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Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913)

P.124-1943 Alfred Russel Wallace was a self-educated man, who by the early twentieth century was ranked among the world's most famous naturalists, and at the time of his death may well have been considered the most famous scientist in the world. His paper on natural selection was published alongside Charles Darwin’s by the Linnean Society in 1858, but today Darwin is remembered as its principal author.

Wallace’s interest in natural history burgeoned in the 1830s and 40s when he was working with one of his brothers in the surveying trade. During this time he gained experience in various technical skills, such as map drawing, that would become useful later on. However, it was access to well-stocked libraries that influenced the direction of his life. After reading one book in particular, Robert Chambers’ anonymously published Vestiges of Natural History of Creation (1845), Wallace grew convinced of the idea of biological evolution, the idea that “considers that all existing species are the result of the modification of pre-existing species.”

Wallace became acquainted with the entomologist Henry Walter Bates, and began to share Bates’ enthusiasm for natural-history collecting. Inspired in part by Charles Darwin's report of his voyage on the Beagle they formulated a plan to travel to Brazil for the purposes of collecting specimens. It was Wallace’s intention to study one family thoroughly in order to find evidence of the origin of species. They set sail in 1848 and upon arrival Wallace used his map-making skills to draw the area in the middle Amazon and the river Rio Negro. He had voyaged further up the river than any other European, and the map was later published by the Royal Geographical Society. This was one of the few success stories of the trip, however, as his effort to bring home a specimen collection was annihilated in the catastrophic homeward voyage in 1852. Miraculously he and the rest of the crew survived, but not before enduring ten days on the Atlantic, floating in leaking lifeboats.

Undeterred, Wallace set off again in 1854, this time to the Malay Archipelago (present-day Malaysia and Indonesia). Over the next 8 years, on several expeditions to every important island in the group, Wallace amassed an enormous collection of insects, birds, mammal and reptile specimens, some of which were unknown to science. Because of the knowledge he accrued during his stay he remained the greatest authority of the region. Wallace recorded his experiences in a book called The Malay archipelago (1869) which became one of the century’s bestselling popular journals of scientific exploration. Darwin, to whom the book was dedicated, later wrote to Wallace “Your descriptions of catching butterflies have made me quite envious, and at the same time have made me feel almost young again” (from The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Volume 3, pp. 113).

In 1858, while suffering with a fever, the mechanism for evolutionary change for which Wallace had been looking so long finally came to him. Independently to Charles Darwin, Wallace formed the idea of natural selection: the idea that fittest variations of creatures would survive longest, be able to breed and pass on their advantageous characteristics to their offspring. He later described this moment as “a streak of illuminating lightning on the dark sky of ignorance and conjecture” (The Pall Mall Magazine, March 1909). When he could muster the strength Wallace wrote his ideas in an essay and sent it to Darwin, as the two had recently started corresponding and Wallace knew Darwin was interested in the species question. In actual fact Darwin had been working on the theory, more of less in secret, for the last 20 years and was shocked to receive Wallace’s essay. Anxious not to lose priority of the idea, Darwin asked friends for advice (the botanist Joseph Hooker and the geologist Charles Lyell). It should be remembered that the summer of 1858 was a horrendous period in Darwin’s life: not only was his work being threatened, but ten days after receiving Wallace’s letter Darwin’s young son Charles died from scarlet fever.

Lyell and Hooker suggested that in order to preserve Darwin's claim on natural selection both men’s work should be presented to the Linnean Society. Soon after the reading Wallace’s paper was published by the Society’s journal preceded by extracts from Darwin’s unpublished writings. Wallace was not consulted on the presentation, publication or the ordering of the papers. These events have been recounted numerous times and accounts vary depending on whether or not the author feels that Wallace got a raw deal in what has since been described as 'the greatest ideological revolution in the history of science' (Stephen Jay Gould). The strongest advocates of this cause have accused Darwin of intellectual thievery. In their narratives Darwin received Wallace's paper several weeks earlier than is usually claimed, giving him the opportunity to filch its contents and use them as his own in On the Origin of Species published towards the end of 1859. The idea is preposterous when one considers the mass of evidence Darwin had accumulated over the 20 years since the Beagle voyage. Wallace himself seems never to have held a grudge against his elder. Later in life he wrote of their friendly relationship as “one of the greatest honours of my life.” (My Life: A Record of Events and Opinions, Volume 2, p.16.)

Wallace was one of Darwin’s fiercest allies, defending his ideas long after the latter's death. However, he had disagreed with him on a number of points, one of which was the extent to which sexual selection could explain sexual dimorphism and related matters. For instance, Wallace thought that female birds could not be responsible for the colours and intricate patterns in the plumage of males. To many of his colleagues’ dismay by the late 1860s Wallace had become a Spiritualist. Increasingly, Wallace felt natural selection could not be related to human evolution, as the laws he and others had applied to the animal kingdom could not account for the nature of the human mind. Human intelligence, he claimed, was evidence of the intervention of a higher power, an idea close to that put forward by modern-day believers in Intelligent Design.

Wallace is also a fascinating figure for his non-science related beliefs, such as his support of women’s suffrage and commitment to the idea that workers should receive a certain basic standard of living. Wallace was 81 years old when he sat for William Rothenstien for this lithograph. He is sporting a long beard: contemporary accounts state that he had not been without it since the 1854 expedition.

Museum Number P.124-1943


Endless Forms
16 June - 4 October 2009 Science meets art in this ground-breaking exhibition, which explores the fascinating relationship between the revolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and nineteenth-century art.