A fascinating new book on Wallace and his ideas

September 10, 2013 • 5:34 am

by Matthew Cobb

As readers of this site will know, this year is the centenary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), the co-discoverer of the principle of evolution by natural selection. Wallace’s contribution to our understanding of the natural world differed from that of Darwin on a number of accounts, which have intrigued people for over a century, and which may account in part for the fact that Wallace’s contribution to what is now called ‘Darwinism’ was occluded for decades.

Wallace focused on the role of natural selection, and eventually openly disagreed with Darwin’s view that sexual selection played an important role in evolution. Wallace argued that humans were in some way separate from the rest of the natural world, and that some of our particular features – in particular, intelligence – could not be explained by natural selection. This non-materialist view of evolution was paralleled by his adoption of spiritualism in the 1860s. Finally, Wallace was a radical socialist, profoundly opposed to landed property.

This complex interaction of ideas are explored in an excellent new book, Alfred Russel Wallace: Explorer, Evolutionist, Public Intellectual. A Thinker for Our Own Times? The author is Professor Ted Benton of the University of Essex, and he is uniquely positioned to to understand the richness of Wallace’s ideas.


Benton is a natural historian – he has written books on bumblebees and on grasshoppers and crickets for the New Naturalist series, and in 2007 won the Stamford Raffles prize from the Zoological Society of London. But although he trained as a scientist, his day job is Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex, and he has made important contributions to the ‘critical realism’ strand of sociological theory, focusing on the importance of humanity’s interactions with the natural world.

Benton’s book opens with a brief summary of Wallace’s early life as an explorer, with dramatic descriptions of his voyages to South America and the far East, including the distressing story of hunting for orang utans and then trying to save the infant of a mother orang he had shot. But Benton’s aim is to explore Wallace’s ideas and to try and understand why he had such complex and seemingly contradictory views.

The respectful and warm interplay of ideas between Darwin and Wallace are well drawn out in the chapter on sexual selection, and the links between their disagreement on this point and the larger issue of human evolution are outlined very clearly. These chapters will be extremely useful as a guide to the contrasts and convergences in the ideas of these two thinkers, as well as revealing the depth of their mutual respect.

Benton deliberately avoids too great an exploration of Wallace’s views about spiritualism, or his hostility to vaccination, because, he argues, those features of Wallace’s ideas are less relevant to today. But given the existence of a strong anti-vaccination trend in the west, and the fears exploited by fundamentalists in some countries, I would have applauded a more detailed exploration of these issues. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Benton is ‘simply mystified’ by Wallace’s adoption of these views. People can hold contradictory views, and sometimes it is not possible to find a rational explanation, or even to reconstruct the stories an individual might tell themselves to reconcile the irreconcilable.

This is a fascinating account of Wallace’s ideas that enriches our understanding of Wallace’s ideas, and the limits of the convergence of their ideas. Benton is very much of the view that Wallace deserves equal credit with Darwin for the discovery of the principle of evolution by natural selection. That is true, but as the subsequent chapters demonstrate, Wallace’s ideas were more rigid and more limited than those of Darwin, who was able to further develop his basic idea by integrating sexual selection and fully applying his theory to the whole of the natural world, including human beings. Above all, Benton shows both Wallace and Darwin as fully rounded men living in their time, affected by the social issues of the day. Highly recommended!

You can get  copy of the book direct from the publishers, Siri Scientific Press.

39 thoughts on “A fascinating new book on Wallace and his ideas

    1. £21 not expensive these days – & Amazon UK now sold out! They did not have it in the Gower St Waterstones last night so I got the Richard Dawkins memoir, An Appetite for Wonder – & very interesting so far.

      I will be getting this Wallace book as well!

