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

A Visit to Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, F.R.S.
(S738: 1898)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An interview by "A. D." (probably Albert Dawson) printed in the January 1898 number of The Bookman. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S738.htm

    [[p. 121]] This month Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace enters upon his seventy-sixth year. He was born at Usk, Monmouthshire, on January 8th, 1823. His father, Thomas Vere Wallace, who died when the future scientist was eleven years old,1 was of Scottish descent, and when young had uncles living at Stirling, which seems to directly connect the family with the ancient Wallace clan. A. R. Wallace was educated at Hertford Grammar School, which he left when fourteen years old. Up to the age of twenty-one he worked in various parts of England and Wales, with an elder brother (William), a land surveyor and architect. On coming of age he left his brother and became English master in the Collegiate School, Leicester; about a year later his brother died and he succeeded to his business at Neath, Glamorganshire. Although enjoying the railway surveying and other work on which he was engaged, some difficulties in getting payment for a tithe-commutation survey, which he was obliged to collect from the farmers, so disgusted him with business life, that he proposed to the late H. W. Bates, whose acquaintance he had made at Leicester, to undertake an expedition to the Amazons, being induced thereto by reading Edwards' "Voyage up the Amazon" and Humboldt's Personal Narrative. His object was to collect natural history specimens and gather facts "towards solving the problem of the origin of species." After four years in South America, he returned home, and in 1853 published "Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro." The next year he set out on a second expedition, and spent eight years in the region between Malacca and New Guinea; the literary result being "The Malay Archipelago, the Land of the Orang-Utan and the Bird of Paradise: A Narrative of Travel, with Studies of Man and Nature" (published in 1869). It was from Ternate, in 1858, that Mr. Wallace sent home, addressed to Darwin, with the request that he would forward it to Sir Charles Lyell, a paper setting forth the theory of natural selection, which Darwin had also arrived at and was then working out in detail.

    After returning from abroad Dr. Wallace resided in London for a few years. In 1866 he married the eldest daughter of Mr. William Mitten, a well-known botanist and specialist in mosses. A few years later he built a house at Grays, Essex, where Dr. and Mrs. Wallace resided for about five years (1871-6). The next two years were spent at Dorking, and the following five at Croydon. Then Dr. Wallace built a cottage at the top of Frith Hill, Godalming. In 1886 he went for a nine months' lecturing tour in America; on his return, desiring a milder climate, they searched through the South of England, and finally settled at Parkstone, three miles west of Bournemouth.

    Although quite close to the railway station, the spot where Dr. and Mrs. Wallace have had their home for the last eight years is secluded and picturesque. Standing on sloping ground, and surrounded by a garden, the pretty creeper-covered cottage commands a fine view across Poole Harbour to the Purbeck Hills; Corfe Castle is discernible in clear weather, hence the name of the house--"Corfe View."

   Dr. Wallace's travels and adventures in early life seem to have hardened his physique. No symptom of feebleness, physical or mental, is perceptible. With his tall substantial figure, still erect but for slight "scholar's stoop," his head thickly covered with smooth white hair, Dr. Wallace's appearance is at once robust and dignified. When a young man his height was six feet one and a half inches; it is now about six feet. One is charmed by the native simplicity and modesty of his speech and demeanour; he seems never to regard himself as one of the notable men of the century. Despite some bronchial trouble and a slight tendency to asthma, Dr. Wallace's general health is good; he says he now feels as well as he has done any time during the last twenty years. He rarely takes alcohol, and has never smoked. Although he has not forsworn meat, he believes that vegetarianism is sound in principle, and will ultimately become universal.

    In the course of the November afternoon I had the privilege of spending in Dr. Wallace's cosy little study, which is in the lower part of the house, the garden sloping down to it, I asked him whether present-day science is supporting Darwin. "Certainly," he replied, "Darwin is supported by competent judges, but latterly so-called naturalists and biologists have rapidly increased, and among the less clear-thinking of these there is a great tendency to quibble and make difficulties where really there are none. Darwin's fundamental principles have never been shaken. For myself, I have complete confidence in them, and in the permanent influence of his work."

