If ever a scientist didn't get his fair share of posthumous glory, it was Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace co-founded the theory of natural selection with the country gentleman Charles Darwin, and enjoyed considerable recognition during his lifetime. In 1908, he was awarded the Order of Merit — the highest civilian award bestowed by the British monarch. But after Wallace's death in 1913, his contributions went largely unrecognized for much of the 20th century. And while he lived, despite all the honors, he led a much less luxurious life than Darwin.
Before starting a family, Wallace's father Thomas spent his days as an idle gentleman. He gave up that idleness reluctantly, wandering from one bad investment or low-paying job to another. This financial uncertainty may have been what fostered in the future naturalist an unusual sensitivity to people others considered inferior. He sympathized with both the poor and the so-called savages of other cultures, a trait illustrated by his ability to see himself through their eyes. He once recounted:
One day when I was rambling in the forest, an old man stopped to look at me catching an insect. He stood very quietly till I had pinned and put it away in my collecting box, when he could contain himself no longer, but bent almost double, and enjoyed a hearty roar of laughter.
Despite his capacity for empathy, though, Wallace didn't doubt the superiority of his own culture, believing races were very real and the differences between them were deep and ancient.
Something else likely had a lifelong effect on the young Wallace. Born along the border between England and Wales, he perceived that the Welsh not only sounded different but also looked different. Some locals, meanwhile, called the tall blonde boy the "little Saxon." Ethnic differences related to geography no doubt interested him in the connection between place and race.
The family moved to Hertford north of London when Wallace was six, and stayed there until he was 14. At that time, he had to leave school and start working in London. He never studied at a university, but he used his meager spare time to continue his unofficial education. While visiting his older brother in London, he took a break from the weekly sermons on fire and brimstone he always heard in the parish back home. He attended scientific lectures, read Tom Paine's Age of Reason, and read Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation endorsing transmutation. Vestiges had a long-lasting effect on him, and he set the goal of uncovering how organisms change over time. Like Darwin, he also read Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population, which also influenced his thinking.
While he enjoyed his new intellectual liberties, Wallace worked as a surveyor for his older brother. In that occupation, he started a practice that would recur later in his life: initiating correspondence with prominent scientists to discuss their field of research. A 2006 discovery, for instance, revealed an unpublished letter of his to William Henry Fox Talbot about ways of improving telescope mirrors.
Wallace acquired another lifelong habit while working with his brother: itinerancy. For the rest of his life, even after he was married with children, he didn't stay in one place longer than a few years.
Wallace worked as a surveyor for several years before setting out for the Amazon to work as a commercial collector. There, he searched the New World's rainforests looking for exotic specimens for European buyers. Early on, he began to see himself (accurately) as more than a collector — as a scientific traveler. But the voyage from South America back to England ended in disaster; a fire broke out on the ship. Wallace had suffered multiple tropical fevers in the New World. He emerged from one fever to find locals had drunk the Brazilian rum he hoped to use to preserve specimens. He was still recovering from another fever when he boarded a ship bound for Britain. The ship caught fire. Still weakened by the illness, he felt "a kind of apathy about saving anything." He managed to save only some notes and drawings. Leaving everything else to burn, he descended into a lifeboat. Since the lifeboat circled the burning ship for a day, which only meant he witnessed the suffering of the desperate animals he had collected.
On the bright side of the loss, he had a shrewd agent who had insured the collections for £200, affording Wallace the opportunity to live fairly comfortably in London for a year, instead of plunging back into a demanding job to survive. More immediately, he got to eat well. The skinny young man returned to British soil exulting about "beef-steaks and damson tart." He mourned his losses, recounted how drifting at sea for days awaiting rescue gave him the chance to observe meteor showers, participated in scientific societies, wrote books and papers (though they suffered from the loss of evidence consumed by the ship fire), and started planning his next expedition. Not long afterwards, he was in the Malay Archipelago.
The humble circumstances of his youth served Wallace well as a naturalist. He was used to roughing it. While in the archipelago, he was unfussy about where he lived, what he ate, and how he traveled. He lived in huts with thatched roofs, ate whatever the natives ate, and paddled himself around in a canoe when necessary. He was particular about what he collected, however, and usually collected six specimens for every species. In 2020, the journal Science credited Wallace for aiding the identification of some 2 percent of all extant bird species; thousands of species have been described from his collections.
