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A Delicate Adjustment: Wallace and Bates on the Amazon and “The Problem of the Origin of Species”

Abstract

For over a century it has been believed that Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates set out for the Amazon in 1848 with the aim of “solving the problem of the origin of species”. Yet this enticing story is based on only one sentence. Bates claimed in the preface to his 1863 book that Wallace stated this was the aim of their expedition in an 1847 letter. Bates gave a quotation from the letter. But Wallace himself never endorsed or repeated this story. Many writers have acknowledged that this letter still survives. Yet the wording is different from that quoted by Bates and the letter says nothing of an expedition. It is argued that the sentence given by Bates is not a genuine quotation from this or any other Wallace letter but was modified by Bates to promote his own reputation. More significantly, this leads to the conclusion that there was a very sudden and dramatic shift in the way species were thought of and discussed after Darwin’s Origin of species appeared. Something called “the problem of the origin of species” (and similar variants) never occurred before Darwin’s book but exploded in frequency immediately after it. A profound change in how species origins were discussed happened which no one seemed to notice.

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van Wyhe, J. A Delicate Adjustment: Wallace and Bates on the Amazon and “The Problem of the Origin of Species”. J Hist Biol 47, 627–659 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-014-9378-z

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Keywords

  • Alfred Russel Wallace
  • Henry Walter Bates
  • Amazon
  • Evolution
  • Origin of species
  • Natural selection