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100-year anniversary of Alfred Russel Wallace’s death

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7 November 2013 by Alex Stewart

Co-publisher of theory of evolution's life and work commemorated.

To mark the 100-year anniversary of pioneering explorer and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace's death, the Natural History Museum has unveiled a statue of the man credited with the co-discovery of the theory of evolution by natural selection. This theory, which Wallace formulated independently of co-discoverer Darwin, went on to revolutionise the way in which we understand the natural world and our place in it.

Having befriended naturalist Henry Walter Bates, Wallace developed a passion for collecting wildlife specimens. Inspired by Darwin's report of his voyage on the Beagle and by explorer Alexander von Humboldt's account of his travels in South America, the two men travelled to the Amazon in 1848. Their aim was to investigate the origin of species.

Later, Wallace explored the Malay Archipelago and over a period of eight years collected more than 125,000 specimens, including more than 5,000 species new to science. During his voyage he noticed a striking pattern in the distribution of animals around the archipelago, a discovery that led to the recognition of the Wallace Line, an imaginary boundary between the animal life of the Asian and Australian regions. His vivid account of his journey was later published in the travel book the Malay Archipelago, noted for its colorful descriptions of birds of paradise and orangutans in particular.

Whilst on the island of Ternate in 1858, Wallace developed his theory of how species evolve. He contacted Darwin, who had been working on the subject for 20 years but was yet to publish. The ideas of both men were then presented to the Linnean Society. Darwin's masterpiece, The Origin of Species, came out the following year and was largely responsible for overshadowing Wallace and his involvement, although the two men remained friends and supporters of each others work.

Unlike Darwin, Wallace isn't a household name but increasingly his outstanding achievements and contributions are receiving the recognition they deserve. Organisations such as The Natural History Museum and partner institutions around the world are using the 100th anniversary of Wallace's death to commemorate his life and work and redress the balance.

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