Friday, October 7, 2011

Wallace: Darwin’s Rival or Ambassador?

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) was born in Llanbadoc, near the Welsh town of Usk and grew up in Hertfordshire. He worked as an apprentice surveyor for the six years. During a brief spell as schoolmaster in Leicester, Wallace met entomologist Henry Bates and developed an interest in natural history. He worked for several more years as a surveyor/engineer. Then, inspired by Humboldt and Darwin, Wallace set off with Bates on an expedition to Brazil. In 1852, after four years collecting specimens and surveying the Rio Negro, Wallace set off back to England. At sea, a fire forced Wallace to abandon his specimen collection and, adrift, he spent ten days in a lifeboat, awaiting rescue.

Back safe in England, an insurance payment supported him while he wrote papers and forged links with naturalists, including Darwin. In 1854, Wallace embarked on an expedition to the Malay Archipelago (present-day Malaysia and Indonesia). During this six-year excursion, Wallace collected over a 100,00 specimens, discovered the discontinuity between the kinds of plants and animals found in the northern part of the archipelago and those found in the south (now called the Wallace line), and, crucially, hit upon the idea of evolution by natural selection independently of Darwin. Wallace’s experiences were written up as a lively travelogue, The Malay Archipelago.

During his middle years Wallace was beset with financial problems, which we largely alleviated in 1881 by a government pension that Darwin helped him obtain. In late life, Wallace extended his work on biogeography, became an early environmentalist and toured the US promoting evolution and natural selection. In old age, he settled in Broadstone, a suburb of Poole in Dorset. He is buried in Broadstone cemetery in a grave capped with a (rather phallic!?) fossil tree trunk and block of limestone.

Although often cast as Darwin’s rival, Wallace remained a loyal and lifelong supporter of Darwin, accepted Darwin’s claim to priority, dedicated The Malay Archipelago to Darwin and even entitled his major book on evolution Darwinism. Wallace was an altogether more colourful character than Darwin, but also rather more flakey. Wallace adopted spiritualism and unlike Darwin, expounded a progressive, teleological view of evolution, with the universe working towards the birth of the human spirit. He rejected natural selection as an explanation of the human mind, instead favouring interventions from the “unseen world of spirit”. He became a socialist and an opponent of smallpox vaccination. He got tangled up in disputes as to whether the earth was flat (in the Bedford Level experiment, he showed it wasn’t) or whether there were canals on Mars (he argued there weren’t). It is clear that, had Darwin died in South America, “Wallaceism” would have turned out quite different from Darwinism!

Further Online Reading
The Alfred Russel Wallace web page:

Image Rights
Wallace Grave George W. Beccaloni: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported