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Alfred Russel Wallace biography

Alfred Russel Wallace
biography and quotes

picture of Alfred Russel Wallace Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) was born near Usk, Monmouthshire (now part of Gwent), Wales as the eighth child of the family. His father had actually trained as a lawyer and had inherited enough wealth to live independently as a young man. Marriage and the ensuing responsibilities had changed his circumstances and diverse occupations were subsequently attempted. The family left Usk for Hertford, a county-town, and Mrs. Wallace's home town, not too distant from London, when Alfred Russel Wallace was only five. His father gained the position of being town librarian in Hertford.

Unfortunately Mr. Wallace lost much of his remaining property through ill advised dealings in 1835 resulting in real hardship for the family - Alfred Russel Wallace, then barely into his teenage years, had to cut short his education late in 1836 and was sent to live in London with a 19-year-old older brother, John, who was apprenticed in the building industry. At some time during the next few months Wallace was introduced to the Utopian Socialism of Robert Owen of which he became a keen disciple. The following year Wallace moved on to join another brother, William, who had a surveying business in Bedfordshire. Alfred Russel Wallace subsequently became an apprentice in his brother's company.

For several years subsequently Wallace was mainly involved in surveying and allied professions but also became greatly interested in Natural History - his day job offering many opportunities to develop his new interest as the first of our quotes from Alfred Russel Wallace's autobiography shows:-
It was here, too, that during my solitary rambles I first began to feel the influence of nature and to wish to know more of the various flowers, shrubs and trees I daily met with, but of which for the most part I did not even know the English names. At the same time I hardly realised that there was such a science as a systematic botany, that every flower and every meanest and most insignificant weed had been accurately described and classified, and that there was any kind of system or order in the endless variety of plants and animals which I knew existed. This wish to know the names of wild plants, to be able even to speak of them, and to learn anything that was known about them, had arisen from a chance remark I had overheard about a year before. A lady, who was a governess in a Quaker family we knew at Hertford, was talking to some friends in the street when I and my father met them, and stayed for a few minutes to greet them. I then heard the lady say, "We found quite a rarity the other day - the Monotropa - it had not been found here before." This I pondered over, and wondered what the Monotropa was.

My Life, Volume 1, pp. 110

This was an era when people often tried through improve themselves through education and to socialise in educative contexts. Such impulses might allow the big cities to support explicit societies promoting learned interests and even provincial towns, such as Hertford, had its so-called Mechanic's Institute - of which Wallace became a keen member.

It happened, however, that William Wallace's business fell on hard times causing Wallace to lose his place in 1844. He was now successful in gaining a position as a teacher of Surveying in the Collegiate School in Leicester where he had access to a library where there were several reliable books on Natural History. During these times Wallace became familiar with Thomas Malthus' work An Essay on the Principle of Population in which populations are held to naturally increase to the limit of available food supplies.

This Essay includes the following selection:-

Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms Nature has scattered the abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand; but has been comparatively sparing in the room and nourishment necessary to rear them. The germs of existence contained in the earth, if they could freely develop themselves, would fill millions of worlds in the course of a few thousand years. Necessity, that imperious, all-pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants and the race of animals shrink under this great restrictive law; and man cannot by any effort of reason escape from it.

In 1844 Wallace made the acquaintance of another young man seriously interested in Natural History named Henry Walter Bates (1842-52), who although only nineteen years of age, was a well-recognised proficient in the then fashionable pursuit of beetle-collecting and who had already been able to get some scholarly work in Entomology printed in the learned journal, Zoologist.

Other formative developments in his life in these times included attendance at a demonstration of mesmerism - Wallace found that he could himself reproduce the same effects as the mesmerist demonstated and, more seriously, the death of his brother, William, in February 1845 which was followed by Wallace returning to surveying and his brother, John, joining him in the business. Wallace found his adminstrative responsibilities particularly arduous. After the failure of the business Wallace worked as a surveyor in connection with a proposed railway in the Vale of Neath. He also found time to give lectures on science and engineering at the Mechanics' Institute of Neath and to act as a curator of the Neath Philosophical and Literary Institute's museum.

His interest in Natural History continued and he entered into a regular correspondence with his friend Henry Bates. During thes times Wallace seems to have read, and to have corresponded with Henry Bates about, Charles Darwin's journal on the Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology which offered to demonstrate how long-term change, in Geology in this instance, could be effected through the operation of slow, long-term processes, and an anonomously published work Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, (later known to be by Robert Chambers), which was an early, popular, and notably controversial effort at arguing pursuasively against both Creationism and Lamarckism as full explanations of the existence of the solar system, the earth, and the diversity of species.
The latter two of these works might be thought to have almost prepared Alfred Russel Wallace's mind for an acceptance of evolutionism.

