Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Study of Butterflies

The last day of the year, a day when many reflect on things that have happened over the previous 12 months. 2013 was the 100th anniversary of the death of one of the most important figures of nineteenth century biology. Everyone knows about Charles Darwin and his famous theory of evolution, but very few people know that a man born in Usk or to be more exact, Llanbadoc, developed a parallel theory of evolution at the same time as Darwin.

The story goes that the work of Alfred Wallace was drawn on by Darwin in presenting his theory of evolution. Charles Darwin saw Wallace's findings as a threat to his own status and subsequently went on to publish ' On The Origin of Species'  in his own right without crediting Wallace in any way for his contribution.

Wallace's birth place Kensington Cottage, Llanbadoc, Usk
Alfred Russel Wallace was born in Kensington Cottage Llanbadoc on 8 January 1823 where he lived until he was five years old when his family moved to Hertfordshire.Thomas and Mary Wallace had nine children and Alfred was the eighth born child. Three of his young sisters sadly did not survive childhood and are buried in Llanbadoc Church Yard. Wallace wrote about his early life just outside Usk and you can read this on the pages here.

In 1836 when he was 12,  the family was facing financial hardship and Alfred was sent to London to live with his older brother John. The following year at age 14, he went to Bedfordshire where he started working for his eldest brother William in his surveying business. Alfred learnt map making, trigonometry, building design and construction, mechanics and agricultural chemistry. It was while working for William that he began taking an interest in natural history.

In 1843, he accepted a position at the Collegiate School in Leicester, teaching drafting, surveying, English, and mathematics and took advantage of the library there to read more about natural history. He was later awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Dublin and Oxford University. Alfred left his position as a teacher and took over running William's surveying business in 1845 when William died, but he continued to be interested in natural history.

Inspired by a book 'Voyage Up the River Amazon' by William H. Edwards and fed up with the administrative aspects of the surveying business,Wallace decided, at age 25, to become a professional naturalist, collecting animal and plant specimens. He enlisted the help of Henry Walter Bates, an amateur naturalist whom he had met while teaching in Leicester, and the two set sail for the Amazon during April 1848.

Alfred Russel Wallace
Wallace spent four years exploring and collecting specimens, while also studying the people, the languages, and the geography. On the return trip to England, Wallace was forced to abandon ship with the rest of the crew when the cargo caught fire. His entire collection was lost as well as many of his notes and sketches. Nevertheless, he wrote six academic articles, including Travels on the Amazon, On the Monkeys of the Amazon, and Palm Trees of the Amazon and Their Uses.

Wallace studied the beautiful golden bird wing butterfly
Wallace’s conclusions concerning natural selection and the survial of the fittest, similar to those of Darwin, were arrived at after years of travel in wilderness areas, including the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago where he studied the many species of beetle and butterflies. He shared his ideas with Darwin, who saw Wallace as a threat to his preeminence in the field and immediately discussed the dilemma with two close friends, both of whom encouraged the presentation of Wallace’s essay along with some of Darwin’s writings at the July 1, 1858 meeting of the Linnean Society. Wallace did not learn of the presentation until after the fact. Drawing on the work of Wallace to support and corroborate his own findings of natural selection, Dawin, a much wealthier man who moved in more influential circles than Wallace, published and received acclaim for 'On The Origin of Species'.

In 2008 a  new book on the work of Wallace was published

A bronze statue of Wallace was unveiled at
The Darwin Centre in 2013
Comedian Bill Bailey and Sir David Attenborough, have been instrumental in improving awareness of Wallace's role in developing the theory of evolution and awarding him the credit he so deserved but didn't get. In 2012 Bill Bailey and Wallace's Grandson,  Richard, began campaigning to raise funds for a statue of Wallace to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death in 1913. A beautiful bronze statue of Wallace was unveiled at The Darwin Centre by Sir David Attenborough in November 2013. The statue depicts Wallace in his thirties in the field with a butterfly net during his expedition to the Malay Archipelago. It captures the moment when he first say the golden birdwing butterfly, Ornithoptera croesus, an event that Wallace found so exciting, he describes having a headache for the rest of the day. Watch unveiling of the statue of Wallace

Thanks to the work of Usk Civic Society, Usk has had it's own memorial to Wallace since 2006 near Llanbadoc Church, where Wallace was baptised, which was unveiled by Wallace's Grandson Richard.

Further Information

The Alfred Russel Wallace Website

BBC piece on Wallace

Brits at their Best 

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