  1. Note that the modern theory of sexual selection integrates both Darwin AND Wallace’s views. In fact the Wallaceian ‘good genes’ hypothesis is probably more widely accepted now than Darwin’s belief in female choice of males due to aesthetic preference. Wallace never could accept that organisms such as butterflies have an aesthetic sense. Richard Dawkins gave a very good talk about this very subject recently in Bristol (http://www.entangled-bank.co.uk/dawkins-in-bristol.html) in which he admitted that the Wallaceian’s were probably in the majority these days as far as sexual selection is concerned. Also read the wonderful book “The Ant and the Peacock” by Helena Cronin which explores Darwin and Wallace’s contributions to the modern subject of sexual selection. You may be surprised how much Wallace DID contribute to this subject and to the study of animal colouration in general. In fact he made a FAR greater contribution to the understanding of animal colouration than Darwin ever did – and devised basic concepts such as warning colouration which are taken for granted today.

    1. Sounds like a most interesting book.

      I have an additional comment concerning Matthew’s post.

      Wallace,I believe, did not object to Darwin’s idea of sexual selection as a whole, but only to his hypothesis that male adornments were sexually selected by the esthetic choice of females for males bearing colorful ornaments. Wallace rejected the mechanism, as does biology today, and developed an alternative hypothesis. We now know that ornaments are indeed the product of sexual selection, although modern explanations are counter-intuitive and beyond the ken of 19th century biology.

      Wallace had no qualms with the part of sexual selection that was understandable: the evolution of traits useful in disputes motivated by male-male reproductive rivalries. Wallace made this clear when he wrote (1889. Darwinism. p. 283), “It is to this form of male rivalry that Mr. Darwin first applied the term “sexual selection.” It is evidently a real power in nature; and to it we must impute the development of the exceptional strength, size, and activity of the male, together with the possession of special offensive and defensive weapons, and of all other characters which arise from the development of these or are correlated with them.”

      1. I find it a bit odd that Wallace denied aesthetic choice by females (other than humans) when he argued that birds were quite capable of detecting small distinctions in edible insects (which led to detailed protective colouration and mimicry) and also species-specific identifying markings that distinguished species and subspecies. Clearly they were up to this level of “aesthetic” discrimination.

        1. I think this is logical, since distinguishing small differences between insect prey is simply a matter of eyesight and pattern recognition, whereas a sense of aesthetics implies a conscious appreciation of beauty, which Wallace didn’t believe that organisms such as butterflies could have. I don’t either!

          1. “a sense of aesthetics implies a conscious appreciation of beauty”

            And this differs from pattern recognition how exactly?

              1. Darwin (1874: Descent of Man) says “…(Y)et I fully admit that it is astonishing that the females of many birds and some mammals should be endowed with sufficient taste to appreciate ornaments, which we have reason to attribute to sexual selection, and this is even more astonishing in the case of reptiles, fish, and insects. But we really know little about the minds of lower animals.” More astonishing indeed!!

          2. This Wallace quote may help clarify things:

            “The display of the plumes [of birds], like the existence of the plumes themselves, would be the chief external indication of the maturity and vigour of the male, and would, therefore, be necessarily attractive to the female. We have, thus, no reason for imputing to her any of those aesthetic emotions which are excited in us, by the beauty of form, colour, and pattern of these plumes.” A. R. Wallace (1889. Darwinism, p. 294).

            Wallace’s mechanism would be as much “sexual selection” as was Darwin’s. Wallace here comes close to hitting on the “handicap principle,” and it is a shame that he did not follow up the idea that exaggerated ‘plumes’ might be honest signals of increased vigor and genetic quality.

            Natural selection, of course, pushes females to evolve to recognize what is valuable in males, and vice versa. When ornaments evolve, preferences co-evolve with them. A sense of beauty can also be said to evolve, but one in which ‘beauty’ is a euphemism for ‘an indicator of usefulness.’ When was the last time you saw a news report on a beautiful work of art being stolen or lost in a fire without also being told its street price.

            1. Initially Wallace believed that the Paradise birds were merely exerting excess energy and not displaying in the presence of females. Females had nothing to do with it. His informants apparently didn’t report that females were in the area of the dancing males.