Driven by the need to make a living as a commercial collector, Wallace realized early on that tremendous variety exists within each species. And while he recognized that species change, as Darwin did, Wallace also realized that one species can evolve not just into a different species, but into multiple species.
Speaking of species, Wallace wrote a good definition:
Species are merely those strongly marked races or local forms which, when in contact, do not intermix, and when inhabiting distinct areas are generally believed to have had a separate origin, and to be incapable of producing a fertile hybrid offspring.
As if to offset his catastrophic loss sailing across the Atlantic, Wallace enjoyed a stroke of luck in the South Pacific, though at first it might have looked like a setback. En route to Sulawesi, he missed a connection and wound up spending a couple months in Bali and Lombok. The islands are only about 20 miles apart, but Wallace noticed that they host completely different animal life, Australian in the south and east, and Asian in the north and west. It was a breakthrough in biogeography: the Wallace Line, the recognition of distinctly different organisms living in close proximity to each other in similar environments and essentially identical climates. What he could not know at the time — the theory of plate tectonics was a long way off — was that this line marks the ancient boundary between Laurasia and Gondwana, supercontinents of the Mesozoic.
In the 1870s, after he was back in Britain, Wallace took his species-distribution ideas further, dividing the world into six regions, which he described in The Geographic Distribution of Animals. His theory was based on far more limited information than biologists have today, but although scientists have long argued over the optimal placement of the dividing line between Australian and Asian fauna, his original map is still in use. A study published at the beginning of 2013 refined Wallace's view with richer data, and identified 11 broad zoogeographic realms: Oceanian, Panamanian, Nearctic, Neotropical, Saharo-Arabian, Afrotropical, Palearctic, Sino-Japanese, Oriental, Madagascan, and Australian.
Wallace made a similar breakthrough in understanding evolution. In 1855, he published a paper entitled "On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species" in a prestigious periodical, Annals and Magazine of Natural History, explaining the spatial and temporal closeness of similar species. A few years later, weak with a bout of malaria (tropical fevers plagued him in the Malay Archipelago as much as they had in South America), Wallace had a flash of insight on how species change. The result was his scientific paper "On the Tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type." Although he didn't use the term "natural selection," he argued the same thing:
An antelope with shorter or weaker legs must necessarily suffer more from the attacks of the feline carnivora; the passenger pigeon with less powerful wings would sooner or later be affected in its powers of procuring a regular supply of food . . . If, on the other hand, any species should produce a variety having slightly increased powers of preserving existence, that variety must inevitably in time acquire a superiority in numbers. . . . Now, let some alteration of physical conditions occur in the district — a long period of drought, a destruction of vegetation by locusts, the irruption of some new carnivorous animal seeking "pastures new" . . . it is evident that, of all the individuals composing the species, those forming the least numerous and most feebly organized variety would suffer first, and, were the pressure severe, must soon become extinct.
Rather than send his paper directly to a publisher, Wallace instead sent the manuscript to Charles Darwin, with whom he had started a correspondence. Published at the end of 2011, a fascinating, painstaking study of 1858 postal connections retraced the 77-day journey of Wallace's packet to Darwin, from Ternate to Down House, including a brief trip on the swaying back of a camel between Suez and Alexandria.
Darwin had earlier been warned, by friends who had seen Wallace's 1855 paper, that the young man was onto the process of evolution, but he apparently hadn't taken their warnings very seriously. Upon seeing Wallace's newest composition, which Darwin described to his friends as "admirably expressed and quite clear" compared to his own jumbled correspondence, he realized he was about to be scooped, and decided to end the 20-year delay in publishing his own theory. In a compromise coordinated by Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, Wallace's new paper and Darwin's various notes and correspondence on the subject were read at the same Linnean Society meeting, in London on July 1, 1858. In fact, neither man's work made a huge splash at the time. The next year, while Wallace still roughed it in the archipelago, Darwin published On the Origin of Species.
