Alfred Russel Wallace. A biographical sketch

by
John van Wyhe

Wallace in 1902Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) was a great English naturalist who is primarily remembered for conceiving of a theory of evolution by natural selection independently of Charles Darwin. Unlike Darwin, Wallace came from a rather humble and ordinary background. His English father, a solicitor by training, once had property sufficient to generate a gentleman's income of £500 per annum. But financial circumstances declined so the family moved from London to a village near Usk, on the Welsh borders, where Wallace was born in Kensington Cottage on 8 January 1823.

When Wallace was about six years old the family moved to Hertford, north of London, where he lived until he was fourteen. Here Wallace attended Hertford Free Grammar School (it advertized itself as a school for the sons of gentlemen) and offered a classical education, very much like Charles Darwin's at Shrewsbury Free Grammar School, including Latin grammar, classical geography and "some Euclid and algebra". Wallace left school aged fourteen in March 1837, shortly after Darwin returned from the Beagle voyage. Wallace was not forced to leave school early because of financial difficulties, as commonly believed today, but left at the normal age for students not heading to university. Wallace never attended university.

Wallace then left home to join his elder brother John, an apprentice builder in London. Wallace spent his London evenings in an educational "Hall of science" for working men. In this context (according to his later recollections) Wallace encountered the socialist ideas of the reformer Robert Owen. Wallace would eventually be deeply impressed by Owen's utopian social ideals - with a stress on the role of environment in determining character and behaviour. Hence if the social environment were improved, so would the morals and well being of the workers. The hall of science also introduced Wallace to the latest views of religious sceptics and secularists. Although Wallace's parents were perfectly orthodox members of the Church of England, Wallace became a sceptic or freethinker.

From 1837 Wallace joined his brother William to work as an apprentice land surveyor. Here on Wallace Online you can see, for the first time, some of the original maps he contributed to click here. Wallace began to read about mechanics and optics, his first introduction to science. His days surveying in the open air of the countryside lead him to an interest in natural history. From 1841 Wallace took up an amateur pursuit of botany by collecting plants and flowers.

Survey map of the parish of Neath (1845). Courtesy of the National Library of Wales.

From 1840-1843 Wallace remained employed as a surveyor in the west of England and Wales. In 1843 his father died. With a decline in the demand for surveyors William no longer had sufficient work to employ Wallace. After a brief period of unemployment in early 1844 Wallace worked for over a year as a teacher at the Collegiate School at Leicester. Obviously he could not have done this if he had not completed his schooling.

Reading

In these years Wallace read some very influential works for his future life. Alexander von Humboldt's Personal narrative (1814-1829) and Darwin's Journal of researches (1839) introduced Wallace to the exciting allure of scientific travel and collecting. Another major influence on Wallace was Charles Lyell's Principles of geology (1830-3). He also read Thomas Malthus's Essay on the principle of population (1826). All of these works are provided as supplementary works on Wallace Online.

Wallace also read the hugely controversial and anonymous popular science book Vestiges of the natural history of creation in 1845. Vestiges argued for the progressive physical "development" of all of nature, including species, over time in a progressive, upward direction. Much of the naturalistic philosophy of Vestiges was derived from a work Wallace had already read, the phrenologist George Combe's Constitution of man (1828). Both works described nature as governed by universal and beneficent natural laws tending towards progress.

These, together with Darwin's numerous remarks hinting that species change and Lyell's lengthy dismissal of Jean-Baptiste Lamark's evolutionary theory, despite a masterful overview of the evidence for "the gradual birth and death of species", all contributed to Wallace privately accepting the view that species were not fixed and permanent creations but could change over time.

At the Leicester library, no doubt reading some of these books, Wallace met another budding young naturalist, an enthusiastic entomologist named Henry Walter Bates. Bates introduced Wallace to his next scientific pursuit: insect collecting, particularly beetles. Wallace was amazed at the incredible diversity of beetles that could be collected around Leicester. Wallace's first scientific publication was, like Darwin's, the record of an insect capture.

