Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Counting my Zero Days

I have decided to start keeping track of how many Zeroes I am able to accumulate in a day.

My "Zero Day" is not the same as the hacker zero day concept.

Instead, my Zero Day has to do with Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

There's a lot of talk and action about recycling. Much less on the reduce and reuse side, which is understandable but lamentable.

Understandable: recycle is post-consumptino, reduce and reuse and pre-consumption. The more we reduce consumption, the less people consume = buy, and human economies are structured entirely around perpetual growth.

So corporations are all fine with promoting recycling, not so much reduction.

But I am convinced, and feel it is quite obvious, that the only way out of the terrible mess we are making of our world is for each of us, individually, to reduce our consumption as much as possible.

And you can't reduce lower than zero consumption. So I am going to see how well I can do at achieving some zeroes each day in my life. 

Here's what I am going to track on my Twitter account:
  • Zero use of my car
  • Zero consumption of plastic (plastic bag for groceries, for example)
  • Zero purchasing of processed food
  • Zero purchasing of anything
  • Zero seconds spent watching television
  • Zero drinking of water from plastic bottle (thanks, Rob!)
I am sure I will think of more - and will add to the above list as I do. Do you have other consumptions?

P.S. I am also trying really, really hard to only eat when I am hungry. So far I have lost 5 pounds in the last week. I hope that trend doesn't continue. :-)

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Blast from the Past: I Don't Like Your Examples!

Originally written in 2000, I thought you might like to check this out in 2016. 

I Don't Like Your Examples!


I have been writing books about the Oracle PL/SQL programming language for the last five years. In 1999, O'Reilly published my fourth book, Oracle PL/SQL Programming Guide to Oracle8i Features, which created a bit of an uproar among my readership, caused considerable discussion within O'Reilly, and led to my writing this article.

Why did this book cause a sensation? Consider this excerpt from Chapter 2:
Let's look at a simple example. Suppose you are responsible for building a database to keep track of war criminals for the International Court of Justice. You create a package called wcpkg to keep track of alleged war criminals. One of the programs in the package registers a new criminal. You want that register program to always save its changes, even if the calling program hasn't yet issued a COMMIT. These characters are, after all, fairly slippery and you don't want them to get away. 
The package specification holds no surprises; the transaction type is not evident here:
    ...     PROCEDURE register (
        culprit IN VARCHAR2, event IN VARCHAR2);
END wcpkg;
The package body, however, contains that new and wonderful pragma:

    PROCEDURE register (
        culprit IN VARCHAR2, event IN VARCHAR2)
        INSERT INTO war_criminal (name, activity)
            VALUES (culprit, event);
END wcpkg;
And now when I call wcpkg.register, I am assured that my changes have been duly recorded:

wcpkg.register ('Kissinger', 'Secret Bombing of Cambodia');
Now, I expect it's not every day you pick up a technology text and read that Henry Kissinger is a war criminal for the secret bombing of Cambodia. The examples I used in this book, in fact, were dramatically different from my earlier texts--and from just about any technology book you can buy. Here are some of the other topics I incorporated into my text:
  • Excessive CEO compensation--and excessive, destructive layoffs
  • Union-busting activities
  • Positive role of unions in society
  • Police brutality
  • NATO bombing of civilian targets in Serbia
  • Managed Care
  • National Rifle Association and gun control
  • The for-profit prison industry
  • Slashing social programs to finance tax cuts
I did give my readers ample warning. Here is a section from the preface titled "About the Examples."
"I've been writing intensively about PL/SQL since 1994, and I have a great time doing it. At the same time, I must admit that I have simultaneously grown a little bit bored with using the same set of examples again and again (yes, those infamous emp/employee and dept/department tables), and I'm also very concerned about the state of the world as we approach the end of the twentieth century. Sure, things could be worse, but things could be a whole lot better (with my examples and the world). 
"Given these twin preoccupations, I have decided to offer examples that are decidedly different from the usual. I'll be talking about topics ranging from the state of health care in the United States to the strength of the gun lobby, from wage structures to environmental issues. I believe that even if you don't agree with the positions I have on a particular issue, you will find that this "breath of fresh air" approach will help you engage with the technical material. 
"I would also be very happy to hear from you--whether you agree or disagree!--and I encourage you to visit my Web site, at, where you can read more about my life and viewpoints and can get in touch."
How Fresh Is That Air?

