Alfred Russel Wallace

JMS Pearce
Hull, United Kingdom

 

Fig 1. Alfred Russel Wallace. Public Domain

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) conceived the original idea of evolution by natural selection entirely independently of Charles Darwin.1 In the north choir aisle of Westminster Abbey, next to Charles Darwin’s memorial, is a white marble roundel with a profile relief bust to the memory of Alfred Russel Wallace, erected in 1915. Wallace (Fig 1.) was a man of many talents — an explorer, collector, naturalist, geographer, anthropologist, and fearless social commentator.2

He was born in 1823 in Llanbadoc, Usk, Monmouthshire. After attending Hertford Grammar School he worked at his brother’s surveying firm, then as a teacher at the Collegiate School, Leicester in 1844.3,4 That year he formed a friendship with a Leicester man, Henry Walter Bates, a keen naturalist, who inter alia introduced Wallace to the delights of collecting beetles.

Wallace and Darwin had read an anonymous, highly controversial book in 1844: Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. (The author was revealed in 1884 as the publisher Robert Chambers).

In 1847 Wallace wrote to Bates:

I should like to take some one family to study thoroughly, principally with a view to the theory of the origin of species.

In this, we can glimpse into his curiosity and obsessional preoccupation with the origins of living forms. In his later autobiography, Alfred Russel Wallace: My Life, pp. 257, he observed:

These extracts from my early letters to Bates suffice to show that the great problem of the origin of species was already distinctly formulated in my mind; that I was not satisfied with the more or less vague solutions at that time offered; that I believed the conception of evolution through natural law so clearly formulated in the “Vestiges” to be, so far as it went, a true one; and that I firmly believed that a full and careful study of the facts of nature would ultimately lead to a solution of the mystery.

Four years later in 1848, he departed with Bates for the Amazon. George Beccaloni, director of the Wallace Correspondence Project, has provided excellent documentation.7

 

The Amazon 1848–1852

Wallace and Bates arrived at the Amazon in Brazil in 1848 to investigate the origin of species. Impecunious, they could only finance the trip by collecting numerous specimens and selling them to collectors and museums.

In order to cover more ground, Wallace and Bates split up. Wallace went north by river, surviving dangerous and hostile conditions in areas previously unexplored in order to observe and collect animal and plant material. He amassed thousands of animal specimens, mostly birds, beetles, and butterflies. When he later set sail for England his ship caught fire in the Atlantic and sank, with the loss of many specimens and field notes. A passing cargo ship rescued the passengers.

Undaunted, a year later Wallace left England for further explorations in Malaya.

 

The Malay Archipelago and Wallace’s Line 1854–1862

Fig 2. Wallace’s Line

Wallace began his travels through the Malay Archipelago (now Malaysia and Indonesia) in 1854. After years of meticulous observations and collecting he published The Malay Archipelago.5 His account highlights vivid descriptions of birds of paradise and orangutans, and encounters with natives. Over a period of eight years, he had acquired an incomparable collection of about 125,660 specimens, including more than 5,000 species, many not previously described.6,7 In his life he published twenty-one articles containing descriptions of 295 new species: 120 butterflies, 70 beetles, and 105 birds. About 250 of these new species were named after him, usually as Wallacii or Wallacei.7

Their diversity and intermediate forms from Sarawak in Borneo furthered his searches and ideas about evolution. This was encapsulated in a paper which plainly described the gradual changes in species, their development, and extinction.8 Referred to as his “Sarawak Law,” he said that:

Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species… each one having had for its immediate antitype a closely related species existing at the time of its origin. It is evidently possible that two or three distinct species may have had a common antitype, and that each of these may again have become the antitypes from which other closely allied species were created.

Wallace observed a striking variation in the species and morphology of fauna in different areas, which he related to geographical, climactic, and migratory patterns in different parts of the archipelago.9 He proposed an imaginary line dividing the region. Wallace’s Line lies to the east of Borneo, and marks the boundary between the distinctive animal life of the Australian region (in yellow) and that of Asia (in pink) (Fig 2.).