Wallace wrote to Henry Bates in 1845:-
"I have a rather more favourable opinion of the 'Vestiges' than you appear to have. I do not consider it a hasty generalization, but rather as an ingenious hypothesis strongly supported by some striking facts and analogies, but which remains to be proven by more facts and the additional light which more research may throw upon the problem. It furnishes a subject for every student of nature to attend to; every fact he observes will make either for or against it, and it thus serves both as an incitement to the collection of facts, and an object to which they can be applied when collected."

Wallace's admiration for the adventures of Charles Darwin during his Beagle voyage and also those related in a book by William H. Edwards entitled A Voyage Up the River Amazon which came into Wallace's hands resulted in his suggesting to his friend Bates that they set themselves up as professional collectors of Natural History specimens to supply the needs of institutions and gentlemen naturalists. The two young men, they were both in their early twenties, sailed for the mouth of the Amazon in April, 1848. In South America Wallace and Bates worked independently of each other with Wallace travelling and collecting samples in the Amazon basin for several years until, early 1852, ill health led him to decide to return home to England.

On his way home he met with a number of serious disappointments including that of finding that a younger brother Herbert, who had been working in the Amazon region, had died of Yellow Fever, and that, because of a misunderstanding, most of the Wallace's specimens collected over his time in the Amazon basin and which had been forwarded, as Wallace had thought, down river for transhipment to Europe were still in dockside storage at the river port of Manaus.

Wallace took steps to arrange passage for himself and his specimens to England - only to meet with disaster! Some twenty-eight days after leaving South American shores the ship, a brig named the Helen, caught fire and sank, and for ten subsequent days Wallace, together with a few distressed companions, were in fear of their lives abroad on Atlantic Seas in a pair of what seemed to be unsafe, and leaking, lifeboats. In the event the survivors were picked up by a passing cargo vessel.
Further adventures followed in that their rescuing ship, a brig named the Jordeson, also seemed somewhat unreliable and was itself threatened with being wrecked during seriously stormy weather:-
We now had a very tedious voyage, and soon got to be very short of provisions, the crew being doubled by our arrival: in fact, had not two vessels assisted us with provisions at different times, we should actually have starved; and as it was, for a considerable time we had nothing but biscuit and water. We encountered three very heavy gales, which split and carried away some of the strongest sails in the ship, and made her leak so much that the pumps could with difficulty keep her free. On the 1st of October, however, we were safely landed at Deal, eighty days after we left Pará.

From a letter to the Editor that appeared in the "Proceedings of Natural-History Collectors in Foreign Countries" section of the Zoologist issue of November 1852.

Wallace thus made his landfall after some eighty all-too-eventful days at sea.
The sinking of the ship that had been intended to convey his collected specimens to England greatly limited his sources of ready income - but as his specimens had been insured this brought some short term relief. He did write up for publication a number of academic papers and a couple of brief works based on his travels; Palm Trees of the Amazon and Their Uses and Travels on the Amazon.
His activities as a collector of Natural History specimens, and his authorship of academic papers and of his two books that were fairly well received brought him a little bit of notice in the then somewhat fashionable Natural History circles of society and, during these times he became introduced to many interested persons including one Charles Darwin.
His work in the Amazon basin having done something to establish his reputation allowed Wallace to secure a grant from the Royal Geographical Society to cover the expense of his passage to the Indonesian Archpelago where he again intended to practice as a collector of Natural History specimens.
During my constant attendance at the meetings of the Zoological and Entomological Societies and visits to the insect and bird departments of the British Museum, I had obtained sufficient information to satisfy me that the very finest field for an exploring and collecting naturalist was to be found in the great Malayan Archipelago, of which just sufficient was known to prove its wonderful richness, while no part of it, with the exception of the island of Java, had been well explored as regards its natural history. Sir James Brook had recently become Rajah of Sarawak, while the numerous Dutch settlements in Celebes and the Moluccas offered great facilities for a traveller. So far as known also, the country was generally healthy, and I determined that it would be much better for me to go to such a new country than return to the Amazon, where Bates had already been successfully collecting for five years, and where I knew there was a good bird-collector who had been long at work in the upper part of the river towards the Andes.

From Alfred Russel Wallace My Life, Volume 1, p. 326.

Wallace duly arrived in Singapore on 20 April 1854.

Wallace is considered to have been something of a convinced evolutionist but without seeing how such evolutionism might be driven.

In September 1855 a paper entitled On the Law which has regulated the Introduction of New Species by ALFRED R. WALLACE, F.R.G.S. (i.e. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society) appeared in a scientifically inclined publication Known as the Annals and Magazine of Natural History.

In this paper Wallace set out his " Sarawak Law " which he claimed to have discovered some ten years previously and which he had since then been subject to testing.

