The Alfred Wallace Legend
Elysium Heart of the Coral Triangle is dedicated to Alfred R. Wallace
Alfred Russel Wallace OM FRS (8 January 1823 – 7 November 1913) was a British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist, and biologist. He is best known for independently conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection; his paper on the subject was jointly published with some of Charles Darwin‘s writings in 1858.[
Wallace did extensive fieldwork, first in the Amazon River basin and then in the Malay Archipelago, where he identified the faunal divide now termed the Wallace Line, which separates the Indonesian archipelago into two distinct parts: a western portion in which the animals are largely of Asian origin, and an eastern portion where the fauna reflect Australasia.
He was considered the 19th century’s leading expert on the geographical distribution of animal species and is sometimes called the “father of biogeography“.[Wallace was one of the leading evolutionary thinkers of the 19th century and made many other contributions to the development of evolutionary theory besides being co-discoverer of natural selection. These included the concept of warning colouration in animals, and the Wallace effect, a hypothesis on how natural selection could contribute to speciation by encouraging the development of barriers against hybridisation.
Wallace was strongly attracted to unconventional ideas (such as evolution). His advocacy of spiritualism and his belief in a non-material origin for the higher mental faculties of humans strained his relationship with some members of the scientific establishment.
Aside from scientific work, he was a social activist who was critical of what he considered to be an unjust social and economic system (capitalism) in 19th-century Britain. His interest in natural history resulted in his being one of the first prominent scientists to raise concerns over the environmental impact of human activity.
He was also a prolific author who wrote on both scientific and social issues; his account of his adventures and observations during his explorations in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, The Malay Archipelago, was both popular and highly regarded. Since its publication in 1869 it has never been out of print.
Inspired by the chronicles of earlier travelling naturalists, including Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin and especially William Henry Edwards, Wallace decided that he too wanted to travel abroad as a naturalist. In 1848, Wallace and Henry Bates left for Brazil aboard the Mischief. Their intention was to collect insects and other animal specimens in the Amazon rainforest for their private collections, selling the duplicates to museums and collectors back in Britain in order to fund the trip. Wallace also hoped to gather evidence of the transmutation of species.
Wallace and Bates spent most of their first year collecting near Belém do Pará, then explored inland separately, occasionally meeting to discuss their findings. In 1849, they were briefly joined by another young explorer, botanist Richard Spruce, along with Wallace’s younger brother Herbert. Wallace continued charting the Rio Negro for four years, collecting specimens and making notes on the peoples and languages he encountered as well as the geography, flora, and fauna.[ On 12 July 1852, Wallace embarked for the UK on the brig Helen. After 26 days at sea, the ship’s cargo caught fire and the crew was forced to abandon ship. All of the specimens Wallace had on the ship, mostly collected during the last two, and most interesting, years of his trip, were lost. He managed to save a few notes and pencil sketches and little else.
Wallace and the crew spent ten days in an open boat before being picked up by the brig Jordeson, which was sailing from Cuba to London. The Jordeson’s provisions were strained by the unexpected passengers, but after a difficult passage on very short rations the ship finally reached its destination on 1 October 1852.
After his return to the UK, Wallace spent 18 months in London living on the insurance payment for his lost collection and selling a few specimens that had been shipped back to Britain prior to his starting his exploration of the Rio Negro. During this period, despite having lost almost all of the notes from his South American expedition, he wrote six academic papers (which included “On the Monkeys of the Amazon”) and two books; Palm Trees of the Amazon and Their Uses and Travels on the Amazon. He also made connections with a number of other British naturalists—most significantly, Darwin
By February 1858, Wallace had been convinced by his biogeographical research in the Malay Archipelago of the reality of evolution. As he later wrote in his autobiography:
The problem then was not only how and why do species change, but how and why do they change into new and well defined species, distinguished from each other in so many ways; why and how they become so exactly adapted to distinct modes of life; and why do all the intermediate grades die out (as geology shows they have died out) and leave only clearly defined and well-marked species, genera, and higher groups of animals?
According to his autobiography, it was while he was in bed with a fever that Wallace thought about Thomas Malthus’s idea of positive checks on human population growth and came up with the idea of natural selection.
