Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace

Biography

BY EUGENE M. MCCARTHY, PHD

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Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace (Jan. 8, 1823–Nov. 7, 1913). British naturalist, biogeographer, author, humanitarian, best known for developing a theory of evolution through natural selection independently of Charles Darwin.

Alfred Russel Wallace Birthplace (Kensington Cottage)
Kensington Cottage

Alfred Russel Wallace was born on January 8th, 1823, the eighth child of Thomas Vere Wallace and Mary Anne Wallace. His oddly spelled middle name was the result of a mistake at the time of registering his birth, which was never corrected.

His place of birth was Kensington Cottage, which stands just across the Usk River from the city of Usk in southeastern Wales. The Wallaces, who were not Welsh, had been forced to move to Kensington as a measure of economy after Alfred's father squandered most of his inheritance on a series of poor business decisions. They had up to that time lived as an upper middle class family in Hertford just north of London.

Supposedly, the Wallaces were descendants of the Scottish warrior chieftain William Wallace, of Braveheart fame. But, in fact, Alfred left home at such an early age that as an old man he said he knew few specifics about even his more recent ancestors. One of his typically speculative comments on this topic (My Life, 1905, vol. 1, p. 5) was that on his mother's side "the family were not improbably French refugees after the massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572."

In 1835 his father, who seems always to have been improvident in his investments, was swindled out of most of his remaining property, and the Wallaces then fell on real hard times. Alfred had to stop attending school at the early age of 13, and yet, he educated himself and was eventually the author of many books on evolution and natural history.

Walter Bates
Walter Bates

While teaching school in Leicester in 1844, aged 21, he met Walter Bates (1825–1892). Like Wallace, Bates had left school at an early age and lacked any formal education in natural science. But both were fanatical beetle collectors, and together they scoured Leicestershire for specimens. In 1848, after reading about the adventures of famous naturalist travelers such as Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin, they embarked for Brazil in hopes of a collection bonanza.

Lingering near the coast after their arrival, they spent a year collecting in the vicinity of Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon. Eventually, however, they had a falling out, and Wallace ended up going off on his own. He traveled far inland to explore the Rio Negro, a major river deep in the western Amazon Basin. There, he collected specimens of the flora and fauna, gathered information about the indigenous peoples, and made notes on the geography.

In the summer of 1852, he tried to return to England with everything he had collected on his inland expedition, but three weeks out at sea his ship caught fire. He escaped with the crew, spending ten days at sea in a lifeboat, but thousands of carefully prepared specimens and all of his field notes went down with the ship. Fortunately, he had insurance and was at least compensated financially for his loss. He also had many specimens that he had shipped home separately before he left Belem for the Rio Negro. He later wrote (My Life 1905, p. 306),

Inundated jungle
Inundated jungle along the Rio Negro, an area explored by Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace bungalow
Extracting a snake from Wallace's bungalow (from the The Malay Archipelego, 1869)
I cannot attempt to describe my feelings and thoughts during these events. I was surprised to find myself very cool and collected. I hardly thought it possible we should escape and I remember thinking it almost foolish to save my watch and the little money I had at hand. However, after being in the boats some days I began to have more hope, and regretted not having saved some new shoes, cloth coat and trousers, hat, etc., which I might have done with a little trouble. My collections, however, were in the hold and were irretrievably lost. And now I began to think that almost all the reward of my four years of privation and danger was lost. What I had hitherto sent home had little more than paid my expenses and what I had with me in the Helen I estimated would have realized about 500. But even all this might have gone with little regret had not by far the richest part of my own private collection gone also. All my private collection of insects and birds since I left Para was with me, and comprised hundreds of new and beautiful species, which would have rendered (I had fondly hoped) my cabinet, as far as regards American species, one of the finest in Europe.