This possible Law being that:-
Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.

Shortly thereafter Wallace's paper continues:-
... the order in which the several species came into existence, 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. ...

This paper was read by Sir Charles Lyell who found its contents to suggest strongly that Species were not fixed creations of God, but were in fact naturally mutable. As a friend of Charles Darwin, who knew that Darwin had been considering the Emergence of Species for a considerable time, he consequently urged Darwin to make efforts to complete his work on related subjects to establish academic priority for his own ideas.

Darwin did read Wallace's paper but later commented about Wallace's work - "it seems all creation with him."

It was in 1858 whilst he was laid up with a malarial fever at Ternate, in the Celebes Islands, that a possible solution to the method of evolution, closely linked to Thomas Malthus idea that food availability acted as a limit on the survival of populations, flashed into form in Wallace's mind.

Wallace later wrote:-
"...the events which formed a turning-point in my life were, first, my acquaintance with Bates, and through him deriving a taste for the wonders of insects-life, opening to me a new aspect of nature, and later on finding in him a companion without whom I might never have ventured on my journey to the Amazon. The other and equally important circumstance was my reading Malthus, without which work I should probably not have hit upon the theory of natural selection and obtained full credit for its independent discovery. My year spent at Leicester must, therefore, be considered as perhaps the most important in my early life."

Alfred Russel Wallace : My Life, Volume 1, p. 240.

The outcome being that this burst of inspiration about Malthusian competition for scarce foodstuffs, together with his more longstanding ruminations resulted in Alfred Russel Wallace independently framing a theory of the evolutionary origin of species by natural selection.
"... It was while waiting at Ternate in order to get ready for my next journey, and to decide where I should go, that the idea already referred to occurred to me. It has been shown how, for the preceding eight or nine years, the great problem of the origin of the species had been continually pondered over, and how my varied observations and study had been made use of to lay the foundation for its full discussion and elucidation. My paper written at Sarawak rendered it certain to my mind that the change had taken place by natural succession and descent - one species becoming changed either slowly or rapidly into another. But the exact process of the change and the causes which led to it were absolutely unknown and appeared almost inconceivable. The great difficulty was to understand how, if one species was gradually changed into another, there continued to be so many quite distinct species, so many which differed from their nearest allies by slight yet perfectly definite and constant characters. One would expect that if it was a law of nature that species were continually changing so as to become in time new and distinct species, the world would be full of an inextricable mixture of various slightly different forms, so that the well-defined and constant species we see would not exist. Again, not only are species, as a rule, separated from each other by distinct external characters, but they almost always differ also to some degree in their food, in the places they frequent, in their habits and instincts, all these characters are quite as definite and constant as are the external characters. The problem then was, not only how and why do species change, but how and why do they change into new and well-defined species, distinguished from each other in so many ways; why and how do they become so exactly adapted to distinct modes of life; and why do all the intermediate grades die out (as geology shows they have died out) and leave only clearly defined and well-marked species, genera, and higher groups of animals.

Now, the new idea or principle which Darwin had arrived at twenty years before, and which occurred to me at this time, answers all these questions and solves all these difficulties, and it is because it does so, and also because it is in itself self-evident and absolutely certain, that it has been accepted by the whole scientific world as affording a true solution of the great problem of the origin of the species.

At the time in question I was suffering from a sharp attack of intermittent 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", which I had read about twelve years before. I thought of his clear exposition of "the positive checks to increase" - disease, accidents, war, and famine - which keep down the population of savage races to so much lower an average than that of more civilized peoples. 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. Vaguely thinking over the enormous and constant destruction which this implied, 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. 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. Then at once I seemed to see the whole effect of this, that when changes of land and sea, or of climate, or of food-supply, or of enemies occurred - and we know that such changes have always been taking place - and considering the amount of individual variation that my experience as a collector had shown me to exist, then it followed that all the changes necessary for the adaptation of the species to the changing conditions would be brought about; and as great changes in the environment are always slow, there would be ample time for the change to be effected by the survival of the best fitted in every generation. In this way every part of an animal's organization could be modified exactly as required, and in the very process of this modification the unmodified would die out, and thus the definite characters and the clear isolation of each new species would be explained. 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 the species. For the next hour I thought over the deficiencies in the theories of Lamarck and of the author of the "Vestiges," and I saw that my new theory supplemented these views and obviated every important difficulty. I waited anxiously for the termination of my fit so that I might at once make notes for a paper on the subject. The same evening I did this pretty fully, and on the two succeeding evenings 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.

from My Life, pp. 360-363.

And so it was that Wallace sent a twenty page long manuscript about this evolutionary theory to the influential naturalist Charles Darwin, it arrived in Darwin's hands in June 1858. In a covering letter Wallace asked that Darwin forward the memoir to a famous scientist, Sir Charles Lyell, if Darwin thought the content merited his attention.