Although Wallace independently reached the same conclusion, it has usually been Darwin's name alone associated with the theory of natural selection. Science philosopher Michael Ruse argues for some justification to this, saying that Darwin assembled more evidence and quietly won over professional scientists to the logic of natural selection before either his or Wallace's evolution work was published. In fact, Wallace expressed no resentment at the Linnean Society arrangement. He remained a gracious man to the last, commenting late in life that his greatest achievement had been to prompt Darwin to publish his own theory. Years after the older naturalist died, Wallace wrote a book about evolution and titled it Darwinism. Darwin, in turn, proved to be a good friend to Wallace — recalling "how generous and noble was his disposition" in his autobiography, and campaigning vigorously to secure Wallace a government pension he desperately needed. Wallace, it turned out, had no more skill in managing money than his father.
Wallace held other interests besides biology, some of them controversial: land nationalization, a vehement opposition to vaccinations, an interest in phrenology, support for suffrage, even speculation on the true identity of Shakespeare. In his own words, he was a "Red-hot Radical, Land Nationaliser, Socialist, Anti-Militarist, etc., etc., etc." Perhaps most controversial was his belief in spiritualism. In fact, other scientists tried to investigate spiritualism, but he argued that the proper tools to investigate it hadn't yet been invented. Just as nobody could perceive the microorganisms in a drop of water before the microscope, he reckoned, no one of his day could investigate spirits.
His belief in spiritualism may have been influenced by the untimely death of his eldest child; like many others, Wallace hoped to communicate with his lost loved one through a medium. His stance on spirits may have been at least partly responsible for his difference with Darwin on the origin of the human mind. Darwin saw humans as highly evolved organisms; Wallace believed that the human mind was inspired by something outside evolution, and that the human spirit could continue to progress after death. His stance could be characterized as theistic evolution. Wallace's differences with Darwin on this topic may also have resulted from the fact that Wallace spent years living among the native peoples of South America and Malaysia. While Darwin's more fleeting contacts with South Americans might not have upset his paternalistic views, Wallace knew that South Americans and Malaysians possessed intellectual abilities completely on par with his own.
Wallace also differed with Darwin on sexual selection. Whereas Darwin argued that female preferences could select for male traits such as flamboyant tail feathers, Wallace doubted that animals could have any sense of aesthetics, apparently never having spent much time studying courtship monuments built by bowerbirds. But he was onto something when he pointed out bright colors in caterpillars — animals living out asexual phases of their lives.
Biologist Andrew Berry has argued that Wallace's thinking on the evolution of the human mind was more coherent than some modern scientists give him credit for, and was informed by his egalitarian views. While many of his contemporaries were outright racist regarding people of color, Wallace wasn't. He contended that an Aru islander could, with the same education, "play Chopin" and "declaim Ovid" but simply wouldn't have the opportunity where he lived. Wallace was humble enough to remember he'd struggled to even survive his travels through places where so-called primitive islanders lived out their entire lives. So explaining the evolution of the human mind by natural selection alone didn't work for Wallace; too many people never could realize their full potential.
Wallace differed from Darwin on other issues, too, including hybridism, sexual selection and sterility. Wallace also expressed the opinion that Darwin had relied too heavily on domesticated plants and animals instead of organisms "in a state of nature."
Wallace's beliefs about man's role in the universe changed with time. In later years, he claimed that the whole purpose of the universe was the development of mankind, just "a little lower than the angels." As a young man, though, he thought differently. In one passage about the King Bird of Paradise, Wallace both marveled at the existence of such amazing creatures that had so seldom been seen by people, and made a prescient observation about humanity's impact on nature:
I thought of the long ages of the past, during which the successive generations of this little creature had run their course — year by year being born, and living and dying amid these dark and gloomy woods, with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness; to all appearance such a wanton waste of beauty. Such ideas excite a feeling of melancholy. It seems sad, that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man.
Wallace's accomplishments were remarkable. He assembled vast plant and animal collections, many of his discoveries completely new to science. He wrote more than 20 books, and roughly 700 articles and published letters. His work secured him not only election into the Royal Society, but the award of the Society's Royal Medal in 1868. He keenly understood the role of competition in nature, but maintained throughout his life that cooperation and universal education were the surest paths to human achievement. On January 24, 2013, marking the centennial year of Wallace's death, the Natural History Museum of London opened to the public an online database of his correspondence. On November 7, 2013, the exact anniversary of his death, the museum announced that a new species of tiny parasitoid wasp, Wallaceaphytis, had been named in his honor.
Narrative text and graphic design © by Michon Scott - Updated January 5, 2023