Alfred Russel Wallace

by Peter Raby
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1939

Peter Raby’s new biography of Alfred Russel Wallace uses the tools of modern scholarship to create a truthful yet sympathetic portrait of a paradoxical man in his folly and nobility. Raby wisely recognizes that he cannot improve on nature by overplaying his subject’s foibles and downplaying his idealism, and his biography consequently depicts neither a saint nor a sinner but a richly realized man. For Raby, Wallace is much more than the independent discoverer of natural selection and the primary stimulus for Darwin’s writing On the Origin of Species (1859): He was also a great field naturalist, biogeographer, and anthropologist. Furthermore, Wallace was a high-minded humanitarian whose passion for social justice drove him to champion the rights of the unprivileged and exploited. In fact, two seemingly contradictory tenets constitute the central meaning of Wallace’s life and work: natural selection and the spiritual nature of the human being. He understood that natural selection meant fierce competition among living things in which the unfit perished, but his belief in human morality and spirituality led to his advocacy of altruism instead of contention as the way to hasten the perfecting of humanity.

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Wallace’s humanism and fascination with nature were rooted in his upbringing in southeast Wales. A slow learner, Wallace experienced humiliations at school, but these caused him to formulate deep convictions about the sanctity of self-respect. His family’s financial problems meant that the children had to leave home early to earn a living. At fourteen, Wallace began his apprenticeship as a surveyor, and for the next twelve years he worked in various parts of England and Wales, learning enough geology to become curious about the fossils he found in various sediments. His work also introduced him to the injustices by which landlords controlled the landless. Unsatisfied with the responses of organized religions to these and other problems, he constructed a set of personal religious views centered on the ideals of the equality and fellowship of all human beings.

During this time, Wallace began his self-education by reading Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833), which convinced him that the earth had an extremely long history, during which powerful erosive forces gradually shaped its surface. His desire for travel was stimulated by reading the accounts of Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, and William Edwards about their explorations in South America. While teaching in Leicester, he became friends with Henry Walter Bates, a skilled entomologist, who ignited his interest in beetles and butterflies. His reading of Robert Chambers’s anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1845 converted him to the idea that species change. To pursue his growing preoccupation with the evolution of species, he decided to become a professional naturalist, and in 1848 he left England with his friend Bates and traveled to Brazil, where they explored the environs of the Amazon River. Their first collections, sent to an agent in London, included twelve chests of plants and four hundred beetles.

In 1850 the two naturalists separated. Bates left for the Rio Negro region, and Wallace explored both sides of the Amazon. This sharpened his understanding of species distribution, since the river acted as a separator of different but related kinds of living things. As he explored, his interests expanded, encompassing birds, fish, palms, even the history and languages of aboriginal tribes. Weakened by illness and depressed by the death of his young brother, Wallace packed up his collections and departed for England in 1852. Tragically, his ship caught fire and sank, leaving Wallace and his shipmates in longboats hundreds of miles from land. After further harrowing experiences, they were rescued and returned to England, where Wallace, disheartened by his lost specimens and notebooks, vowed never to travel again.

With time, he regained his emotional equilibrium, and buoyed by his growing reputation as a naturalist, he decided to complement his earlier work in Brazil with an extensive expedition to the East Indies. For Wallace, his eight years (1854-1862) in the Malay Archipelago were the central event of his life. His thousands of miles of explorations in Malaya, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Celebes, the Moluccas, and New Guinea made him into one of the nineteenth century’s most accomplished naturalists. He collected thousands of butterflies and beetles, many of them new species. His specimens of such exotically colored birds as trogons, barbets, and birds of paradise entranced collectors in England. From his studies of birds and other creatures he concluded that a line could be drawn through the waters of the Indonesian archipelago that separated the faunas of Asia and Australia. This boundary that limits the distribution of many avian and mammalian groups is now called Wallace’s Line in his honor.

Wallace’s extensive experiences with a wide variety of living things convinced him that every species came into existence from an antecedent species, and in 1855 he wrote a paper, “On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species,” whose thesis was that closely related species are often found in adjoining regions. Charles Lyell was so impressed by this paper that he warned Darwin that, unless he published his long-germinating ideas on how new species originate, he would be scooped by Wallace. Indeed, Wallace’s paper stimulated Darwin to write what he called his “Species Sketch,” but when, in 1858, Wallace’s paper, “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type,” arrived at Darwin’s home, his heart sank, for it was like reading an astute summary of the ideas he had been developing in private for years. Like Darwin, Wallace had long been trying to discover a mechanism by which new species are formed. Wallace reasoned that animals in nature also compete to survive, with the fittest living and the unfit dying. Whatever trait helped a particular creature to survive in a particular environment would be preserved, whereas creatures with such traits as crippled wings, defective digestion, or poor eyesight would perish. Wallace believed, more deeply than Darwin, that the environment set standards of fitness against which the members of each species are selected to survive.

