Out of the shadows of history
Friday 22 March 2013
This year sees the centenary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace, marked by a series of events at museums around the country.
Wallace was, simultaneously with Darwin, the discoverer of evolution due to natural selection – but history has obscured him under Darwin’s immense shadow.
Wallace came from a lower middle-class background. His father was a provincial solicitor, at that time a lowly occupation. He left school at 14 to work as an apprentice railway surveyor with his brother William in order to supplement the family income.
While working on the railways Wallace talked of being forced to travel in the “wretched third-class” carriages where passengers in open trucks were transported like cattle.
After one such journey with his brother William they took cheap lodgings in a damp room in Bristol, which led to his brother dying of pneumonia.
Wallace’s mental development was grounded in the provincial, industrialising countryside, where he would mix with weavers, factory inspectors, railway workers and farm labourers.
He was completely self-educated in the sciences and became an early socialist, greatly influenced by lectures he heard in the Hall of Science in Tottenham Court Road given by Robert Owen.
“I have always looked upon Owen as my first teacher in the philosophy of human nature and my first guide through the labyrinth of social science.”
He, like Owen, took a prominently anti-Malthusian line – put crudely, Malthus argued that disease and early death were necessary among the working masses to keep the population down.
Although his family was “old-fashioned Church of England” Wallace very soon shed all shreds of religiosity, developing advanced secular views on society and human nature.
Ironically, because of his radical political views Wallace was from the outset a more likely candidate than Darwin to come up with such a radical hypothesis as evolution.
But he undoubtedly lacked the self-confidence that comes with a public-school education and affluence.
In 1847 Bates and Wallace discussed travelling abroad and earning their living collecting specimens along the River Amazon.
Unlike Darwin, who was easily able to organise and finance his own long voyage on the Beagle, Wallace and Bates had to beg money for their trip. The mania of Victorians for collecting natural history specimens gave them the opportunity.
In 1848 the pair were able to sail for Brazil, where they spent several years enduring disease, hardship and catastrophe.
Their experiences were physically as far removed from Darwin’s relaxed and comfortable Beagle voyage as could be imagined. Unfortunately Wallace’s return voyage ended in shipwreck and the loss of all his meticulously recorded notes and arduously collected specimens.
In 1853, despite vowing never again to return to sea, Wallace again set sail, this time for Malaysia, with the same aims as before in the Amazon.
He also wished to investigate local tribes and pursue his ideas on human origins. His readings of the anonymously published book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation had convinced him that humans were descended from apes, possibly from an orang-utan-like animal as found in Malaysia.
Before he left he dispatched a short theoretical paper that Darwin and his friends Edward Blyth and the renowned geologist Charles Lyell read, in which he speculated about how varieties of species arise and how geography was key in determining origins.
His sponsors felt he should not waste his time with such pointless speculation and concentrate on obtaining specimens for their collections.
However, Darwin wrote him a warm and encouraging letter complimenting him on his paper. In 1858, after a bad bout of malaria, Wallace wrote another paper setting out for the first time his basic idea of natural selection and evolutionary development. He was completely unaware that Darwin had been secretly working along similar lines.
He sent it to Darwin and asked the latter to forward it to Lyell. The way his seminal paper overlapped with Darwin’s thinking on the same issue was remarkable.
Darwin had also collected a mass of fascinating data during his trip on the Beagle and through diligent correspondence with other naturalists was developing his own draft ideas of evolution.
Wallace’s paper, arriving out of the blue, hit him like a thunderbolt. He’d fleetingly met and then corresponded with Wallace but the two men hardly knew each other.
Darwin was aghast and shattered that someone had apparently beaten him to it. The idea of “losing” the letter or ignoring it crossed his mind – but in the end he followed the honourable road and forwarded it to his friend, the renowned geologist Lyell, as Wallace had requested.
Darwin was, in fact, about to write to Wallace congratulating him and had almost decided to throw in the towel on his own projected publication, but was dissuaded from doing so by botanist Joseph Hooker and Lyell.
Darwin felt he no longer had the right to publish his own views before Wallace’s now he had read the latter’s paper. But Hooker and Lyell persuaded him to publish a paper of his own alongside Wallace’s in the Journal of the Linnaean Society.
As he was a renowned fellow of the society, Lyell and Hooker knew Darwin’s piece would take precedence over that of the “mere collector” Wallace, who lacked standing in scientific circles.
Wallace, unlike Darwin, had no independent means, was not a member of the gentry nor was he university educated.
Darwin and his colleagues viewed Wallace as a useful purveyor of information and specimens, but would not have considered him a philosopher or thinker on their own level. That was partly why Wallace’s paper hit them with such force.
Neither paper caused even a ripple of excitement or outrage at the time of publication, but Darwin, realising the danger to his own work if Wallace developed his ideas further, put his head down and worked like a man possessed to finish and publish his later world-renowned On the Origin of Species a year later in 1859.
This was the book that shook the world. Priests began apoplectically raging from their pulpits, fine ladies had fainting fits at the idea of being related to monkeys and the popular papers never tired of ridiculing the idea of evolution as if a new flat-earth theory were being propounded.
These historical events demonstrate how class invariably determine an individual’s fortune and later historical status.
The strictly stratified Victorian society left Wallace little chance of entering the hallowed halls of the elite scientific community of which Darwin was already a respected member.
However, after his return from his travels and with generous support from Darwin, he did eventually gain acceptance, becoming a revered member of those circles.
Wallace had to establish his reputation the hard way, but humble and modest as ever he subsequently accepted Darwin’s pre-eminence and his own secondary role in developing the theory of evolution. Undoubtedly Wallace deserves more prominence than history has granted him.
A display to commemorate the centenary of Alfred Russel Wallace’s death opened this week at the archives reading room at Kew Gardens and runs until May 20. For more information about further commemorative events around the country visit the Natural History Museum website (www.nhm.ac.uk).