Wallace's brother William died in March 1845, causing Wallace to leave the Leicester school to attend to William's surveying firm in Neath, together with his brother John. Wallace next worked as a surveyor for a proposed rail line for a few months. Then he and John attempted to establish an architectural firm which produced a few successful projects such as the building for the Mechanics' Institute of Neath. The director of the Mechanics' Institute invited Wallace to give some lectures there on science and engineering. Clearly the life sciences were already Wallace's primary interest.

Amazon, 1848-1852

Wallace and Bates were inspired by a recent book by American traveller William Edwards: A voyage up the river Amazon, including a residence at Para. They estimated that by collecting natural history specimens such as insects and birds, they could support themselves and indeed earn substantial profits from an overseas expedition. It has become increasingly fashionable to claim that they went to the Amazon to "solve the problem of the origin of species". This heroically romantic story is not correct as has been demonstrated here. Both at the time and for the rest of his life, Wallace always described the trip as one to be a collector.

In April of 1848 Wallace and Bates sailed for Brazil. They initially stayed in Para (now Belém). After nine months collecting Amazonian specimens together Wallace and Bates continued separately. Wallace focused particularly on collecting in and exploring the Upper Rio Negro. One of the main scientific results of Wallace's time on the Amazon was an appreciation of biogeographical boundaries, particularly broad rivers, that he found separated different species he was collecting.

In 1852 Wallace prepared to return home. According to his later account he had to publish an announcement of his intention to leave in the newspaper- one of his rare publications that has yet to be tracked down. After he set sail for Britain disaster struck when his ship caught fire and sank in the Atlantic, destroying almost the entirety of his notes and personal collection. Fortunately Wallace and the others on board were rescued and his collection had been insured by his London agent Samuel Stevens for £200.

Wallace's subsequent publications suffered from the dearth of data he was able to bring home. His first book Palm trees (1853) described the distribution and local uses of the palms he had observed and was illustrated with his sketches saved from the doomed ship. His other book was the usual sort of scientific travel diary: A narrative of travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro (1853). Wallace also read papers before scientific societies and made important connections in the London scientific community. All of these publications and activities helped raise Wallace's profile enough to apply for financial assistance to set out on another collecting expedition.

Southeast Asia 1854-1862

Route of Wallace's travels from The Malay Archipelago (1869).

After only eighteen months back in England, Wallace again set off for the tropics to work as a specimen collector. As Bates and others remained in the Amazon basin, Wallace headed instead for Southeast Asia, then sometimes called the Malay archipelago. He was advised that British cabinets were particularly lacking in specimens from those regions and hence it would be profitable collecting ground. The scientific connections made during his time in London secured him government funding which paid for a passage to Singapore for Wallace and a teenage assistant named Charles Allen. They arrived in Singapore in April 1854. (See Wallace in Singapore.)

Over the next eight years Wallace and an ever changing team of local assistants made dozens of expeditions and amassed a massive collection of 125,000 specimens of insects, birds and mammals. His time in the East was, in his own words, "the central and controlling incident of my life". Hundreds of these specimens can now be seen for the first time in the collection of contemporary scientific descriptions of Wallace's collections on Wallace Online. See Specimens.

Wallace discovered hundreds of new species including the world's largest bee and rarest cat. (below) His Malay assistant Ali from Sarawak shot a new species of bird of paradise now known as Wallace's standard wing. See here. In October 1858 Wallace prepared a brief note 'Direction for Collecting in the Tropics' for other collectors which gives some insights into his career as a collector.

The biggest bee: Megachile pluto (now Chalicodoma pluto)

The Borneo Bay Cat - still the rarest cat in the world.

Ornithoptera brookiana - now: Troides brookiana (Wallace, 1855).

Wallace named this butterfly after Sir James Brooke. Ornithoptera brookiana (now Trogonoptera brookiana).

Evolution in the archipelago

In 1855, while living in the province of Sarawak on the great island of Borneo, Wallace was annoyed by a recent article by the naturalist Edward Forbes, newly appointed Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh. Amongst other things, Forbes argued that the fossil record gave no support to the various theories of evolution that had so far been suggested.