Back in London, living on the insurance payment and the proceeds of specimen sales, he spent the next two years publishing several formal papers about his experiences, as well as two books (A Narrative of Travels On the Amazon and Rio Negro and Palm Trees of the Amazon). He then set out again, this time for the Malay Archipelego (now Indonesia and Malaysia). There he spent the next eight years, collecting more than 125,000 specimens — birds, snakes, butterflies and, of course, beetles — of which a thousand would be forms new to science.

At one point, on the island of Amboina, he had a run-in with a huge snake. He describes the experience in his book The Malay Archipelego:

Of an evening I generally sat reading in the veranda, ready to capture any insects that were attracted to the light. One night about nine o'clock I heard a curious noise and rustling overhead, as if some heavy animal were crawling slowly over the thatch. The noise soon ceased, and I thought no more about it, and went to bed soon afterward. The next afternoon just before dinner, being rather tired with my day's work, I was lying on the couch with a book in my hand, when, gazing upward, I saw a large mass of something overhead which I had not noticed before. Looking more carefully, I could see yellow and black marks, and thought it must be a tortoise-shell put up there out of the way between the ridge-pole and the roof. Continuing to gaze, it suddenly resolved itself into a large snake, compactly coiled up in a kind of knot; and I could detect his head and his bright eyes in the very centre of the folds. The noise of the evening before was now explained. A python had climbed up one of the posts of the house, and had made his way under the thatch within a yard of my head, and taken up a comfortable position in the roof—and I had slept soundly all night directly under him.

I called to my two boys who were skinning birds below and said, "Here's a big snake in the roof;" but as soon as I had shown it to them they rushed out of the house and begged me to come out directly. Finding they were too much afraid to do anything, we called some of the laborers in the plantation, and soon had half a dozen men in consultation outside. One of these, a native of Bouru, where there are a great many snakes, said he would get him out...He made a strong noose of rattan, and with a long pole in the other hand poked at the snake, who then began slowly to uncoil itself. He then managed to slip the noose over its head, and getting it well on to the body, dragged the animal down. There was a great scuffle as the snake coiled round the chairs and posts to resist his enemy, but at length the man caught hold of its tail, rushed out of the house (running so quick that the creature seemed quite confounded), and tried to strike its head against a tree. He missed however, and let go, and the snake got under a dead trunk close by. It was again poked out, and again the Bouru man caught hold of its tail, and running away quickly dashed its head with a swing against a tree, and it was then easily killed with a hatchet. It was about twelve feet long, and very thick, capable of doing much mischief, and of swallowing a dog or a child.

Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection. In 1858, Wallace sent Darwin an essay from Borneo, entitled On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type, that precipitated Darwin into panic. It gave a full account of the theory of natural selection. At the time, Darwin had been working on his version of the theory for some twenty years, but published nothing.

Darwin told his friends Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, two prominent British scientists (the latter was one of Darwin's proteges), about Wallace's paper. Indeed, Lyell had known Wallace was working on an evolutionary theory and had been warning Darwin to publish.

Wallace had been away since 1854, on his expedition to the Malay Archipelago. Years later, in his autobiography, he wrote how the theory came to him, in February 1858, in his bungalow on the remote island of Ternate (pronounced "turn-NAW-tay"). "At the time in question I was suffering from a sharp attack of intermittent [malarial] 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 day,

something brought to my recollection Malthus's "Principles of Population" … I thought of his clear exposition of "the positive checks to increase"—disease, accidents, war, and famine—which keep down the population … It then occurred to me that these causes or their equivalents are continually acting in the case of animals also; and as animals usually breed much more rapidly than does mankind, the destruction every year from these causes must be enormous in order to keep down the numbers of each species, since they evidently do not increase regularly from year to year, as otherwise the world would long ago have been densely crowded with those that breed most quickly. [Then] it occurred to me to ask the question, Why do some die and some live? And the answer was clearly, that on the whole the best fitted live. … that is, the fittest would survive. … 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 species. … on the two succeeding evenings I wrote [the theory] out carefully in order to send it to Darwin by the next post. [Alfred Russel Wallace, My Life, pp. 361-363]

When Darwin received Wallace's manuscript, he sent it on to Lyell. In the covering letter, he rued his procrastination:

My Dear Lyell,…Your words have come true with a vengeance — that I should be forestalled. You said this, when I explained to you here [i.e., at Darwin's home, Down House, in Kent] very briefly my views of 'Natural Selection' depending on the struggle for existence. I never saw a more striking coincidence; if Wallace had my MS. sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as heads of my chapters…So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.
On the tendency of varieties, 1858
From the title page of "On The Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type." Darwin appeared as first author, though Wallace had written most the paper.

