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

 
 
A Visit to Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace (S741: 1903)
Author of "Man's Place in the Universe,"
Joint-Discoverer with Darwin of "Natural Selection."


Dr. Wallace Tells How "Man's Place in the Universe" Was Written --
Replies to His Critics -- Discusses Questions Raised by the Book -- Are
the Stars Inhabited? -- Wherein He Differs from Darwin --
The Limitations of Evolution -- Defines His Religious Views --
Believes in Immortality -- Explains What He Believes
to be the Purpose of Creation.


Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An interview by Albert Dawson printed in The Christian Commonwealth of 10 December 1903. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S741.htm


    [[p. 176]] However much views may vary about man's position in the universe, there can be no difference of opinion as to the place occupied by Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace in the minds and hearts of those who know anything of his work, or have the privilege of personal acquaintance with him. His figure assumes heroic proportions as we contemplate his lifelong devotion to the study of Nature, his epoch-making scientific discoveries, the variety of his interests, his fearless avowal of opinions, however unpopular, and his ardent humanitarianism. Some idea of the many departments of human activity in which he has left his mark may be inferred from the fact that in the index to the new edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica there are, under Dr. Wallace's name, no fewer than forty distinct references. Probably he will chiefly be remembered by posterity as the discoverer--simultaneously with Darwin--of the origin of species through the struggle for existence, resulting in the survival of the fittest.

    Dr. Wallace is essentially a pioneer. The beaten track has no attraction for him; his adventurous spirit and quenchless enthusiasm sometimes carry him into regions that are under the ban of the orthodox scientist. For science, no less than religion, has its orthodoxy, its creed, even its shibboleths, and, without resorting to bell, book, and candle, in a very real way excommunicates the heretic. That Dr. Wallace has not shrunk from incurring the odium scientiæ is one of the reasons of his popularity with the general public. His excursions into the controversial arenas of phrenology, spiritualism, vaccination, socialism, etc., and the candour with which he expresses whatever opinions he forms, testify alike to his open-mindedness and high courage.

    In his eighty-first year, Dr. Wallace has produced a book that has set all the world talking, and may be destined to eclipse all his previous performances. The fundamental proposition of that startling work is that the known facts about this and other worlds point to the conclusion (1) that the earth is practically at the centre of the stellar universe, and (2) that it alone, among all the heavenly bodies, is inhabited by beings at all analogous to man. It is at once obvious that this momentous theory--which Dr. Wallace supports by an impressive array of facts and arguments--has important bearing on the Christian conception of human life and destiny. If Dr. Wallace's views should come to be accepted, it will not be the first time that science, by a long and circuitous route, has arrived at the same truths as are enunciated in or have been deduced from revelation.

Dr. Wallace at Home.

    I am singularly fortunate in having been favoured by Dr. Wallace, for the benefit of the readers of The Christian Commonwealth, with an opportunity of talking with him about his new book and some of the many questions it suggests. Retaining a very vivid and pleasant recollection of a visit I paid to the great scientist six years ago in his Dorsetshire home, I anticipated a second meeting with eager interest. A year ago Dr. and Mrs. Wallace removed from the little cottage near Parkstone Railway Station--in which they had resided for twelve years--to Broadstone, a few miles nearer Wimborne. Here he has built a charming and roomy house on the top of a hill, commanding an extensive and varied view of land and a glimpse of the sea. The natural beauty of the three acres of land, irregular in conformation and diverse in characteristic, in which the new residence stands has been unspoiled by human art, and the veteran scientist is able to enjoy varied walks and other outdoor occupation without going outside the boundaries of his own demesne. As I walked the mile between the oil-lit railway station and "The Old Orchard" on the lovely November afternoon of my visit, the rather strong wind that was blowing made a delicious appeal to every sense, the far-reaching light and darkening shade varied the beauty of earth and sky, and, amid the silence and isolation, one became conscious of the invisible presence and noiseless operation of restful, healthful, healing ministries. Certainly an ideal place for a lover and knower of Nature wherein to spend the evening of his days.

An Outline of His Life.

    Dr. Wallace has had a tolerably varied experience, geographical and other. Born at Usk, Monmouthshire, on January 8, 1823, he was educated at the Grammar School, Hertford, his mother's native place, to which the family had removed in 1828. His father, who was of Scottish descent, and through relatives at Stirling directly connected, presumptively, with the ancient Wallace clan, died when the future scientist was only eleven years of age.1 From the age of fourteen to twenty-one, A. R. Wallace worked with an elder brother as land surveyor and architect in various parts of England and Wales. His interest in botany dates from the age of seventeen, when he began to form a herbarium. While English master in the Collegiate School at Leicester (1844-5), he made the acquaintance of H. W. Bates,2 through whose influence he became a beetle-collector, and at Mr. Wallace's suggestion the two friends started, in 1848, on an expedition to the Amazon, with the object of collecting natural history specimens and gathering facts "towards solving the problem of the origin of species." In about a twelvemonth the two naturalists separated, and at the end of a further three years Mr. Wallace returned home, and published "Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro." In 1854 he set out alone, and spent eight years in the region between Malacca and New Guinea, the literary result being his deeply interesting "Malay Archipelago." 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. Darwin had been working along the same lines, and on the day on which he received the paper, June 18, wrote to Lyell, "I never saw a more striking coincidence; if Wallace had had my MS. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as heads of my chapters."

    On returning from abroad, Dr. Wallace resided in London for a few years. In 1866 he married the eldest daughter of Mr. William Mitten, of Hurstpierpoint, botanist and specialist in mosses. In 1871 he built a house at Grays, Essex, in an old chalk pit, and after living there four years, moved successively to Dorking (two years) and Croydon (three years). Then he built a cottage at the top of Frith Hill, Godalming, and grew nearly a thousand species of plants. In 1886 he went for a nine months' lecturing tour in the United States; on his return, desiring a milder climate, the family settled at Parkstone, three miles west of Bournemouth. Dr. and Mrs. Wallace have a son, who is an electrical engineer, and a daughter, who resides with them.

An Unknown Admirer.

    In stature Dr. Wallace is a giant, though scholar's stoop has knocked off the odd inches from the 6 ft. 1½ in., which was his height when a young man. Like most big men, he is very gentle and tender-hearted, as may be surmised from his benignant expression. He is a great favourite with children, and I had the privilege of seeing a charming photograph of a young girl which was sent to him, with the following inscription:--"This little maid conveys greetings for the New Year to the dear and honoured master, Alfred Russel Wallace, from one of his unknown disciples. New Year, 1902."

    If the sender would reveal his or her identity I am sure the pleasure the token has given the recipient would be much increased. The post-mark was West Kensington. A touch of real, unaffected, healthy boyishness--high spirits, glancing eye, light laugh, zest of life, hearty enjoyment of a good story--adds charm to the manner, and is one of the most fascinating characteristics of this wonderful octogenarian. His incidental confession that when he is reading an interesting tale he does not hurry through it, but likes "to make it last out," struck me as a delightful self-revelation. His preference is for simple domestic stories thoroughly well worked out, and exceedingly romantic and stirring tales. He does all his own reading and writing. He has worn spectacles for short sight since he was sixteen, but reads without them.

    An ardent socialist, Dr. Wallace has for many years been a regular reader of the Clarion. But he rather regrets Mr. Blatchford's3 campaign against Christianity, failing to see the connection between his present proceeding and socialism. "It would almost seem from what he says about fatalism," Dr. Wallace remarked, "that he believes in some over-ruling power which designed it all." Dr. Wallace has great admiration for Tolstoy; in fact, he regards him as the greatest of living men. He also paid a tribute to the late Richard A. Proctor. "He was the most broad, imaginative, intellectual astronomer of the age. Until I read his books recently I had no idea he was such a deeply religious man."

    Dr. Wallace divides his time between gardening, writing letters, articles, and books, and reading modern fiction. One of the first things he did on taking possession of the "Old Orchard" was to make a small pond near the house, which is both ornamental and scientifically useful. In the conservatory adjoining the house he cultivates, among other things, some fine varieties of acacia, raised from seeds presented to him by Sir Thomas Hanbury, and in the aquarium red and blue water-lilies flourish. Thus Dr. Wallace lives a quiet, pleasant, busy, and useful life, giving the world from time to time the fruit of his thought, experiment, and investigation.

The Genesis of "Man's Place in the Universe."

    None of the great naturalist's numerous works has attracted more attention than "Man's Place in the Universe"; indeed, it has created quite a sensation. Until two years ago Dr. Wallace had never seriously thought of the main thesis of the book. When examining the latest results of astronomical research, for the purposes of a new edition of his "Wonderful Century," he was much impressed by the fact that great astronomers like Sir John Herschel, Professor Newcomb, and Sir Norman Lockyer agreed that our solar system is in the plane of the vast circle formed by the Milky Way, and very nearly in the centre of the ring. That is to say, the long, white, luminous galaxy which is seen at night stretching across the heavens is like a huge cart-wheel, with our little earth near the hub. Another striking fact that set Dr. Wallace thinking is that the most recent researches lead to the conclusion that there are but few stars or nebulæ very far beyond the Milky Way, which suggests the awe-inspiring thought that the human eye, aided by the telescope and photographic plate, has penetrated to the limits of the material universe.

    While Dr. Wallace was pondering this great subject, Mr. Curtis Brown asked him to write an article for the New York Independent, predicting the course of science during the present century. Having a distaste for assuming the role of prophet, Dr. Wallace mentioned the ideas that were occupying his mind. Mr. Brown at once urged him to make them the basis of the article, and, before it was printed, suggested that the author should also write a book upon the subject. Before the article was published Dr. Wallace commenced the book. He began it in February and finished it in July, without having (he told me, in reply to an inquiry) any assistance whatever--no small achievement for a man past eighty. Every word was written with his own hand. His writing, by-the-way, is beautifully legible and firm, and he is both a ready thinker and a facile penman. He never finds it necessary to re-write a book, though he makes corrections, and may write passages, or even important chapters, over again. But he does not put pen to paper until he has accumulated and digested his facts and thought well over his subject. Although written in the comparatively short period of five months, "Man's Place in the Universe" is the result of much study and research. From boyhood the author has been deeply interested in astronomy; he read a great deal of the literature of the science when preparing "The Wonderful Century," and he mastered its latest developments before issuing his new book. While the work was in progress many volumes passed between "The Old Orchard" and the headquarters of the London Library, the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, and the Astronomical Society. Dr. Wallace has not been in London for three years, and says he hardly expects to come to town again. Old friends occasionally visit him, and he has a very large correspondence.

[[p. 177]] Critics Answered.

    I was curious to know how Dr. Wallace regarded the many reviews of his book that have appeared. He has read all that have reached him, and is unperturbed by the worst of them--which distinction, by-the-way, he assigns to that by Mr. C. W. Saleeby, which appeared in the Academy, under the heading of "Shackled Omnipotence."

    "It is clear," said Dr. Wallace, "that the majority of the reviewers have not given the time necessary to read the book from beginning to end and impartially weigh the facts. No critic has yet surveyed the whole of the arguments, which are essentially cumulative in their nature and effect. Some of the critics say that the book is the outcome of my preconceptions; but in that they are entirely wrong, for I had no theory at all until indisputable facts seemed to point almost irresistibly to certain conclusions. On the contrary, many of my severest critics are themselves influenced by preconception. Their fixed idea as to what is actual or possible in the universe is the touchstone by which they test my arguments and inferences; whereas I started out with an absolutely open mind. Nor did I have to create the foundation on which my argument is built. I have merely brought together the conclusions of modern astronomers, physicists, chemists, and biologists, and indicated their bearing upon the question of our relation to the visible universe. It is more a matter of weighing evidence than of theorising on the one side or the other. In all scientific inquiry, where absolute certainty is impossible, we incline to that belief for which there is most evidence. Astronomers have not come to any definite conclusion that our solar system is moving in a straight line or in some orbit. My idea is that it is revolving within the circle described by the Milky Way and around the centre of gravity of the solar cluster. But they are tolerably well agreed that our sun is near the centre of the galactic system."

Are the Stars Inhabited?

    "I go on to show that all the probabilities are against life in any such form as we know it here existing on any other planet. Regarded from a purely naturalistic point of view, it is only by the merest chance that man ever came into existence at all on this globe, and the probability of the particular combination of circumstances necessary to produce and sustain the miracle of life obtaining on another planet is so remote as to be practically non-existent. Indeed, we know for a fact that such conditions do not prevail in the bodies, other than the earth, which constitute our solar system, and analogy suggests that they do not exist in any other star or planet."

    "Sir Oliver Lodge appears to share my view as to the uninhabitability of any other planet of the solar system, but he says it is 'absurd' to suppose intelligent beings are not to be found on any other lump of matter in space. But the term 'absurd' is no argument. My critics seem to be afflicted with a sense of the disproportion between the vastness of the universe, on the one hand, and, on the other, our tiny earth and insignificant selves. We must not, however, think only of the beings now on the earth, but of those who have gone before and are coming after--a multitude far more numerous--probably many million times--than the stars of heaven. That may reduce the apparent disparity. But a more important consideration is that as between things which form part of an infinite whole there can be no disproportion, especially if we assume an Infinite Being. Sir Oliver Lodge has himself said that the attempt to explain the universe by chance has absolutely failed. It must have had a designer."

    "You agree with that?"

A Believer in Design.

    "Certainly. My whole argument tends in that direction, though my object in writing 'Man's Place in the Universe' was purely scientific, not religious."

    Here I may introduce Dr. Wallace's statement of a fundamental difference between himself and his friend and fellow scientist in regard to the scope of evolution:--

Wherein Darwin and Wallace Differ.

    "Darwin believed that the mental, moral, and spiritual nature of man were alike developed from the lower animals, automatically, by the same processes that evolved his physical structure. I maintain, on the other hand, that there are indications of man having received something that he could not have derived from the lower animals."

    "Have you any theory as to how he got that 'something'?"

    "I do not think it is possible to form any idea beyond this, that when man's body was prepared to receive it, there occurred an inbreathing of spirit--call it what you will. I believe this influx took place at three stages in evolution--the change (1) from the inorganic to the organic, (2) from the plant to the animal, (3) from the animal to the soul of man. Evolution seems to me to fail to account for these tremendous transitions."

    Coming back to "Man's Place in the Universe," I asked Dr. Wallace, assuming the improbability of any other planet containing beings like man, how he regarded the suggestion that some of the stars might be inhabited by quite different orders of existence, possessing characteristics by us inconceivable.

Earth Not the Only Abode of Life.

    "I need hardly say, I suppose," replied Dr. Wallace, "that I have never suggested that this earth alone in the whole universe is the abode of life. What I do say is, first, that our system appears to be in or near the centre of the visible universe; and, second, 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. For myself, I confess that I find it difficult to imagine that there can be in the universe, under one supreme Head, a great number of quite differently-formed, but equally intelligent, beings."

    Unless I am very much mistaken, Dr. Wallace inclines to the view that--and thus do Revelation and Science clasp hands--man is made in the image of his Maker, and I do not think he sees anything inherently absurd in the Swedenborgian4 idea that the whole universe may total up into the shape of a huge Man-God.

    Somewhere in his book Dr. Wallace says that there may be in infinite space

Spiritual Universes Inhabited by Spiritual Beings.

    I sought enlightenment on this point. Dr. Wallace responded:

    "To suppose that this one particular type of universe extends over all space is, I consider, to have a low idea of the Creator and His power. That would mean monotony, instead of infinite variety, which is the keynote of things as they are known to us. There may be a million universes, but they may all be different--certainly, I should say, not all matter. We are all agreed that ether is the fundamental, matter being its product; and it is possible that ether may have other products which are not perceptible by us."