In reaction Wallace wrote his first theoretical paper on species: 'On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species'. Wallace argued that the fossil record was not so random as Forbes suggested and that "Every species has come into existence coincident both in time and space with a pre-existing closely allied species". Although a lucid analysis of the paleaontological and biogeographical evidence of the time, the paper did not state that species change or evolve. This is a universal misunderstanding of the paper. Instead, Wallace left this point to be inferred. Most modern readers, however, mistakenly assume that the essay openly declared evolution. Indeed, Wallace many times referred in the paper to new species being created. See a historical (as opposed to a popular science/amatuer) explanation of the original meaning of the paper here.

Wallace continued reading about the history of life and jotting notes about how he believed species changed. But he was certainly not, as modern writers tend to romantically put it, on the search for the 'mechanism' for how species evolve. As he collected more and more specimens and observed the change of animals from island to island, his ideas about life also evolved. He was convinced that species must be related genealogically- not just somehow created to suit their environments.

Six month's before his dramatic eureka moment, Wallace wrote an unusually turgid article: 'Note on the theory of permanent and geographical varieties'. In this often misunderstood piece Wallace pointed out inconsistencies with "independent creations" of species and hinted for the first time in print at genealogical descent as the more plausible origin of new species. (See also S58.)

In February 1858 Wallace was living on the island of Ternate in the Moluccas, the fabled spice islands, west of New Guinea, and then part of the Dutch East Indies. According to his later recollections, he was suffering from a recurring bout of fever when he suddenly conceived of an explanation for the origin of new species through a struggle for existence.

For many years it has been claimed that Wallace was actually on the nearby island of Gilolo (Halmahera) when this happened. This has now been disproven. Wallace was actually on Ternate, as he signed his essay. He always signed documents from his actual location and never signed them instead, as has been often suggested, as from a postal base.

Years before he had read Malthus's observations that inevitable geometrical population growth was prevented only by severe checks. Although Wallace later wrote that he thought of Malthus at the time of his revelation, we cannot be sure of this. Wallace's essay does not mention Malthus. Nor did Malthus's name came up in his writings until after Wallace had read Darwin and his mention of Malthus. It is perfectly possible that Wallace did think of Malthus at the time, but since the only evidence is his much later recollection, we must remain agnostic on the point. To continue to say that he thought of Malthus at the time as a fact would be historically naive and invalid.

The point that certainly did occur to Wallace (and could by then be found in the writings of many authors) was that many are born and few survive. Wallace conceived of "a general principle in nature" that permitted only a "superior" minority to survive "a struggle for existence". This would explain how organisms became naturally adapted to their environments. How, for example, does an insect perfectly match the colour of its background? Because many shades of insect are born, but those not matching the background are mostly likely to be destroyed by predators.

Wallace elaborated his new theory in an essay entitled 'On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type'. It was one of the most original and brilliant scientific essays ever written and demonstrates Wallace's independent formulation of what Darwin called "natural selection". The essay is heavily influenced by Wallace's study of his copy of the 4th edition of Lyell's Principles of geology. As Wallace wrote in the essay:

The numbers that die annually must be immense; and as the individual existence of each animal depends upon itself, those that die must be the weakest—the very young, the aged, and the diseased,—while those that prolong their existence can only be the most perfect in health and vigour—those who are best able to obtain food regularly, and avoid their numerous enemies. It is, as we commenced by remarking, 'a struggle for existence,' in which the weakest and least perfectly organized must always succumb.

Darwin vs Wallace?

Charles DarwinWhat happened next has been surrounded by confusion and conspiracy theories in recent decades. However there is no evidence for any of the accusations against Darwin such as lying about when he received it, withholding the essay or borrowing anything from it. The gradual formation of all of Darwin's ideas are well attested in his surviving notes and notebooks and these have been meticulously studied by scholars for many years.

Wallace did not send his essay for publication after he finished it in early February 1858. Shortly after writing it, on the monthly mail streamer of 9 March, Wallace received a letter from Darwin which contained high praise for the Sarawak Law paper and the news that the famous Sir Charles Lyell greatly admired the paper. Wallace was inspired. If the Sarawak paper had impressed the great Lyell, perhaps the new Ternate essay would impress him too. Perhaps Wallace could even convince Lyell that his own principles actually supported, rather than contradicted, evolution. The essay was practically written with Lyell in mind. So Wallace sent his essay to Darwin, whom he knew from their correspondence to be preparing a large work on evolution, with the request that it be forwarded on to Lyell if sufficiently interesting.

