Is There A History Of Science? Yes… And It Works

What is the history of science and why does it matter? John van Wyhe explains.

AsianScientist (Nov. 25, 2014) – When I am introduced in Singapore as a ‘historian of science’ I sometimes see a look of confusion. This is sometimes followed by the question, what is history of science? Does science have history?

Of course it does. There are many kinds of history which specialize on different parts of culture and behavior. There is history of art, history of music, history of politics, of war and so forth. The history of science is an academic discipline that focuses on the historical development of science. Unlike many countries around the world, Singapore’s universities do not yet have dedicated history of science departments. But there are a growing number of historians of science in Singapore.

From hobbyists to professionals

The history of science began as a hobby for retired scientists interested in the founding figures of their field. These early amateurs usually saw the history of science as a story of great men progressively overturning false beliefs with true ones.

In the mid-20th century professional historians began to replace interested scientists. Since then stories of great heroic discoverers and simple stories of the triumph of truth over falsehood have fallen out of fashion. A great many traditional stories of sudden discovery or supposed conflicts of science vs. religion were shown to be myths.

Over the decades, the history of science has become ever more sophisticated and diversified into many sub-fields. For example, scientific writings from the past need to be interpreted in terms of their original context. Otherwise, one will get the reading just plain wrong. This takes a great deal of training and experience to achieve.

But the history of science is a small and relatively young field. In fact, it is so small that many still do not know it exists. This is why one often sees prominent scientists like Richard Dawkins or Steve Jones invited on to the BBC or other media outlets to talk about famous episodes or figures from the history of science like Charles Darwin.

It’s hard to think of another area where someone can be assumed to be an authority who has no qualifications, no peer reviewed publications and in fact no basic competency in the field. This would be unthinkable in an interview about physics, economics, even football. But it is very common with the history of science.

The Darwin versus Wallace “conspiracy”

The Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) is a case in point. Wallace famously conceived of a theory of evolution by natural selection independently of Darwin. The joint announcement of their views in 1858 kicked off the greatest scientific revolution in history. For decades Wallace has primarily been of interest to and written about by amateurs. This term is no slur—it merely means non-historians.

What sparked Wallace’s independent discovery? The traditional story is based on Wallace’s own recollections between 11 and 50 years after the fact. He recalled that he remembered the population theory of Thomas Malthus and applied it to animals. He wrote up his new ideas in an essay which he sent to Darwin “by the next post.”

That last detail fueled a conspiracy theory for many years. It was believed that Darwin claimed to receive the essay on the wrong day and therefore must have lied. In fact, recent historical research has shown that Wallace’s recollection was simply incorrect, Darwin received it when he said he did and there is no mystery at all.

So did Malthus spark Wallace’s famous eureka moment? Maybe. But historians have learned that recollections are extremely unreliable. Recollections are worth very little for understanding what a scientist was really doing many years before. Secondly, Wallace’s recollections cannot be considered uncontaminated evidence of what he did independently of Darwin. Wallace’s recollections were all written years after he had read Darwin’s writing with their stress on Malthus. Wallace did not mention Malthus in his essay or his letters until after reading Darwin.

The minutest textual clues in Wallace’s essay itself are ambiguous. We know he was reading the work of geologist Charles Lyell who also discussed population theory. Wallace had not read Malthus for 13 years. When Wallace discusses population theory in his essay, however, he mentions population increase at a “geometrical ratio”. This is not mentioned in Lyell.

So maybe Wallace did think of Malthus at the time. Equally, Wallace could have seen this detail mentioned in many other publications of the time or indeed have thought of the concept but without thinking of Malthus specifically. How can we know which it was? We can’t.

Examining the evidence

I suggested a new hypothesis in Dispelling the Darkness based on the only contemporary evidence that survives. In a letter written about two weeks after his Ternate essay, Wallace told a friend that five different species of tiger beetles on five different islands were all differently colored, but always well matching the color of the background they lived on, grey, green, brown etc.

“Such facts as these puzzled me for a long time, but I have lately worked out a theory which accounts for them naturally.” This is the only contemporary mention of his theory outside the essay itself. Yet, remarkably, we find the same phenomena mentioned twice in the essay and in very similar wording to this letter:

Even the peculiar colors of many animals, especially insects, so closely resembling the soil or the leaves or the trunks on which they habitually reside, are explained on the same principle; for though in the course of ages varieties of many tints may have occurred, yet those races having colors best adapted to concealment from their enemies would inevitably survive the longest.

Indeed this sentence is perhaps the best one sentence summary of Wallace’s original theory in his essay.

So did tiger beetles prompt Wallace to think of natural selection? Maybe. Again we can’t be sure. But between a much later and non-independent recollection of Malthus and three contemporary references to insect coloration, we should prefer the insects.

The real, historical Wallace, warts and all, is still out there. And it is only through contemporary sources and historically informed and contextually sensitive investigation that we can find him.

van Wyhe (2013) Dispelling the Darkness.
van Wyhe and Rookmaaker (2013) Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters from the Malay Archipelago.
Darwin and Wallace (1858) On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: John van Wyhe.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

John van Wyhe is a historian of science with a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. A Senior Lecturer at the National University of Singapore, he specializes on Darwin and Wallace. He is the Director of Darwin Online and Wallace Online and the author of ten books on the history of science. His latest book is The Annotated Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace (NUS Press) has just appeared.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist