Wallace, Alfred Russel: Contributions to Astronomy

Charles H. Smith, Ph.D.
Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, Kentucky

Author's note: A preprint of an article published in Thomas Hockey et al., editors, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers, Volume 2 (Springer, 2007).

    Wallace, Alfred Russel. Born: Usk, Monmouthshire (historically Gwent), Wales, UK, 8 January 1823. Died: Wimborne, near Bournemouth, Dorset, England, UK, 7 November 1913.

    Although Alfred Russel Wallace made significant contributions to astronomy, he is best known as a central figure in the emergence of the fields of evolutionary biology and biogeography.

    As the eighth of nine children of Thomas Vere and Mary Anne (née Greenell) Wallace, poor but middle-class English parents, Alfred Wallace led a rather ordinary life until his mid-teens. At that time, while working as a surveyor in western England and Wales, he began to take an amateur's interest in natural history. In the early 1840s he became involved in local mechanics institutes as a lecturer, curator, and possibly librarian. In 1844 he took a position as a master at Leicester School, where he incidentally met another famous naturalist-to-be, Henry Walter Bates. The two would eventually decide to turn professional as natural history collectors. In 1848 they voyaged to the Amazon region, where in the following years they were quite successful collecting specimens. Wallace returned to England in 1852 when his health deteriorated; on the way he narrowly escaped death when his ship caught fire and sank, but he lost some two years of collections in the disaster. Undaunted, Wallace set off for the Far East eighteen months later to reimmerse himself in collecting activities.

    Wallace's name is now inextricably linked with the Malay Archipelago, where eight years of fieldwork (1854-1862) secured for him a reputation among future generations as history's greatest tropical naturalist. While there he thought out the theory of natural selection; the famous essay on the subject he sent to Charles Darwin is now well known to have propelled the latter into finally committing his own ideas to paper in On the Origin of Species in 1859. Over the same period Wallace made fundamental contributions to the study of biotic distribution patterns, and is now regarded as the father of the science of zoogeography. Wallace returned to England in 1862, thereafter settling down to a long career of study and writing.

    Wallace's contributions to astronomy are overshadowed by his fame in other natural sciences, but his thoughts and writings on astronomical topics were and still are influential, and in some areas he may be regarded as an important pioneer. Although lacking even a secondary-school education, he developed a firm grasp of basic scientific principles, and later was particularly brilliant at marshalling evidence and drawing conclusions. Wallace's attention was drawn to astronomy during his early surveying days, when practical geodetical matters were of daily concern. He developed a talent for cartography, a skill he would exercise during his Amazon travels by producing one of the first reliable maps of the course of the Rio Negro.

    In 1865, after his return from the Malay Archipelago, Wallace became embroiled in a public discussion on the shape of the earth. In discussing this incident in his 1905 autobiography My Life he produced a non-technical explanation of the derivation of latitude that geographer Yi Fu Tuan would later describe as never having been surpassed in clarity. Wallace's fascination with geodesy culminated in 1870 when he devised the celebrated Bedford Canal experiment, an attempt to silence the claims of a particularly outspoken advocate of a flat Earth.

    In the 1860s Wallace also became interested in James Croll's ideas about the possible astronomical causes of the glacial epochs. Wallace adopted some of Croll's theory of climate change as related to eccentricity of the earth's orbit and precessional movement of its axis, but added his own twist by examining possible synergistic interplays between astronomical and climato-geographical forces. His fully developed theory along these lines--the first of its kind--was presented as the opening sections of the book Island Life in 1880.

    In 1896 Wallace was invited to Switzerland to give a lecture on scientific progress; the research he did for this lecture and in 1898 for a related book, The Wonderful Century, rekindled his interest in astronomy, and he soon took up the subject again. Adopting William Whewell's position on the plurality of worlds and relying on his thorough review of the recent astronomical literature, Wallace attempted to make the argument that the earth and solar system are located at the very center of the universe. Further, he argued that, on a consideration of the physical improbabilities involved, ours is probably the only existing world inhabited by advanced creatures. This position was first advanced by Wallace in an essay published in early 1903, but later that year he produced a much-expanded discussion in the book Man's Place in the Universe, which drew both much attention and much criticism.

    A few years later Wallace was drawn into the discussion surrounding Percival Lowell's sensational view that the planet Mars is inhabited by advanced beings. In 1907 Wallace published a short book, Is Mars Habitable?, that devastatingly criticized the range of problems inherent in Lowell's position. The discussion remained close to principles of basic science with Wallace surmising that the Red Planet's surface must be desertlike and devoid of higher life forms. He was able to accurately deduce its likely surface temperatures and albedo, and to suggest that its polar caps are probably frozen carbon dioxide rather than frozen water.

    The astronomical writings Wallace produced over the last decade of his life reflect an unusually flexible worldview: one scientific enough to address questions bearing on proximate causalities, yet philosophical enough to find a place for final causes. Although he has sometimes been accused of theistic leanings, he strictly rejected the notion of a reality operating on first causes and therefore, in spite of all his spiritualist beliefs, was in no sense a creationist. Still, he did believe there was purpose exhibited by natural structure and its programs of change. In examining this matter scientifically in the context of astronomy Wallace became perhaps the first important purveyor of what has come to be known as the anthropic principle. With this philosophical perspective it is all the more interesting that his most important contribution to the progress of astronomy was a methodological one: his analytical approach to the study of planetary atmospheres and surfaces toward the end of assessing their potential for life-sponsoring conditions. For this latter work he may justly be regarded as a founding father of the science of astrobiology.

    Wallace's career, especially after 1862, was characterized by frequent public controversy, for in addition to his natural science interests Wallace was also a vocal and demonstrative spiritualist, land nationalizer, antivaccinationist, and socialist. In April 1866 at the age of forty-three, he married Ann Mitten, the twenty-year-old daughter of the English botanist William Mitten. They had three children, two of whom survived to adulthood. By the time of his death, Wallace was well-honored: He was a Fellow of the Royal Society and received the society's Royal Medal (1868), its Darwin Medal (1890) and its Copley Medal (1908). Among many other honors including two honorary doctorates, he was the first recipient of the Darwin-Wallace Medal of the Linnean Society of London (1908) and the Order of the British Empire.

Selected References

Balashov, Yuri V. Resource letter AP-1: The anthropic principle. American Journal of Physics 59(12): 1069-1076. December 1991.

Dick, Steven J. The Biological Universe: The Twentieth-century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. 1996.

Fichman, Martin. An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press. 2003.

Garwood, Christine. Alfred Russel Wallace and the flat earth controversy. Endeavour 25(4): 139-143. December 2001.

Heffernan, William C. The singularity of our inhabited world: William Whewell and A. R. Wallace in dissent. Journal of the History of Ideas 39(1): 81-100. January-March 1978.

Tipler, Frank J. A brief history of the extraterrestrial intelligence concept. Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 22(2): 133-145. June 1981.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Latitude and Alfred Russel Wallace. Journal of Geography 62: 258-261. September 1963.

Wallace, Alfred Russel. Is the earth an oblate or a prolate spheroid? Reader 7(177): 497b-c. 19 May 1866.

_____. The Wonderful Century; Its Successes and Its Failures. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1898; New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1898. New (expanded) ed. 1903.

_____. Man's Place in the Universe; A Study of the Results of Scientific Research in Relation to the Unity or Plurality of Worlds. London: Chapman & Hall, 1903; New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1903. 4th (revised) ed., 1904.

_____. My Life; A Record of Events and Opinions. 2 vols. London: Chapman & Hall, 1905; New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1905. New (condensed and revised) ed. 1908.

_____. Is Mars Habitable? A Critical Examination of Professor Percival Lowell's Book "Mars and Its Canals," With an Alternative Explanation. London: Macmillan, 1907; New York: Macmillan, 1908.

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Copyright 2007 by Charles H. Smith. All rights reserved.