"It's On The Web..."--Or, When is a "Russel" a "Russel"?

Charles H. Smith, Ph.D.
University Libraries, Western Kentucky University
(written May 1998)

    Hardly a day goes past now that I don't either give or receive the advice "Have you checked the Web?--you might find what you're looking for there." The World Wide Web has undoubtedly emerged as a major source of information, especially for those who do not have access to a large university library. Increasingly, in fact, even those who do have access to a large library are often taking the easier route, using various electronic search engines to seek answers from the comfort of an office or lab.

    But there is a darker side to all of this convenience. The Web, as we increasingly see, has no internal quality control. Lots of what's out there is of very inferior quality, and hardly passes for "information." I have been hearing more and more complaints from teaching faculty especially; many of these have gone so far as to forbid their students from using Web-based sources. At first I wondered whether this was reasonable or just reactionary, but the truth was brought out to me recently when I decided to do a detailed search on a subject I personally have been studying for some twenty years.

    The object of my search was the nineteenth and early twentieth century evolutionist, naturalist, and social critic Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). I used several search engines to come up with close to five hundred items that really did pertain to Wallace, and what I found when I looked in detail was a bit upsetting. To be sure I did find a number of unexpected and welcome new tidbits of information, and I already had been prepared to find few if any of Wallace's own writings or secondary periodical or monographic sources, but in way too much of the rest erroneous statements and evaluations proved epidemic.

    Wallace as a subject for investigation presents a particularly good opportunity for testing the quality of the Web's resources. There is first the matter of his unusually spelled middle name: "Russel." Nearly half of the items I found spelled it "Russell," a slip-up which is something of a dead giveaway that the person who was in charge of producing the entry doesn't know what he or she is talking about. Second, Wallace was a complex, unorthodox thinker who came up with a lot of ideas that are still rather poorly understood; thus he tends to fall prey to misrepresentation, obfuscation and out-of-context, inappropriate, quotation. Moreover, he was involved in the famous story of the public introduction of the natural selection concept, and his relations with Darwin feature the real possibility of intrigue and scandal. Lastly, quite a lot actually is known about the historical particulars of his life, and such could be uncovered easily enough were a person really interested in maintaining some accuracy in his or her writings about him.

    In a moment I'll present a sample of some of the Wallace-related passages I found during my survey, but first, for contextual reasons, it is useful to provide a capsule biographical review. Wallace, an Englishman, was born into a decently upstanding but poor family (his father was a non-practicing lawyer; his mother of reputable middle class stock), and was forced to leave school at the age of thirteen to learn a trade. He eventually took up with an older brother who ran a surveying and construction business in the West of England. During a slow period in late 1843 he was let go and took a teaching position at a private school in Leicester. There by chance he met the amateur entomologist Henry Walter Bates (later of "Batesian mimicry" fame), who got him interested in natural history collecting. In early 1845 Wallace went back to surveying when his brother died, but before long he and Bates had decided to make natural history collecting their livelihood. In 1848 they left for the Amazon Valley, where Wallace stayed four years (Bates remained until 1859). On his way home in 1852 the ship he was sailing on caught fire and sank, sending his collections to the bottom. Wallace was eventually rescued, however, and within eighteen months he was ready to try again: after securing a grant for passage to the East he set out on what this time would be an eight year long expedition.

    Wallace had been contemplating the notion of biological evolution since around 1845 (and social evolution, even earlier), and in 1858 the natural selection concept finally came to him--during a bout with malaria in the Moluccas. After writing out his thoughts in the form of an essay, he sent the manuscript, along with a letter, to Darwin (who he knew was interested in "the species question" and with whom he had struck up a relatively innocuous correspondence) for possible forwarding on to Darwin's friend Charles Lyell, the celebrated geologist. Darwin, fearing that his life's work was about to be eclipsed, appealed to Lyell and the botanist Joseph Hooker, another friend, for help in deciding what to do about this challenge to his priority. A decision was made to have Wallace's essay and two extracts from unpublished writings by Darwin read at the next meeting of the Linnean Society, and this took place on July 1, 1858--without getting Wallace's permission first.

    By the end of 1859 Darwin had completed and published On the Origin of Species, and the rest, as we say, is history. Wallace returned to England in 1862 something of a celebrity, and from that point on his reputation continued to grow. He immersed himself in an incredible range of studies including various extensions of the natural selection concept, biogeography, anthropology, physical geography and glaciology, land nationalization and planning, socialism, epidemiology, and social criticism. As a result, by the end of his life he was possibly science's most recognized name (I have in my possession period writings that refer to him, among other things, as "England's greatest living naturalist" (Boston Herald, October 31, 1886, p. 13); "[one of the two] most important and significant figures of the nineteenth century" (English Illustrated Magazine, January 1904, p. 420); "this greatest living representative of the Victorians" (London Daily Chronicle, November 3, 1910, p. 4); and "only a great ruler could have been accorded by the press of the world any such elaborate obituary recognition..." (Current Opinion, January 1914, p. 32)).

    Now, on to the Web site samples. In what follows I am admittedly poking fun and deliberately drawing attention to various kinds of error. It is not, however, my purpose to publicly embarrass anyone: hopefully the reader will therefore forgive my not providing exact sources. A good place to start is with the "Russell" spelling errors:

    "...another English scientist, Alfred Russell Wallace..." (from an online encyclopedia); "...fellow scientist Alfred Russell Wallace..." (from a sketch of Darwin for a college course); "Alfred Russell Wallace had..." (from an "internet ancillary" to a popular psychology text); "Operation Wallacea is named after the eminent naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace..." (from a homepage describing a research expedition named after Wallace (!)); "...for his contribution with Alfred Russell Wallace..." (from a Darwin Studies homepage (!)); "...Alfred Russell Wallace..." (from the announcement of a prestigious book prize given to a work wholly about Wallace (!)). Many other examples, the more or the less entertaining, can also be retrieved. Perhaps I appear too picky here; on the other hand, what degree of confidence can one have in a source that doesn't even recognize an incorrect spelling of its primary subject?

    Along similar lines, we have: "...updating the original theories by Sir Alfred Russell Wallace..." (from the announcement of a prestigious book prize given to a work wholly about Wallace); "...quoting Sir Alfred Wallace in Indonesia in the 1860's..." (from the site of a major conservation organization); "Lord Alfred Russell Wallace..." (from a digital library project). Poor Wallace would turn over in his grave to hear himself referred to as "Sir," much less "Lord," Wallace! After all, here was a man who was a utopian socialist and campaigner for the divestiture of large land holdings (Wallace 1882, 1883), who wrote two full length essays favoring complete restructure of the House of Lords (Wallace 1894, 1907), and who at one point even published a public notice to the effect that, no, he had not (as rumors had suggested) been nominated for knighthood, and would not accept the honor were he so noticed (Wallace 1908)!

    Continuing on... Among the more amusing items of unabashed nonsense I encountered were the following:

    "...meanwhile, a grad student named Alfred Russell Wallace was studying the flora and fauna of Malaysia..." (from a college course synopsis); "An American worker, Alfred Russel Wallace, developed similar ideas..." (from lecture notes for a college course); "Wallace flourished around 1855-61. During this period he listed Australian birds." (from the homepage of a university-based education project); "...the life and discoveries of Alfred Russel Wallace, whose work was in biodiversity conservation awareness in the Malay Archipelago" (from a university newsletter); "[Wallace was] lower class, sold tropical bugs for a living" (from a college course synopsis). Wallace--a "graduate student?" Wallace--an American? Wallace--"lower class" (his father had hung around with prominent socialites such as Beau Brummel in his youth, and his mother's family included town mayors and other respectable sorts--see Wallace 1905)? The comment on "flourishing" (usually used to describe persons of whom we know almost nothing) is also interesting, given that this represents the entire entry, and that the same database contains a listing for "A. R. Wallace" that contains a good deal more information. And, celebrated tropical naturalist though he may have been, it is entirely inaccurate and out of context to depict Wallace's work as being in "biodiversity conservation awareness," a description that suggests a late-twentieth century, rather than mid-nineteenth century, association.

    But let us proceed on to the more serious errors. These may be grouped into two main classes: the erroneous descriptions of his role in the 1858 Linnean Society introduction of the natural selection concept, and "other," especially as concerning various misappreciations of his worldview. We begin with examples of the former. One might suppose that the history of this subject, relayed as it has been in countless sources, is so familiar that mistakes would be unlikely. But consider the following...

    "...like Darwin, he had written a book on the origin of species, citing exactly the same kinds of evidence and reaching precisely the same conclusion. ...Darwin now...said Wallace should be allowed to publish first. Wallace insisted on Darwin's right to be first. So they presented a paper together to the Linnean Society..." (from the text of a public lecture). Practically all of this is utterly untrue. Wallace had not written a book on the origin of species, had not cited the same evidence, and didn't insist that Darwin be allowed to publish first; nor did they present a paper together.

    "...natural selection was first articulated by Alfred Russel Wallace; the theory was subsequently co-opted by Charles Darwin with the assistance of scientists Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker. ...Hard though it might be to believe, there is no real proof that Darwin conceived of, or committed to paper, the central idea of so-called 'classical Darwinism'...prior to his receipt of the so-called Ternate papers..." (from commentary by a skeptics group). Contrary to this statement, the evidence is quite clear that Charles Darwin both thought out the idea and committed it to paper many years before Wallace's discovery--though he had not published anything, of course (McKinney 1972; Brooks 1984; Desmond and Moore, 1992).

    "Darwin's letter concerned some information that Wallace had published which Darwin had used to come to his conclusion that species had evolved. Darwin did not tell Wallace exactly what he was up to, however." (from a slide program used in a college course). This is pure fiction; Darwin had done no such thing.

    "Alfred Russell Wallace actually committed the concept of adaptation by natural selection to writing before Darwin [who]...upon reading Wallace's paper, quickly wrote one of his own, and both papers were read at the same meeting of the Linnean Society in 1858..." (from an apparently uncompleted Ph.D. Dissertation). Darwin wrote no such paper, though again, he did have much earlier, informally prepared, writings that he quickly supplied for the reading.

    "On July 1 Charles Darwin read Alfred Wallace's paper on evolution to the Linnean Society along with portions of Darwin's own long-withheld manuscript of The Origin of Species..." (part of a historical chronology put up by a major psychology association). Darwin wasn't at the meeting, actually, nor had he at that point even started writing the work that would become The Origin of Species.

    "[Darwin] published a short paper on [natural selection] in 1858. Alfred Wallace published a paper with the same idea in the same year; indeed, after Wallace wrote to Darwin telling him of his own idea of natural selection, he and Darwin agreed to publish simultaneous papers..." (from background material for a college geology course). There was no agreement; Wallace was not even consulted. Moreover, Darwin's contributions were not truly papers, they were fragments from writings that he had never intended for publication.

    "[Darwin] co-authored a short article about evolution in July 1858 with another Englishman, Alfred Russell Wallace. ...I believe an editor took the best parts of two articles the men presented and 'wrote' the co-authored article. ...Thus, by publishing just a short time ahead of Wallace (I think the time lag was just a few months) Darwin became famous..." (from material for a teachers education course). There was, of course, no such editor involved; neither was there any "time lag" as Wallace never did publish a larger work until many years later.

    "...in a generous gesture it was Darwin himself who presented Wallace's paper to the Royal Geographic Society later that same year, 1858..." (from materials by a private company that produces educational material for the Web). Again, Darwin was not even there, and the Linnean Society, not the RGS, was involved.

    "The idea came to him while he was delirious with fever in the jungles of Borneo. His letter made Darwin realize that he could dally no longer. A presentation was made to the Royal Society of London, and the cat was out of the bag..." (from an "internet ancillary" to a popular psychology text). Once again, the wrong professional society is named--also note that the event took place in the Moluccas, not Borneo.

    We could go on and on with a good deal more of the same, but consider finally the following two selections that feature the last word in creative obfuscation:

    "[Charles Darwin] stole most of his ideas from another evolutionist, Alfred Russell Wallace, who published before Chuck. Wallace published 'Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro' in 1853, six years prior to Darwin's 'Origin of Species.' Darwin undoubtedly stole many of his ideas from Wallace for they corresponded with each other. Chuck claimed Mr. Wallace stole his ideas from him by reading a manuscript sketch written in 1842." (from an article in an online magazine produced by a skeptics group).

    "Wallace had requested time to speak at an upcoming conference to officially put forth his theory. Some of Charles Darwin's friends...heard about this and decided that the credit should go to Darwin, not Wallace. They did this by asking the meeting organizers for a few minutes just before Wallace to read aloud excerpts from some of Darwin's letters and notes to them which dealt with his theory of evolution..." (from notes for a college course).

    Just about nothing in any of the above, needless to say, has even a grain of truth to it, and one cannot help but suspect that some rather dubious agenda are being pursued in the dissemination of such slander.

    Finally, some attention should be drawn to the many erroneous statements about other aspects of Wallace's career that appear on the Web, for example:

    "...while until recently, hardly anyone had ever heard of Alfred Russell Wallace..." (from notes for a college course). As mentioned earlier, this is hardly the case. In his own time Wallace was a very well known figure.

    "Geologist Charles Lyell...and biologist Alfred Russel Wallace...both insisted that the origin of human beings was a special case requiring divine intervention..." (from a reprinted magazine article). The problem here is that while Lyell appears to have had rather conventional religious beliefs, Wallace did not, and certainly did not believe in the notion of "divine intervention." He did, however, believe that the actions and progress of humankind were being affected by some manner of what we might today term "paranormal" or "psychical" influence.

    "Coining the phrase, 'survival of the fittest,' Wallace stated..." (from an educational resources site). Unfortunately, it was Herbert Spencer who coined this phrase, not Wallace. (I find this mistake particularly irritating, as the writer goes on to directly quote the Introduction to my Wallace anthology (Smith 1991) in an effort to elaborate on her misstatement.)