Wallace’s paper arrived at a bad time in Darwin’s life, since he was grieving over the death of his baby son Charles. Because Wallace had asked Darwin to assume some responsibility for his paper, Darwin sought help from his friends about what to do. Their remedy was a reading of both Darwin’s and Wallace’s work on natural selection at a meeting of the Linnaean Society. Because his little boy was buried on the day of the meeting, Darwin was not present, and Wallace was not informed about the compromise until much later. Unaware of the dilemma he had created for Darwin, Wallace, now recovered from his illness, continued traveling and collecting. When he finally heard about the Linnaean meeting, he approved of what Darwin and his friends had done, reacting with characteristic modesty that they had honored him more than he deserved. When Darwin sent him a copy of On the Origin of Species in 1859, Wallace read it several times, recognizing that the book helped create a “new science” so far-reaching in its significance that Darwin’s name should “stand above that of every philosopher of ancient or modern times.” Darwin admired Wallace’s generosity of spirit, stating that most men would have been jealous over the success of On the Origin of Species.

In the late 1860’s, Wallace became interested in spiritualism. He attended seances and witnessed how the dead apparently could communicate with the living. Though he realized that some mediums were frauds, he convinced himself that some of the rappings and table shiftings were due to the presence of scientifically testable spiritual forces. Wallace’s conversion from materialism to spiritualism chagrined Darwin, but Wallace found support from such scientists as physicist Oliver Lodge and chemist William Crookes. However, most scientists remained unpersuaded by Wallace’s arguments that spiritualist phenomena were the palpable signs that divine purpose existed in the world.

Though Wallace continued to write on spiritualism, he did not neglect his scientific work. In 1869 he published The Malay Archipelago, about his journeys in the East Indies, and dedicated it to Darwin. His Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876) and Island Life (1880) were significant contributions. Meanwhile Darwin was publishing such works as The Descent of Man (1871) andThe Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) in which he discussed natural and sexual selection as they applied to the human species. Darwin’s ideas on sexual selection became a source of disagreement with Wallace, who believed that natural and sexual selection were indistinguishable. Darwin believed that Wallace’s objections against sexual selection were wrong (as do modern biologists), but Darwin was even more distressed about Wallace’s conviction that natural selection could not explain human intellectuality, morality, and creativity. For Wallace, creativity in such areas as mathematics and music had little to do with survival and much to do with spirituality. Furthermore, he was one of his century’s rare nonracists, asserting that all human groups had comparable mental abilities. For him, the refined capacities of human brains for art, morality, and spirituality could not be the result of natural selection. Instead, they proved that a transcendent power (meaning God) had guided human evolution in a definite direction and for a special purpose.

After Darwin’s death and during the last three decades of Wallace’s long life, he spread the gospel of Darwinism through his writings and travels. On a trip to America he lectured on his beliefs in natural selection and the spiritual nature of humanity. Even in England, his restless spirit drove him to move from place to place, constantly seeking the ideal home for his growing family. His equally restless intellect led him to write on land reform and socialism. He argued for state ownership of land, and, like many socialists, he envisioned a future society organized like a great family, in which all joys and sufferings are equally shared. The wanderings of his body and spirit ended on November 7, 1913, when he died at Broadstone, Dorset, in the presence of his family. Unlike Darwin, who was buried in Westminster Abbey to great acclaim, Wallace’s funeral was quiet, and he was buried in a cemetery near his home. His wife was buried beside him just over a year later.

Raby clearly admires Wallace as a man and a scientist, but his book is not a hagiography. He recognizes Wallace’s many faults, for example, his lamentable campaign against vaccination and his gullibility about spiritualism, phrenology, homeopathy, and other pseudosciences. Raby distinguishes himself from those authors who think that Wallace was cheated out of his priority in discovering natural selection by a conspiracy of Darwin and his friends. For Raby, depicting Darwin as a Machiavellian schemer is absurd, and he rightly points out that Wallace always felt that Darwin had treated him fairly. Nevertheless, Raby does believe that Wallace’s achievements have been unjustly overshadowed by an overenthusiastic emphasis on Darwin’ s accomplishments. Wallace was a much greater field naturalist than Darwin, and Raby also finds Wallace’s social and political views much more progressive than Darwin’s. In some ways, Wallace was a precursor of those modern thinkers who continue to be puzzled by the mysteries of human consciousness, but in other ways he was unique: This discoverer of the natural law of the destruction of the unfit never ceased believing in the core of his being that the supernatural law of universal love was what truly perfected human beings.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (August, 2001): 2066.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (September 23, 2001): 30.

Publishers Weekly 248 (August 20, 2001): 74.

Science 293 (August 17, 2001): 1260.

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