Wallace said in his autobiography that he was on the island of Ternate at the time; but historians have questioned this, saying that on the basis of the journal he kept at the time, he was on the island of Gilolo.(Halmehera) From 1858 to 1861 he rented a house on Ternate from the Dutchman Maarten Dirk van Renesse van Duivenbode. He used this house as a base camp for expeditions to other islands such as Gilolo.
Wallace continued his scientific work in parallel with his social commentary. In 1880, he published Island Life as a sequel to The Geographic Distribution of Animals. In November 1886, Wallace began a ten-month trip to the United States to give a series of popular lectures. Most of the lectures were on Darwinism (evolution through natural selection), but he also gave speeches on biogeography, spiritualism, and socio-economic reform. During the trip, he was reunited with his brother John who had emigrated to California years before. He also spent a week in Colorado, with the American botanist Alice Eastwood as his guide, exploring the flora of the Rocky Mountains and gathering evidence that would lead him to a theory on how glaciation might explain certain commonalities between the mountain flora of Europe, Asia and North America, which he published in 1891 in the paper “English and American Flowers”. He met many other prominent American naturalists and viewed their collections. His 1889 book Darwinism used information he collected on his American trip, and information he had compiled for the lectures.
Wallace died on 7 November 1913; he was 90 years old. His death was widely reported in the press. The New York Times called him “the last of the giants belonging to that wonderful group of intellectuals that included, among others, Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Lyell, and Owen, whose daring investigations revolutionised and revolutionised the thought of the century.” Another commentator in the same edition said “No apology need be made for the few literary or scientific follies of the author of that great book on the ‘Malay Archipelago’
Wallace describes how he discovered natural selection as follows:
It then occurred to me that these causes or their equivalents are continually acting in the case of animals also; and as animals usually breed much more quickly than does mankind, the destruction every year from these causes must be enormous in order to keep down the numbers of each species, since evidently they do not increase regularly from year to year, as otherwise the world would long ago have been crowded with those that breed most quickly. Vaguely thinking over the enormous and constant destruction which this implied, it occurred to me to ask the question, why do some die and some live? And the answer was clearly, on the whole the best fitted live … and considering the amount of individual variation that my experience as a collector had shown me to exist, then it followed that all the changes necessary for the adaptation of the species to the changing conditions would be brought about … In this way every part of an animals organization could be modified exactly as required, and in the very process of this modification the unmodified would die out, and thus the definite characters and the clear isolation of each new species would be explained.
Wallace’s extensive work in biogeography made him aware of the impact of human activities on the natural world. In Tropical Nature and Other Essays (1878), he warned about the dangers of deforestation and soil erosion, especially in tropical climates prone to heavy rainfall. Noting the complex interactions between vegetation and climate, he warned that the extensive clearing of rainforest for coffee cultivation in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India would adversely impact the climate in those countries and lead to their eventual impoverishment due to soil erosion. In Island Life, Wallace again mentioned deforestation and also the impact of invasive species. On the impact of European colonisation on the island of Saint Helena, he wrote:
… yet the general aspect of the island is now so barren and forbidding that some persons find it difficult to believe that it was once all green and fertile. The cause of this change is, however, very easily explained. The rich soil formed by decomposed volcanic rock and vegetable deposits could only be retained on the steep slopes so long as it was protected by the vegetation to which it in great part owed its origin.
When this was destroyed, the heavy tropical rains soon washed away the soil, and has left a vast expanse of bare rock or sterile clay. This irreparable destruction was caused, in the first place, by goats, which were introduced by the Portuguese in 1513, and increased so rapidly that in 1588 they existed in the thousands. These animals are the greatest of all foes to trees, because they eat off the young seedlings, and thus prevent the natural restoration of the forest. They were, however, aided by the reckless waste of man. The East India Company took possession of the island in 1651, and about the year 1700 it began to be seen that the forests were fast diminishing, and required some protection. Two of the native trees, redwood and ebony, were good for tanning, and, to save trouble, the bark was wastefully stripped from the trunks only, the remainder being left to rot; while in 1709 a large quantity of the rapidly disappearing ebony was used to burn lime for building fortifications!
