What's It All about, Alfred?

By Milner, Richard | Natural History, February 2002 | Go to article overview

What's It All about, Alfred?


Milner, Richard, Natural History


Historians rediscover the quirky genius of evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace.

A contentious correspondent once characterized Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) as an enthusiast. By that he meant an obsessive amateur, a field collector full of half-baked theories, from whom no beetle or bird was safe. Far from being insulted, Wallace replied, "It is my pride and glory to be worthy to be so called. Who ever did anything good or great who was not an enthusiast? The majority of mankind are enthusiasts only in one thing-in money-getting.... [But the] capability of a man in getting rich is in inverse proportion to his reflective powers and in direct proportion to his impudence."

Like his hero, Charles Darwin (fourteen years his senior), Wallace had a lifelong enthusiasm for ferreting out the secrets of the natural world, and he gladly risked life and limb in the pursuit of a rare bird or undescribed butterfly. Wallace and Darwin, each acting independently, originated the theory of evolution by natural selection-the concept that came to be known as Darwinism.

Victorianist Peter Raby, lecturer at the University of Cambridge, has written an engaging account of Wallace's long, eventful, and extraordinarily productive life. The discoverer of many tropical species, Wallace lived contentedly among tribal peoples and was the first European to study apes (specifitally, orangutans in Borneo) in the wild. By mapping the distribution of living animal populations, he discovered a faunal boundary in Malaysia-- known as Wallace's Line-that divides Asian-derived animals from those that evolved in Australia. A century and a half later, geophysicists confirmed that this line corresponds to the edges of ancient tectonic plates that now lie under the sea.

Raised in genteel poverty in rural Wales and then in Hertford, England, Wallace was largely self-educated. He became a surveyor and, temporarily, a schoolmaster, all the while developing a passion for natural history. He and his friend Henry Walter Bates became intrigued with the idea of organic evolution, which they first encountered in Robert Chambers's 1844 Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. In 1848, while still in their twenties, Wallace and Bates sailed for the Amazon intending to search for evidence for or against the possibility of evolution. (Young Darwin had no such objective in mind when he joined HMS Beagle as ship's naturalist almost twenty years earlier.)

Unlike the well-off Darwin, whose father paid for his voyage, Wallace had to finance his expeditions by selling rare beetles and bird skins to the British Museum. "To generations of field naturalists:' Raby writes, "Wallace shines as an inspiration, not just because of his achievements and discoveries, but because of his independence, resilience, courage, and the joy that flashes out again and again in his response to a plant or a butterfly, to any one of the `perfect little organisms' he encountered in the forest."

On his way back from South America four years later, Wallace's ship caught fire and sank, destroying most of his notes, sketches, and natural history specimens. Yet, on returning to England, he immediately began planning a new collecting expedition, this time to the Malay Archipelago. A colleague warned Wallace, who had been stricken with yellow fever, dysentery, and malaria, that perhaps he should remain in England for a while. Unhesitatingly, Wallace replied, "Being on the eve of a fresh journey... I dare say you well know & feel, that to induce a Naturalist to quit his researches at their most interesting point requires some more cogent argument than the prospective loss of health. …

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