Darwin's own theorisings on evolution had largely taken their final form some fifteen years previously but he had been most hesitant about making them public largely because he thought they would prove extremely controversial; not least by inherently calling into question Biblical accounts of creation in an society that, at that time, still generally accepted Christian teachings!!!

Darwin subsequently sent Wallace's manuscript to Lyell and, in the event, Darwin, in consultation with Sir Charles Lyell and Sir Joseph Hooker, agreed that there should be a public joint presentation of his own and Wallace's potentially dramatically controversial views.

Neither Wallace nor Charles Darwin were present at the historic meeting of the Linnaean Society in July 1858 when papers attributable to each were brought to the attention of the wider scientific public. Wallace's paper was presented under the title "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type."

Wallace was several weeks letter-delivery time away in the Moluccas and efforts were made by Darwin, Lyell and Hooker to keep him informed of developments in London in relation to his sending his manuscript to Charles Darwin.
On October 6, 1858, Wallace wrote in a fairly magnanamous spirit to Hooker:-
My dear Sir,
I beg leave to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of July last, sent me by Mr. Darwin, & informing me of the steps you had taken with reference to a paper I had communicated to that gentleman. Allow me in the first place sincerely to thank yourself & Sir Charles Lyell for your kind offices on this occasion, & to assure you of the gratification afforded me both by the course you have pursued, & the favourable opinions of my essay which you have so kindly expressed. I cannot but consider myself a favoured party in this matter, because it has hitherto been too much the practice in cases of this sort to impute all the merit to the first discoverer of a new fact or new theory, & little or none to any other party who may, quite independently, have arrived at the same result a few years or a few hours later.

In his The Wonderful Century (1898) Wallace wrote:-
"The vague ideas of those who favored evolution were first set forth in systematic form, with much literary skill and scientific knowledge, by the late Robert Chambers in 1844, in his anonymous volume, "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation." He passed in review the stellar and solar systems, adopted the Nebular Hypothesis, and sketched out the geological history of the earth, with continuous progression from lower to higher forms of life. After describing the peculiarities of the lower plants and animals, dwelling upon those features which seemed to point to a natural mode of production as opposed to an origin by special creation, the author set forth with much caution the doctrine of progressive development resulting from "an impulse which was imparted to the forms of life, advancing them in definite lines, by generation, through grades of organization terminating in the highest plants and animals." The reasonableness of this view was urged through the rest of the work; and it was shown how much better it agreed with the various facts of nature and with the geographical distribution of animals and plants, than the idea of the special creation of each distinct species.

It will be seen, from this brief outline, that there was no attempt whatever to show how or why the various species of animals and plants acquired their peculiar characters, but merely an argument in favor of the reasonableness of the fact of progressive development, from one species to another, through the ordinary processes of generation. The book was what we should now call mild in the extreme. It was serious and even religious in tone, and calculated in the respect to disarm the opposition even of the most orthodox theologists; yet it was met with just the same storm of opposition and indignant abuse which assailed Darwin's work fifteen years later."

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Wallace contributed greatly to the scientific foundations of zoogeography, including his proposal, based on his observations in the Indonesian Archipelago, for the marked zoological differences across a narrow strait in the archipelago between the fauna of Australia and Asia (Wallace's line).

Accounts of Wallace's studies and adventures were eventually published in 1869 as The Malay Archipelago a work which became one of the most popular journals of scientific exploration of the 19th century and which was kept continuously in print by its original publisher (Macmillan) into the second decade of the 20th century.

"In this archipelago there are two distinct faunas rigidly circumscribed which differ as much as do those of Africa and South America and more than those of Europe and North America; yet there is nothing on the map or on the face of the islands to mark their limits. The boundary line passes between islands closer together than others belonging to the same group. I believe the western part to be a separated portion of continental Asia while the eastern part is a fragmentary prolongation of a former west Pacific continent. In mammalia and birds, the distinction is marked by genera, families, and even orders confined to one region; insects by a number of genera and little groups of peculiar species, the families of insects having generally a very wide or universal distribution."

(From an 1858 letter from Wallace to Henry Walter Bates published in James Marchant's 1916 book Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences).

Wallace's Line is located between the Islands of Borneo and Sulawesi (Celebes) in the Indonesian Archipelago.

map showing the geographical location of Wallace's line


Oriental region map, The Geographical Distribution of Animals (S718: 1876), by Alfred Russel Wallace.
The bright red line bounding the eastern extreme of sub-region 4
is what has come to be known as "Wallace's Line."

Other Alfred Russel Wallace' works include his Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (1870), The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876), and Man's Place in the Universe (1903).

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