But when did Wallace send the essay to Darwin? The essay was dated February 1858. Like almost all of Wallace's essays sent back to Britain, the original manuscript and covering letter do not survive. If the essay was sent to Darwin on the next monthly mail steamer after February, as Wallace's recollections over a decade later imply, this would have been 9 March 1858. A letter to Frederick Bates (brother of H. W. Bates) sent on this steamer still survives and bears postmarks showing that it arrived in London on 3 June. But Darwin's letter to Lyell, which mentioned receipt of Wallace's essay on the same day, was dated 18 June 1858.

So, several writers have asked, if both letters left Ternate on the same mail steamer (there was only one per month), how could Darwin receive his on 18 June and not 3 June? But there was never any evidence that Wallace sent both letters on the same day, it was simply a long-running assumption since McKinney in 1972. Receipt by Darwin on 18 June 1858 is exactly the right day for the mail steamer that left Ternate in April, through an unbroken series of mail steamer connections, as recently revealed by van Wyhe and Rookmaaker 2012. See also Dispelling the Darkness pp. 225-6, 358 note 692. In fact, this date is exactly what one would expect for Wallace to reply to Darwin's letter that arrived on 9 March. Wallace is never known to have replied to a letter via the same Ternate mail same steamer on which it arrived.

A critic, with no historical training or qualifications, maintained that this reconstructed route had an interruption. This was in fact a bold assertion that that the mail bags were thrown off the mail ship before it sailed on to the next postal connection, Singapore. An astonishing idea that mail bags would be slowed down and not continue on the same ship. But of course only the historically untrained writers could consider such an assertion to be worth consideration.

At any rate it has since been demonstrated that this connection was not interrupted, because the lastest newspaper from the Dutch East Indies was discussed in the Singapore newspapers immediately after the arrival of the steamer in question. Proving beyond doubt that the mails (which included Wallace's letter to Darwin) were on board from the Dutch East Indies.

Darwin was by then two years away from completing and publishing his big book on his species theory. Surprised by Wallace's essay, but very much the Victorian gentleman, Darwin at first proposed to send Wallace's essay for publication and give up his own twenty years' of priority. He forwaded it on to Lyell the same day. Concerned that their friend would lose his priority in the idea of natural selection, Lyell and J. D. Hooker had extracts from Darwin's manuscripts from 1844 and 1857 and Wallace's draft essay read before the prestigious Linnean Society of London on 1 July 1858. These documents were published together as a joint contribution in the Society's proceedings in August 1858. Thus began the long series of events that are usually called the Darwinian revolution.

Recent commentators make much of this so-called 'delicate arrangement'. Many accusations have been made that this was not fair to Wallace, his permission had not been sought, he was relegated to an inferior postion or that Darwin overshadowed Wallace's contribution and that Darwin's subsequent fame is a result of this.

None of these are historically accurate and all of these beliefs originate with writers with no historical qualifications, training and in most cases any competence in the history of science field. By sending his formally written essay to Darwin and Lyell without marking it as private or not to be published, the convention of the day was, as Wallace well knew, that it could be published at the discretion of his recipients. This is why he expressed no surprise or dissapointment when he learned that it had been.

Wallace benefited from this coupling with Darwin more than any other publication or arrangement in his life. Darwin's greater fame during the 19th century and today has nothing to do with the Linnean Society arrangement. It stems solely from the monumental success of Darwin's epoch making book, On the origin of species.

Return to Britain

After Wallace's return to Britain in 1862 he was, for the first time in his life, financially well off. His London agent, Samuel Stevens, had invested his money well in East Indian Railway shares. However, over the next several years Wallace lost his savings through a series of bad investments and needy relations. This part of Wallace's life is particularly well documented in Peter Raby's fine biography of 2001. Wallace tried unsuccessfully several times to secure full-time employment. Instead he earned money by writing, occasional lectures and finally, in the only regular paid job of his latter life, correcting exam papers.

