Darwin, Wallace and the Sarawak Law by Dr John van Wyhe
Date : 30 Sep 2016
Time : 16:00 - 17:30
Venue : Asia Research Institute, Meeting Room
AS8 Level 7, 10 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore 119260
National University of Singapore @ KRC


Dr Connor Graham, Asia Research Institute, and Tembusu College, National University of Singapore


The story of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace coming up with the same theory of evolution is one of the most famous in the history of science. Wallace’s earlier celebrated paper written in Sarawak plays a pivotal role in this story. According to conventional histories, Wallace first publically declared his belief in evolution in this paper, before Darwin had done so. Indeed, Wallace laid out the theory of evolution minus only a mechanism. Yet when Darwin read it, he failed to see how close Wallace was approaching his own theory. But his friend the geologist Charles Lyell did see how close Wallace was approaching. He urged Darwin to publish his theory before he was forestalled by Wallace. Darwin wrote to Wallace to warn him to stay off his patch.

Despite being repeated in countless publications for many years, I will argue that every one of these points is in fact erroneous. There is a hidden thread that connects each one, and has led to their acceptance and dissemination by popular and scholarly writers during the past decades. The role of Wallace today as a popular underdog hero has proved so appealing, that the core of our histories has become radically altered.


John van Wyhe is a historian of science at the Department of Biological Sciences and a Fellow of Tembusu College, National University of Singapore. He is the founder and Director of Darwin Online. He has published ten books and lectures and broadcasts around the world. His research has resolved some of the most intractable mysteries and debunked long-standing myths in the field such as Darwin's delay, when Darwin received Wallace's evolution essay, whether Darwin was the naturalist on the Beagle, where the legend of Darwin's finches comes from, whether Darwin lost his faith when his daughter Annie died and whether Wallace set out to the Amazon to solve the problem of the origin of species. He curated the restoration of Darwin's Christ's College rooms (see here & here) and the Wallace exhibition at the Science Centre Singapore. His book Dispelling the Darkness completely overturns the traditional story of Darwin and Wallace based on the most in-depth research programme ever undertaken on Wallace's voyage in Asia including editing Wallace Online, Wallace's voyage lettersand notebooks to modern scholarly standards. As Darwin biographer Janet Browne has written "The story of Wallace will never be the same again". He is completing a biography of Ida Pfeiffer, the first female traveller to circle the globe alone and begun a new book on the evolving story of Darwin and Wallace since 1858. He was recently featured in Prestige magazine.


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Minghua TAY