Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace 1862 - Project Gutenberg eText 15997

Alfred Russel Wallace 1862 – Project Gutenberg eText 15997

Much has been made about Alfred Russel Wallace being the ‘forgotten man’ of evolutionary biology. However, given his recent revival (and the sheer number of memorials he has accrued) I’m not sure that tag is really appropriate anymore!

You may already know that Wallace was an intrepid explorer, spending time in Singapore, Malaysia, Borneo and the Amazon Basin – and that he came up with the same (well, very similar) theory of evolution as Charles Darwin, completely independently.

But did you know that Wallace was part of an anti-vaccination movement? And that he frequented séances? Thought not.

“Not quite a typical man of science” – Charles Sanders Peirce (1901)

Wallace grew up with his eight siblings in humble surroundings, so didn’t have access to the top-notch education afforded to many aspiring scientists of his day. Instead, he attended school until he was 13 and later helped his brother in his job as a land surveyor. This sparked a casual interest in biology, as the young Wallace was exposed to many plants in his daily work. He became more serious about the study of natural history in the 1840s, when he met beetle enthusiast Henry Bates. After a few years of collecting home-grown specimens, the pair decided to journey to the Amazon rainforest to expand their collections and further their studies. And the rest is history…

However it wasn’t all plain sailing: Wallace was still struggling financially (he had to sell specimens to fund his voyage) and at one point his ship was destroyed in a fire (along with all the specimens on board). On top of that, it was probably malaria that he was suffering from when he formulated his evolutionary theory!

Wallace has been compared with Charles Darwin many times over the years, but I guess there’s no harm in one more. Darwin famously grew up as a Christian but lost his faith in the wake of his discoveries and the eventual publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’. Wallace also had a religious epiphany after his return to England, in the form of spiritualism. One of the core beliefs of this faith is that spirits of the dead can (and do) communicate with the living. Followers do believe in a god so, unlike Darwin, Wallace seemed able to reconcile the coexistence of evolution and religion.

ARW had an interest in several aspects of biology; one area of evolutionary biology that bears his name is the ‘Wallace Effect’. Wallace suggested that when two types of the same species have adapted (via natural selection) to different conditions, they reach a point where hybrid offspring of the two types wouldn’t be as adapted as their parents – and would be less likely to survive. Natural selection can then prevent future generations from successfully inter-mating – this is ‘reproductive isolation’. Research continues in this area, particularly in the investigation of ‘sympatric speciation’ (the development of new species in the absence of a geographical barrier).

So whilst Wallace may not have been the most conventional scientist, there’s no doubting his contribution to biology. And anthropology. And biogeography. And…


This article was written as part of the ‘Biology: Changing the World‘ project for the Society of Biology, but heavily edited and not accredited.

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