Wallace Alfred Russel

Born in 1823, in Usk, England, a small town near the Welsh border, Alfred Russel Wallace was raised in genteel poverty. His first employment was helping his brother John survey land parcels for a railroad. While still in his twenties, he taught school in Leicester, where he met young Henry Walter Bates, who shared his passion for natural history. On weekend bug-collecting jaunts, the would-be adventurers discussed such favorite books as Darwin's Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle (1845) and dreamed of exploring the lush Amazon rain forests.

They were also inspired by Robert Chambers's anonymously published Vestiges of Creation (1844), a controversial popular treatise on evolution. Scorned by scientists, Vestiges championed the idea that new species originate though ordinary sexual reproduction rather than by spontaneous creation. Wallace and Bates decided that they would comb the exotic jungles to collect evidence that might prove or disprove this exciting "development hypothesis" (later known as evolution).

Bates and Wallace reached Para, at the mouth of the Amazon, in May 1848; they collected and explored the surrounding regions for several months, then decided to split up.

Wallace went up the unknown Rio Negro, leaving Bates to the upper Amazon regions. From 1848 until 1852, Wallace collected specimens and made numerous discoveries despite malaria, fatigue, and the most meager supplies. Wallace had to finance his expeditions by selling thousands of natural history specimens, mainly insects, for a few cents apiece, to the British Museum.

When he finally returned to rejoin Bates downriver, he found that his beloved younger brother Herbert had traveled across the world to join the adventure and had just died of yellow fever in Bates's camp. Grief-stricken, exhausted, and suffering from malaria himself, Wallace boarded the next ship for England. With him went his precious notebooks and sketches, an immense collection of preserved insects, birds, and reptiles, and a menagerie of live parrots, monkeys, and other jungle creatures. As Wallace was suffering a new attack of malaria at sea, the ship suddenly burst into flames off Bermuda. He was able to grab only a few notebooks as he dragged himself into a lifeboat. Everything else burned or sank beneath the waves, but he was rescued after a few days by a passing ship.

The measure of Wallace's enormous courage and resilience showed itself shortly after his

Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace (Bettmann/Corbis)

return to England. With the insurance money he received for part of his lost collections, he immediately set out on a new expedition (1854-1862), this time to the Malay Archipelago. Before he reached thirty, Wallace had established a solid reputation as an explorer, zoologist, botanist, geologist, and anthropologist. He is also known for having discovered thousands of new tropical species, as the first European to study apes in the wild (orangutans in Borneo), and as a pioneer in zoogeography (the distribution of animals) and author of Travels on the Amazons (1869) and The Malay Archipelago (1872).

Wallace's studies of animal populations led him to recognize the "Wallace's Line," a natural faunal boundary in Malaysia that separates Asian-derived animals from those evolved in Australia. More than a century after he deduced its existence by mapping animal populations, the existence of the boundary was found to coincide with the edges of ancient tectonic plates that now lie under the sea.

His greatest claim to fame, however, is that he was the coauthor, with Charles Darwin, of the theory of evolution by natural selection, which he invented independently of Darwin. In 1855, while in Sarawak, Wallace wrote an important paper about when and where species originate. ("The how," he wrote, "was still a secret only to be penetrated some years later.") His paper, "On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species," stated: "Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a preexisting, closely-allied species." This preliminary conclusion, he knew, "clearly pointed to some kind of evolution." Darwin was greatly impressed by Wallace's paper, as he had seen fossils of extinct giant sloths and armadillos in South America, and had realized that smaller, related living species still inhabit the same areas.

In February 1858, Wallace was living in a forest hut on an island near Borneo, and suffering from attacks of malarial fever. "It was during one of these [malarial] fits," he later recalled, while thinking about how species may have originated, that "somehow my thoughts turned to the 'positive checks' to increase among savages and others described ... in the celebrated 'Essay on Population' by Malthus." Then, Wallace later recalled, the idea of survival of the fittest came to him "in a flash": in every generation those that were less well adapted to their environment would perish without leaving descendants, and the superior would remain to breed individuals like themselves. Wallace became convinced that he had found the long-sought-for law of nature that solved the problem of the origin of species, wrote it out carefully on succeeding evenings, and sent to Darwin in England.

It was this article, "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type" (1858), that sent Darwin into a panic, for he had not yet published the evolution theory that he had been working on for twenty years. Darwin's friends, the geologist Charles Lyell and the botanist Joseph Hooker, arranged to have Wallace's paper read along with some of Darwin's early drafts on July 1, 1858, at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London. The following year Darwin raced to finish the Origin of Species and rushed it into print.

Wallace was informed of these developments and received a copy of Darwin's book while still in Malaysia. When he returned to England in 1862, Darwin was anxious about Wallace's reaction, and he was relieved to discover his "noble and generous disposition." Later Wallace maintained that even if his only contribution was in getting Darwin to write his book, he would be content.

After publication of the Origin in 1859, evolution by natural selection, biology's great unifying concept, became famous as "Darwin's theory." Since, however, it was first announced jointly with Wallace the previous year, it should actually be called "the Darwin-Wallace Theory." Wallace carried modesty to extremes, however, even calling his own book on evolution Darwinism (1889). Had he been more ambitious and less generous, evolutionary science might have become known as Wallaceism.

In addition to the chronicles of his travels, Wallace turned out a remarkable series of books, all landmark contributions to evolutionary biology: Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (1870), Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876), Island Life (1882), and Darwinism (1889). His somewhat mystical idea of the earth as a complex living system (or perhaps even a composite organism) seems, in some sense, to have foreshadowed James Lovelock's controversial Gaia hypothesis by a century.

—Richard Milner

See also: Biogeography; Darwin, Charles; Evolution; Evolutionary Biodiversity


Berry, Andrew, ed. 2002. Infinite Tropics: An Alfred Russel Wallace Anthology. New York: Verso; Camerini, Jane R., ed. 2002. The Alfred Russel Wallace Reader: A Selection of Writings from the Field. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; Raby, Peter. 2001. Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Shermer, Michael. 2002. In Darwin's Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace. New York: Oxford University Press; Smith, Charles H. Alfred Russel Wallace: An Anthology of His Shorter Writings. New York: Oxford University Press; Web site: The Alfred Russel Wallace Page, Western University of Kentucky. Originated and maintained by Charles H. Smith, www.wku.edu.

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