    "...the eminent physicist and co-discoverer of Evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace..." (from a reprinted article). One of the few areas of science that Wallace did not tinker in was physics. Moreover, we should constantly remind ourselves that neither Wallace nor Darwin "discovered" evolution, but instead the particular mechanism of evolution known as natural selection.

    "...Wallace would today (1997) be considered a 'Creationist'..." (from a skeptics site); "Alfred Wallace, Darwin's partner...argued that such complex systems still required a God..." (from the instructor's notes for a college course). Well, no, he wouldn't/didn't. Wallace was a lifelong agnostic who did not believe in a "personal" God (that is, an entity capable of miraculous, spontaneous, "first causes"). True, he was a Spiritualist, but he treated the "Spirit World" as a non-physical extension of the natural world, governed by analogous natural laws. He often waxed poetic, using terms like "God" or "Creation," but this only when he was alluding to natural forces so subtle, complex, or grandiose as to trivialize humankind's attempts to understand them.

    "...Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, who maintained notions that natural selection is the only ordering principle in nature..." (reprint of an interview with a skeptic). Not so, even assuming that the subject is restricted to the parameters of evolutionary change. Wallace in particular accepted natural selection as what might be termed a "universal filter" through which all living things had to pass, but he well recognized that many other "ordered" natural processes were contributing to the emergence of the variation upon which selection worked.

    "Wallace became a fervent selectionist, ending up not believing in human evolution because he could not envision the adaptive purpose for the human mind..." (from a slide program for a college course). This statement confuses several things at once. Wallace did in fact continue to believe in human evolution--at least physical evolution--in Darwinian terms, and he could envision an adaptive purpose for the human mind, but he was unwilling to conclude that conscious awareness per se constituted a strictly biological process.

    "In fact, to save a special place for our own species, Wallace even rejected the possibility that life forms and intelligent beings may exist elsewhere in this cosmos..." (from a reprinted public lecture); "Wallace was the most visible early proponent of Mars as a lifeless planet..." (from a digital library project). Actually, Wallace only rejected the more specific notion that intelligent beings might exist elsewhere: "I have never suggested that this earth alone in the whole universe is the abode of life..." (Dawson 1903, p. 177).

    Well, enough. This by no means exhausts the full stock of misguided items I retrieved, but I think my point has been made.

    Now I suppose some readers might complain, alright, but this is just history, after all, and perhaps we can forgive a bit of sloppy research here and there, and even a few instances of obvious axe-grinding. But there is a certain danger in allowing ourselves this degree of tolerance, I think. In the case of Wallace we are dealing with a moderately important person in the history of science who, but for an accident of fate (and given his rather broader interests than Darwin), might well have become the most important person in the history of science. Surely we are doing no one a favor by trivializing his role in history, or by allowing ourselves to assume that we understand enough at this point to ignore it. If nothing else, all of this misinformation tends to draw prospective investigators' attention away from potentially more significant issues. My own research suggests, for example, that Wallace was more upset by Darwin's actions during the summer of 1858 than he publicly let on, and for good reason: his own model of natural selection probably was never intended to provide an explanation for the phenomena of conscious awareness.

    In a more limited sense this exercise has produced two immediate results. First, it has caused me to have generally more sympathy for those who mistrust Web-based resources. Surely, any teacher who permits his or her students to take advantage of the Web should thoroughly forewarn them of its limitations. And second, I have decided to respond to the particular problem at hand by leaping into the fire myself with a Web site, "The Alfred Russel Wallace Page." If you can't join 'em, beat 'em!

References Cited

Brooks, J. L., 1984. Just Before the Origin: Alfred Russel Wallace's Theory of Evolution. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dawson, A., 1903. A visit to Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace. Christian Commonwealth 23: 176-177.

Desmond, A. J., & Moore, J. R., 1992. Darwin. New York: Warner Books.

McKinney, H. L., 1972. Wallace and Natural Selection. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Smith, C. H., ed., 1991. Alfred Russel Wallace: An Anthology of His Shorter Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wallace, A. R., 1882. Land Nationalisation: Its Necessity and Aims. London: Trübner & Company.

_____, 1883. The "why" and the "how" of land nationalisation. Macmillan's Magazine 48: 357-368, 485-493.

_____, 1894. How to preserve the House of Lords. Contemporary Review 65: 114-122.

_____, 1905. My Life: A Record of Events and Opinions. London: Chapman & Hall.

_____, 1907. A new House of Lords: representative of the best intellect and character of the nation. Fortnightly Review 81 (n.s.): 205-214.

_____, 1908. Dr. A. R. Wallace and honours. Public Opinion (London) 94: 78.

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Copyright 1999 by Charles H. Smith. All rights reserved.