Alfred Russel Wallace

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Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace, Order of Merit, Fellow of the Royal Society (January 8, 1823 – November 7, 1913), was an English (Welsh) naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist, and biologist. He independently proposed a theory of natural selection that prompted Charles Darwin to publish his own more developed and researched theory sooner than he had intended. Wallace is sometimes called the "father of biogeography" for his work in correlating the distribution of animal species with geography, both current and through long periods of geological change.

Wallace had his own evolutionary theories distinct from Darwin and was considered a major evolutionary thinker of his day. He differed from Darwin and most modern evolutionists in two major aspects: He considered natural selection insufficient to account for the human intellect and consciousness; and he was a spiritualist who maintained that human beings had a "second self" that continued after the death of the body, and could not have come about through survival of the fittest. He also asserted that the soft, sensitive human skin, color sense, speech, and sensibilities in music, art, and morality could only have arisen through the guidance of a superior intelligence. In some of his writings, Wallace would report on individuals' experiences of various psychic phenomena.

At the time of his death, he was widely known in conventional intellectual circles as a naturalist, explorer, and evolutionary thinker and in popular culture as an advocate of psychical research, a humanist, and advocate for social reform. Among scientists he was the last living member of a cluster of great nineteenth century British natural scientists that had included Charles Darwin; the geologist, Sir Charles Lyell; the botanist, Sir Joseph Hooker; and the philosopher and anatomist, Thomas Henry Huxley. Due perhaps to his scientifically aberrant views, Wallace was under-appreciated in the twentieth century for his scientific contributions. The publication in the opening years of the twenty first century of at least five Wallace biographies and two Wallace anthologies carried the implication that his contributions would not be forgotten.

Early life

Wallace was born in 1823 at Usk, Monmouthshire in Wales. He was the eighth of nine children of Thomas Vere Wallace and Mary Anne Greenell. He attended grammar school in Hertford until financial ruin forced his family to withdraw him in 1836. His father died a few years earlier, when Wallace was but 11 years old. After a stint as an apprentice builder in London, England, he began to work as a surveyor with his older brother William. Between 1840 and 1843, he spent his time surveying in the west of England and Wales. In 1844, Wallace was hired as a master at the Collegiate School in Leicester, England. While at Leicester, he became a friend with Henry Walter Bates, a naturalist, who introduced Wallace to the art of collecting beetles. After the death of his brother William in 1845, Wallace left his teaching position to assume control of his brother's firm.

A. R. Wallace in Singapore, 1862

Exploration and study of the natural world

In 1848, Wallace, together with Henry Walter Bates, whom he had met four years earlier, left for Brazil to collect specimens in the Amazon Rainforest, with the express intention of gathering facts in order to solve the riddle of the origin of species. Among their inspirations were Charles Darwin's book on his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle and an account by Alexander von Humboldt on his journeys to South America. While there, Wallace and Bates went in separate directions to cover more area.

In 1852, after more than four years of collecting thousands of birds, beetles, butterflies, and other animal specimens, Wallace set forth on a ship, with his collection, to return to England. However, in the mid-Atlantic, the ship caught fire and sank, along with almost all of his collection and most of his diaries. He himself and the other passengers and crew were rescued by a passing ship. In 1853, he published an account of his trip, Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro.

From 1854 to 1862, Wallace traveled through the Malay Archipelago or East Indies (now Malaysia and Indonesia), to collect specimens and study nature. During these eight years, he collected over 125,000 specimens, including 310 of mammals, over eight thousand of birds, 13,100 of butterflies, and 83,200 of beetles. His observations of the marked zoological differences across a narrow zone separating the fauna of the Australian region from that of Asia, and defined in the Indonesian archipelago by the deep Lombok Strait between the islands of Bali and Lombok, led to his hypothesis of the zoogeographical boundary now known as the Wallace Line. One of his better known species descriptions during this trip is the gliding tree frog Rhacophorus nigropalmatus, Wallace's flying frogs. His studies there were eventually published in 1869, as The Malay Archipelago.

Theory of evolution

In 1855, Wallace published a paper, On the Law Which has Regulated the Introduction of Species, based on his pioneering work at Mount Santubong, Sarawak (located on the island of Borneo), in which he gathered and enumerated general observations regarding the geographic and geologic distribution of species (biogeography), and concluded that "Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a closely allied species." The paper, also known as the Sarawak Law, was a foreshadowing of the momentous paper he would write three years later.

It was in 1858 that Wallace had the flash of inspiration that would quickly advance the theory of evolution. At the time, he was suffering from malaria and confined to a hut on Ternate Island, which is now in Indonesia. As he noted in his autobiography My Life, "I was suffering from a sharp attack of intermittent fever, and every day during the cold and succeeding hot fits had to lie down for several hours, during which time I had nothing to do but to think over any subjects then particularly interesting me." One of those days, he was thinking about Malthus's Principles of Population (which had also inspired Charles Darwin), the issue of why animals do not continually increase in number, and why some animals die and some live. He concluded that the best fitted live—those that were the most healthy escaped disease, those that were the strongest or swiftest or most cunning escaped from enemies, those that were the best hunters or best digesting escaped famine. He later recalled: "It suddenly flashed upon me that this self-acting process would necessarily improve the race, because in every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain, that is, the fittest would survive." He further noted: "The more I thought over it the more I became convinced that I had at length found the long-sought-for law of nature that solved the problem of the origin of the species." He wrote down this theory over the next three evenings in order to send it to Darwin.