In 1864 Wallace was devastated when his fiancée suddenly broke off their engagement. "I have never in my life experienced such intensely painful emotion" he wrote. A few months later, in 1865, he began attending spiritualist seances. Like mesmerism and phrenology before, Wallace thought he approached the subject with scepticism but soon became entirely convinced that the "phenomena" produced by mediums such as table rappings, spirit writings, apparitions in dark rooms and so forth must be genuine and never again doubted his conclusion. The following year he published 'The scientific aspect of the supernatural' (1866) urging that spiritualism merited scientific investigation. Few of his scientific contemporaries agreed.

Near the end of 1864 Wallace met Annie Mitten, the daughter of his botanist friend William Mitten. The couple were married in 1866. They had three children, two of whom survived to adulthood.

In 1869 Wallace published his most famous book, The Malay Archipelago, recounting his travels in Southeast Asia. It continues to enthrall readers with its tales of adventure and a deep appreciation for tropical natural history. In it he popularized his famous generalization of an invisible dividing line between the very different faunas of Australia and Asia, now known as the Wallace Line. "We have here a clue to the most radical contrast in the Archipelago, and by following it out in detail I have arrived at the conclusion that we can draw a line among the islands, which shall so divide them that one-half shall truly belong to Asia, while the other shall no less certainly be allied to Australia." The book was also heavily anthropological, focusing on the races, languages and other cultural details he observed.

A new fully annotated and illustrated edition has been published by NUS Press. Many new revelations about the book are included. For example, it has become a commonplace to claim that the book has never gone out of print. In fact it went out of print from 1923-1962.

Also in 1869-1870 Wallace published new notions about the origins of human beings which marked one of his greatest differences with Darwin. (Wallace 1869, Wallace 1870: 332-371) Wallace could not see how natural selection could bring about several attributes of human beings, such as a moral sense and great intelligence, because he assumed these were not needed by 'savage' peoples in a wild state.

In the 1870s Wallace returned to his earlier interests in biogeography. In 1876 he published one of his most important books: The geographical distribution of animals. Following the work of Philip Lutley Sclater (1857) Wallace divided the world into six main regions. Wallace discussed the factors which determined the dispersal of living and extinct terrestrial animals including elevation, vegetation, land bridges, ocean depth and glaciation. In recent years it has become a commonplace to call Wallace the founder of biogeography. This is absolutely incorrect. Very many authors had written works on biogeography long before Wallace.

Tropical nature and other essays (1878) was mostly reprinted material. It included Wallace's response to Darwin's theory of sexual selection to explain the origin of animal colouration. Wallace argued that endless reiterations of female choice could not bring about male colours and structures, as Darwin argued, for example, for the feathers of the Argus pheasant. Instead Wallace proposed that the "greater vigour and activity and the higher vitality of the male" led to more vivid colouration.

In 1870 Wallace took up the published wager of a flat Earth advocate to prove the Earth is round. Wallace demonstrated, using his old surveying skills, that a six mile stretch of the old Bedford canal was indeed slightly curved and not flat. But his opponent refused to accept the results and spent the rest of his life libeling and persecuting Wallace. Such are the consequences of vexing a madman! It was, Wallace recalled, "the most regrettable incident in my life" and "cost me fifteen years of continued worry, litigation, and persecution, with the final loss of several hundred pounds."

Wallace's book Island life (1880) was one of his most successful. It surveyed the problems of the dispersal and speciation of plants and animals on islands which he categorized, following Darwin, as oceanic and continental. The latter type Wallace subdivided into "continental islands of recent origin", like Great Britain, and ancient continental islands, such as Madagascar. Unlike Darwin's theories of erratic spread to account for the discontinuous distribution of types, Wallace favoured theories of continuous spread followed by selective extinctions which resulted in the appearance of gaps. 

After 1880 Wallace's attention was increasingly spread amongst ever wider areas including a land nationalization campaign, anti-vaccination campaign, urban poverty, socialism, private insane asylums, militarism and life on other planets.

