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

The Advantages of Varied Knowledge
(S1: 1843/1905)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: The following represents fragments from a lecture Wallace prepared for public delivery about 1843; it was not published at the time, but many years later, in 1905, was included in his autobiography My Life. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S001.htm

    [[p. 201]] . . . There is an intrinsic value to ourselves in these varied branches of knowledge [[i.e., history, biography, art, and science --Ed.]], so much indescribable pleasure in their possession, so much do they add to the enjoyment of every moment of our existence, that it is impossible to estimate their value, and we would hardly accept boundless wealth, at the cost, if it were possible, of their irrecoverable loss. And if it is thus we feel as to our general store of mental acquirements, still more do we appreciate the value of any particular branch of study we may ardently pursue. What pleasure would remain for the enthusiastic artist were he forbidden to gaze upon the face of nature, and transfer her loveliest scenes to his canvas? or for the poet were the means denied him to rescue from oblivion the passing visions of his imagination? or to the chemist were he snatched from his laboratory ere some novel experiment were concluded, or some ardently pursued theory confirmed? or to any of us were we compelled to forego some intellectual pursuit that was bound up with our every thought? And here we see the advantage possessed by him whose studies have been in various directions, and who at different times has had many different pursuits, for whatever may happen, he will always [[p. 202]] find something in his surroundings to interest and instruct him . . .

    Many who marvel at the rolling thunder care not to inquire what causes the sound which is heard when a tightly-fitting cork is quickly drawn from a bottle, or when a whip is cracked, or a pistol fired; and while they are struck with awe and admiration at the dazzling lightning, look upon the sparks drawn from a cat's back on a frosty evening and the slight crackle that accompanies them as being only fit to amuse a child; yet in each case the cause of the trifling and of the grand phenomena is the same. He who has extended his inquiries into the varied phenomena of nature learns to despise no fact, however small, and to consider the most apparently insignificant and common occurrences as much in need of explanation as those of a grander and more imposing character. He sees in every dewdrop trembling on the grass causes at work analogous to those which have produced the spherical figure of the earth and planets; and in the beautiful forms of crystallization on his window-panes on a frosty morning he recognizes the action of laws which may also have a part in the production of the similar forms of plants and of many of the lower animal types. Thus the simplest facts of everyday life have to him an inner meaning, and he sees that they depend upon the same general laws as those that are at work in the grandest phenomena of nature . . .

    It would be a curious and interesting thing to have a series of portraits taken of a person each successive year. These would show the gradual changes from childhood to old age in a very striking manner; and if a number of such series from different individuals were obtained, and a brief [[p. 203]] outline given of their lives during each preceding year, we should have materials not merely for the curious to gaze at, but which might elucidate the problem of how far the mind reacts upon the countenance. We should see the effects of pain or pleasure, of idleness or activity, of dissipation or study, and thus watch the action of the various passions of the mind in modifying the form of the body, and particularly the expression of the features . . .

    Can we believe that we are fulfilling the purpose of our existence while so many of the wonders and beauties of the creation remain unnoticed around us? While so much of the mystery which man has been able to penetrate, however imperfectly, is still all dark to us? While so many of the laws which govern the universe and which influence our lives are, by us, unknown and uncared for? And this not because we want the power, but the will, to acquaint ourselves with them. Can we think it right that, with the key to so much that we ought to know, and that we should be the better for knowing, in our possession, we seek not to open the door, but allow this great store of mental wealth to lie unused, producing no return to us, while our highest powers and capacities rust for want of use?

    It is true that man is still, as he always has been, subject to error; his judgments are often incorrect, his beliefs false, his opinions changeable from age to age. But experience of [[p. 204]] error is his best guide to truth, often dearly bought, and, therefore, the more to be relied upon. And what is it but the accumulated experience of past ages that serves us as a beacon light to warn us from error, to guide us in the way of truth. How little should we know had the knowledge acquired by each preceding age died with it! How blindly should we grope our way in the same obscurity as did our ancestors, pursue the same phantoms, make the same fatal blunders, encounter the same perils, in order to purchase the same truths which had been already acquired by the same process, and lost again and again in bygone ages! But the wonder-working press prevents this loss; truths once acquired are treasured up by it for posterity, and each succeeding generation adds something to the stock of acquired knowledge, so that our acquaintance with the works of nature is ever increasing, the range of our inquiries is extended each age, the power of mind over matter becomes, year by year, more complete. Yet our horizon ever widens, the limits to our advance seem more distant than ever, and there seems nothing too noble, too exalted, too marvellous, for the ever-increasing knowledge of future generations to attain to.

    Is it not fitting that, as intellectual beings with such high powers, we should each of us acquire a knowledge of what past generations have taught us, so that, should the opportunity occur, we may be able to add somewhat, however small, to the fund of instruction for posterity? Shall we not then feel the satisfaction of having done all in our power to improve by culture those higher faculties that distinguish us from the brutes, that none of the talents with which we may have been gifted have been suffered to lie altogether idle? And, lastly, can any reflecting mind have a doubt that, by improving to the utmost the nobler faculties of our nature in this world, we shall be the better fitted to enter upon and enjoy whatever new state of being the future may have in store for us?

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