Wallace had once briefly met Charles Darwin, and was one of Darwin's numerous correspondents from around the world, whose observations Darwin used to support his theories. Wallace knew that Darwin was interested in the question of how species originate, and trusted his opinion on the matter. Thus, he sent him his essay, On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type, and asked him to review it. On June 18, 1858, Darwin received the manuscript from Wallace. While Wallace's essay did not employ Darwin's term “natural selection,” it did outline the mechanics of an evolutionary divergence of species from similar ones due to environmental pressures. In this sense, it was essentially the same as the theory that Darwin had worked on for twenty years, but had yet to publish. Darwin wrote in a letter to Charles Lyell: "He could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as heads of my chapters!" Although Wallace had not requested that his essay be published, Lyell and Joseph Hooker decided to present the essay, together with excerpts from a paper that Darwin had written in 1844, and kept confidential, to the Linnean Society of London on July 1, 1858, highlighting Darwin's priority.

Wallace accepted the arrangement after the fact, grateful that he had been included at all. Darwin's social and scientific status was at that time far greater than Wallace's, and it was unlikely that Wallace's views on evolution would have been taken as seriously. However he pointed out, in a largely overlooked passage of the 1858 paper that "The action of this principle is exactly like that of the centrifugal governor.” Many years later, the twentieth century cybernetician and anthropologist Gregory Bateson observed that Wallace thought he was only giving an example, not realizing that he had "probably said the most powerful thing that’d been said in the nineteen century." Though relegated to the position of co-discoverer, and never the social equal of Darwin or the other elite British natural scientists, Wallace was granted far greater access to tightly-regulated British scientific circles after the advocacy on his part by Darwin. When he returned to England, Wallace met Darwin and the two remained friendly afterward.

Religious views and application of the theory to humanity

In many accounts of the history of evolution, Wallace is relegated to a role of simply being the "stimulus" to Darwin's own theory. In reality, Wallace developed his own distinct evolutionary views that diverged from Darwin's, and was considered by many (especially Darwin) to be a chief thinker on evolution in his day whose ideas could not be ignored. He is among the most cited naturalists in Darwin's Descent of Man, often in strong disagreement.

One of the disagreements was that Wallace did not believe that natural selection could explain the human intellect. Wallace was also a spiritualist, who believed that the human spirit or soul existed after the death of the physical body.

This was not necessarily a view that Wallace held throughout his life. For example, in a 1861 letter to a relative, Wallace wrote:

I think I have fairly heard and fairly weighed the evidence on both sides, and I remain an utter disbeliever in almost all that you consider the most sacred truths… I can see much to admire in all religions… But whether there be a God and whatever be His nature; whether we have an immortal soul or not, or whatever may be our state after death, I can have no fear of having to suffer for the study of nature and the search for truth…

In 1864, before Darwin had publicly addressed the subject—though others had—Wallace published a paper, The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of 'Natural Selection,' applying the theory of natural selection to humankind.

However, Wallace subsequently became a spiritualist after he started attending seances in 1865. At first highly skeptical, he found his objections met and in time became a staunch believer in a spiritual reality beyond the material world. He later maintained that natural selection cannot account for mathematical, artistic, or musical genius, as well as metaphysical musings, wit, and humor; and that something in "the unseen universe of Spirit" had interceded at least three times in history:

  1. The creation of life from inorganic matter
  2. The introduction of consciousness in the higher animals
  3. The generation of the above-mentioned faculties in people

Wallace also believed that the raison d'être of the universe was the development of the human spirit. These views greatly disturbed Darwin in his lifetime, who argued that spiritual appeals were not necessary and that sexual selection could easily explain such apparently non-adaptive phenomena.

Quite a number of Wallace's later writings dealt with issues such as the relationship between science and spiritualism and reports of various extraordinary spiritual phenomena, such as communications with deceased, apparitions, and so forth. Wallace found impossibility in how humans' "second self" could have developed under the law of survival of the fittest. In his 1887 lecture, "If a Man Die Shall He Live Again?" Wallace concludes: "It further demonstrates, by direct evidence as conclusive as the nature of the case admits, that the so-called dead are still alive—that our friends are often with us, though unseen, and give direct proof of a future life, which so many crave, but for want of which so many live and die in anxious doubt."

Alfred Russel Wallace, and signature, from the frontispiece of Darwinism (1889).

Other notable aspects of his life

Wallace married Annie Mitten in 1866. When he died on November 7, 1913, at the age of 91, he was buried at the small cemetery of Broadstone by his wish and that of his family, rather than in Westminster Abbey beside Charles Darwin, as some suggested he should be. His son and daughter attended, as well as his sister-in-law, among others. His wife, however, was unable to attend, being invalid at the time. She would pass away the following year. Two years after his death, on November 1, 1915, a medallion with his name on it was placed in Westminster Abbey.

During his life, he served as president of the Entomological Society of London (1870 to 1872) and the first president of the Land Nationalisation Society (1881).

Wallace was the first to propose a "geography" of animal species, and as such is considered one of the precursors of ecology and biogeography.

Among the many awards presented to Wallace were the Order of Merit (1908), the Royal Society's Copley Medal (1908), the Royal Geographical Society's Founder's Medal (1892) and the Linnean Society's Gold Medal (1892).

Major Works

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Osborn, Henry Fairfield. 1913. A Great Naturalist—Alfred Russel Wallace, 1823-1913. The American Museum Journal 13, December 1913: 330-333.
  • Smith, Charles H. Alfred Russel Wallace: Evolution of an Evolutionist. Retrieved December 8, 2008.
  • Tuen, A. A., and I. Das (eds.). 2005. Wallace in Sarawak—150 years later. Proceedings of an International Conference on Biogeography and Biodiversity. Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Kota Samarahan, Sarawak, Malaysia.


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