Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913): English Naturalist and Anthropologist Who Developed a Theory of Evolution at the Same Time as Darwin, but Received Little Recognition Because of His Low Social and Scientific Standing

Article excerpt

What was his background?

Alfred Russel Wallace was born on 8 January 1823 in the village of Usk, Monmouthshire (now Gwent), the eighth of nine children. He became interested in botany, geology and astronomy, while working with his brother William who was a surveyor. He subsequently taught at the Collegiate School in Leicester from 1844.

What did he achieve?

At the age of 25, Wallace launched a natural history collecting expedition from Para (now Belem) at the mouth of the Amazon. He travelled farther up the waterways of the Rio Negro than any Westerner had before, drafting a map of the rivers that would be used for years to come. Travelling through the Amazon rainforest, Wallace gathered information on the region's birds, animals, insects, plants and also the native people. He was far ahead of his time in that he didn't see these people as primitive or inferior but simply as different. Ill health eventually forced him to return to England. During the voyage, the ship on which Wallace was travelling caught fire and sank, and he was stranded on a lifeboat for ten days.

In 1854, with a grant from the Royal Geographical Society, Wallace set off to the Malay Archipelago in Indonesia. He spent eight years here, embarking on 70 expeditions and discovering 1,000 species previously not known to science. His observations on the marked faunal differences across a narrow zone led to his hypothesis of a zoological boundary now known as the Wallace Line.

As he lay suffering from malaria one day, Wallace made the connection between Malthus's ideas on the limits of population growth and the mechanisms that might ensure long-term organic change. Wallace outlined his theory of survival of the fittest in a paper called On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart from the Original Type and sent it to Darwin. …

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