Though I thought these examples would be a "breath of fresh air," some of my readers felt that the air stank. Here are some typical responses:
Dear Mr. Feuerstein, 
I, thankfully before buying the book, was able to peruse a copy of your latest PL/SQL programming book. I think you have forgotten one basic principle when you planned the examples. This was supposed to be a book about PL/SQL, not blatant sociopolitical rantings. If I had bought the book, I would be returning it immediately for a complete refund. It doesn't matter whether I agreed or disagreed with your views (in some cases I agreed, in some cases I strongly disagreed). I found the examples so distracting that I was unable to get the information I needed out of the book. Please in the future, remember that we, the book buyers, are looking for information about using PL/SQL. I am as tired of the emp and dept tables as you are, but less distracting examples would have been more appropriate. 
Personally, I am no longer buying your books nor am I recommending them to my clients as long as they contain the types of examples you used in your latest books. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend them as PL/SQL manuals because the examples removed the books from that category.
I have to admit, getting emails like these has not been fun. Here's another:
I have just been shown a copy of the Guide to Oracle 8i Features and to be quite honest am embarrassed on behalf of the O'Reilly publishing company. It is well-known throughout the industry that O'Reilly books are said to be the bibles for technical reference. I am appalled at the liberty that Feuerstein has taken in imposing his personal beliefs throughout the text and examples and am even more appalled that O'Reilly allowed this kind of content to be published. It is highly offensive regardless of freedom of speech and Mr. Feuerstein's belief system and to choose such an unwilling audience is absurd! I will not buy this book and will tell each and every person I know in the industry to do the same. I will as well be cautious when purchasing and or recommending any other O'Reilly technical reference books. This is not the forum for this kind of content!
You get the idea. Now, I should also mention that:
  • I have received at least an equal amount of emails praising this particular book, sometimes for the political content explicitly, sometimes simply for the technical content, indicating that my choice of examples was not problematic.
  • O'Reilly & Associates reviewed the book's content and its lawyers did recommend making a few changes. (They didn't, for example, want me to explicitly and blatantly accuse a sitting governor of bribery.)
  • This book became a subject of active debate among O'Reilly editors about what limits, if any, should be placed on an author's desire to include possibly controversial examples.
  • Tim O'Reilly and I talked about this subject at length and he thought that it would make a great topic for public discussion. So here I am!
All the negative--in some cases strongly negative--feedback I got sent me back to the book to examine the content and ask myself some questions: Was I wrong to include this content? Why is it so difficult for people, especially those in the United States, to hear viewpoints that make them uncomfortable? Would I be willing to put these kinds of examples in my "bestseller," the foundation of my series, Oracle PL/SQL Programming, and take a chance at putting off readers? 

Were my examples full of opinions or facts? Can I really separate the two? And what about the examples in all those other books (mine and the several hundred other Oracle books, and thousands of other technical books)? Are they all free of political content?

Democracy and Political Discourse

As I work on this article, I am flying back from a week's teaching in the United Kingdom. As is usual when I spend time outside the United States, and particularly in the U.K. (where I can understand the language), I am struck by the open political discourse--and open challenge--in the media and among individuals.

It seems to me that one part of having a true and vibrant democracy is the free flow of ideas and active debate among neighbors on the crucial issues of our day. Does that go on around you? I sure don't experience it in my neck of the woods. On the contrary, I find that, in the United States, very few people are willing to talk "politics." It is, along with the topic of money and sex, generally veered away from in trepidation. Better to comment on the weather and sports.
Where would such an attitude come from? Much of any individual's behavior in society is patterned after what she or he perceives to be acceptable. Most of us do not want to stand out as different, and certainly not as "troublemakers." What determines acceptability in our society? To a large extent, the mass media.

Reflect on the television, radio, and print media reports you receive: How often do you see real political debate, crossing the entire spectrum, taking place? How often do you hear a member of the media truly challenge politicians and business "leaders" to justify their policies and actions? I believe that very little real debate ever takes place and our journalists, especially the high-profile ones, treat those in power with kid gloves. Sometimes it seems like there is a debate going on (within a T.V. program like "Crossfire," for example), but in fact that debate is missing/ignoring/silencing a large swath of viewpoints: pretty much anything to the left of Bill Clinton.

As a result, it is very difficult to talk politics in our society--especially if your politics are anywhere to the left of center. And it is almost impossible to present an informed, sophisticated critique of the role of global capitalism in the world today.