    "But you reject some of his conclusions?"

    "Yes. Sexual selection resulting from the fighting of males is indisputable, but, differing from Darwin, I do not believe there is any selection through the choice of the [[p. 122]] females, and the drift of scientific opinion is towards my view. Again, I do not believe in the transmission of acquired characters, the evidence seeming to me to be against it, and this is the chief point on which there is a growth of scientific opinion against Darwin. The discussion is still proceeding, naturalists now being about equally divided. Herbert Spencer takes the same view as Darwin, but Mr. Francis Galton and Weismann2 between them have almost certainly proved the non-heredity of acquired variations. But neither of these questions affects Darwin's fundamental principles."

    The only other material point on which Dr. Wallace differs from Darwin is that which separates him from nine-tenths of modern biologists. "I am not able to believe that the mental and moral nature of man has been developed out of the lower animals wholly and solely by the same natural processes that developed his physical structure. That arises from the fact that I am a spiritualist, believing that there is something in man differing in nature as well as in degree from the lower animals. At a certain epoch, when the body was sufficiently developed to receive it, there was a spiritual influx. I believe 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. First, the change from the inorganic, whose highest development is the crystal, to the organic. The advance represented by the plant, even supposing it has no sensation, seems to me too great to have been brought about merely by increased complexity of molecules. Second, from the plant to the animal, which has sensation, consciousness is a still greater step. The third stage is the development of the soul or noblest faculties of man. The enormous difference between man and the lower animals must have a cause, and I cannot find that cause in the ordinary processes of evolution." Dr. Wallace has expounded his views on this point in the closing chapter of his popular account of "Darwinism" (Macmillan).

    Reverting to the question of heredity, I said it would seem at first thought that if acquired characters are not transmitted humanity cannot influence its own development, which would be fatalism.

    "That," said Dr. Wallace, "is the mistake nearly everybody makes. The fact is non-heredity of acquired characteristics allows greater scope for development, and inspires more hope for the future of the race than heredity. Think of the overwhelming influences for evil that have been constantly operating from the earliest times. All the despotisms of the world have tended to cultivate the bad in man. If the accumulated badness had been handed down, humanity would never have reached its present level. But if only that which is inherent in man is inherited, the moment the pressure of bad conditions is lifted he is able to spring up again and develop all the good qualities that have been latent merely because of want of opportunity."

    Dr. Wallace's hope for the upward development of the race is in free human selection. "When women are thoroughly educated and free, and have not to struggle for a bare existence, or to sell themselves either in marriage or out of it, there will be real sexual selection, and the result will be most beneficial to the race, for the great majority of men and women, especially women, admire what is good, great, and benevolent, and dislike what is mean and bad." This subject is dealt with by Dr. Wallace in an article on "Human Selection" in the Fortnightly Review for September, 1890 [S427 --Ed.].

    About his religious standpoint he said, "I have always felt, like Herbert Spencer, that God is unknowable and unthinkable; but directly we get the idea of a life beyond ours we can conceive the scale of being rising higher and higher. Whether it culminates in one personality or goes on endlessly we cannot tell, and it does not matter. For thirty years before I became convinced of the truth of spiritualism I was an agnostic. My only religion is that which I get out of spiritualism. The world is the means [[p. 123]] of developing human souls, and our future depends upon our use of present opportunities. When we leave this world, having thrown aside the body, our development goes on from the exact point we have reached here."

    "What is your attitude to the doctrines of Christianity?"

    "I do not hold any Christian doctrines whatever. I consider that Christ was a great man, with very exceptional spiritual gifts, a great medium, and probably the man most nearly associated with the spiritual world in all history. We spiritualists have no difficulty in accepting the whole story of His life and miracles."

    "Including His miraculous entry into and departure from the world?"

    "They are not subjects of evidence; they are not related by eye-witnesses, and really they are not essential. The same things have been said of the founders of other religions. But natural miracles, such as healing the sick and producing food, are done to-day."

