Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

 
 
Responses to Questions Frequently
Asked About Wallace


Wallace's reputation has suffered considerably as a result of incomplete scholarship, biased presuppositions, and misinformation-introducing axe-grinding. In the following interchanges I attempt to reply, as briefly and candidly as possible (and this is not always easy!), to some frequently-posed questions about his life and work. The literature cited is identified in the 'Writings on Wallace' section at this site; the "S" numbers given refer to the item entry numbers in the 'Wallace Bibliography' section. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/FAQ.htm.

Question: Did Wallace believe in intelligent design?

Answer: No, no, and no. Assuming that i.d. leans on the operation of first causes as Creationism does, that is. Don't fall for the facile understanding being promoted by some agenda-driven observers who argue that, just because Wallace was a spiritualist and believed that "higher intelligences" were influencing events here on earth, that he also believed in miraculous, non-law-based kinds of Godly intervention. Read his own words on this matter here (see also the bottom of page 196 of Volume 1 of Wallace's autobiography My Life, written thirty-five years later and saying essentially the same thing). Wallace did increasingly lean toward a model of natural processes invoking final causes, but this is quite another matter: even the relatively conservative thinker August Weismann was willing to entertain views of final causation (see S352), as long as these did not rely on vitalist or creationist assumptions. Are those who explore gaian models and the various versions of the anthropic principle being accused of i.d. tendencies? Well, what Wallace was thinking about in some ways closely approaches these lines of thought--only he added to the mix the notion that "higher intelligences" might also represent an integral element in the way the large-scale program of evolution plays out.

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Question: Did Wallace believe in miracles?

Answer: Before trying to answer this question one needs to get a tolerably firm grip on what we want to term a "miracle." From my (rather conservative) slant on things, it seems a "miracle" might be defined as an event that is wholly inexplicable--not just because we don't know the immediate conditions under which it has taken place, but because its enaction either violates or supercedes known (and perhaps even not yet known) laws of science. Thus, a miracle implies, if not actual direct Godly intervention, then at the very least the operation of some other first cause not subservient to the generally recognized rules of physical existence. Given this starting point, one would have to say that Wallace did not believe in miracles. It's not that he was unwilling to allow that many of the witnessed historical events termed miracles had in fact occurred; indeed, he was satisfied that some, at least, likely had. Obviously, there's a catch. As a spiritualist, Wallace accepted that so-called miraculous events are the product of actions initiated by, or otherwise related to, spirit entities. Significantly, the entities themselves are supposed to exist as "real" things observing natural law (whether yet recognized or understood, or not), and there is thus no reason to invoke first causes-related doctrine to explain how such events are caused. Should this understanding of reality actually turn out to have some validity its significance could hardly be denied; at present, of course, confirming evidence (not to mention theory) is largely . . . lacking. (And yet the devil's advocate might fairly complain that we may well have no idea yet of what "confirming evidence" might represent in this instance.) To summarize: In Wallace's view the notion of a "miracle" was a contradiction in terms; those events that appear miraculous to us do so not because there are inexplicable first causes operating, but instead because we are ignorant of the actualizing forces of nature involved.

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Question: Did Wallace have a "change of mind" regarding the applicability of natural selection to the evolution of humankind (i.e., especially insofar as its "higher attributes" are concerned)?

Answer: We don't know yet, and may never know. And in any case, the answer probably cannot be cast in simple "yes or no" terms. First, however, one should always keep in mind that the "change of mind" discussion has nothing to do with Wallace's thoughts on the basic evolution by natural selection of humankind as an animal form (i.e., its fundamental biological structure); on this matter he remained a true "Darwinian" throughout. Still, in 1869 Wallace unmistakably announced his belief that natural selection was not up to explaining the coming into being of the higher rational, moral, and esthetic abilities, and it is now generally thought that in doing so he had retreated from the more materialistic "Darwinian" understanding. Contributing to this impression was his at-that-point recent conversion to spiritualism; this--or possibly even the separate issue of his growing social conscience--has been seen as generating a conflict in his mind regarding the rather cold reality of the survival of the fittest, and what it might mean in the context of human evolution. I personally have a lot of trouble buying any of this. It has usually been assumed that the 1858 "Ternate" paper was meant to espouse a view of natural selection that applied in the same way to humans as it did to other organisms. This, despite the fact that Wallace never once mentions human beings in it, and appears throughout to be fashioning an "exception to the rule" kind of argument. Further, if his line of thought has anything to do with extending his earlier ideas on evolution, why doesn't he refer to any of them in it? And why would Wallace himself deny outright that he had undergone any such change of mind, as he did in the routinely ignored Preface to the book Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (S717)? In short, the "change of mind" interpretation seems to be based largely on the worst kind of misuse of negative evidence: more probably Wallace deliberately left humankind out of the story in 1858 because at that point he wasn't quite sure how to fit us into the larger scheme of things. In fact, the natural selection concept itself may well have been Wallace's way of establishing a dividing line in this regard. We do know that after 1869 Wallace pursued a peculiarly teleological approach to evolution, one in which final causes were thought to be operating, but it is less well appreciated that before 1858 Wallace's approach was rather Newtonian, and arguably hardly any less final causes-oriented. Natural selection may have turned him around a good deal more than has been realized; perhaps he was merely remaining true to his earlier train of thought when in 1869 he came to publicly acknowledge his belief in an existing influence of higher (yet still "natural") powers. The preceding interpretation is set out in brief in my "Alfred Russel Wallace on Evolution: A Change of Mind?", in more detail in my Alfred Russel Wallace on Spiritualism, Man and Evolution: An Analytical Essay, and at length in my Alfred Russel Wallace: Evolution of an Evolutionist. See also essays by Benton and Smith in Smith & Beccaloni (2008).

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Question: Did Wallace follow Darwin on the matter of the posed gradualistic pace of operation of natural selection, and evolution in general?

Answer: Wallace has invariably been portrayed--accurately--as a uniformitarian, primarily because of the well-known influence the famous geologist Charles Lyell had on the development of his ideas. Lyell's influence on Darwin was equally notable, and by extension it has usually been assumed that the latter's gradualistic perspective on the operation of natural selection also describes Wallace's position. This turns out to be a significant oversimplification. In several writings (e.g., S171, p. 104 of S322, p. 518 of S440, p. 125 of S724, and p. 198 of S499) some published before and some published after Darwin's death, Wallace reveals his belief that selection regimes most likely produce structural results at a rate better described in terms of alternating stasis and rapid change. For example, on page 125 of Darwinism (S724) he states: "Mr. Darwin was rather inclined to exaggerate the necessary slowness of the action of natural selection . . . but . . . there seems no difficulty in an amount of change, quite equivalent to that which usually distinguishes allied species, sometimes taking place in less than a century, should any rapid change of conditions necessitate an equally rapid adaptation." Similarly, on page 518 of S440 he says: "the struggle for existence is intermittent in character, and only reaches a maximum at considerable intervals, which may be measured by tens of years or by centuries. The average number of the individuals of any species which reach maturity may be able to survive for some years in ordinary seasons or under ordinary attacks of enemies, but when exceptional periods of cold or drought or wet occur, with a corresponding scarcity of certain kinds of food, or greater persecution from certain enemies, then a rigid selection comes into play, and all those individuals which vary too far from the mean standard of efficiency are destroyed." Earlier, in 1880 (while Darwin was still alive), he wrote (p. 104 of S322): "...the extreme slowness of the action of natural selection, on which Mr. Darwin repeatedly dwells, is by no means an essential characteristic of it . . . if, as must often have happened, conditions have changed with comparative rapidity, then the enormous amount of individual variation, which would be taken advantage of every year by the survival of the fittest, might effect changes in a single century quite as great as those which distinguish nearly allied species." For those used to crediting Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould with originating the theory of punctuated equilibria, this should give some pause for thought.

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Question: Was Wallace a through and through Malthusian, or did he merely use Malthus's ideas as a stepping off point for his own?

Answer: The latter. Wallace's debt to Thomas Malthus on the matter of the "positive checks" (pestilence, starvation, etc.) that keep populations from indefinitely extending themselves is often noted: this understanding helped both he and Darwin create a logical foundation for their models of natural selection. But it is rarely pointed out that Wallace also felt Malthusian logic was correct only so far as it went. In an interview printed in 1912 (S750) he states (pp. 662-663): "The theory propounded by Malthus is the greatest of all delusions. As man develops towards a higher type; as he becomes more refined and more civilised, so his fecundity decreases. Low down in the scale of life, birth is only limited by available sustenance. But the higher grows the type, the less is the fecundity. This is true, not only of ascending types in the evolutionary scale, but it is also true of ascending man. The fecundity of the slums is much greater than that of Mayfair. As man progresses in comfort and refinement, he tends to have fewer progeny; as witness the millions of India and China, compared with the almost stationary population of England, and the declining native population of France. Besides, if young people continued at school until the age of twenty-five, early marriages would be discountenanced, for public opinion would not tolerate marriage during the educational period." This initially puzzling criticism is explainable as follows. Wallace is not expressing discontent with the basic Malthusian position, but instead (1) is decrying the way it has been applied in directions (especially eugenics) he disapproves of, and (2) is expressing his belief that Malthus did not identify all the relevant controls on human populations. With regard to the second point, Malthus did in fact identify some of the extenuating circumstances Wallace mentions above, but it must always be remembered that by this point in his life Wallace had believed for going on fifty years that supranatural causal agencies were additionally influencing the way people cope with their situations, especially as regards their ability to morally and ethically distinguish their proper way. Otherwise put, a more "refined" individual is not merely being "checked" in the Malthusian sense, but making considered choices destined to promote a greater general good.

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Question: What were Wallace's "three stages in the development of the living universe"?

Answer: In his later years Wallace came to the conclusion that "there were three stages in the development of the living universe, at each of which there was an influx of something that was not there before" (S738, p. 122). On page 475 of Chapter 15 of Darwinism he itemizes these as: "The first stage is the change from inorganic to organic, when the earliest vegetable cell, or the living protoplasm out of which it arose, first appeared . . . The next stage is still more marvelous . . . It is the introduction of sensation or consciousness, constituting the fundamental distinction between the animal and vegetable kingdoms . . . The third stage is, as we have seen, the existence in man of a number of his most characteristic and noblest faculties, those which raise him furthest above the brutes and open up possibilities of almost indefinite advancement." He also discusses this matter on page 177 of S741 in 1903, and page 23 of S649 in 1908.

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Question: Was Wallace really an anti-vaccinationist, and if so, why?

Answer: Wallace was indeed a full-blown anti-vaccinationist, coming to this position in the very late 1870s or early 1880s on the basis of his examination of reports involving both anecdotal and statistical evidence. It is important to note, however, that he never believed--as has been commonly reported--vaccination to have been wholly hurtful historically. Rather, his argument was that whatever the level of success it may have had in stemming the tide of smallpox in the first half of the nineteenth century (and he wasn't at all sure it had had much), by the latter part of that century unsanitary vaccine production and administration techniques, wholesale vaccination efforts, and a general improvement in societal sanitation and hygiene were making its mandatory application no longer advisable. Thus, on page 160 of S509 (published in 1895) he says: ". . . This clearly means, not that 'Vaccination may have caused more deaths than smallpox' . . . but that at the present time, as the result of general Vaccination for about fifty years, it may now be the cause of more deaths than smallpox" [Wallace's italics]. So, simply put, he felt that at that point vaccination was doing no more good than harm. Wallace's claim was never in fact debunked, though by the time mandatory vaccination was finally done away with in England the matter may well have been moot, as vaccine production and administration techniques had been greatly improved. Wallace deserves a lot more credit than he has received for being one of the true pioneers of statistical epidemiology. For more information, see Wallace's My Life (S729), Clements (1983), Scarpelli (1985), Fichman (2004 & 2008), Fichman & Keelan (2007), and Weber (2010).

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Question: Did Wallace really become "the forgotten man" when Darwin published his On the Origin of Species?

Answer: Hardly! When Wallace returned to England from his travels in the East in 1862, two and one half years after Darwin's book was published, his role in the completion of that work was already known to naturalists; by that point, moreover, he had attained an enviable reputation as a collector and observer. His writings on a variety of subjects (in both the natural and social sciences) soon brought him to the attention of a wider public and professional audience. By the early twentieth century (years after Darwin's death in 1882) he certainly ranked among the world's most famous naturalists. At the time of his death in 1913, in fact, he may well have been the most famous scientist in the world--I have in my possession copies of contemporary interviews, obituaries, and other accounts that refer to him in the following glowing terms: "England's greatest living naturalist" (1886); "perhaps the most eminent English man of science now living" (1898); "foremost naturalist of the age" (1899); "the acknowledged dean of the world's scientists" (1902); "[one of the two] most important and significant figures of the nineteenth century" (1904); "the veteran leader of living scientists" (1908); "the greatest scientist of the age" (1909); "a mid-Victorian giant" (1909); "the greatest living representative of many famous men" (1910); "one of the greatest thinkers" (1909); "this greatest living representative of the Victorians" (1910); "the Grand Old Man of Science" (1911, 1913, 1913); "the last of the great Victorians" (1912); "the last of that great breed of men with whose names the glory of the Victorian era is inseparably bound up" (1913); "one of the greatest naturalists of the nineteenth century" (1913); "We should not know where to look among the world's greatest men for a figure more worthy to be called unique" (1913); "Of all the great men of his time, or times, he was, with the single exception of Huxley, the most human" (1913); "Only a great ruler could have been accorded by the press of the world any such elaborate obituary recognition as was evoked by the death of Alfred Russel Wallace" (1914); "the last of the giants of English nineteenth-century science" (1914)--and so on. After his death, however, he soon fell into what might be termed "relative obscurity," and the road back has been slow.

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Question: Did Wallace really, as some claim, "scoop" Darwin on the theory of natural selection?

Answer: No. While Wallace had been thinking in evolutionary terms for many years--in fact, one might reasonably argue (because of his very early interest in social evolution), for as long as Darwin had--the natural selection concept in particular did not occur to him until 1858, by which time Darwin had been studying the idea for some twenty years. Wallace's 1855 paper 'On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species' (S20), which hinted strongly at an evolutionary position, nevertheless contains not even a trace of natural selection-like thinking. Moreover . . . True, Darwin had published nothing concerning natural selection by the time he received Wallace's essay 'On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type' (S43) in mid-1858--and true, Darwin's contribution to the 1 July 1858 introduction of natural selection to the Linnean Society consisted only of two unpublished writings--but it must be remembered that Wallace's essay itself was also an "unpublished writing," and that he had not asked Darwin to submit it for publication. Thus, the overall presentation consisted of three unpublished, unintended-for-publication writings, and it cannot be claimed even technically that "Wallace got into print with a finished work" on natural selection before Darwin did. In fact, Wallace's first natural selection-related analysis (that he did intend for publication, that is!) did not appear until late 1863, a whole four years after On the Origin of Species was published.

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Question: Did Darwin really steal material from Wallace to complete his theory of natural selection?

Answer: Maybe, though the evidence is something short of compelling. It has been suggested by Brackman (1980) and Brooks (1984) that Darwin might have received Wallace's communication in May or early June of 1858 rather than in the middle of June of that same year, and that Darwin may have spent the extra month using Wallace's model of species divergence to complete his own ideas on the subject before soliciting the opinions of his friends Hooker and Lyell on how to deal with the priority issue. Possibly so, but despite the best efforts of Brooks (1984) in particular, most observers remain unconvinced. A book by Davies (2008) presents new evidence supporting the suspicion that Darwin really did receive Wallace's communication in 1858 earlier than has been thought (Davies also presents some other arguments), but more recent work by John van Wyhe and Kees Rookmaaker (2012) seems to demonstrate that Wallace's communication in fact did arrive at the later date. Nevertheless, the situation is still somewhat up in the air, as it is difficult to assess just how much Darwin's thoughts might have been influenced over the seventeenth month period between his reception of Wallace's materials and his own writing up and release of On the Origin of Species in November 1859. See additional analysis by Beddall (1988), Berry (2002), Davies (2012, 2013), Smith (2013), and van Wyhe (2013).

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Question: Some sources have referred to Darwin as being Wallace's "mentor." Does this word accurately reflect the nature of their relationship?

Answer: I think not. It would probably be more accurate to describe Darwin as being Wallace's "colleague" and "inspiration." Although Wallace had for many years been aware of (and admired) Darwin's book on the latter's around-the-world H.M.S. Beagle travels, the two had met only once (and quite briefly at that) before Wallace's return to England in 1862 from the Malay Archipelago. They had, however, struck up a professional correspondence in the two years preceding Wallace's discovery of natural selection in 1858, and Wallace knew that Darwin was generally interested in "the species question." After 1862, when they had gotten to know one another personally, the relationship in both directions was of friend and colleague (regardless of Darwin's greater age). Certainly, there can be no doubt that Wallace had the highest regard for Darwin's creative and intellectual faculties, but this did not stop Wallace from disagreeing with him whenever he saw fit. Neither did such disagreements stop Wallace from publicly defending Darwin's theories and ideas on many occasions nor, indeed, did they stop Darwin from turning to Wallace for advice or assistance on many occasions. Wallace continued to defend Darwin's ideas long after the latter's death; but he also continued to disagree with him on a number of points.

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Question: Can Wallace's embrace of spiritualism be attributed to a disillusionment with Owenist (i.e., the utopian socialist Robert Owen) ideals, as has sometimes been suggested?

Answer: This seems most unlikely to me--at least as expressed so simplistically. To begin with, it must be remembered that Wallace did not even become a full convert to socialism until 1889--some twenty years after his adoption of spiritualism--with his reading of Edward Bellamy's utopian novel Looking Backward. One can actually make a much better case regarding the reverse association: that Wallace may have given up on trying to interest his colleagues in investigating spiritualism, and that this helped lead him toward socialism. The argument here is reasonably straightforward, and is easily documented: using subject data pulled from my OUP study on Wallace's writings (Smith 1991), one finds that Wallace published only three socialism-related works before 1890 but 26 afterwards, whereas the parallel figures for his works on spiritualism total 45 and 51, respectively. My reading of the situation is that Wallace came to realize by the late-1870s, perhaps, that his efforts to promote spiritualism were somewhat premature (actually, a case of trying to "put the cart before the horse"): that is, that it made more sense to work first for societal level changes that would reduce the levels of stress on the ordinary person, thereby freeing hi/r to spend more time exploring self-improvement vehicles such as spiritualism. The essence of this strategy is conveyed in his address 'Spiritualism and Social Duty' (S545), delivered in 1898, and the essay 'True Individualism' (S587), published in 1900 in his Studies Scientific and Social (S727). The first work, in particular, makes it clear that as of that date he was paying more attention to the promotion of socialism than he was to spiritualism, hardly what one would expect from a "disillusioned Owenist." And Wallace was still writing in glowing terms of Owen's work well into his eighties: there is nearly a whole chapter on his self-described "debt" to Owen in his autobiography My Life (S729), published in 1905. But there remains a complication. Although Wallace had admired Owen's utopian brand of socialism from an early age, there is good evidence (see, for example, S431 & S729, Vol. 2, p. 266) that for many years he regarded it as both impracticable and perhaps to some degree contrary to his (Wallace's) personal views on the protection of individual rights and freedoms. I rather doubt, however, that these weaknesses as he perceived them at that time in any sense "drove" him to spiritualism (see my essay 'Alfred Russel Wallace on Spiritualism, Man, and Evolution' and monograph Alfred Russel Wallace: Evolution of an Evolutionist); instead, they merely caused him to ignore socialism for the time being--that is, until 1889 and his reading of the Bellamy work. See also my second essay in Smith & Beccaloni (2008).

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Question: Did Wallace come to reject natural selection when he became a spiritualist?

Answer: No, he did not. Actually, just about everyone agrees that he didn't reject it entirely when he became a spiritualist; the real question is whether he changed his mind about its application to the evolution of man. First, one should note that this supposed change of mind, even if it did take place (I have my doubts), should not be construed to have had anything to do with how he envisioned the basic physical aspects of the evolution of humankind. In this respect he remained a true (materialist) Darwinian to the end, never budging from the idea that humans had descended from some ape-like ancestor in the remote past. There is still question, however, as to whether between 1858 and 1869 (the dates, respectively, of his Ternate essay on natural selection, and public embrace of spiritualism) he may have changed his mind as to whether natural selection could be invoked to account for the evolution of humankind's higher moral and intellectual faculties. Considerable analysis has been published on this particular matter (see, for example, Smith 1972, Kottler 1974, Turner 1974, Schwartz 1984, and Malinchak 1987) and the arguments have gotten quite involved; I personally feel that Wallace, who in his 1858 Ternate essay draft left humankind out of the discussion, did so deliberately, and in fact had no such "change of mind." The reasons for reaching this conclusion are given in my essays 'Alfred Russel Wallace on Spiritualism, Man and Evolution' and 'Alfred Russel Wallace: A Change of Mind?' and monograph Alfred Russel Wallace: Evolution of an Evolutionist.

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Question: One sometimes sees Wallace referred to as "Sir Alfred Russel Wallace." Was Wallace ever in fact knighted?

Answer: No, he was not. Actually, the frequency with which the "Sir" appellation turns up is a good indicator of the general lack of appreciation of what he stood for. Wallace, ever the defender of the rights of the common man, would never have permitted himself to be knighted; he was so adamant on this particular subject, in fact, that when at one point a rumor began to circulate that he was about to be so honored, he quickly published a letter in the magazine Public Opinion (S658) that left no doubts as to where he stood on the matter. Still, some seem to be unable to disassociate his name with the establishment--I have even seen him referred to as "Lord" Alfred Russel Wallace on several occasions, an association that surely would have him turning over in his grave!

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Question: Did Wallace really believe that Earth was located at the center of the Universe, and that our planet was the only one that hosted living things?

Answer: Yes, and no--that is, yes, he believed Earth is located at or near the center of the Universe (though his exact opinions on this matter changed as time went on), but no, he did not argue that we were necessarily the only place in the cosmos where life existed. In Wallace's time the Universe was not definitely known to extend beyond our own galaxy. Wallace used a variety of contemporary sources of astronomical data to come to the conclusion that our Sun is located at the center of the Milky Way--an incorrect conclusion, of course--and that it was highly unlikely that any other planet existed which harbored advanced life forms. He has frequently been misunderstood on this latter point; most sources refer to him as not believing in the likelihood of any kind of life existing anywhere else. However, he himself once stated: "I need hardly say, I suppose, that I have never suggested that this earth alone in the whole universe is the abode of life. What I do say is . . . that all the available evidence supports the idea of the extreme unlikelihood of there being on any star or planet revealed by the telescope--I won't say life, but any intelligent being, either identical with or analogous to man" (S741, p. 177). See Lane (2011), and the review of Wallace's anthropocentrism in Dick (2008).

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Question: Was Wallace a Social Darwinist?

Answer: This item falls into the general class of "Are you still beating your wife?" questions. While it is certainly true that Wallace was in general a Darwinist (to the extent that he believed in the basic validity of the natural selection concept, and in many of the ways it was applied by self-admitted "Darwinists"), he did not support naively analogical applications of the notion of the "survival of the fittest" to social settings; thus, and in particular, most of the strategies devised by leaders of the eugenics movement disgusted him (see S427, S549, S733, S737 & S750). Moreover, he hated "might makes right" arguments (see S549, S579 & S580). Still, it is fair to think of him as being an important (if not the most important) force in the development of a socially-responsible kind of Darwinian thinking. His own social applications of the natural selection concept were to such subjects as female-based mate choice (see S427, S649, S733 & S736) and education (see S445 & S736), and featured thinking that was often antithetical to that of the main school of Social Darwinists, led by Spencer and Galton. Wallace's ideas in the "social cooperation" direction paralleled, and possibly influenced, the development of the mutual aid concept promoted by the Russian geographer and anarchist Petr Kropotkin. See related analysis by Young (1969), Bannister (1970, 1979), Durant (1979), Jones (1980), Stepan (1982), Oates (1988), Rayher (1996), Claeys (2000), Stack (2000, 2003 & 2008), Levine (2002), and Paul (2003, 2008).