Now, you might well say to yourself, "Who cares?" You like global capitalism. You don't think it's all that bad, or at least you don't care if a few hundred million people are paid pennies for their labor. And, well, you don't want to talk politics. That's fine. That's your choice. But I also believe that almost every technology book we buy and read is full of politics.

The Hidden and Prevailing Ideology

I believe that just about every technical book comes with a body of politics, an ideology that governs and usually restricts its example set. We don't notice the political slant because it reflects the dominant viewpoint in our society and is thus invisible.

After reviewing many books, I feel comfortable in summarizing the vast majority of texts as having these characteristics:
  • Business-centric: Most examples used in technology books focus on how to make business work more efficiently, regardless of its impact on human society and the world as a whole. As a result, we constantly read about human-resource or personnel systems. And while examples frequently touch on education, these applications have more to do with managing students (the business side of education) than with improving the quality of education those students receive. All of this seems perfectly "natural" since the vast majority of technology is used by businesses to make profits. But does it have to be that way?
  • Consumer-oriented: Many, many examples promote the perspective that the only reason we exist in this world is to buy things. Just about every book about the Internet focuses on some aspect of e-commerce, such as how to maximize the use of banner ads, how to grab and hold eyeballs, how to present product information dynamically.In 1999 Addison-Wesley published a truly marvelous book titled Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code, by Martin Fowler. In it, Martin offers a systematic method for improving the quality of our code without affecting the interface to and behavior of that code. To demonstrate his techniques, the author offers a refreshing example: video rentals. Yet it still comes down to commerce. We are what we buy, not what we think and do with our lives outside of the exchange of items for money.

  • Humans as numbered entities: This is particularly true in database-related books (including my own!). Technology is presented through a medium of scenarios that represent--and manipulate--humans as numbers. Just about any Oracle text you pick up is dominated by "emp-dept" examples: a personnel application that talks about salaries, bonuses, and commissions, when you were hired, which department you belong to, the name of an employee based on an employee_id, and so on. The message, so clearly presented in this dominant theme, is that we are defined primarily as workers and our value in life is derived from the contribution we make to our employer.
  • Everything and anything as numbered entities: Hey, it's not just people! Technical examples extend the quantification approach to natural resources, information, entertainment, etc. Oracle also offers a standard demonstration base of tables and data for a sales/order entry system. This, of course, makes perfect sense in the world of Oracle--driven by the obsessive personality of Larry Ellison to sell, sell, sell software and services. (I own shares of Oracle stock and have benefitted directly from Larry's obsessions.)
There are exceptions. Scott Urman's latest book on PL/SQL, Oracle8i Advanced PL/SQL Programming, uses a college registration system as his example base. Although many American colleges are overly focused on preparing young people for a life of drudgery in one job or another (and corporations are commercializing higher education to an alarming degree), I congratulate Scott on taking a road less traveled.

Breathing Life Into Technical Books

I could go on and on, but I think you get the drift. The bottom line for me is that books written about technology are written by human beings with perspectives and beliefs. Some of us center our lives around a particular technology or around the business applications of that technology. Many of us see the technology as one part of a rich, complex way of life--and dream of ways that this technology can transform and improve human society and our planet.

I don't see what any of us gain - writers and readers alike - from the unwritten but nonetheless rigorously followed rules that technical books must conform to and further support the status quo in our society.

No More Aquariums or Zoos For Me

I just finished reading Carl Safina's Beyond Words. It is the latest of a number of books (another great one is Out on a Limb by Ben Kilham) I have read that make it clear beyond any reasonable doubt that the individuals of many, many other species, including bears, octopuses, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, crows, are turtles are self-aware; feel pain, sadness, joy; fear death; play; have individual personalities; work with tools; on and on and on.

In other words, they are no different from us. Except that their bodies have adapted to different circumstances, resulting in different body plans, different capabilities, different ways of manifesting their thoughts.

Yet we enslave them, control their reproduction, abuse and torture them, outright kill them en masse.

It is impossible to live in "civilization" without being at least complicit with much of this destruction (just imagine for a moment the thousands of factories that are needed to put a cell phone in your hands). 

It is, therefore, impossible not to sound like a hypocrite when expressing such thoughts.

Well, fine. Being a hypocrite is better than being an "all-in" abuser. 

And while I am not yet at the point in my life at which I can say goodbye to cars and cell phones, there are things I can do to minimize my hypocrisy and avoid overt support to human devastation of others.