Hooker and Lyell came to the rescue, arranging for Darwin to publish, alongside Wallace's formal paper, a hurried extract from a manuscript and a personal letter to his friend Asa Gray in which he had sketched his own ideas on natural selection. Darwin was first author on the article (see image right), entitled On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type. Darwin's contribution and Wallace's were read out together at the July 1 meeting of the Linnean Society. Darwin then rushed the Origin of Species through to publication the following year.

Many have questioned this course of action (the now famous "Delicate Arrangement"), since it was done without Wallace's knowledge or consent. Even Darwin expressed trepidation at the proceedings. As he later wrote in his autobiography:

The circumstances under which I consented at the request of Lyell and Hooker to allow of an abstract from my MS., together with a letter to Asa Gray, dated September 5, 1857, to be published at the same time with Wallace's Essay, are given in the 'Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society,' 1858, p. 45. I was at first very unwilling to consent, as I thought Mr. Wallace might consider my doing so unjustifiable, for I did not then know how generous and noble was his disposition.

Questions of priority could certainly have been raised. But Alfred Russel Wallace was a modest man, and a considerably younger one than Darwin. He later wrote Darwin and eschewed all credit for the theory. As he put it in his letter, "I shall always maintain it to be actually yours and yours only." And, in fact, in correspondence Darwin regularly did refer to it as "my theory."

In particular, historians have questions about the concept of divergent evolution, which does not appear in any of Darwin's writings prior to his reading Wallace's manuscript, which did explicitly describe it. As Richard Milner (1993, p. 140) writes,

There has been much recent dispute among scholars about why Darwin came to understand divergence so late in the day, or even whether he might have lifted the idea from Wallace. Despite the extraordinary documentation of the Darwin correspondence (some 14,000 letters), it is disturbing that certain crucial documents are missing, such as Wallace's very first letter to Darwin, written in October 1856 from Malaysia, and the "lost letters of 1858" which immediately preceded the composition of the Origin of Species.

Wallace's letter reached Darwin in April, 1857, five months before Darwin sent Asa Gray, the American botanist, an updated summary of his evolution theory, the product of 20 year's thought and work. He had written out sketches of this ideas before (1842, 1844), but the latest version contained something significantly new — the "principle of divergence."

No doubt, Darwin's wealth was one reason that he ended up with most of the credit for the theory. Darwin was a member of one of the richest families in England. Moreover, Darwin's writings about the voyage of the Beagle had made him famous. His riches, social prominence, and fame as an author put the younger, less well-known, and relatively impecunious, Wallace in the shade.

Darwin had, of course, been working on an evolutionary theory longer than Wallace had. Still, the question remains whether he would ever have published if Wallace's manuscript had never arrived in the mail.

Darwin's comments about Wallace (in the Autobiography) >>
The effect of Darwin's wealth on his ideas >>
Back to Famous Biologists >>


  • Selected Works of Alfred Russel Wallace: Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro (1853); On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type (1858); The Malay Archipelago (1869); Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (1870); The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876); Tropical Nature, and Other Essays (1878); Island Life (1881); Darwinism: An Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection, with Some of Its Applications (1889); My Life (1905).
  • Alfred Russel Wallace's exact dates of birth and death: 8 January 1823 (in Usk, Wales) — 7 November 1913 (at Broadstone, near Wimborne, in Dorset, UK, and was buried there).

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Ternate

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Alfred Russel Wallace
Singapore, 1862


Alfred Russel Wallace in old age
Alfred Russel Wallace in old age

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