Waal was selected by Time in 2007 as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, and by Discover in 2011 as one of the “great minds of science.”
  • Wade Davis, a professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia and author of 18 books, including “Into the Silence,” “The Wayfinders” and “The Serpent and the Rainbow.”
  • Edward Larson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of science, whose books include “Evolution’s Workshop: God and Science in the Galapagos Islands,” and “Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory.”
  • Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and editor of, whose books include “In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace.”
  • Soraya de Chadarevian, a professor at the University of Cambridge in England whose expertise concerns the history of the biomedical sciences from the 19th century to the present.
  • Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a professor in UCLA’s division of cardiology and the department of ecology and evolutionary biology whose patients include gorillas, lions, wallabies and humans. She is the co-author of “Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health.”

Although Wallace is barely known to the public today, he was arguably the world’s most famous scientist in the early 1900s. He and Darwin independently conceived of evolution by natural selection, but that was only one of his many achievements, Blumstein said.

A self-taught anthropologist, Wallace collected more than 125,000 specimens, including 212 new species of birds, 900 new species of beetles and 200 new species of ants.

“Wallace was an extraordinary field biologist, perhaps the greatest who ever lived,” said Alan Grinnell, a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology. “To have the patience, skill, and self-discipline to make huge collections of insects, birds, mammals, plants and geological specimens, and keep them dry and parasite-free for months to years in a wet tropical rainforest environment while living through multiple bouts of malaria and other tropical diseases was a remarkable achievement.”

Grinnell said that, like Darwin, Wallace constantly asked important questions that other scientists had overlooked — how to account for the distribution of animals and plants, why certain species are found in one place but not in similar environments in other places, and what limits the number of species in any one location.

“Together, Wallace and Darwin began a revolution that completely changed the face of science and the popular view of the history of the earth and life on it,” he said.

Patricia Adair Gowaty, a distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in the UCLA College, said that while Wallace is almost forgotten by many, his achievements are enduring.

“His observations, discoveries and theories continue to guide 21st century scientific research, even when we have forgotten the source of the ideas,” she said. “His major contributions to anthropology, biogeography, biodiversity, community ecology and taxonomy have been far-reaching, and their reach still extends.”

Wallace believed in spiritualism, which was controversial in the scientific community. He also was a social activist who was deeply committed to women’s rights and the environment, Lee said, adding that he was a humble, self-effacing man who likely would have considered the celebrations excessive.

Tickets are $35 for the full day and $25 for either the morning or afternoon session and may be purchased at the Wallace Celebration website. Proceeds will support the A.R. Wallace Fund, which enables UCLA undergraduates to propose and conduct research projects internationally.

The Nov. 15 program is part of a larger Alfred Russel Wallace Centenary Celebration that began last year in London and continued in Singapore, Borneo, Boston, New York City and elsewhere. UCLA is also hosting “Wallace Walks” — walking tours of the campus’s Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden and the Fowler Museum for K-12 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District — and a graduate seminar on Wallace taught by Gowaty.

Funding for UCLA’s Wallace events has been provided in part by the John Templeton Foundation. 

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