From 1886-7 Wallace travelled on a lecture tour across the United States of America. He was hailed as a great innovator. The modern creationist movement had not yet arisen. His lectures outlined the theory of evolution by natural selection and the evidence that supported it. These lectures formed the basis of one of his most important books, Darwinism (1889). The book was perhaps the clearest and most convincing overview of the evidence for evolution produced in the nineteenth century, next to Darwin's Origin of species, and remains an outstanding overview even today. Wallace was more strictly selectionist than Darwin, who allowed a role for other causes of change. However the supernatural speculations regarding mankind's origins in the final chapter 'Darwinism applied to man' were either ignored or lambasted by contemporary reviewers. Some of the harshest words ever published about Wallace, in fact, were in reference to this chapter. The physiologist G. J. Romanes wrote: "It is in the concluding chapter of his book, much more than in any of the others, that we encounter the Wallace of spiritualism and astrology, the Wallace of vaccination and the land question, the Wallace of incapacity and absurdity." The accusation of belief in astrology was incorrect.

The wonderful century (1898) discussed the achievements of the nineteenth century and, at greater length, its problems. Land nationalisation (1882), was a handbook on land reform aimed at informing the "landless classes" how to recognize their rights regarding land ownership: "to teach them what are their rights and how to gain these rights".

His book Man's place in the universe (1903), argued against beings existing on any other planet in the solar system (particularly given recent speculation about Mars) or indeed anywhere else in the universe but Earth.

In 1905 he published his lengthy two volume autobiography My life. It remains the principal biographical source on Wallace. A condensed edition appeared in 1908.

The world of life (1910) was Wallace's final word on spiritualism and his view that humanity was placed on Earth for a reason. His last two books were on social issues and the land question. Social environment and moral progress and The revolt of democracy, appeared in 1913. "land monopoly and the competitive system of industry" were the two fundamental causes of poverty and starvation in a land of superfluous wealth. Here again was Wallace's conviction that removing social obstacles would allow the inherent progress of natural laws to ensue.

Wallace died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 90 on 7 November 1913. The year 2013 was therefore the centenary of Wallace's death and saw many events and publications around the world to commemorate his life and work.

Wallace remains an endearing, colourful, confusing and controversial figure in the history of science. But above all he remains an inspiration as someone from an ordinary background who, without the advantages of wealth or connections, could achieve extraordinary things through hard work, enthusiasm and independent thinking.

To find out more about Wallace see:

John van Wyhe, Dispelling the Darkness: Voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the discovery of evolution by Wallace and Darwin. WSP, 2013

'Island Adventurer: Alfred Russel Wallace and the Quest for the Origin of Species' an animated film by the Science Centre Singapore.

Wallace's autobiography: My Life and Wallace letters and reminiscences.

Wallace items in Darwin Online

Alfred Russel Wallace Page by Charles H. Smith

Wallace Collection at the Natural History Museum (London)

John van Wyhe and Kees Rookmaaker eds., Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters from the Malay Archipelago. Foreword by Sir David Attenborough. OUP, 2013.

John van Wyhe, 2014 A delicate adjustment: Wallace and Bates on the Amazon and "the problem of the origin of species". Journal of the History of Biology vol. 47, issue 4: 627-659.

John van Wyhe ed., The Annotated Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace. NUS, 2015.

John van Wyhe & G. Drawhorn, 2015 "I am Ali Wallace": The Malay assistant of Alfred Russel Wallace. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Society vol. 88, Part 1, No. 308 (June): 3-31.

John van Wyhe, 2016, 12 The impact of A. R. Wallace's Sarawak Law paper reassessed. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. vol. 60, Dec., pp. 56-66.

John van Wyhe, 2016, 10 A rough draft of A. R. Wallace's "Sarawak law" paper. Archives of natural history 43.2: 285-293.

Kees Rookmaaker & John van Wyhe, 2018 A price list of birds collected by Alfred Russel Wallace inserted in The Ibis of 1863. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club 138 (4): 335-345, fig. 1 (with Kees Rookmaaker).

John van Wyhe, 2018 Wallace's help: the many people who aided A. R. Wallace in the Malay Archipelago. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (June) vol. 91, part 1, number 314, pp. 41-68.

John van Wyhe, 2020 A.R. Wallace in the light of historical method. Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia, 103, pp. 89-95.

John van Wyhe, ed. 2012-. Wallace Online (http://wallace-online.org/)