Which brings me to zoos and aquariums. 

I can't do it anymore. I can't wander around exhibits, whether indoors or out, whether spacious or cramped, whether "humane" or neglectful, that restrain animals that should be living free. The justifications for these exhibits fall flat, sound weak and defensive. 

And if you do find any of them even slightly persuasive, simply substitute "Ota Benga" for "elelphant" or "stingray" and see how it "reads."

I do not look forward to the next time my family - my granddaughters! - wants to go to the aquarium or zoo, and I have to say "No thanks, you go without me."

But that's what I will be doing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Madness of the Modern Human

"I eat using Uber-Eats.I push a button, the food is made, the driver delivers it to me. But when it's fully autonomous, how does the food actually get to my door? There's a tech stack that can get the car through the physical world to my doorstep, but then what? Does some robot get out of my car and deliver my food? That's hard. I don't know if that's two decades out, but the point is the physical world is getting wired up fast."
As you might guess, that is a quote from Uber's Mad CEO, Something-or-Other Kalanick. A unicorn billionaire who first wants to push taxi cab drivers to poverty, replacing them with "gig" contractors, who will then (in not too many years) be replaced by driverless cars.

Seriously, what is wrong with us? With the oceans crashing against our coastal cities, the planet warming, the poles melting, the forests being razed, the Sixth Extinction well in progress, can we still be so madly obsessed with using technology in the most absurd, energy-consuming, convenience-crazed ways?

A driverless car brings the food to my building "but then what?"

BUT THEN WHAT? How about getting your big fat ever spreading butt out of your Lazy-Boy and answering the damn door yourself, maybe even walking outside to a neighborhood restaurant and partaking in a meal around others?

Silly, sad humans.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Politicians won't move on climate change cause they know we don't REALLY care.

Yep. That's the truth (at the least the truth that seems to be taking shape between my ears these days).

I've been thinking about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch of late....

Lots of us seem to know it exists, and we are disgusted by it. Disgusted by us - humans who are disastrously trashing our planet.

And what are we going to do about it?

We are going to demand that Congress DO SOMETHING!

And our demands are going to be expressed in extremely powerful ways:
  • Online petitions
  • Facebook rants
  • Lots and lots of outraged tweets
Oh yes. Those. Lots of them, lots of indignation, shared outrage, thank you Facebook Echo Chamber.

And yet, and yet...somehow those awful Congresspeople ignore the Will of the People. How can this be? 

Time for more outraged and indignant rants and sarcastic memes on Facebook.

How ridiculous on two fronts:

1. Online "activism" is largely ineffective. 

2. Politicians will only listen to us when we take action that demonstrates our seriousness.

And this is where we really fall short.

So you read about all the awful plastic clogging up our oceans, killing fish and whales and dolphins and....everything, really, just about everything.

And what do you actually do?

Do you change even one iota of the way you live your life? It doesn't seem that way to me. We bitch and moan for a while, and then watch Game of Thrones or go to Six Flags or buy another case of plastic bottled water.

And since we don't seem to be willing to make the smallest sacrifices in our lives, politicians know they can just keep on serving their real masters: lobbyists of corporations.

Let's face it: if you consume and discard plastic, it's going somewhere, and it's going to be nasty, no matter the location. 

But if you don't consume that plastic, you will have not contributed to the problem. You will have not made things worse. And if millions of people did this same thing - took action in their life to change patterns of consumption - the impact would be enormous.

Here are some of the things I do to avoid plastic consumption:

1. I never, never, NEVER (well, hardly ever) buy plastic bottled water. And I especially never buy cases of plastic bottled water that is wrapped in plastic. How grotesque. Instead, buy a glass or stainless steel bottle and refill the damn thing, people.

2. I hardly ever buy processed food. I mostly buy food, like broccoli and fruit and eggs. Sure, they all require some processing. But nothing like buying a Lunchable. So gross.

3. I travel with a set of bamboo "silverware" so I can avoid using plastic-wrapped plastic forks and knives. I so detest those.

4. When I get ice cream, I get a cone: no need for a plastic dish, no plastic spoon. Of course, if I go to a lovely ice cream shop like Oberweis and eat my delight there, they use glass bowls and glasses and real silverware. So then I will treat myself to a milkshake or sundae. Yummy and no plastic.

