Wallace, Alfred Russel
WALLACE, ALFRED RUSSEL
WALLACE, ALFRED RUSSEL (1823–1913), British naturalist, geographer, humanist, and social critic.
Discoverer and champion of the theory of evolution by natural selection, Wallace was one of nineteenth-century Britain's most outspoken intellectuals. His insights into evolution are his most enduring legacy, and much has been written about his relationship with his famous friend and colleague, Charles Darwin (1809–1882). Wallace's interests and publications ranged beyond evolutionary biology into political and spiritual arenas, much to the disappointment of Darwin and many of his scientific colleagues. The disagreements between the two founders of modern evolutionary theory remain unresolved, both within and beyond the scientific community. In his later years Wallace believed in a unity that underlay all physical, biological, social, and spiritual phenomena. Some of his later books, such as Darwinism (1889) and Studies Scientific and Social (1900), exemplify the evolutionary theism that surrounded his scientific analyses of the whole of nature.
He was the eighth of nine children born to Mary Anne Greenell and Thomas Vere Wallace, but only Alfred and two of his siblings survived past early adulthood. His family could barely afford the six years of formal education he received at the one-room Hertford Grammar School. Wallace, like his father, never held a permanent job and suffered from financial difficulties throughout his life. He married in 1866 and two of his three children survived to adulthood.
In his youth, Wallace was exposed to secular and reformist political ideas as well as to phrenology and mesmerism. He became self-educated in various branches of science and natural history while working as a surveyor, and for a short time as a teacher. Well-read in the natural history literature of the day, Wallace shared his reactions with his new friend Henry Walter Bates, who introduced him to entomology. Deeply intrigued by the question of the origin of species, Wallace proposed to Bates that they travel to South America as self-employed specimen collectors for the then-growing natural history trade. The traveled together to Brazil in 1848 and parted ways shortly thereafter. Wallace learned the rugged ropes of tropical fieldwork during four years of collecting in the Amazon basin. Although he amassed thousands of birds and insects, his specimens and most of his notes were destroyed in a fire at sea. Nevertheless, Wallace published several scientific articles and two books, and made enough of a name for himself in London's scientific circles to embark on a journey to the Malay Archipelago (Malaysia, Indonesia, and part of New Guinea) as a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Wallace traveled widely among the islands from 1854 to 1862, collecting biological specimens for his own research and for sale, and writing scores of scientific articles. He would be well known to naturalists for his collections alone, amassing more than 125,000 specimens, hundreds of which were new to science. Here he penned the essay for which he is now best known, in which he proposed that new species arise by the progression and continued divergence of varieties.
Wallace returned to England at the age of thirty-nine and continued to make significant contributions to natural history, especially The Geographical Distribution of Animals in 1876, but his views on spiritualism and human evolution fell outside of the scientific naturalism that dominated scientific thought.
He died at the age of ninety, having published twenty-one books, including a two-volume autobiography in 1905, and over seven hundred articles, essays, and letters. Wallace has been variously characterized as the nineteenth century's greatest explorer-naturalist, the quintessential outsider, a spur to Darwin, and a crank. In the early twenty-first century scholars have begun to expand on the limited biographies of Wallace that prevailed in the twentieth century. These works (especially those by Fichman and Slotten) present a more complex figure, a fiercely intellectual but no less spiritual man, a brave and original thinker, who while shaping the history of modern Western science was also shaped by progressivism and by a rising tide of socialist and spiritualist beliefs. He believed that his most important contribution was the extension of natural selection into the social realm. For Wallace, improvement of the human race depended on natural selection acting on well-educated, economically free men and women in an egalitarian social system.
Camerini, Jane R., ed. The Alfred Russel Wallace Reader: A Selection of Writings from the Field. Baltimore, Md., 2002.
Fichman, Martin. An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace. Chicago, 2003.
Moore, James. "Wallace's Malthusian Moment: The Common Context Revisited." In Victorian Science in Context, edited by Bernard Lightman, 290–311. Chicago, 1997.
Raby, Peter. Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life. London, 2001.
Slotten, Ross A. The Heretic in Darwin's Court. New York, 2004.
Jane R. Camerini