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Question: What is Wallace's Line?

Answer: Also known as "The Wallace Line," this is an imaginary geographical feature trending the more or the less along the edge of the Sunda Shelf in Indonesia (in other words, tracing the dividing line between the shallow shelf waters to the west and deep ocean to the east). It extends from between the islands of Bali and Lombok (in the Lesser Sundas) on to between Borneo and Sulawesi, and from there continues northward to separate the Philippine island of Mindanao from the small islands of Sangir and Talaud that lie south of it. The significance of the line is that it identifies a substantial (though not entirely abrupt) faunal discontinuity: many major groups found to the west of the line do not extend east of it, and vice versa. It thus represents a kind of geologically/physiographically-influenced "front" of intermixture between two of the world's main faunal realms, the Oriental and the Australian. See S53, S78, and S715 for Wallace's fullest treatments of the subject, and secondary analysis by Raven (1935), Mayr (1944), Simpson (1977), George (1981), Whitmore (1981), Camerini (1993), Benton (1997), Van Oosterzee (1997), Diamond (1997), Armstrong (1998), Clode & O'Brien (2001), Erdelen (2001), Brown & Guttman (2002), Sweet & Pianka (2003), Dunn (2004), Beck et al. (2006), Michaux (2008 & 2010), Esselstyn et al. (2010), Lohman et al. (2011), and Van Welzen et al. (2011). For a map, click here.

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Question: What was the actual sequence of events leading up to the 1 July 1858 Linnean Society reading of Wallace's and Darwin's writings on natural selection?

Answer: There are still some unanswered questions here, but we think we know at least the following. In February of 1858, while on the island of Ternate (or quite more likely on the nearby island of Gilolo, as McKinney 1972 first claimed) suffering from a malarial episode, Wallace conceived of the notion of natural selection. Within days, as soon as he was well enough to make an extended effort, he completed setting the idea down in essay form (S43). Shortly thereafter he sent this, apparently with a cover letter, to Darwin (both the letter and the original draft of the essay have been lost). Darwin, he knew, was interested in the "species question," and Wallace hoped he would bring the work to the attention of his friend Sir Charles Lyell, the famous geologist. Wallace did not ask for any assistance in getting the paper published but, given the meagre evidence available, it seems unlikely that he specifically asked that it not be published (actually a much more important matter, at least in terms of the progression of Wallace's thought to that point). Darwin possibly received the essay on 17 June 1858 (there is still some real question about this: see Brackman 1980, Brooks 1984, and Davies 2008), and immediately wrote a letter to Lyell expressing distress at the state of affairs (especially, as this represented a serious threat to his priority on the subject). Lyell then seems to have contacted Joseph Hooker, the botanist (and another of Darwin's close friends), and the two came up with a workable solution: they would arrange to have Wallace's essay and some representative writings of Darwin's read as a joint contribution at the next meeting of the Linnean Society. Darwin chose two fragments from writings he had composed some time before; neither of these had been intended for publication. The next meeting of the Society happened to be a specially scheduled one; it was held on 1 July 1858. Darwin did not attend the meeting (and, of course, neither did Wallace). Wallace first found out about what has been referred to as the "delicate arrangement" from letters Darwin and Hooker sent to him after the fact. See analysis by McKinney (1966), Moody (1971), Brackman (1980), Brooks (1984), Beddall (1988), Gardiner (1995), Stevens (1995), England (1997), Dawkins (2002), Davies (2008 & 2012), González Recio (2010), and Van Wyhe & Rookmaaker (2012).

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Question: Did Wallace resent the treatment he received vis-a-vis the "delicate arrangement" of 1858?

Answer: Wallace never publicly expressed any annoyance over the situation, nor, as far as we know, did he ever say anything derogatory in private. Indeed, on a number of occasions (for example, S599, S656, S726, S729 & S743) he indicated that he felt Darwin's much longer attention to the problem more than spoke for his priority on the matter. Still, there remain good reasons for certain doubts on this score. To begin with, Wallace was a gentleman, and would have considered public complaining unseemly behavior (some may consider this a dubious remark, but it has often been noted how there is scarcely, if any, a word in all of Wallace's voluminous public and private writings that anyone might regard as shameful or personally embarrassing). Moreover, he certainly would have realized by, say, 1860, that he was destined to become one of history's noteworthies, and that even his private writings might someday be scrutinized for such commentary. And, in the more immediate sense, he seemingly had every reason to be thankful for what had happened: the chain of events leading to the reading of his paper had made him famous, ushering his entry into the highest echelons of scientific society. As a result, he surely would have been viewed as ungrateful had he suddenly presented a challenge. Besides, Darwin really had in fact been studying the idea for going on twenty years, lack of publication notwithstanding. Also, were Wallace to have spoken up on the matter the act would have detracted from the development of the theory itself, something he clearly would not have wanted. Each of these considerations individually may well have struck him as a good enough reason to keep silent on the matter, but, taken in combination, what outcome should anyone have expected? Note, however, that Wallace may have left behind at least one indication that he was not entirely satisfied with the way things turned out. On no fewer than five different future occasions he drew special attention--in published works, yet (S43, in the 1870 German reprint; S516; S599; S725, p. 27; and S729, Vol. 1, p. 363 )--to the fact that he had not had any final say on the fate of his 1858 Ternate essay. Considering its great success, this is a bit strange. I draw from this persistence on his part an inference: that there was something about the essay itself, or its handling, or both, that he regretted. I vote for the essay itself: given his lack of request that it might be published, perhaps it was really more tentative in some regards than he later let on to. For further discussion see my monograph Alfred Russel Wallace: Evolution of an Evolutionist.

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Question: Were Wallace and Darwin really on friendly professional and personal terms?

