Wallace: The Forgotten Evolutionist? An Exhibition at National Museum Cardiff, runs until 9 March 2014.
Wallace was many things; an intrepid explorer, a brilliant naturalist, a social activist, political commentator and one of the leading evolutionary thinkers of the 19th century. He died on the 7th November 1913 at the age of ninety. Wallace: The Forgotten Evolutionist?, an exhibition at National Museum Cardiff until 9 March 2014, is a celebration of his life and work, raising our awareness of this remarkable Welshman.
Wallace is most famously associated with co-discovering the process of evolution by natural selection alongside Charles Darwin. Yet we have all heard of Darwin, whilst Wallace has become more of a forgotten figure.
Born in Llanbadoc, near Usk, in 1823, and educated in Hertford, Wallace moved back to Wales in 1845 and spent a number of years in the Neath area as an architect and surveyor. It was during this period his passion for natural history really developed, influenced by the writings of great naturalists such as Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell and Robert Chambers.
This inspiration led Wallace to embark on a great adventure. Accompanied by another young naturalist, Henry Bates, Wallace travelled to Brazil to explore the Amazon and collect insect and animal specimens for his private collection and to sell back to collectors in the UK. However disaster befell as he was returning to England when the ship he was on caught fire and sank, taking with it the majority of his specimens.
Back in London Wallace set about writing a number of academic papers and two books which allowed him to return to his travels. From 1854 to 1862 he travelled through the Malay Archipelago, a trip that was to significantly drive and further shape his thinking, not only on evolutionary theory, but about the geographical distribution of animals – now known as biogeography. In 1858 he sent an article outlining his ideas on evolution to Darwin, which ultimately led to the joint presentation of both of their papers to the Linnean Society and the birth of the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Wallace became a renowned part of the scientific establishment and although he struggled financially he continued to publish widely and had always been strongly attracted to unconventional ideas. One such area was his advocacy, in later life, for Spiritualism which strained his relationship with much of the scientific establishment. He was also a social activist and had been influenced in his early years by notable social reformers such as Robert Owen.