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Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace (January 8 1823November 7 1913) was a British naturalist, geographer, anthropologist and biologist. Wallace's independent proposal of a theory of evolution by natural selection prompted Charles Darwin to reveal his own more developed and researched, but unpublished, theory sooner than he had intended.


Early life

Wallace was born at Usk, Monmouthshire. He was the eighth of nine children of Thomas Vere Wallace and Mary Anne Greenell. He attended grammar school in Hertford, but left when his family lost their remaining property. He worked for his older brother William in his surveying business, and between 1840 and 1843 spent his time surveying in the west of England and Wales. In 1844 he was hired as a master at the Collegiate School in Leicester. In 1845 his brother William died and Wallace returned to run the surveying business.

Exploration and study of the natural world

In 1848, Wallace, together with another naturalist, Henry Walter Bates (whom he had met in Leicester), left for Brazil to collect specimens in the Amazon Rainforest, with the express intention of gathering facts in order to solve the riddle of the origin of species. Unfortunately, a large part of his collection was destroyed when his ship caught fire and sank while returning to Britain in 1852.

From 1854 to 1862, he travelled through the Malay Archipelago or East Indies (now Malaysia and Indonesia), to collect specimens and study nature. His observations of the marked zoological differences across a narrow zone in the archipelago led to his hypothesis of the zoogeographical boundary now known as the Wallace line. One of his better known species descriptions during this trip is the gliding tree frog Rhacophorus nigropalmatus, Wallace's flying frog. His studies there were eventually published in 1869 as The Malay Archipelago.

Theory of evolution

In 1855, Wallace published a paper, "On the Law Which has Regulated the Introduction of Species" (1855), in which he gathers and enumerates general observations regarding the geographic and geologic distribution of species, and concludes that "Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a closely allied species." The paper was a foreshadowing of the momentous paper he would write three years hence.

Wallace had once briefly met Darwin, and was one of Darwin's numerous correspondents from around the world, whose observations Darwin used to support his theories. Wallace knew that he was interested in the question of how species originate, and trusted his opinion on the matter. Thus, he sent him his essay, "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type" (1858), and asked him to review it. In it, Wallace describes a novel theory of what is now known as "natural selection," and proposes that it explains the diversity of life. It was essentially the same as the theory that Darwin had worked on for twenty years, but had yet to publish. Darwin wrote in a letter to Charles Lyell: "he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as heads of my chapters!" Although Wallace had not requested that his essay be published, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker decided to present the essay, together with excerpts from a paper that Darwin had written in 1844, and kept confidential, to the Linnean Society of London on 1 July 1858, highlighting Darwin's priority.

Wallace accepted the arrangement after the fact, grateful that he had been included at all. Darwin's social and scientific status was at that time far greater than Wallace's, and it was potentially unlikely that Wallace's views on evolution would have been taken as seriously. Though relegated to the position of co-discoverer, and never the social equal of Darwin or the other elite British natural scientists, Wallace was granted far greater access to tightly-regulated British scientific circles after the advocacy on his part by Darwin.

Religious views, and application of the theory to mankind

In a letter to a relative in 1861, Wallace wrote: "I think I have fairly heard and fairly weighed the evidence on both sides, and I remain an utter disbeliever in almost all that you consider the most sacred truths... I can see much to admire in all religions... But whether there be a God and whatever be His nature; whether we have an immortal soul or not, or whatever may be our state after death, I can have no fear of having to suffer for the study of nature and the search for truth...."

In 1864, before Darwin had publicly addressed the subject—though others had—Wallace published a paper, The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of 'Natural Selection', applying the theory to mankind. Wallace subsequently became a spiritualist, and later maintained that natural selection cannot account for mathematical, artistic, or musical genius, as well as metaphysical musings, and wit and humor; and that something in "the unseen universe of Spirit" had interceded at least three times in history: 1. The creation of life from inorganic matter. 2. The introduction of consciousness in the higher animals. 3. The generation of the above-mentioned faculties in mankind. He also believed that the raison d'tre of the universe was the development of the human spirit. (See Wallace (1889)). These views greatly disturbed Darwin in his lifetime, who argued that spiritual appeals were not necessary and that sexual selection could easily explain such apparently non-adaptive phenomena.

In many accounts of the history of evolution, Wallace is regulated to a role of simply being the "stimulus" to Darwin's own theory. In reality, Wallace developed his own distinct evolutionary views which divirged from Darwin's, and was considered by many (especially Darwin) to be a chief thinker on evolution in his day whose ideas could not be ignored. He is among the most cited naturalists in Darwin's Descent of Man, often in strong disagreement.

Precursor of ecology, and awards

Wallace was the first to propose a "geography" of animal species, and as such is considered one of the precursors of ecology and biogeography.


Among the many awards presented to Wallace were the Order of Merit (1908), the Royal Society's Copley Medal (1908), the Royal Geographical Society's Founder's Medal (1892) and the Linnean Society's Gold Medal (1892).

He is also honored by having craters on Mars and the Moon named after him.


External links

Books about Wallace

  • Just Before the Origin: Alfred Russel Wallace's Theory of Evolution by John Langdon Brooks ISBN 1583481117
  • The Spice Islands Voyage: The Quest for Alfred Wallace, the Man Who Shared Darwin's Discovery of Evolution by Tim Severin ISBN 0786707216
  • My Life an autobiography : (1905) Alfred Russel Wallace By Chapman & Hall, Ltd., London

See also


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