              In the above passage he finally conceded that females were involved in the “choice” …although not for “aesthetics” which he argued that only human females had the capacity to develop. In fact he argued that human females also didn’t have the opportunity in evolutionary time to chose their mates. Thus the human female capacity for aesthetics could not be the product of natural selection. The denial of female “aesthetics” and sexual selection by females was part and parcel of his rejection of the role of natural selection in the human brain.

              But if exertion and activity alone was what was being selectively favored in the Birds of Paradise then the details of pattern would be unimportant…ANY excess of plumage or movement would be acceptable to the female. But each species of Paradise bird has a specific dance and plumage. In many respects the male Birds of Paradise are actually not showing vigor, but tight constraint in their “dance”.

              This seems to me to be the classic case of confuting different levels of mechanism. Wallace was focusing on the physiology while Darwin was absorbed with the behavior and relationships. If males avoid conflicts with other males because they have larger horns, are larger, have more aggressive displays or more muscled physiques -and this is sexual selection- they why isn’t a female that responds to a males coloration or dance?

  2. The most interesting thing about Wallace, for me, is his exclusion of human beings from evolution by virtue of our intelligence. Darwin was appalled. So am I. If the book doesn’t delve deeply into that aspect of the man I won’t be delving into it.

    1. It seems a shame to me that many people fixate on Wallace’s “atheistic spiritualism” (as it has been called) often to the exclusion of appreciating his massive contributions to science – especially to evolutionary biology. People don’t seem to fixate on Charles Darwin’s belief in God, R. A. Fisher’s Christianity or Newton’s occult studies… A person’s scientific work should be judged on its merits – not in relation to other, possibly irrational, beliefs that that person may also hold/have held. Otherwise many a scientist’s work would be disregarded!

      1. Yet his spiritualism did impact his Scientific beliefs, and brought him into disagreement with theories of human evolution that offered natural causation, which I don’t believe had such effects on Darwin or Fisher. It’s not as if Wallace’s spiritualism simply dealt with ghosts. He actually used to to argue that human evolution was subject to external spiritual influences. In fact he even argued that mutations, and the natural world were the result of spiritual forces directing events to lead to intelligent organisms.

        1. As far as I am aware Wallace only suggested that “mutations, and the natural world were the result of spiritual forces directing events” when he was in his 80’s. He was an atheist and materialist when he made most (or all) of his scientific discoveries. Anyway, I maintain that a person’s scientific work should be judged on its merits – not in relation to other, possibly irrational, beliefs that that person may also hold/have held. Religious belief is not necessarily incompatible with science. Indeed thousands of people around the world of many different religions are doing excellent science all the time. Science is not a religion – it is a powerful method of investigating the natural world.

          1. I would have trouble – as Jerry does – in reconciling evolution & an interventionist god like that of the Christians, however my late father, who was religious, seemed to have reconciled his reliogion (CoE) with evolution.

            1. The Church of England and (I think) the Catholic Church have no such difficulties (but I’m personally not religious and am not an authority on this). They now seem to believe that God created the universe and that it runs according to natural processes – of which evolution is one. This is the same view that Darwin held, although I would guess that unlike Darwin, the churches believe in a ‘personal God’ that does intervene in the affairs on Man. Anyway, Science is a method of investigating the natural world, and as such it is an entirely separate affair to religion. There could be a God, or perhaps millions of Gods and a host of other lesser deities, but so long as the universe functions according to ‘natural laws’ then Homo sapiens can use the scientific method to discover and investigate these ‘laws’.

              1. The idea that the universe operates solely on the basis of natural processes and the idea that there exists a supernatural being who intervenes if the lives of humans are not compatible ideas. They can not both be true. An intervening deity is by definition a violation of a purely natural universe.

            2. Your father, like all of those who claim compatibility between science and religion, do so by the simple trick of maintaining two incompatible ideas in their heads at once. This does not make the two compatible. It is a form of self-deception.

          2. George ~Apparently you are unaware of Wallace’s review of Lyell’s “Principles” in 1869. “Sir Charles Lyell on Geological Climate and the Origin of Species” (Quarterly Review April 1869).

            After a discussion of such features as the hand, hairlessness, appreciation of beauty, justice, moral judgement, and music he states:

            “The same line of argument may be used in connexion with the structural and mental organs of human speech, since that faculty can hardly have been physically useful to the lowest class of savages; and if not, the delicate arrangements of nerves and muscles for its production could not have been developed and co-ordinated by natural selection. This view is supported by the fact that, among the lowest savages with the least copious vocabularies, the capacity of uttering a variety of distinct articulate sounds, and of applying to them an almost infinite amount of modulation and inflection, is not in any way inferior to that of the higher races. An instrument has been developed in advance of the needs of its possessor.

            This subject is a vast one, and would require volumes for its proper elucidation, but enough, we think, has now been said, to indicate the possibility of a new stand-point for those who cannot accept the theory of evolution as expressing the whole truth in regard to the origin of man.

            While admitting to the full extent the agency of the same great laws of organic development in the origin of the human race as in the origin of all organized beings, there yet seems to be evidence of a Power which has guided the action of those laws in definite directions and for special ends. And so far from this view being out of harmony with the teachings of science, it has a striking analogy with what is now taking place in the world, and is thus strictly uniformitarian in character. Man himself guides and modifies nature for special ends. The laws of evolution alone would perhaps never have produced a grain so well adapted to his uses as wheat; such fruits as the seedless banana, and the bread-fruit; such animals as the Guernsey milch-cow, or the London dray-horse. Yet these so closely resemble the unaided productions of nature, that we may well IMAGINE A BEING who had mastered the laws of development of organic forms through past ages, refusing to believe that any new power had been concerned in their production, and scornfully rejecting the theory that in these few cases a distinct intelligence had directed the action of the LAWS OF VARIATION, MULTIPLICATION, and SURVIVAL for his own purposes. We know, however, that [[p. 394]] this has been done; and we must therefore admit the possibility, that in the development of the human race, a Higher Intelligence has guided THE SAME LAWS for nobler ends.

            Such, we believe, is the direction in which we shall find the true reconciliation of Science with Theology on this most momentous problem. Let us fearlessly admit that the mind of man (itself the LIVING PROOF OF A SUPREME MIND) is able to trace, and to a considerable extent has traced, the laws by means of which the organic no less than the inorganic world has been developed. But let us not shut our eyes to the evidence that an OVERRULING INTELLIGENCE has watched over the action of those laws, SO DIRECTING VARIATIONS and so DETERMINING THEIR ACCUMULATION, as finally to produce an organization sufficiently perfect to admit of, and even to aid in, the indefinite advancement of our mental and moral nature.”

  3. Wallace’s spiritualism reminds me of the near contemporary Conan Doyle’s, despite his depiction of the extreme empiricist Sherlock Holmes. (And gifted scientists for good or bad like Professor Moriarty and Professor Challenger.)

    I picked this up from the latest EvoCarneval I think, but I found it useful: an account of predecessors of Darwin and Wallace, “in order to show that natural selection has not been ‘discovered’ in 1858.” But publication in odd places or contexts made these predecessors ideas hang out there.

    1. I forgot to say that the author of the account of predecessors nevertheless yields priority to Darwin and Wallace because of their integrative theories.

      Now I’ll go off on a slight tangent, increasing to a steep.

      Slight tangent:

      It is remarkable how early predecessors can arise. A famous example is Democritos and his atomic theory. But I just found out that the 2nd century satirist Lucian of Samosata was among the first to describe the idea of life on other worlds when he practically invented science fiction in the style of Verne and Wells. In his tale people visits the Moon, and Moon and Sun are inhabited.

      Steep tangent:

      The reason I found Lucian was that I had reason to check up on Ben Goren’s claim of Adonis as a possible inspiration for Jesus. Maybe Ben can expand on this:

      Apparently Adonis, likely derived from the Sumerian god Tammuz (Dumuzid, Dumuzi)*, was like Tammuz originally a visitor to the Underworld of dead people. The arrangement for his release is a yearly visit, mirroring the seasons.