Answer: Yes, though it is quite likely that Wallace--how shall we say it--"worried Darwin a little." All of their correspondence and such other evidence as exists suggests that they truly were on friendly (though certainly not "bosom buddy") personal terms. There can also be no doubt that the two men recognized and respected each other as major creative and intellectual forces. But they did often disagree on how to apply their ideas to specific problems, and such disagreements seemed to trouble Darwin more than they did Wallace. I surmise (especially from his correspondence) that Darwin came to regard Wallace as being something of a "loose cannon" at times, and the latter's attachment to spiritualism and various radical social causes undoubtedly did little to soften the former's opinion. Yet Darwin continued to seek Wallace's assistance and advice and to compliment him on his various writings until Darwin's death in 1882, and to an extent that surely extended beyond mere politeness.

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Question: Were Wallace's attempts at social criticism really faddist and inconsequential, as some have implied?

Answer: No, and no. Slowly but surely we are coming to appreciate the significant extent to which many of Wallace's efforts both presaged and contributed to the general "Liberal Agenda" of the twentieth century. One should not view his endeavors in this direction as a hobby or of secondary importance to him; after about 1878, in fact, his writings on social science subjects were about as numerous as those he published on natural science subjects. And he clearly took his social theorizing very seriously, in more than one instance coming right out in print that he felt the fight for personal freedoms took precedence over the study of science (see, for example, S157, S158 & S420). As to whether the causes he chose were faddist, one can only point out that a good number of them: (1) concerned issues that remain hotly debated (for example, the excesses of eugenics, the negative results of militarism and imperialism, the earnings gap between the rich and the poor, and the legislation of guaranteed social welfare and education programs); (2) were later resolved through popular opinion shifts and legislative acts (mandatory vaccination, the practice of large land-holding, and the structure of the House of Lords); or (3) foretold future thinking (the Russian "synthetic school" of epidemiology, the advantages of a paper money standard, the nationalization of transportation systems, employee buy-outs of companies, suburbanization and the creation of greenbelts and parks, paying special higher rates for overtime work, etc.). Among those individuals who at one time or another expressed an interest in or praise for Wallace's efforts in the social arena are some important historical figures: John Stuart Mill, Lester Ward, Sun Yat-sen, Clarence Darrow, Irving Fisher, G. K. Chesterton, Petr Kropotkin, Henry George, Leland Stanford, Ebenezer Howard, Charles Peirce, and John Wesley Powell, to name a few. The possible connections between Wallace and the work of Sun, Kropotkin, Howard, and Peirce in particular appear especially intriguing, and would seem to merit more attention than they have heretofore been given. See analysis by Fisher (1920), Durant (1979), Jones (1980), Kubota (1980), Clements (1983), Silagi (1989), Degler (1991), Andelson (1993), Kogan (1994), Gaffney (1997), Blinderman (1998), Gould (1998), Coleman (1999), Stack (2000, 2003), Fichman (2004), Paul (2003), Smith (2003), Smith & Beccaloni (2008), Hale (2010), Lowrey (2010), and Green (2012).

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Question: Was Wallace a "follower" of Henry George, the American economist and land reformer?

Answer: Yes and no. To the extent that both Wallace and George concerned themselves with injustices stemming from the characteristics of land ownership, and believed that the system of landlordism in effect was an important contributor to these injustices, they followed parallel paths. It is clear, however, that once Wallace became aware of George's writings (especially the latter's 1879 book Progress and Poverty), he borrowed heavily from them. Still, most of what he borrowed actually consisted of George's examples rather than the latter's posed solution to the problem, which was quite different from Wallace's: George supported the famous "single tax" approach, whereas Wallace and his Land Nationalisation Society promoted a plan of State-owned and -leased lands. Wallace's own influence on George was substantial, but more in the area of promotion: he was one of George's first outspoken supporters, gaining him much attention, and the ranks of Wallace's Land Nationalisation Society itself supplied many individuals who would later immerse themselves in Georgist activities. See S722, and analysis by Plowright (1987), Silagi (1989), Andelson (1993), Jones (1994), Gaffney (1997), and Stack (2008).

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Question: Why do many of today's biogeographers reject some of Wallace's most famous ideas on biogeography?

Answer: In part because of important new discoveries in the earth sciences, and in part because of new approaches to systematics and the goals of biogeographic explanation. In Wallace's time the characteristics of organic distribution were thought to be linked largely to vertical movements in the earth's crust; that is, to whether elevation or lowering of the land or sea had resulted in connections being made where once they did not exist (or vice versa), and how this might affect the dispersal and evolution of species. The notion that horizontal movements (plate tectonics-based ocean-floor spreading and continental drift) of the crust might also take place was quite beyond the level of discussion; thus, Wallace's understanding that the ocean basins and continental masses were more or less permanent features, while satisfactorily addressing the issues of his day, has since been superseded by a more complete model of surface evolution. Further, the nineteenth century notion that dispersal into new areas followed by differentiation in place constitutes the primary evolutionary process has come into dispute, and along with it, the explanatory value of the classic faunal regions-based approach. A more scientific appraisal of the history and geography of species divergence has been achieved through what is known as vicariance biogeography, which, ironically, focuses on some of the same questions as are treated in Wallace's first essay on biogeography of 1855 (S20). Michaux (1991) has even gone so far as to state: "Indeed, rather than being regarded as the founder of 'dispersalist biogeography,' a case could be made that he was a forerunner of modern biogeographic theories that use the idea of geological change as an explanatory principle." For some of Wallace's writings on biogeography see S20, S53, S78, S269, S286, S453, S457, S718 and S721; for secondary analysis see George (1964), Fichman (1977), Nelson (1978), Browne (1983), Cain (1984), Brooks (1984 & 1985), Smith (1989, 2004, 2005), Michaux (1991, 2008, 2010), Quammen (1996), Kuklick (1996), Van Oosterzee (1997), Taylor (2000), Bueno H. & Llorente B. (2000, 2000, 2003, 2005), Metcalfe et al. (2001), Lieberman (2005), Tuen & Das (2005), McCarthy (2009), Flannery (2010), Lloyd et al. (2010), Riddle & Hafner (2010), Donoghue (2011) and Holt et al. (2013).

