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

 
 
Woman and Natural Selection. Interview With
Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace. (S736: 1893)

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An anonymous interview printed on page three of the 4 December 1893 number of the Daily Chronicle. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S736.htm


    Three miles of lonesome road, cut through a pine forest, separates the home of Dr. Wallace, at Parkstone, from fashionable Bournemouth. The house itself, standing on a slight elevation, commands a fine view across the sea to Swanage and the Purbeck Hills. "Look at our lovely view," were almost the first words which Dr. Wallace said to me upon entering his house. And so for a few minutes I stood in the spacious drawing room window, beside the tall, erect figure with silver hair and beard, drinking in the beauty of the scene, until the rosy tints of sunset had faded away, leaving the hills and the water dull and grey. "Let us go down to the study now," said the doctor, and following him I entered a cosy retreat, in the lower part of the house, ranged around with books and pictures, the chairs suggestive of comfort and the well-littered tables of much study and research. "Your study lies in a wood, Dr. Wallace," I involuntarily exclaimed, as I looked through the stretch of windows flanking the outer side of the room to the garden beyond, rising gradually upwards until it joined the distant wood. Then the lamp was lighted, the blinds drawn down, and the great scientist seated himself in his special armchair, drawn up close to the blazing fire, and proceeded to discourse upon the subject of natural selection, in which, as an original thinker, he stands unequalled save by Darwin.

    "I should like to ask your opinion, Dr. Wallace, upon the rapid change, amounting almost to a social revolution, which is taking place in the education and general development of women; what effect will it have upon human progress?"

    "I reply without hesitation that the effect will be entirely beneficial to the race. Women at the present time, in all civilised countries, are showing a determination to secure their personal, social, and political freedom. The great part which they are destined to play in the future of humanity has begun to force itself upon their attention. They have within the last twenty years proceeded by leaps and bounds towards the attainment of that perfect freedom without which no human being can arrive at his or her highest development. When men and women are alike free to follow their best impulses, when both receive the best and most thorough education that the knowledge at the time will admit; when there are no false restrictions placed upon any human being because of the accident of sex, and when the standard of public opinion is set by the wisest and the best, and that standard is systematically inculcated upon the young, then we shall find that a system of human selection will come spontaneously into action which will bring about a reformed humanity."

    "And are women to be the chief factors in bringing about this great reformation?"

    "Yes; the hope of the future lies with women. When such social changes have been effected, that no woman will be compelled, either by hunger, isolation, or social compulsion, to sell herself either in prostitution or uncongenial wedlock; when all women alike shall feel the refining influence of a true humanising education, of beautiful and elevating surroundings, and when there is an educated public opinion--note that specially," said Dr. Wallace, leaning forward in his chair with a flushed and eager face--"we must have an educated public opinion which shall be founded on the highest aspirations of the age and country; then the result will be a form of human selection which will bring about a continuous advance in the average status of the race. I believe that this improvement will be effected through the agency of female choice in marriage. As things are, women are constantly forced into marriage for a bare living or a comfortable home. They have practically no choice in the selection of their partners and the fathers of their children, and so long as this economic necessity for marriage presses upon the great bulk of women, men who are vicious, degraded, of feeble intellect and unsound bodies, will secure wives, and thus often perpetuate their infirmities and evil habits. But in a reformed society the vicious man, the man of degraded taste or of feeble intellect, will have little chance of finding a wife, and his bad qualities will die out with himself. On the other hand, the most perfect and beautiful in body and mind, the men of spotless character and reputation, will secure wives first, the less commendable later, and the least commendable latest of all. As a natural consequence, the best men and women will marry the earliest, and probably have the largest families. The result will be a more rapid increase of the good than of the bad, and this state of things continuing to work for successive generations, will at length bring the average man up to the level of those who are now the more advanced of the race. I hope I make it clear that women must be free to marry or not marry before there can be true natural selection in the most important relationship of life. Although many women now remain unmarried from necessity rather than from choice, there are always a considerable number who have no special inclination to marriage, but who accept husbands to secure a subsistence or a home. If all women were pecuniarily independent, and all occupied with congenial public duties or intellectual enjoyments, I believe that a large number would choose to remain unmarried. In a regenerated society it would come to be considered a degradation for any woman to marry a man she did not both love and esteem; in consequence, many women would abstain from marriage altogether, or delay it until a worthy and sympathetic husband was encountered."

    "There are upwards of a million more women than men in this country, Dr. Wallace, and it seems to me that it is this feminine superfluity which has, as it were, demoralised marriage?"

    "Undoubtedly it has tended to weaken the selective agency of women. Still, although females are largely in excess of males in our existing population, there is good reason to believe that it will not remain a permanent feature."

    "Do you mean to imply that the wear and tear of competitive industry and the physical demands of the higher education will act injuriously upon women and reduce their numbers?"

    "Certainly not," replied Dr. Wallace with a laugh; "we are not going to kill off the superfluous women, but preserve the lives of men. As a matter of fact, there are more boys born into the world than girls, but boys die so much more rapidly than girls that when we include all under the age of five the numbers are nearly equal; for the next five years the mortality is nearly the same in both sexes; then that of females preponderates up to thirty years of age; then up to sixty that of men is the larger; while for the rest of life female mortality is again greatest. The general result is that at the ages of most frequent marriage--from twenty to thirty-five--females are between eight and nine per cent. in excess of males. But during the ages from five to thirty-five we find a wonderful excess of male deaths from two preventible causes--'accident' and 'violence.' The great excess of male over female deaths, amounting in one year to over 3,000, all between the ages of five and thirty-five, is no doubt due to the greater risks run by men and boys in various industrial occupations. We are looking forward to a society in the future which will guard the lives of the workers against the effects of unhealthy employments and all preventible risks. This will further reduce the mortality of men as compared with women. It seems highly probable that in the society of the future the superior number of males at birth will be maintained throughout life, or at least through the marriageable period."

    "And you would maintain, I suppose, Dr. Wallace, that the large number of women, who, in consequence of being economically independent, would elect not to marry would further decrease the present overplus of marriageable women?"

    "Certainly; when no woman is compelled to marry for a bare living or a comfortable home, there will, I believe, be a large number of women who will remain single from choice. Few women will marry then except from the highest motive--pure and disinterested love. Now, with man the passion of love is stronger and more general, and, as in a reformed society women will not be driven to lives of shame for the sake of bread, but will have remunerative occupation, men will have no means of gratifying their stronger passions except through marriage. In consequence, almost every woman will receive offers, and thus a powerful selective agency will rest with the female sex. On the whole, then, it is probable that in the society of the future the mortality of males will be less, owing to preventive measures in connection with dangerous and injurious occupations, so that the number of marriageable men will be equal to that of women; add to this that there will be an increasing proportion of women who will prefer not to marry, and it is clear that men desiring wives will be in excess of women wanting husbands. This will greatly increase the influence of women in the improvement of the race. Being in the minority, they will be more sought after, and will have a real choice in marriage, which is rarely the case now."

    "You think, then, Dr. Wallace, that the women who marry will choose wisely?"

    "Broadly speaking, I think we may trust the cultivated minds and pure instincts of the women of the future in the choice of partners. The idle and the selfish would be almost universally rejected. The coarse and sensual man, the diseased or the weak in intellect, those having a tendency to insanity or to hereditary disease, or who possess any congenital deformity, would rarely find partners, because the enlightened woman would know that she was committing an offence against society, against humanity at large, in choosing a husband who might be the means of transmitting disease of body or of mind to his offspring. Thus it will come about that the lower types of men, morally, and the physically diseased, will remain permanently unmarried, and will leave no descendants; and the advance of the race in every good quality will be ensured. This method of improvement by the gradual elimination of the worst is the most direct method, for it is of much greater importance to get rid of the lowest types of humanity than to raise the highest a little higher. We do not need so much to have more of the great and the good as we need to have less of the weak and the bad. The method by which the animal and vegetable worlds have been improved and developed has been through weeding out. The survival of the fittest is really the extinction of the unfit. Natural selection in the world of nature is achieving this on an enormous scale, because owing to the rapid increase of most organisms a large proportion of the unfit are destroyed. In order to cleanse society of the unfit we must give to woman the power of selection in marriage, and the means by which this most important and desirable end can be attained will be brought about by giving her such training and education as shall render her economically independent."


*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Return to Home