The independent codiscoverer, with Charles Darwin, of the principle of evolution by natural selection, Wallace was born near Usk, Wales. Even as he trained for a career as a surveyor, Wallace developed a lively interest in natural history, and after he moved to England in 1844 a fortunate meeting with another amateur naturalist, Henry Walter Bates, led to organizing a joint expedition to the Amazon Basin (1848-1853) to collect natural history specimens. Tragedy struck on the way home when the ship on which Wallace was traveling caught fire and his collections were lost; but the books that resulted from Wallace’s explorations caught the attention of the Royal Geographical Society, which, along with insurance monies, helped fund a further expedition to the Malay Archipelago (broadly, Indonesia) in 1854-1862.
This proved to be one of the great natural historical explorations of all time. Among many other observations, Wallace noted that the 3,000-mile-long archipelago could be divided into two distinct bio-geographical regions, the “Oriental” fauna to the west of a line (known now as “Wallace’s Line”) bisecting the archipelago between the adjacent islands of Lombok and Bali being substantially distinct from the Australasian fauna to its east. Wallace’s resulting book, The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876), became a founding document of the discipline of biogeography.
During his Indonesian travels Wallace also refined an evolutionary view of life’s diversity that he had been nurturing ever since reading Robert Chambers’s anonymous work Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). In 1855 he published a paper titled On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species, in which colleagues recognized some of the ideas that Charles Darwin had been privately developing for some time; and in 1858, during a malarial attack on the island of Ternate in the South Moluccas, he conceived a fully rounded notion of evolution by what we now know as natural selection. He immediately wrote this up as a manuscript titled On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type and sent it to Darwin himself.
This of course created a quandary for Darwin, who wrote to a colleague that “If Wallace had had my manuscript sketch written out in 1844 he could not have made a better short abstract!” The problem of priority in the authorship of the concept of evolution by natural selection was rapidly resolved by the simultaneous presentation of Wallace’s manuscript and some extracts from Darwin’s published work to the Linnaean Society of London on July 1, 1858. Surprisingly in retrospect, this event seems to have passed largely unnoticed, and it was not until the next year, when Darwin’s hastily written work On the Origin of Species was published, that everyone sat up and took notice.
Following his return to England in 1862, Wallace wrote industriously, producing a stream of insightful books (one of them, with typically self-effacing modesty, entitled Darwinism ). However, the rest of his career was lived very much in Darwin’s shadow, and despite being awarded various honors, Wallace never fully received the recognition due him. Indeed, for the entire remainder of his long life he was unable to secure a professional appointment.
A staunch advocate of natural selection in all other areas, Wallace nonetheless had difficulty discerning how this concept related to human evolution. In hindsight, Wallace’s perception in this matter may actually be seen as quite penetrating; but his choice of supernatural guidance as an alternative mechanism for the emergence of the unique human consciousness brought disapprobation in his own time and since. Although perhaps justifiable in this limited instance, such disapproval unfortunately continues, a century later, to cast a disproportionate shadow over this great scientist’s reputation.
- Camerini, J. R. (Ed.). (2002). The Alfred Russel Wallace reader: A selection of writings from the field. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Raby, P. (2001). Alfred Russel Wallace: A life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Shermer, M. (2002). In Darwin’s shadow: The life and science of Alfred Russel Wallace. New York: Oxford University Press.