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Question: Was Wallace a Creationist, as some have implied?

Answer: Wallace spent most of his early days as an agnostic, but it appears that his broadening slant on things natural and social instilled in him a sense that there was, after all, something resembling a hierarchy of causal forces in the universe--a hierarchy extending beyond the physical, moreover, and into the realm of spirits and altogether unimaginable higher beings. But he would have nothing of a God who directly and individually manipulated the affairs of individual beings, and had equally little enthusiasm for organized religious belief. Wallace's was a universe operating under final, not first, causes: such influence as any conceivable "higher beings" might have on lower beings was transmitted through the operation of natural laws, just as any other kind of natural process might take place. Wallace's spiritualism was thus a manifestation of his naturalism, and not of any religious belief. He often spoke metaphorically of God, but in so doing he was doing literally just that: speaking metaphorically. For further discussion see my monograph Alfred Russel Wallace: Evolution of an Evolutionist. Also note Wallace's comments here.

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Question: What were the main subjects on which Wallace and Darwin disagreed?

Answer: While Wallace and Darwin agreed on most of the basic premises of the subjects they studied, Wallace was never afraid to disagree with his older colleague when he saw fit to do so. There are several main issues on which they differed (for discussion see the writings cited): (1) the extent to which natural selection could explain the development of humankind's higher moral and intellectual faculties (S146, S165, S724; Smith 1972, Kottler 1974, Koch-Weser 1977, Schwartz 1984, Malinchak 1987, Shermer 1991, Smith 1992 & 2004, Vincenzo Bizzo 1992, Benton 2009, Gross 2010); (2) the extent to which sexual selection (especially female choice) could explain sexual dimorphism and related matters (S139, S186, S272, S724; Kottler 1980 & 1985, Aiken 1982, Borgia 1986, Cronin 1991, Caro 2005, Gayon 2010, Prum 2012); (3) the explanation for the existence of arctic plants in the Southern Hemisphere, and on mountaintops in the tropics (S721 & S724; Donoghue 2011); (4) the validity of Darwin's theory of pangenesis (S532, S729; Marchant 1916); (5) the legitimacy of the concept of the inheritance of acquired characters (S311, S394, S415, S468, S473, S510, S660; Marchant 1916); (6) the means of dispersal of plants and animals to remote islands (Marchant 1916); and (7) selection for reproductive isolation (S724; Marchant 1916, Grant 1966, Lesch 1975, Sawyer & Hartl 1981, Barton 2000, Ollerton 2005, Johnson 2008). Wallace discusses these issues in some detail in Volume 2 of My Life (S729), on pages 16-22.

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Question: Just how similar were Wallace's and Darwin's ideas on evolution, as distinct from natural selection?

Answer: Probably not nearly as similar as many observers seem to think. Darwin looked at evolution in purely material terms, effectively restricting the concept to the irreversible changes that have occurred in life over significant periods of time. Natural selection, he felt, was the main process driving this change, but admitted that other forces (for example, the inheritance of acquired characters) might well be influencing its direction in addition. Wallace, by contrast, regarded natural selection not as a process, but as a law akin to Newtonian gravitation: tellingly, in The Wonderful Century (S726) he says: ". . . the establishment of the general theory of evolution, by means of the special theory of the development of the organic world through the struggle for existence and its necessary outcome, Natural Selection." Thus, we have the notion that the removal of the unfit was the necessary result of the struggle for existence. Unlike Darwin, Wallace believed that the biological aspect of evolution, at least, was entirely "ruled" (his word) by the operation of natural selection, an understanding that has brought him criticism as a "hyperselectionist" or "panselectionist" (hyperselectionism as portrayed by Gould 1980 concerns the idea that "every part of every creature is fashioned for and only for its immediate use"; the closely related "panselectionism" has been defined by John S. Wilkins as "the view that all characters of an organism have an adaptive reason for evolving"). Actually, however, this may be hollow criticism. To begin with, it is almost always ignored that although Wallace did believe that all population variation was acted upon by natural selection to produce adaptations, he also regularly admitted that we knew next to nothing about the causes of that variation, and that their enaction might well be influencing what was there to be selected! Again, he appears to have conceived natural selection (and the suite of adaptations thus produced) as the ongoing result of the struggle for existence, and not the overall process of evolution itself. From this we might conclude something rather interesting: that Wallace viewed the process of adaptation in what we might now label negative feedback terms; i.e., that the continuous production of new adaptations served to conserve entropy between the organism and its shifting surroundings, while the positive feedback part of the process--the entering into new ecological associations through movement, range change, behavioral and conscious-decision making, etc.--served ultimately to "accumulate" (one of his favorite words) negentropy. If this is essentially true, Wallace's panselectionism makes more sense, because it implies a necessary connection not between adaptive process and specific adaptive result, but instead between environmental forcing functions and some kind of adaptive result (a distinctly biogeographic way of conceiving the process, one should note). It might be added that this appreciation is certainly more in keeping both with his predisposition toward final causes and progressive change, and with his early observations on the apparent lack of connection between phylogenetic relation and adaptation to ecological station. For further discussion see Smith (1989, 2004, 2005), my monograph Alfred Russel Wallace: Evolution of an Evolutionist, and Smith & Beccaloni (2008).

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Question: How does one reconcile Wallace's apparent respect for native peoples with his sometimes stated position that the European powers were "superior" to them?