5. I make my own yogurt instead of buying lots of plastic containers of the stuff. It's easy to do: just buy one of these

6. I buy milk in reusable glass containers. Again, thanks Oberweis!

And there's more, but you get the idea. It mostly comes down to being more intentional about how you go through the day: think ahead, always carry your water bottle and bamboo silverware, just say no to treats that come in plastic that you do not really need to eat, etc.

If millions of humans took action like this, the amount of garbage going to landfills and into the ocean would decrease substantially. 

With reduced demand, less plastic would be produced in factories, less pollution would be produced, etc.

But if you do not do things like this, if you direct your outrage to distant politicians who will never pay you attention and do not address some of that outrage at yourself, well...

Then the coral and whales and sharks and fish and birds and eventually even (dare I say it!) humans will suffer. 

Bottom line: if you want politicians to change their behavior, first change yours

That way, when they still don't give a rat's ass about you, at least you will have helped make the planet a little bit healthier.

Multiple by a million or a billion, and maybe the coral will notice.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

How are you?

I get this question a lot.

You probably do, too.

Sometimes nothing more is meant by it than "Hello."

Sometimes they really mean it, they really want to know.

Generally, my answer is "Great!"

'Cause no matter what relatively small irritations I have in my life, the bottom line is that my life is quite wonderful.

But I've decided that perhaps I should not simply say "Great!" I should explain why my life is so great.

So here goes:


I am an organic life form living on the only planet we know of in the entire universe that supports organic life. How wonderful is that?

Plus, I am self-aware, so I know that I am alive and can appreciate rainbows and the sound of wind moving through trees, and so on.* How incredible is that?

And, best of all, I have two smart, beautiful, hilarious, stubborn and funny granddaughters.**

So how am I?


* Note: just in case that sentence sounds as though I am celebrating the uniqueness of human beings, I must clarify that I happen to believe that many, many living creatures from thousands of species are self-aware and appreciate the world around them. Birds, spiders, squirrels, "etc" ....

** Photos are, of course, required to back this up:

Loey Lucille Silva

Juna Josephine Silva

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Complaining about the weather

Seems like I hear people complaining about the weather a lot.

Too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry....

Seems to me that we should never complain about the weather. I refuse to complain about the weather. Why would I take this position?

So far there is just one planet that we know about in the universe that supports the kind of life we are: organic, carbon-based life.

"Weather" cannot be separated from this planet. So when you complain about the weather, you are complaining about the only place in the universe humans can even possibly, remotely live. 

Seems a bit mean spirited, from that perspective, to whine about rain (which is needed badly for us and trees and lots of other living things to survive).

Beyond all that, humans have spread across the entire planet, even (and often) to places that are hostile to human survival (places, in other words, that we did not evolve to live in).

In order to live in many of these places, we destroy chunks of those places to make them more hospitable, comfortable and convenient for us.

So it seems to me that when someone complains about the weather, we should ask:

Do you live in a location on Planet Earth that does not require the establishment of a "human survival zone"?

Indicators of Human Survival Zones: air conditioning so your brain doesn't fry; heat so that you don't turn into an ice cube; homes that seal you off completely from your surroundings....

If yes, then our response should be:
Wow! Aren't you lucky? You can breathe, you can drink water, you can eat the food, you can enjoy the natural environment with minimal degradation of that environment, and without dying. Why would you ever complain about the weather?
If no, the our response should be: 
You have no right to complain. You shouldn't even be here. You can only be here by radically changing (usually by destroying) the world around you. Which, by the way, affects the weather. If you don't like it here, then leave. But don't complain.
And if none of that seems to be making a dent, you can always fall back on the Rainbow Argument:
How can you complain about the weather (and by extention a planet) that gives you rainbows? 

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Two Amazing Men Discovered Evolution by Natural Selection!

Most everyone knows about Darwin, and what they think they know is that Charles Darwin is the discoverer of Evolution through Natural Selection. And for sure, he did discover this. But the amazing thing is....he wasn't the only one. And whereas Darwin came to this theory pretty much as a Big Data Scientist over a long period of time (mostly via "armchair" collection of data from scientists and naturalists around the world), The Other Guy developed his theory of Natural Selection very much in the field - more specifically, in the jungle, surrounded by the living evidence. 

His name is Alfred Russel Wallace, he is one of my heroes, and I offer below the "real story" for your reading pleasure. 

One of the things I really love about this story is the way Darwin and Wallace respected each other, and did right by each other. We all have a lot to learn from their integrity and compassion.

Alfred Russel Wallace and Natural Selection: the Real Story 
By Dr George Beccaloni, Director of the Wallace Correspondence Project, March 2013

Alfred Russel Wallace OM, LLD, DCL, FRS, FLS was born near Usk, Monmouthshire, England (now part of Wales) on January 8th, 1823. Serious family financial problems forced him to leave school aged only fourteen and a few months later he took a job as a trainee land surveyor with his elder brother William. This work involved extensive trekking through the English and Welsh countryside and it was then that his interest in natural history developed.

Whilst living in Neath, Wales, in 1845 Wallace read Robert Chambers' extremely popular and anonymously published book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and became fascinated by the controversial idea that living things had evolved from earlier forms. So interested in the subject did he become that he suggested to his close friend Henry Walter Bates that they travel to the Amazon to collect and study animals and plants, with the goal of understanding how evolutionary change takes place. They left for Brazil in April 1848, but although Wallace made many important discoveries during his four years in the Amazon Basin, he did not manage to solve the great ‘mystery of mysteries’ of how evolution works.

Wallace returned to England in October 1852, after surviving a disastrous shipwreck which destroyed all the thousands of natural history specimens he had painstakingly collected during the last two and most interesting years of his trip. Undaunted, in 1854 he set off on another expedition, this time to the Malay Archipelago (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia), where he would spend eight years travelling, collecting, writing, and thinking about evolution. He visited every important island in the archipelago and sent back 110,000 insects, 7,500 shells, 8,050 bird skins, and 410 mammal and reptile specimens, including probably more than five thousand species new to science.

In Sarawak, Borneo, in February 1855, Wallace produced one of the most important papers written about evolution up until that time1. 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 “ 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.

In April 1856 Lyell visited Charles Darwin at Down House in Kent, and Darwin confided that for the past twenty years he had been secretly working on a theory (natural selection) which neatly explained how evolutionary change takes place. Not long afterwards, Lyell sent Darwin a letter urging him to publish before someone beat him to it (he probably had Wallace in mind), so in May 1856, Darwin, heeding this advice, began to write a ‘sketch’ of his ideas for publication.

Finding this unsatisfactory, Darwin abandoned it in about October 1856 and instead began working on an extensive book on the subject.

The idea of natural selection came to Wallace during an attack of fever whilst he was on a remote Indonesian island in February 1858 (it is unclear whether this epiphany happened on Ternate or neighbouring Gilolo (Halmahera)). As soon as he had sufficient strength, he wrote a detailed essay explaining his theory and sent it together with a covering letter to Darwin, who he knew from earlier correspondence, was deeply interested in the subject of species transmutation (as evolution was then called).

Wallace asked Darwin to pass the essay on to Lyell (who Wallace did not know), if Darwin thought it sufficiently novel and interesting. Darwin had mentioned in an earlier letter to Wallace that Lyell had found his 1855 paper noteworthy and Wallace must have thought that Lyell would be interested to learn about his new theory, since it neatly explained the ‘law’ which Wallace had proposed in that paper.

Darwin, having formulated natural selection years earlier, was horrified when he received Wallace’s essay and immediately wrote an anguished letter to Lyell asking for advice on what he should do. "I never saw a more striking coincidence. If Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! ... So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed." he exclaimed2. Lyell teamed up with another of Darwin's close friends, Joseph Hooker, and rather than attempting to seek Wallace's permission, they decided instead to present his essay plus two excerpts from Darwin’s writings on the subject (which had never been intended for publication3) to a meeting of the Linnean Society of London on July 1st 1858. The public presentation of Wallace's essay took place a mere 14 days after its arrival in England.

Darwin and Wallace's musings on natural selection were published in the Society’s journal in August that year under the title “On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; And On the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection”. Darwin's contributions were placed before Wallace's essay, thus emphasising his priority to the idea4. Hooker had sent Darwin the proofs to correct and had told him to make any alterations he wanted5, and although he made a large number of changes to the text he had written, he chose not to alter Lyell and Hooker’s arrangement of his and Wallace’s contributions.

Lyell and Hooker stated in their introduction to the Darwin-Wallace paper that “...both authors...[have]...unreservedly placed their papers in our hands...”, but this is patently untrue since Wallace had said nothing about publication in the covering letter he had sent to Darwin6. Wallace later grumbled that his essay “...was printed without my knowledge, and of course without any correction of proofs...”7

As a result of this ethically questionable episode8, Darwin stopped work on his big book on evolution and instead rushed to produce an ‘abstract’ of what he had written so far. This was published fifteen months later in November 1859 as On the Origin of Species: a book which Wallace later magnanimously remarked would “ as long as the "Principia" of Newton.”9

In spite of the theory’s traumatic birth, Darwin and Wallace developed a genuine admiration and respect for one another. Wallace frequently stressed that Darwin had a stronger claim to the idea of natural selection, and he even named one of his most important books on the subject Darwinism! Wallace spent the rest of his long life explaining, developing and defending natural selection, as well as working on a very wide variety of other (sometimes controversial) subjects. He wrote more than 1000 articles and 22 books, including The Malay Archipelago and The Geographical Distribution of Animals. By the time of his death in 1913, he was one of the world's most famous people.

During Wallace’s lifetime the theory of natural selection was often referred to as the Darwin- Wallace theory and the highest possible honours were bestowed on him for his role as its co- discoverer. These include the Darwin–Wallace and Linnean Gold Medals of the Linnean Society of London; the Copley, Darwin and Royal Medals of the Royal Society (Britain's premier scientific body); and the Order of Merit (awarded by the ruling Monarch as the highest civilian honour of Great Britain). It was only in the 20th Century that Wallace’s star dimmed while Darwin’s burned ever more brightly. 

So why then did this happen?

The reason may be as follows: in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, natural selection as an explanation for evolutionary change became unpopular, with most biologists adopting alternative theories such as neo-Lamarckism, orthogenesis, or the mutation theory. It was only with the modern evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s and ’40s that it became widely accepted that natural selection is indeed the primary driving force of evolution. By then, however, the history of its discovery had largely been forgotten and many wrongly assumed that the idea had first been published in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Thanks to the so-called ‘Darwin Industry’ of recent decades, Darwin’s fame has increased exponentially, eclipsing the important contributions of his contemporaries, like Wallace. A more balanced, accurate and detailed history of the discovery of what has been referred to as “...arguably the most momentous idea ever to occur to a human mind” is long overdue.


1. Wallace, A. R. 1855. On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species. Annals and Magazine of Natural History, 16 (2nd series): 184-196.

2. Letter from Darwin to Charles Lyell dated 18th [June 1858] (Darwin Correspondence Database, accessed 20/01/2013).

3. These were an extract from Darwin’s unpublished essay on evolution of 1844, plus the enclosure from a letter dated 5th September 1857, which Darwin had written to the American botanist Asa Gray.

4. Publishing another person’s work without their agreement was as unacceptable then as it is today. Publishing someone’s novel theory without their consent, prefixed by material designed to give priority of the idea to someone else is ethically highly questionable: Wallace should have been consulted first! Fortunately for Darwin and his supporters, Wallace appeared to be pleased by what has been called the ‘delicate arrangement’.

5. In a letter from Joseph Hooker to Darwin dated 13th and 15th July 1858 (Darwin Correspondence Database, accessed 20/01/2013), Hooker stated " I send the proofs from Linnæan Socy— Make any alterations you please..."

6. In a letter from Darwin to Charles Lyell dated 18th [June 1858] (Darwin Correspondence Database, accessed 20/01/2013), Darwin, who was referring to Wallace's essay, says "Please return me the M.S. [manuscript] which he does not say he wishes me to publish..." and in a letter from Darwin to Charles Lyell dated [25th June 1858] (Darwin Correspondence Database, accessed 20/01/2013), Darwin states that "Wallace says nothing about publication..."

7. Letter from Wallace to A. B. Meyer dated 22nd November 1869 cited in Meyer, A. B. 1895. How was Wallace led to the discovery of natural selection? Nature, 52(1348): 415.

8. See Rachels, J. 1986. Darwin's moral lapse. National Forum: 22-24 (pdf available at

9. Letter from Wallace to George Silk dated 1st September 1860 (WCP373 in Beccaloni, G. W. (Ed.). 2012. Wallace Letters Online [accessed 20/01/2013])


Please cite this article as: Beccaloni, G. W. 2013. Alfred Russel Wallace and Natural Selection: the Real Story. <>
This article is a slightly modified version of the introduction by George Beccaloni to the following privately published book: Preston, T. (Ed.). 2013. The Letter from Ternate. UK: TimPress. 96 pp.