Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)

February 17, 2013 • 12:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

As ever-alert reader Dominic has reminded us, 2013 is the centenary of Alfred Russel Wallace’s death, and it is thus an appropriate time to reflect on the many contributions of this great scientist who was, along with Charles Darwin, the co-discoverer of natural selection.

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) in Singapore, 1862
Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) in Singapore, 1862.

Like Darwin, who was his older contemporary, Wallace’s views on natural history were developed and brought to a head by extended travel and collecting, in Wallace’s case first to the Amazon, and then the Malay Archipelago. It was in Sarawak that Wallace wrote his first staunchly evolutionary paper, “On the Law which has regulated the Introduction of New Species”. In this paper he noted that new species arise adjacent in time and space to those to which they bear closest affinity, similar to Darwin’s observations on the former and current organic inhabitants of South America. Three years later he wrote the “Ternate paper”, in which he introduced a concept of natural selection very close to Darwin’s, the receipt of which by Darwin led to the joint publication in 1858 of Wallace’s paper along with extracts from Darwin’s unpublished works.

Wallace went on to make important contributions in selection theory, adaptive coloration, behavior, systematics, and, especially, biogeography. He was also a devoted socialist and, later in life, a spiritulaist. One of his least known efforts is his involvement in the life on Mars debate: he was a strong opponent of Percival Lowell‘s views, and wrote a book arguing against life existing on Mars, especially that Lowell’s “canals” were evidence for it. (Wallace was right about the canals, though Lowell may turn out to be right about life.)

One of the most important events surrounding the centenary has already occurred, and Matthew noted it here on WEIT at the time: the launch of Wallace Online, a wonderful website modeled on Darwin Online, and, like the latter, directed by John van Wyhe of the National University of Singapore. We have long been fans of John and Darwin Online here at WEIT. I urge all of you to go right this minute to Wallace Online and begin exploring the many astounding and amazing resources available there. The place to start is John’s brief but pithy biography of Wallace. Among John’s chief collaborators are Kees Rookmaaker, who has also contributed much to the Darwin project, and Charles Smith of Western Kentucky University. We have had occasion a number of times to link to Smith’s very valuable website, the Alfred Russel Wallace Page, and I am very glad to see such accomplished Wallaceophiles collaborating on this new project.

The Natural History Museum in London (or, as we systematists with a memory know it, the BM(NH)) also has a fantastic website devoted to the centenary, with links to many documents and images, all superintended by George Beccaloni, another noted Wallaceophile, who is also keeping a “blog” on the subject. We hope to have a number of Wallaceocentric items here at WEIT in the coming year.


Darwin, C. R. and A. R. Wallace. 1858. On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection. Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London. Zoology 3 (20 August): 46-50. (pdf)

Wallace, A.R. 1855. On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species. Annals and Magazine of Natural History (ser. 2) 16 (93): 184-196. (pdf)

Wallace, A. R. 1907. Is Mars Habitable? A Critical Examination of Professor Percival Lowell’s Book “Mars and its Canals,” with an Aternative Explanation. London: Macmillan. (full text, including page imagespdf)

19 thoughts on “Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)

  1. I first met Wallace when he was the joint hero of the relative section of Bronowski’s Ascent of Man. Bronowski described Wallace as “a sort of man from Porlock in reverse” (for those who haven’t either seen the episode – please do – or read the book, the relevant chapter is here: )

    Wallace was recognised in his lifetime (he was a early recipient of the Order of Merit, sometimes called the pinnacle of the British honours system (and if you don’t believe me – just look at the scientists who have been members!) but for some reason he faded. I suspect that this was during the temporary eclipsing of the Wallace/Darwin theory but, unlike Darwin, wasn’t put back on the pedestal when the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis came about.

  2. Wallace also first described coralsnake mimicry, in 1867, and suggested a plausible explanation for why mimicry is generally rare among vertebrates and common among snakes.

  3. He did lead an interesting life, and started from a far less well-off background than Darwin. The one episode from his life that left an impression with me was him losing most of his notes and specimens from his years collecting in the Amazon when his ship sank on the way back to the UK. A good reminder for me to always make multiple copies of notes and data and to keep the copies in different places when coming back from the field.

    Incidentally, can anyone recommend a good biography of Wallace? I have read a few of Darwin (Janet Browne’s being the best), but not of Wallace.

    1. Google books offers an online copy of Wallace’s autobiography, My Life.

      Raby, Peter: Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life

      Shermer, Michael: In Darwin’s Shadow

      I haven’t read these; just giving you a starting point.

      1. John van Wyhe refers to Raby’s book as a “fine biography”; and WEIT readers may be familiar with Michael Shermer as a prominent skeptical author, editor, and speaker, but not know that Wallace was the subject of his dissertation. For a taste of Wallace’s writings in book form, try Infinite Tropics, an anthology edited by Andrew Berry from about ten years ago.


  4. Forgot to add: Wallace has a champion in the UK in the person of the comedian Bill Bailey who has been instrumental in raising Wallace’s profile.

  5. One of the most avid and constant readers of A.R. Wallace’s “The Malay Archipelago” was my all-time favourite humorist and travel writer extraordinaire, S.J. Perelman.

    On the improbable link between Perelman, David Fairchild’s “Garden Islands of the Great East: Collecting Seeds from the Philippines and Netherlands India in the Junk ‘Cheng Ho’ “, and Alfred Russel Wallace, read William Zinsser’s account.

    Zinsser quotes Fairchild’s first paragraph, and it deserves quoting:

    It was sometime in the eighties that Alfred Russel Wallace came to the college in Kansas where my father was President and delivered a lecture on Natural Selection. I was too young to understand what Wallace said on the platform, but I listened intently to his conversation in our house the evening after the lecture. I like to imagine that it was this meeting with the great naturalist which started my longing to see, when I grew up, those islands of the Great East – the Malay Archipelago.

    Kansas! Natural Selection! In the 1880s!

  6. THANK YOU for posting this, and thanks to all the contributors. Are there any books or articles attempting to analyze where Wallace and Darwin differed on the subject of evolution? I’d be especially be interested in examples of cases where there was initial disagreement, followed by a resolution.

    1. The main point of difference, prompting Darwin not-so-jokingly to accuse Wallace of infanticide, was his coming out as a theistic evolutionist (creationist in scientist’s clothing) in regard to human encephalization.

      Wallace’s argument for this was that ‘savages’ (in the terms of the day, as used by both) had no need and made no use of the large brain capacity that sufficed for civilized races.

      I was reminded of this difference in their views while reading the later chapters of The Malay Archipelago where he speculates on future developments in the region: he seems quite cheerful about the prospect of the Malays and other indigenous peoples being actively exterminated by Europeans and/or Chinese, though suggesting no reason (in either justice or ecology) for this to occur. Can’t help thinking that Darwin was a far better man, despite his privelege.

      1. Thanks for this insight.

        I can’t help but wonder what our writings will look like 200 years from now. For example, how we persist in using the term “race,” even in scientific papers, much in the same way that Darwin, Wallace, and their contemporaries used the word “savage.”

        Can anyone remember who it was who took a young girl out of the Brazilian rain forest and raised/educated her to prove that “savages” were just as capable as “civilized” people?

    2. They differed sharply on the role of sexual selection in evolution, and in particular on the way that female preference could influence the evolution of exaggerated characters like the train of the peacock. Wallace thought that colorful ornaments arose from an “excess of energy” in vigorous males, and had nothing to do with female choice. Darwin, of course, was a big proponent of the “power to charm” the female, though his ideas weren’t widely accepted for many years after The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex was published.

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