Answer: Easily, actually, though his position has frequently been manipulated by later workers to suit the needs of various preconceived arguments. There can be no doubt that Wallace not only respected societally more primitive (that is, as compared with the technologically more sophisticated Western Europeans) peoples, but believed them to be, on the average, quite on a par morally and ethically with Westerners. Nevertheless, he recognized that Westerners were certainly "superior," if only to the extent that they were capable of militarily and culturally overwhelming "less advanced" societies (and indeed often did). Thus, he was not relaying a "might makes right" kind of thinking, but instead a simple factual assessment of the power structure involved. Consider Wallace's reply to a question posed about his famous 1864 essay 'The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man . . .' (S93, p. clxxxiii): "Now, it appears to me that the mere fact of one race supplanting another proves their superiority. It is not a question of intellect only, nor of bodily strength only. We cannot tell what causes may produce it . . . But still there is the plain fact that two races come into contact, and that one drives out the other. This is a proof that the one race is better fitted to live upon the world than the other." Gould (1980, pp. 36-37) states that Wallace "was an ardent cultural chauvinist who never doubted the evident superiority of European ways" and that with respect to savages, "he certainly had a low opinion of their life." Wallace's own writings do not support these claims. In My Life (S729, Vol. 1, p. 288) Wallace describes as one of the highlights of his life his first meeting with a truly unspoiled Amazon Indian: ". . . they walked with the free step of the independent forest-dweller . . . in every detail they were original and self-sustaining as are the wild animals of the forests, absolutely independent of civilization . . . the true denizen of the Amazonian forests, like the forest itself, is unique and not to be forgotten." There is also the famous remark made in a letter sent home in 1855 (S22): "The more I see of uncivilized people, the better I think of human nature on the whole, and the essential differences between so-called civilized and savage man seem to disappear." I don't see how his anecdotal reporting that many savages were unpracticed in higher mathematics, had a simple language, etc., etc. can reasonably be construed as indicating his "low opinion of their life," when in dozens of other places throughout his writings he praises their ingenuity and moral fibre. Further, if Wallace was indeed such a "cultural chauvinist," why did he invest so much time in local radical causes, combating an English social system he characterized as being "rotten at the core" in his essay 'Human Selection' (S427)? Wallace may well have underestimated the actual complexity of uncivilized cultures in many instances, but I find it difficult to concede that he ever underestimated their basic humanity. See Tsao (2010) for an excellent analysis of this matter.

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Question: Was Wallace actually a Welshman, as seems to be increasingly claimed?

Answer: Several people have criticized me for not giving Wales its just due with regard to Wallace's national affinities. I think the Welsh claim on him is rather tenuous, but here are the facts (at least those given in Wallace's autobiography My Life, S729), so you decide. Wallace's mother was of long-term English descent; his father probably was too (Wallace accepts that his father's line was of Scottish origin, though this certainly had not been of recent derivation, and as likely as not constituted a rather distant affinity). They had moved from St. George's, Southwark, to the small town of Usk about 1820, probably for financial reasons (possibly either because it cost less to live there, or to avoid creditors, or both). At that time Usk was part of the area known as Monmouthshire, at least in some respects an administrative division of England. However, this region, going back to ancient times, had originally been known as Gwent, culturally and politically part of Wales. Many years later (after Wallace's birth, that is), in 1974, the region was fully "returned" to Wales, again with the name Gwent (more recently, the name Monmouthshire has been reinstated). Wallace himself was born in Usk in 1823, but it is clear from My Life that he and his family felt like, and were made to feel like, outsiders there. In 1828 or possibly early 1829, when he was just five or six, the family moved again, this time back over to England, to the town of Hertford (a relative had died there in 1828, freeing up an inexpensive place to lodge). Father, mother and children never returned to Wales to live as a family during the children's adolescent years. Wallace did however work in Wales for two three-year periods (1840-1843 and 1845-1848) during the time he was employed as a journeyman surveyor (first, for his older brother, and later, to wrap up and continue that brother's business after he died). An essay he wrote on Welsh farmers (S623) during that period is at points nearly cruelly harsh on them. In later life Wallace visited Wales only on a few short occasions (vacations and lectures); he also concerned himself with the social and economic problems of the Welsh a good deal less than he did with those of the English, Irish, and Scots. My personal view of all this is that given the Wallace family's heritage and relatively short period of residence in Wales--not to mention the Monmouthshire technicality--Wallace can hardly be considered a Welshman (though it is clear enough that Wales figured importantly in several respects in his early life, a fact that should not be underestimated). Apparently Wallace himself agreed: although on many occasions he drew attention to his ancestral connections with the Scots, to my knowledge he never once referred to himself as a Welshman,* and indeed always named his place of birth as "Monmouthshire," not "Gwent." Further, his contemporaries just about always referred to him as an Englishman. It is on record, moreover, that in late life he declined the offer of an honorary doctorate from the University of Wales--after years earlier accepting ones from Dublin and Oxford--not exactly what one would expect for a person feeling elemental ties to the region. To summarize: I would be happy to consider Wallace in some sense "Welsh" were any of the following true: (1) one or both of his parents had any substantial and reasonably recent Welsh heritage (2) Wallace had grown to adulthood there (i.e., without moving back to England for over ten years first, starting at the age of five or before) (3) his parents had remained in Wales permanently instead of moving back to England (4) Wallace had voluntarily moved back to Wales during his teen years or adulthood (i.e., as opposed to being first dragged along by his brother, or later cleaning up his brother's affairs after he died) and then remained there (5) Wallace had settled in Wales permanently after his return from the Malay Archipelago in 1862 (6) Wallace had referred to himself as a Welshman (7) and perhaps, even, had Gwent always been unambiguously Welsh and continuously referred to by that name. However, none of these are true. Perhaps he can most conservatively be referred to as "an Englishman born in Wales."

*As people continue to hound me on this point, I let Wallace speak for himself on this matter; the following are short quotations drawn from Wallace's own published writings (for the full contexts, use Google Books to search for the first three quotations, and my own site search engine here for the last three):  "...had never been visited by an English collector..." (speaking of himself, in Vol. 1, p. 357, of My Life); "...I was the only Englishman who had lived some..." (Vol. 2, p. 34, of My Life); " ...he's an Englishman, lecturing on biology and Darwin..." (speaking of someone talking about him, in Vol. 2, p. 122, of My Life); "...What most impresses the nature-loving Englishman while travelling in America..." (speaking of himself, on p. 532 of 'English and American Flowers'); " "...I believe I am the only Englishman who has ever shot and skinned..." (from a letter from the field published in 1857); and "...I claim for every Englishman a share in this great property, devoted by our ancestors to..." (from an interview published in 1886--note the "our," with my italics). No such usages can be associated with the words Welshman, Welsh, or Welshmen in any of Wallace's writings, to all of which I now have searchable electronic access.


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