Was Alfred Russel Wallace's Sarawak Law' Essay an Argument for Evolution or Not?

"...the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.." Thomas Henry Huxley, 1870

"...[the] whole fabric totters & falls." Charles Darwin, 1838

Historian John van Wyhe argued in his long and complex 2016 paper "The impact of A. R. Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper reassessed" that Wallace's famous 'Sarawak Law' essay of 1855 was not an argument in favor of the idea of evolutionary change, and that Charles Lyell was not heavily influenced by it when he first read it soon after it's publication. If van Wyhe is correct it would mean that virtually all previous scholars have misinterpreted the historical evidence and have reached false conclusions. So can they all be so very wrong?

van Wyhe believes that Lyell did not even realise that Wallace's essay was an argument in favor of evolution. He states that "...contrary to the traditional story, Lyell was not aware that Wallace actually believed that descent from ancestors explained the coincident pattern of new species appearing in the same place as similar predecessors..." The 'traditional story' he refers to was summarised by myself in a 2013 article as follows:

"In Sarawak, Borneo, in February 1855, Wallace produced one of the most important papers written about evolution up until that time. In it he proposed a ‘law’ which stated that "Every species has come into existence coincident both in time and space with a pre-existing closely allied species". He described the affinities (relationships) between species as being “...as intricate as the twigs of a gnarled oak or the vascular system of the human body” with “...the stem and main branches being represented by extinct species...” and the “...vast mass of limbs and boughs and minute twigs and scattered leaves...” living species. The eminent geologist and creationist Charles Lyell was so struck by Wallace’s paper that in November 1855, soon after reading it, he began a ‘species notebook’ in which he started to contemplate the possibility of evolution for the first time."

So is this all incorrect and was Lyell really oblivious to the evolutionary ideas in Wallace's essay as van Wyhe argues? It would seem not, because Lyell wrote the following to Wallace in a letter dated 19 November 1868 (original in Edinburgh University Library): "...when I first read your Paper [the 'Sarawak Law'] declaring that each new species had come into the world coincident in time & space with a closely allied species, it struck me as true though not capable of geological demonstration, and it shook my confidence together with other arguments in the same paper in the Independent Creation theory more than anything I have read before, for I never respected the "Vestiges" enough to be influenced by it, seeing that its author was not a naturalist".

van Wyhe does not seem to have been aware of this important statement as it isn't mentioned in his paper, and he does not reference Bartholomew's 1973 paper "Lyell and evolution" in which this quote seems to have been first published.

Curiously, van Wyhe also fails to mention the following passage from the first edition of Darwins Origin "This view of the relation of species in one region to those in another, does not differ much (by substituting the word variety for species) from that lately advanced in an ingenious paper by Mr. Wallace, in which he concludes, that "every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species." And I now know from correspondence, that this coincidence he attributes to generation with modification." So Darwin initially missinterpreted Wallace's 1855 paper, but this mistake was corrected by Wallace prior to the publication of Darwin's book in November 1859.

These serious omissions by van Wyhe are either examples of poor scholarship, or cherry picking the facts and deliberately not including ones which contradict his argument.


Submitted by Derek Partridge (not verified) on

I have written a detailed critique of John van Wyhe's 2016 paper that re-assessed the impacts of Wallace's Sarawak Law paper. The result is the re-establishment of most of the customary interpretation. My critique is primarily a criticism of the suspect and sometimes invalid reasoning employed by JvW. It is not the usual approach of constructing an alternativ context. I accept almost all the 'facts' forwarded, but not the way they are used. I would be happy to send copies to anyone interested, and would be even more pleased to receive comments back, even criticisms. contact d.partridge@exeter.ac.uk

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