Alfred Russel Wallace socialist and co-founder of evolutionary theory
Next year will see the centenary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace. Simultaneously with Darwin the discoverer of evolution due to natural selection, but history has obscured him under Darwin’s immense shadow.
Wallace came from a lower middle class background - his father was a provincial solicitor, at that time a lowly occupation. He left school at 14 to work as an apprentice surveyor with his brother William in order to supplement the family income. This itinerant job took him all over the country and engendered in him a love for the countryside, science and nature.
While carrying out this work, Wallace talks of being forced to travel in the ‘wretched third class’ carriages where passengers in open trucks were transported like cattle. After one such journey with his brother William, they took cheap lodgings in a damp room in Bristol, which led to his brother consequently dying of pneumonia.
Wallace’s mental development was grounded in the provincial, industrialising countryside, where he would mix with weavers, factory inspectors, railway workers and farm labourers. He was completely self-educated in the sciences and became an early socialist, greatly influenced by lectures he heard in the Hall of Science in Tottenham Court Road, given by Robert Owen. He said: ‘I have always looked upon Owen as my first teacher in the philosophy of human nature and my first guide through the labyrinth of social science.’ He, like Owen, took a prominently anti-Malthusian line (put crudely, Malthus argued that disease and early death were necessary among the working masses to keep the population down). Darwin, given his class background, was much more sympathetic to Malthus’s views than Wallace was.
During his wanderings throughout the country Wallace’s avid curiosity and thirst for knowledge led him to attend many lectures at the local Mechanics’ Institutes –in Victorian Times places where ordinary working men and women could listen to prominent and learned speakers on a whole range of subjects. He also made full use of the free libraries for his studies.
Although his family was ‘old fashioned Church of England’, Wallace very soon shed all shreds of religiosity, developing advanced secularist views on society and human nature. Like almost all Victorian naturalists, he also began his career by collecting - in his case beetles and butterflies. At one of the Institute lectures in Leicester he met hosiery apprentice, Henry Walter Bates, who’d also left school early, at 12, and also embarking on his own self-education. He, too, was an enthusiastic naturalist and the two began making excursions together. From this time on Wallace began reflecting on the origins of the human race and the idea of continuous change of species.
Ironically, because of his radical political views Wallace was, from the outset, a more likely candidate than the conservative Darwin to come up with such a radical hypothesis as evolution. 14 years younger than Darwin, he was a likeable, mild-mannered man full of visions for a reformed society. His friend E.B. Poulton (later to become a professor of zoology at Oxford) described Wallace as a man of great ‘personal magnetism’ and ‘lofty ideals’. But he undoubtedly lacked the self-confidence that comes with a public school education and affluence.
In 1847 Bates and Wallace discussed travelling abroad and earning their living collecting specimens along the River Amazon. Unlike Darwin who was easily able to organise and finance his own long voyage on the Beagle, Wallace and Bates had to beg money for their trip. The mania of Victorians for collecting natural history specimens gave them the opportunity. In the end, Stevens, a natural history agent, advanced them money for the trip. In 1848 they sailed for Brazil and spent several years there, enduring disease, hardship and catastrophe. Their experiences were physically as far removed from Darwin’s relaxed and comfortable Beagle voyage as could be imagined. Unfortunately Wallace’s return voyage ended in shipwreck and the loss of all his meticulously recorded notes and arduously collected specimens.
In 1853, despite vowing never again to return to sea, Wallace again set sail, but this time for Malaysia with the same aims as before in the Amazon. He also wished to investigate primitive tribes and pursue his ideas on human origins. His readings of the anonymously published book ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’ had convinced him that humans were descended from apes, possible from an orang-utan like animal as found in Malaysia. This was a dangerous expedition for a lone adventurer, and he lived for some time among the Dyaks - the notorious head-hunters of European legend. Before he left Sarawak he dispatched a short theoretical paper that Darwin and his friends Edward Blyth and the renowned geologist, Charles Lyell read, in which he speculated about how varieties of species arise and how geography was key in determining origins. His ‘betters’, including his agent Stevens, felt he should not waste his time with such pointless speculation, but concentrate on obtaining specimens for their collections. However, Darwin wrote him a warm and encouraging letter complimenting him on his paper. In 1858, after a bad bout of Malaria Wallace wrote another paper setting out, for the first time, his basic idea of natural selection and evolutionary development. He was completely unaware that Darwin had been secretly working along similar lines. He sent it to Darwin and asked the latter to forward it to his friend Lyell. The way his seminal paper overlapped with Darwin’s thinking on the same issue was remarkable.