The respected geologist Charles Lyell brought Wallace’s 1855 paper to the notice of Charles Darwin, then laboring over his own work on the origin of species but far from ready to publish.8 Darwin did not at first pay much attention to it.10

In the background there had been many attempts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to clarify the changing forms and functions of earth, flora, and fauna (Table 1). One of the first was James Hutton’s Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge Vol 2, 1794, which observed:

…Those which depart most from the best adapted constitution, will be the most liable to perish, while, on the other hand, those organized bodies, which most approach to the best constitution for the present circumstances, will be best adapted to continue, in preserving themselves and multiplying the individuals of their race.

In 1858, Wallace tried to make sense of his own observations whilst ill with fever and confined to his hut on the island of Ternate (in Indonesia). Echoing elements of Lamarck’s later discredited idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, Wallace thought he now understood how species evolved — they changed because only the fittest individuals survived illness and injury and reproduced, passing their advantageous characteristics on to their offspring. However, Lamarck’s idea of inherited acquired characteristics differed from Wallace’s survival of the fittest:

…Why do some die and some live? And the answer was clearly, that on the whole the best fitted live. From the effects of disease the most healthy escaped; from enemies, the strongest, the swiftest, or the most cunning; from famine, the best hunters or those with the best digestion; and so on. Then 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. …on the two succeeding evenings I wrote it out carefully in order to send it to Darwin by the next post, which would leave in a day or two.

I wrote a letter to him in which I said I hoped the idea would be as new to him as it was to me, and that it would supply the missing factor to explain the origin of the species. I asked him if he thought it sufficiently important to show it to Sir Charles Lyell, who had thought so highly of my former paper. 3(pp. 360-363.)

 

Wallace and Darwin

Contradicting both theologicali and scientific hegemony, Charles Lyell had proposed in Principles of Geology (1830-33) that the geological structure of the earth was ancient, and had changed constantly but slowly by natural processes; this opinion followed James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth (1788). Wallace sent his findings to Darwin, who immediately sent Wallace’s letter to Lyell, altruistically saying:

Fig 3. Joint paper to Linnaean society 1858.
Darwin & Wallace.

I never saw a more striking coincidence. If Wallace had my manuscript sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as Heads of my Chapters.

Please return me the manuscript which he does not say he wishes me to publish; but I shall of course at once write & offer to send to any Journal. So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.

Darwin had been working on the very same theory since 1836, but threatened by adverse opinions — notably voiced by theologians and by anatomist and paleontologist, Sir Richard Owen FRS (1804-1892) — he was yet to publish.ii He sought the advice of his friends, who proposed a set of papers bearing both Charles Darwin’s and Wallace’s names, which as a single article, On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection, was published in the Proceedings of the Linnaean Society in 1858 (Fig 3.). Neither Darwin nor Wallace was present.

Urged on by Wallace’s work, Darwin’s The Origin of Species was finally published on 24 November 1859. In The Descent of Man (1871), he elaborated natural selection by survival of the fittest.

From that time, Darwin overshadowed Wallace and his name, and almost alone became associated with evolution by natural selection. Remarkably, Wallace expressed no resentment at this — in fact he was Darwin’s greatest admirer. Charles Darwin was similarly impressed by how much Wallace’s theory of natural selection agreed with his own.

Coupled with Darwin’s identical conclusions, Wallace’s enormous contribution ensured his high scientific reputation, although he has not received adequate public acclaim.11 A tireless thinker, he wrote widely on diverse topics including land ownership, workers’ rights, law, economics, and museums. He wrote more than 1000 articles and 22 books, the best known being The Malay Archipelago, The Geographical Distribution of Animals, Island Life and Darwinism.12 Wallace later decided to sell his private collection, retaining only a few boxes of duplicates as mementoes. The insects he retained are now in the Natural History Museum, London.

Fig 4. Wallace’s hut in Besir, Papua, Indonesia, 1860.
From Natural Selection and Beyond: The Intellectual
Legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace. Edited by Charles
Hyde Smith, George Beccaloni. OUP 2008.

Interestingly, long before Wallace, and before the privileged Charles Darwin was born, his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, wrote about evolution in his most important medico-philosophical work, Zoonomia (or The Laws of Organic Life, 1794). In it Erasmus suggested what was later called natural selection.13

…All warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, [my italics] and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!14

We can conclude that Wallace was a solitary man, denied privilege and wealth, who showed immense, selfless dedication. He was relentless in his scientific pursuit of the basis of survival of the fittest, for which he suffered many grave physical hardships (Fig 4.). He married Annie Mitten in 1866, who bore three children, one of whom died in infancy. Today Darwin’s name is synonymous with the theory of evolution whilst Wallace is commonly forgotten. But Wallace’s work was recognized during his lifetime: variously called “the last of the great Victorians,” and “the Grand Old Man of Science.” He received the OM (Order of Merit), the highest of civilian honors, and the Copley Medal of the Royal Society, and in 1890 the Darwin Medal: “For his independent origination of the theory of the origin of species by natural selection.” Wallace died in his sleep at Broadstone, Dorset on 7 November 1913, and was buried in Broadstone Public Cemetery.

Darwin is commemorated by many statues, but until recently there were none of Wallace, save for a roundel at Westminster Abbey. Bill Bailey’s BBC documentary Jungle Hero (2019) illuminates the man and his journeys. Fittingly, a bronze statue was donated to London’s Natural History Museum, where it was promoted by Bill Bailey and unveiled by Sir David Attenborough on 7 November 2013 – the 100th anniversary of Wallace’s death.

 

Table 1. Early Concepts of Evolution

James Hutton MD.
(1726-1797)
Theory of the Earth (1788)
‘Uniformitarianism’
Jean Baptiste Lamarck
(1744-1829)
Inheritance of acquired
characteristics (1809)
Charles Lyell
(1797-1875)
Natural forces change the
earth. Principles of Geology
(1830-1833)
Alfred Russel Wallace
(1823-1913)
On the law which has
regulated the introduction
of new species. (1855)
Erasmus Darwin MD.
(1731-1802)
Zoonomia (1794-6)
Charles Darwin
(1809-1882)
Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859)

End Notes

  1. The Irish Archbishop James Ussher fixed the date of creation at Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C.
  2. In a letter to Asa Gray, May22, 1860 Darwin said: “With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me. — I am bewildered. — I had no intention to write atheistically.”

References

  1. Beccaloni, G. W. 2013. Alfred Russel Wallace and Natural Selection: the Real Story.http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/tv/junglehero/alfred-wallace-biography.pdf
  2. McNish J. Who was Alfred Russel Wallace? Natural History Museum. published 8 January 2018
    http://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/who-was-alfred-russel-wallace.html
  3. Wallace A.R. My Life, A record of events and opinions. 2 volumes. New York, Dodd mead & Co. 1905
  4. Smith CH, Beccaloni G (eds). Natural Selection and Beyond. The Intellectual Legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace. Oxford OUP 2008
  5. Wallace, A.R., 1869. The Malay Archipelago, the land of the orang-utan and the bird of paradise: a narrative of travel with studies of man and nature. Macmillan, London
  6. Baker, D.B. Alfred Russel Wallace’s record of his consignments to Samuel Stevens, 1854-1861. Zool. Med. Leiden 75 (16). 24.xii.2001: 251-341. Cited by Beccaloni6
  7. Beccaloni G. Wallace’s Collections. http://wallacefund.info/wallaces-specimens
  8. Wallace AR. On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species. Annals and Magazine of Natural History, 16, 1855:184–96.
  9. Wallace, A.R., 1876. The geographical distribution of animals. Harper & Brothers, New York
  10. Wyhe John van. The impact of A. R. Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper reassessed. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. vol. 60, Dec., pp. 56-66.
  11. Attenborough David. Alfred Russel Wallace : Letters from the Malay Archipelago. Oxford, Oxford University Press 2013
  12. Shermer M. In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Biographical Study on the Psychology of History. Oxford , Oxford University Press, 2002. [contains his full list of references]
  13. Pearce JMS. The forgotten Darwin. | Hektoen Int. History Essays Summer 2012
  14. Darwin E. Zoonomia. reprinted, two volumes Palala Press, 2016. Available from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Zoonomia, Vol. I, by Erasmus Darwin. www.gutenberg.org ›53,077 free ebooks › 5. 1794-96, pp. 482-537.

 


 

JMS PEARCE is a retired neurologist and author with a particular interest in the history of science and medicine.

 

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