    "How did you become a spiritualist?"

    "When I returned from abroad in 1862 I read about spiritualism, and, like most people, thought it all imposture, delusion, idiocy. I met people, apparently intelligent and sane, who assured me they had experienced wonderful things. Mrs. Marshall was at that time a celebrated medium in London, and after close examination I became convinced that the phenomena associated with her were perfectly genuine. But it took three years' further investigation to satisfy me that they were produced by spirits." For further discussion of spiritualism Dr. Wallace referred me to his book, "Miracles and Modern Spiritualism," which appeared in 1874.

    I inquired of Dr. Wallace whether, like Mr. Gerald Massey, he holds direct communication with the spirit-world.

    "No," he said. "Mr. Massey is mediumistic; I am not. I have never received any communications, or had anything happen to me, except when I have gone to a professor or friendly medium."

    "Do you think the religion of the future will be based on spiritualism?"

    "Certainly. There is nothing else to base it upon. When on the one side you have facts and phenomena that are happening to-day, and on the other you have something that is alleged to have happened two or three thousand years ago, and the first can be tested and the other cannot, it is absurd to expect people to accept the one that comes to them through ancient manuscripts and faulty translations and to reject the evidence that is now before their eyes, especially when the ancient and modern phenomena are pretty much of the same kind."

    "Speaking of tests, is it not alleged that that is precisely the point at which spiritualism breaks down?"

    "The allegation is only partially true. Usually those who at the very beginning demand tests are the wrong kind of people to get any satisfactory result. Those who experiment in the proper spirit don't fail. Professor William Crookes, F.R.S.,3 experimented in his laboratory for years with the greatest success. Professor Oliver Lodge, Professor W. F. Barrett, of Dublin,4 and others have been more or less successful."

    For some time past Dr. Wallace has been working at a new book. In 1896 he lectured at Davos for Dr. Lunn, who suggested the topic, "Personal Recollections of the Scientific Discoveries of the Century." Dr. Wallace became so interested in the subject that he decided to write a book upon it; it is nearly finished, and will be published in the spring. The title he chose was "A Century of Progress," but hearing that a series of articles had appeared in England or America under that heading, he has changed it to "The Wonderful Century: Its Successes and its Failures." "I have sketched," said the author, "the material and scientific progress of the century, and also the progress in ideas and principles. The distinctive feature of the book is that while I make more of the successes of the century than I believe any other writer has done, yet I show that the failures have been quite as great as the successes."

    "I have a great many heresies," Dr. Wallace continued, smiling. "For example, I have been a strong anti-vaccinator for the last twenty-five years." Dr. Wallace showed me the manuscript of a work on this subject, which after separate publication is to be included in "The Wonderful Century." It is entitled, "Vaccination a Delusion, and its Penal Enforcement a Crime; Proved by the Official Evidence in the Reports of the Royal Commission." One chapter of "The Wonderful Century" is a defence of phrenology, in which Dr. Wallace has all his life been an ardent believer.

    Dr. Wallace continues to contribute occasionally to the reviews and magazines. He usually does his writing in the forenoon. He believes in taking plenty of recreation, and has several hobbies, gardening among others. For many years he has cultivated every plant that he can get to grow in his garden. In his conservatory he has a great variety of orchids. His indoor hobby is chess. He likes music, but only very grand music. To a remark that evidently the faculty of appreciation has not died out at all in him, as it did to some extent in Darwin, Dr. Wallace responded, "Darwin was a continuous worker at his one great subject; I am not. I should not be happy without some work, but I vary it with gardening, walking, or novel reading. Even when in the midst of writing a book I never cease to read light literature." He spoke of Miss Jane Barlow, who was recently in Parkstone, as "one of the most delightful writers of the day." He particularly enjoyed "Irish Idylls." He said that H. Seton Merriman's "Sowers" was one of the most striking, vivid pictures of Russia he had ever read. Meredith Dr. Wallace can't read. He admired Hardy's earlier stories, but he does not care for his later books. "I dislike," he says, "the whole pessimist school of writers. I have read two of Hall Caine's books, 'The Manxman' and 'Son of Hagar,' and they are full of misery, horror, pain, trouble. I hate it; that is not human nature."

    "He is a great genius," was Dr. Wallace's response when I mentioned R. D. Blackmore. "Last year I again read 'Lorna Doone'; this year we went to explore the Doone Valley. Of course we had been told there was no such place, but we could not believe that; all the surrounding places are so accurately described. Now," genially, "I don't think a writer ought to mislead one like that." He has an immense admiration for Dickens, and is glad that so many competent writers and critics still uphold him. Dr. Wallace does not read much poetry, though he appreciates good verse, and has great admiration for Tennyson and Kipling.

    [[p. 124]] When residing in London, Dr. Wallace knew intimately Huxley, Tyndall, Herbert Spencer, and Sir Charles Lyell. At the request of Tennyson, Dr. Wallace once called, with Mr. Allingham, at Aldworth. "After lunch we spent the afternoon in the study, Tennyson smoking all the time. He wanted to talk of spiritualism chiefly, about which he was very sympathetic. At that time I don't think he had 'seen anything'; he talked of having a medium. Tennyson was a born spiritualist, like Longfellow."

    Darwin occasionally came up to London to visit libraries and museums; he stayed with his brother in Queen Anne Street, and Dr. Wallace was usually asked to lunch. "Darwin was so extremely delicate and sensitive that he had to limit his conversation and the number of people he saw at one time. We conferred and discussed more by letter than personally."

    "The opinions expressed on landlordism in the last two pages of my 'Malay Archipelago' attracted the attention of John Stuart Mill, and procured me the honour of his acquaintance."

    Conspicuous in Dr. Wallace's study is a portrait of Mr. Robert Blatchford. He considers the author of "Merrie England" "in many respects the very first writer of English at this day. I have been a Socialist for twelve or fifteen years," he said; "I want to write a book on Socialism, answering the common foolish objections, and showing what Socialism really is."

    Dr. Wallace approves of the programme of the Independent Labour Party--"the nationalisation of the whole means of production, distribution, and exchange"--regarding this as the essence of Socialism. He thinks that even in a Socialist state for a long time wages will be necessary, and that they must vary somewhat with ability, but the difference need not be nearly so great as it is now. "One man ought not to get ten or a hundred times as much as another simply because he is cleverer or quicker with his fingers--twice as much would be ample." Since 1881, Dr. Wallace has been President of the Land Nationalisation Society, and until three years ago he gave the annual address.

    Dr. Wallace is the last of a family of nine. A younger brother, Herbert Edward, joined him on the Amazons, and died of yellow fever at Para in 1851; an older brother, John, went to California in 1850, and died there in 1895, his only sister living since his boyhood having died in London two years earlier. Dr. and Mrs. Wallace have a son and a daughter. Mr. William Greenell Wallace, twenty-five years of age, has been trained as an electrical engineer. An enthusiastic Socialist, he and a like-minded friend recently went to America to study electrical science and the conditions of life in the United States, whilst earning their living. Miss Wallace is a kindergarten teacher in Liverpool.

    Few men of his own generation have had a more rich and varied experience than Dr. Wallace, and none more deserves a happy, peaceful eventide such as he is now enjoying. I asked him whether he did not intend to employ part of his leisure in writing his reminiscences.

    "If I live long enough," he replied, "I may write an autobiography. But I am not very good at that sort of thing."

*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Editor's Notes

1According to more reliable sources, Thomas Vere Wallace actually died in 1843.
2Francis Galton (1822-1911), English sociologist and eugenicist, and August Weismann (1834-1914), German biologist and evolutionist.
3William Crookes (1832-1919), English physicist. Crookes performed a large number of well-publicized tests and examinations of spiritualist mediums in 1870s.
4Sir Oliver Joseph Lodge (1851-1940), English physicist, and Sir William Fletcher Barrett (1844-1925), English physicist and important early figure in the Society for Psychical Research.

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