Darwin had also collected a mass of fascinating data during his trip on the Beagle and through diligent correspondence with other naturalists was leisurely developing his own draft ideas of evolution. He was, though, a naturally cautious man and also very aware of how his ideas, once in the open, would undoubtedly cause outrage among the deeply religious. Wallace’s paper, arriving out of the blue, hit him like a thunderbolt. He’d fleetingly met and then corresponded with Wallace, but the two men hardly knew each other. Darwin was aghast and shattered that someone had apparently beaten him to it. The idea of ‘losing’ the letter or ignoring it crossed his mind, but in the end he followed the honourable road and forwarded it to his friend, the renowned geologist Lyell as Wallace had requested.
Darwin was, in fact, about to write to Wallace congratulating him and had almost decided to throw in the towel on his own projected publication, but was dissuaded from doing so by his two close friends and Linnaean fellows, the botanist Joseph Hooker and Lyell. To give Darwin his due, he was in the genuine sense of the words an ‘honourable gentleman’ and felt he no longer had the right to publish his own views before Wallace’s now that he’d read his paper. He was, though, persuaded by his two friends not to give way and to publish a paper of his own alongside Wallace’s in the prestigious Journal of the Linnaean Society. His friends suggested this in the full knowledge that, as a renowned fellow, Darwin’s views would take precedence over the ‘mere collector’ who had no standing in scientific circles. Hooker and Lyell implied that Wallace should be grateful for being given publicity on Darwin’s coat tails. They did this without Wallace’s permission and in a manner unprecedented among scientific colleagues. But Wallace, far away in Malaysia, was in no position to protest.
Wallace, unlike Darwin, had no independent means, was not a member of the gentry nor was he university educated. Darwin and his colleagues viewed Wallace as a useful purveyor of information and specimens, but would not have considered him a philosopher or thinker on their own level. That’s also why Wallace’s paper hit them with such force.
Neither paper caused even a ripple of excitement or outrage at the time of publication, but Darwin, realising the danger to his own work if Wallace developed his ideas further, put his head down and worked like a man possessed to finish and publish his later world-renowned ‘On the Origin of Species, a year later in 1859. This was the book that shook the world. Priests began apoplectically raging from their pulpits, fine ladies had fainting fits at the idea of being related to monkeys, and the popular papers never tired of ridiculing the idea of evolution as if a new flat-earth theory were being propounded.
These historical events again, demonstrate how class invariably determined an individual’s fortune and later historical status. The strictly stratified Victorian society left Wallace little chance of entering the hallowed halls of the elite scientific community of which Charles Darwin was already a respected member. However, after his return from his travels and with selfless support from Darwin, he did eventually gain acceptance, becoming a revered member of those elite scientific circles. Unlike Wallace, Darwin came from a moneyed upper middle class family - his father was a wealthy doctor and financier - and he lived in ease and comfort in the Kent countryside with all the time in the world to pursue his research and write. After studying at Edinburgh and Cambridge, followed by his five-year voyage around the world on the Beagle, Darwin quickly established his credentials as a leading naturalist.
Wallace had to do it the hard way, but humble and modest as ever, he subsequently accepted Darwin’s pre-eminence and his own secondary role in developing the theory of evolution. Darwin actually told him: ‘…you would, if you’d had my leisure, done the work just as welll, perhaps better, than I have done it.’ Undoubtedly Wallace deserves more prominence than history has granted him.