Browse Search Feedback Other Links Home Home
The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Darwin's Precursors and Influences

6. Biogeographic distribution

by John Wilkins
Copyright © 1996-2003
[Last Update: 21 February 2003]



The idea that the ranges of species was due to the their spreading from a point of origination had several precursors before Darwin developed it in 1837. Buffon drew attention to the fact that similar species occupy the same position in different ecologies (although he did not use those terms1). The German zoologist Peter Simon Pallas discovered that similar forms were often connected by a graded chain of intermediate forms, and in 1825, Leopold von Buch drew the logical conclusion that varieties become segregated species.

The first biologist to have suggested that species were independently created all over the world, however, was the botanist J G Gmelin in 1747, and following his work, as Mayr says, "[t]he Biblical story of the Garden of Eden and of Noah's Ark was quietly superseded by various theories of centres of creation."2. And Buffon ("the father of zoogeography"3), in 1779 proposed that a fauna (the complete ecology of an area) was the product of the conditions of the district where it originated. This was not a theory of common descent, but of special creation, however. "The earth makes the plants; the earth and the plants make the animals", he wrote4.

Darwin's friend Joseph Hooker had done considerable work on geographic distribution from his travels to the Antarctic, Australia and New Zealand in 1839-1843, and had carried out experiments to show that species could spread beyond their "allocated" domain, published in 1853. This clearly influenced Darwin's thinking on the subject. Geographic (also now known as "allopatric") speciation - the idea that isolation due to geographic barriers is a cause of speciation - was something Darwin held to be important on islands, but also where rivers, mountains and other impediments prevented species split into separate breeding populations from back-crossing. According to Mayr, Darwin prevaricated on its importance, and eventually also accepted the possibility of "sympatric" speciation - speciation due to a move into new ecological or behavioural niches.

Wallace map of the world labeled 'The main zoological regions. The Australian region includes an immense number of islands, too small to appear on the map.'
Wallace designated a number of biogeographic regions (below), in which different organisms were found, and which he explained by his "law of introduction".

A number of other botanists and zoologists had noted the defined spread of species, especially Alexander von Humboldt (1805), but including EAW Zimmerman (1778-1783) and CF Willdenow (1798), and it was this that gave the death knell to the idea that species had spread from a central point, the landing site of the Ark. However, only Alfred Russel Wallace, in 1855, had published the principle that species are always found close in space and time to an allied species that precedes it in the geological record. Wallace did his work in the Amazon region and the Malay Archipelago, while Darwin's own observations twenty years earlier had been in the Galápagos Archipelago and the plains of Patagonia during the Beagle voyage. Darwin was spurred into publication of his ideas when Wallace, not knowing of Darwin's views, sent him a paper on the topic (and on natural selection) in 1858. Darwin had just suffered the death of his son Charles, and in his grief, he passed it on to Lyell and Hooker, with whom he had previously discussed his views (his discussions with Lyell were spurred on by Lyell's excitement by Wallace's 1855 paper), who submitted it to the Linnean Society of London with extracts of Darwin's unpublished 1844 Essay on Natural Selection and a letter Darwin wrote to Asa Gray in the United States on 5 September 1857. It is clear that Wallace and Darwin independently discovered biogeography, and are due the joint credit they now are imputed.5


1 Mayr 1982, p 411

2 Mayr 1982, p 440

3 Mayr 1982, p 440

4 Mayr 1982, p 441

5 But see Quammen 1996 chapters 2 and 3 for a review of the dissenting views of various authors. A recent biography of Wallace by Shermer (2002) has challenged the views of Brooks which Quammen presents that Darwin was dishonest in the ways he dealt with Wallace's paper. See also Raby's (2001) biography of Wallace. Wallace's letter to Hooker, thanking him for the way he and Lyell handled the priority issue, has been preserved, and was recently published in The Linnean Vol 18:3ff

Ternate, Moluccas, Oct .6. 1858

My dear Sir

I beg leave to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of July last, sent me by Mr
Darwin, & informing me of the steps you had taken with reference to a paper I had
communicated to that gentleman. Allow me in the first place sincerely to thank yourself
& Sir Charles Lyell for your kind offices on this occasion, & to assure you of the
gratification afforded me both by the course you pursued & the favourable opinions
of my essay which you have so kindly expressed. I cannot but consider myself a
favoured party in the matter, because it has hitherto been too much the practise in
cases of the sort to impute all the merit to the first discoverer of a new fact or a new
theory, & little or none to any other party who may, quite independently, have arrived
at the same results a few years or a few hours later.

I also look upon it as a most fortunate circumstance that I had a short time ago
commenced a correspondence with Mr Darwin on the subject of “Varieties”, since it
has led to the earlier publication of a portion of his researches & has secured to him a
claim to priority which an independent publication either by myself or some other
party might have injuriously affected;- for it is evident that the time has now arrived
when these & similar views will be promulgated & must be fairly discussed.

It would have caused me much pain & regrets had Mr Darwins excess of generosity
led him to make public my paper unaccompanied by his own much earlier & I doubt
not much more complete views on the same subject, & I must again thank you for the
course you have adopted, which while strictly just to both parties, is so favourable to
Being on the eve of a fresh journey I can now add no more than to thank you for
your kind advice as to a speedy return to England ; - but I dare say you well know &
feel, that to induce a Naturalist to quit his researches at the most interesting point
requires some more cogent argument than the prospective loss of health.

I remain
My dear Sir
Yours very sincerely
Alfred R Wallace

J.D.Hooker M.D.

Transcription of a copy of a manuscript letter ... in the possession of Q. Keynes.
Transcribed for Prof. Gardiner by Gina Douglas, Librarian, Linnean Society of London, 25th July 2002.



Home Browse Search Feedback Other Links The FAQ Must-Read Files Index Evolution Creationism Age of the Earth Flood Geology Catastrophism Debates

Home Page | Browse | Search | Feedback | Links
The FAQ | Must-Read Files | Index | Creationism | Evolution | Age of the Earth | Flood Geology | Catastrophism | Debates