Wallace’s comments on environment grew more strident later in his career. In The World of Life (1911) he wrote:
These considerations should lead us to look upon all the works of nature, animate or inanimate, as invested with a certain sanctity, to be used by us but not abused, and never to be recklessly destroyed or defaced. To pollute a spring or a river, to exterminate a bird or beast, should be treated as moral offences and as social crimes; … Yet during the past century, which has seen those great advances in the knowledge of Nature of which we are so proud, there has been no corresponding development of a love or reverence for her works; so that never before has there been such widespread ravage of the earth’s surface by destruction of native vegetation and with it of much animal life, and such wholesale defacement of the earth by mineral workings and by pouring into our streams and rivers the refuse of manufactories and of cities; and this has been done by all the greatest nations claiming the first place for civilisation and religion
As a result of his writing, at the time of his death Wallace had been for many years a well-known figure both as a scientist and as a social activist. He was often sought out by journalists and others for his views on a variety of topics. He received honorary doctorates and a number of professional honours, such the Royal Society‘s Royal Medal and Darwin Medal in 1868 and 1890 respectively and the Order of Merit in 1908. Above all, his role as the co-discoverer of natural selection and his work on zoogeography marked him out as an exceptional figure.
He was undoubtedly one of the greatest natural history explorers of the 19th century. Despite this, his fame faded quickly after his death. For a long time, he was treated as a relatively obscure figure in the history of science. A number of reasons have been suggested for this lack of attention, including his modesty, his willingness to champion unpopular causes without regard for his own reputation, and the discomfort of much of the scientific community with some of his unconventional ideas.
Recently, he has become a less obscure figure with the publication of several book-length biographies on him, as well as anthologies of his writings. In 2007 a literary critic for New Yorker magazine observed that five such biographies and two such anthologies had been published since 2000. There has also been a web page created that is dedicated to Wallace scholarship.] In a 2010 book, the environmentalist Tim Flannery claimed that Wallace was ‘the first modern scientist to comprehend how essential cooperation is to our survival,’ and suggested that Wallace’s understanding of natural selection and his later work on the atmosphere be seen as a forerunner to modern ecological thinking.
Wallace’s 1904 book Man’s Place in the Universe was the first serious attempt by a biologist to evaluate the likelihood of life on other planets. He concluded that the Earth was the only planet in the solar system that could possibly support life, mainly because it was the only one in which water could exist in the liquid phase. More controversially he maintained that it was unlikely that other stars in the galaxy could have planets with the necessary properties (the existence of other galaxies not having been proved at the time).
His treatment of Mars in this book was brief, and in 1907, Wallace returned to the subject with a book Is Mars Habitable? to criticise the claims made by Percival Lowell that there were Martian canals built by intelligent beings. Wallace did months of research, consulted various experts, and produced his own scientific analysis of the Martian climate and atmospheric conditions. Among other things, Wallace pointed out that spectroscopic analysis had shown no signs of water vapour in the Martian atmosphere, that Lowell’s analysis of Mars’s climate was seriously flawed and badly overestimated the surface temperature, and that low atmospheric pressure would make liquid water, let alone a planet-girding irrigation system, impossible. Richard Milner comments: “It was the brilliant and eccentric evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace … who effectively debunked Lowell’s illusionary network of Martian canals.” Wallace originally became interested in the topic because his anthropocentric philosophy inclined him to believe that man would likely be unique in the universe
Flat Earth wager
: Bedford Level experiment
In 1870, a Flat-Earth proponent named John Hampden offered a £500 wager (equivalent to about £43000 in present-day terms) in a magazine advertisement to anyone who could demonstrate a convex curvature in a body of water such as a river, canal, or lake. Wallace, intrigued by the challenge and short of money at the time, designed an experiment in which he set up two objects along a six-mile (10 km) stretch of canal. Both objects were at the same height above the water, and he mounted a telescope on a bridge at the same height above the water as well. When seen through the telescope, one object appeared higher than the other, showing the curvature of the earth.
The judge for the wager, the editor of Field magazine, declared Wallace the winner, but Hampden refused to accept the result. He sued Wallace and launched a campaign, which persisted for several years, of writing letters to various publications and to organisations of which Wallace was a member denouncing him as a swindler and a thief. Wallace won multiple libel suits against Hampden, but the resulting litigation cost Wallace more than the amount of the wager and the controversy frustrated him for years