      Lucian was a Greek speaking Syrian satirist that apparently didn’t have the means (or chops) to become a philosopher but became a sharp critic of both philosophy and religion. However, he was the first to describe how Adonis in the Greco-Roman mystery religions had become a revived god instead of the initial killed god myth. [Wikipedia]

      Now Lucian lived in the same area and at the same time that the Christian religion invented the same revivification for their god, Ben’s favorite zombie. I hear the idea that this religion’s gods derived from Greco-Roman gods are disfavored by some. But this may be indirect support of influence regardless of deeper derivation.

      Score 1-0 for Ben!?

      * Which by the way was, by way of the mythical Sumerian king list, sometimes associated with a shepherd king and sometimes a fisherman king.

      Some things never change.

      1. Natural Selection had long been held to cull excessive variation and thus keep species “in line”. Thus it was used to argue against “transformation” (evolution). There were two predecessors to Darwin and Wallace that argued that selection could be transformative- William Wells and Patrick Matthews…though both made their arguments in obscure places (appendices to books or imbedded in discussion of subjects not clearly germane to the topic). They never promoted, applied or discussed the idea further. Leopold von Buch offered a model of speciation and evolution based on a more random pattern of variation and isolation. But he didn’t bring in selection.

        Because Darwin’s and Wallaces’ papers were presented to the Linnean Society they obtain credit for announcing the idea to the Scientific community. Darwin’s “Origin” (an abstract of his planned massive “Natural History” broadened and built upon his Linnean presentation.

        1. Yes, and Wells didn’t suggest that natural selection could lead to speciation. Matthews may have, but his ideas were not very clearly explained or presented and neither he nor anyone else discussed them further for almost 30 years until after Wallace and Darwin had published their theory.

          1. Wallace only applied Natural Selection to cladogentic speciation AFTER the “Origin of Species”. His discussion of “divergence” in 1858 was related to divergence of a descendent from an antetype. This is anagenetic change. There is no discussion of how two or more species from a common antetype might develop via natural selection in that essay. Perhaps one could argue that it is IMPLICIT since we know Wallace accepted common descent…but it is not explicitly stated that Natural Selection is involved in speciation.

    1. How sinister! You make it sound that he might have been a flat-earther, yet the opposite is true – Wallace was a trained land surveyor and set out to prove a prominent flat-earther wrong. Which he did.

  4. In case people missed this – & we did not cover it in WEIT did we?

    Through their eyes: selective attention in peahens during courtship
    Jessica L. Yorzinski
    J Exp Biol 216, 3035-3046.
    “these findings suggest that selective attention plays a crucial role in sexual selection and likely influences the evolution of male display traits”

    also here

  5. As the author of the book that set off these comments, I’d like, first, to thank Matthew for his very generous review of the book. I think partizanship for Darwin, and, in a few cases, rival partizanship for Wallace, has obscured much of the complexity of the dialogues between them, and the extent of their mutual respect. Matthew is right about this, and it became clear to me when researching for the book.
    Matthew is also right in thinking I rather down-played Wallace’s spiritualism. In part, I wanted to et his ideas in historical context, but at the same time to evaluate how much of his legacy remains of value today. My judgment was that his scientific contributions and his vision of an alternative, susainable and just society had continuing importance – more so than either his campaign on vaccination or his spiritualism. Others will, of course, disagree.
    Matthew’s review didn’t touch on my two chapters plus on Walace’s contributions to social, economic and political thought – but I hope readers will find those aspects of Wallace’s thinking of interest.
    Just two topics that have arisen in other comments;
    1. sexual selection. Wallace certainly attached less significance to this than did Darwin, but he disagreed with Darwin only on a vary narrow set of issues. Wallace had no qualms about male-competition sexual selection, and also accepted female-choice sexual selection on the basis of characters that indicated ‘fitness’ in the sense of survival-value. I think some of his comments amount to anticipation of the ‘handicap’ thesis.
    I am inclined to sympathise with Darwin’s view of female aesthetic choice in the case of some bird species, but Wallace’s critical arguments produced, as George points out, many new insights into what we now call mating systems.
    2. human evolution. VERY important to recognise Wallace had two radically different approaches to this. In 1864 he published a paper explaining human evolution by natural selection. Darwin referenced this and used its key argument in his 1871 Descent of Man. By 1869 Wallace had radically changed his view and provided a series of arguments to the effect that natural selection unaided could not eplain the emergence of certain ‘higher’ human faculties. it was Darwin’s high estimation of the 1864 paper, which he had made great use of, that fired his alarm at Wallace’s change of view.
    There is no doubt that Wallace’s conversion to spiritualism must have influenced his change of view on human evolution, but he does NOT use spiritualist arguments to make his case against the sufficiency of NS to explain ‘higher’ human faculties. These arguments are, in fact, quite powerful, and it should be noted that Darwin implicitly agrees. e supplemented NS with other mechanisms, including not just sexual selection but lamarkian use-inheritance, group selection and so on – some of which have since been discredited. the whole field remains unresolved and full of controversy today.

    1. Wallace’s non-spiritualist arguments against particular traits relating to human evolution are based on the “principle of utility”…that natural selection cannot produce qualities that are useful in advance of the selective factor. But his reliance on spiritual factors rather than some other naturalistic force seems to be the issue. It’s of the nature of “I, the great A.R. Wallace, cannot think of a selective reason why {hairlessness, bipedality, the precision grip, a sense of justice, aesthetics, the singing voice, language, etc.] could have been adaptive. Ergo, these features must have a supernatural origin.”

      But Wallace in the year immediately after their 1858 papers, he admitted that he was flummoxed by groups of species that shared similar colorations…until his old friend HW Bates developed his idea of protective mimicry on distasteful/poisonous models. So why was Wallace so unwilling to concede that the problem was simply that there was virtually no knowledge of the human past (and that of our closest relations -both past and present) to explicate the selective factors that might have led to bipedality, hairlessness, the human hand, language, a moral sense, etc. Rather than suggest a programme for acquiring this information (through observation of Primates in natural environments, a comprehensive search for transitional human ancestors, and better study of “savage” humans as to the functions of these traits) he returned to a Paleyan approach of Design by Creator (even citing the Bridgewater Treatise). At times Scientists have to forestall making grand alternative theories based on unknown forces when there is a lack of knowledge and simply accept that more information must be obtained.

  6. First,
    I would say that the ironic ‘I, the great’ is very much out of place. Wallace was not self- important, as his persistent deference to Darwin, among many other things, suggests.
    Second, I could not agree more that the inference to spiritual forces from the (supposed) limits of natural selection is entirely unjustified. Of course, Wallace, like Darwin and everyone else, often got things wrong! Although Darwin was consistently (and rightly in my opinion!)naturalistic in his philosophic approach, he also thought that there were limits to the explanatory power of NS in this case. Consistently with his philosophical approach, Darwin postulated other mechanisms, such as use-inheritance. it now turns out that Darwin was wrong in important respects.
    i think what is of interest is the way, in their historical context, and given what was available to them, that the dialogue between these two thinkers produced so much of value. Who was right and who was wrong, who got there first etc. are not, for me, the key questions.

  7. I just wanted to let everyone know that my good friend, James Costa, Executive Director of the Highlands Biological Station here in western NC, and author of an annotated version of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and also The Other Insect Species, is coming out with two new books on Alfred Russel Wallace. The first will be available in November from Harvard University Press: On the Organic Law of Change: A Facsimile Edtion and Annotated Transcription of Alfred Russel Wallace’s Species Notebook of 1855-1859. The second comes out next spring.

    Andrew Berry from Harvard provides kind words on the first book. Wallace’s notebook was kept by Wallace while in Malaysia, Indonesia and New Guinea and has never been published before. If this book is anything like Jim’s Annotated Origin, it is going to be a very popular book.

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