    "Then, as a scientist, you have no difficulty in believing in the existence of consciousness apart from material organism?"

    "None whatever. At the same time, I have a difficulty in conceiving--though there is no reason why it should not exist--pure mind, pure spirit, apart from any substantial envelope or substratum. St. Paul speaks of a 'spiritual body'; that is a body possessed by disembodied spirits. To them it is real enough, but to us it is not corporeal."

    "You believe also in

The Immortality of the Soul,

    or, at all events, in the persistence of the individual after the dissolution of the body?"

    "I do. The best spiritual teaching seems to me to be that we are all capable of infinite progression, that none are so bad as to be incapable of advancement. I believe that the reason for the existence of this world and the explanation of the problems that puzzle us are that the earth and its struggles and pains are essential to the development of the highest spiritual natures."

    Thus, as the conversation proceeded, there was developed the grand and solemn idea of the vast, beautiful, and complicated universe being the theatre designed by the Infinite Creator for the growth and perfecting of the human soul. Verily, science is bringing us back to the fond and by no means irrational beliefs of our childhood!

Dr. Wallace's Religious Views.

    I am specially interested, as doubtless are most of my readers, in the religious bearings of Dr. Wallace's beliefs and theories. He said he quite expected that "Man's Place in the Universe" would be favourably received by ministers; if it is useful to them he will be pleased, but he disclaims responsibility for any deductions that may be drawn from it in favour of any particular school of theology. He frankly stated that he is quite unable to accept current religious doctrines. This confession enhances the value to the Christian of those of Dr. Wallace's arguments and views that seem to tend to support faith as against scepticism. "The ultimate problems," he said, "are insoluble and indeed unthinkable. I have no difficulty in conceiving an ascending scale of being rising up into what the Christian means by 'God,' but the idea of a Supreme Being does not, of course, explain the mystery of the universe. The child's questions as to when God began and where He came from still remain unanswered. The fundamental problem is, Why does anything exist at all? Why was there not an absolute negation--nothing but empty space? Infinite time or space or matter alike are unthinkable by us." I ventured to express the thought that if we were endowed with another sense, or had another convolution added to our brain, these maddening problems, including the being of God, might present no difficulties. But Dr. Wallace shook his head doubtfully.

The Purpose of the Universe.

    "The only conjecture, theory, or supposition that does seem partially to explain the mystery of the universe is that which I have already mentioned--namely, that the development of souls, of permanent spiritual entities, capable of practically endless advance in knowledge and happiness, is the aim and end of all that we see and know. Some people say, 'What is the good or the need of it all? Why was not man made perfect at once?' All we can say is that, practically, that was not possible. In the only long private conversation I ever had with John Stuart Mill, he argued, 'There cannot be a God, or why did He allow evil--why did He not create man perfect?' I thought the logic very weak and the remark a very superficial one for so great a man. Just think! If man had been created perfect he would have been incapable of progress or advance--in short, he would have been God himself. You cannot conceive any being less than God being perfect. Therefore, all that kind of talk is pointless. The law of the universe seems to be growth by evolution--from the lower to the higher, smaller to greater, worse to better, and so on. That principle may actually govern the action of God Himself. The old idea that God is omnipotent in the sense that He can do anything, even make two and two add up into five, is not a working theory. Limitation, pain, struggle are evidently essential factors in the development of spiritual beings, and if we believe in a Supreme Being with faculties at all similar to those with which He has endowed us, we cannot help also believing that His purpose is the perpetuation of the greatest happiness of the greatest number."

    I asked Dr. Wallace if he could explain how it came about that the sense of God, which, in the case of Darwin, seems to have practically died out, has, in him, grown deeper and stronger as he has grown older.

    "Partly," he replied, "through my contact with modern spiritualism."

The Religion of the Future.

    "Do you think that the tendency will be for scientists to become more religious or spiritual?"

    "I do, but the process is a very slow one. The attitude of science was probably never more materialistic than now, unless it was at the end of the eighteenth century. Spiritual scientific men are very few, and most of them are afraid of revealing their mind. The majority of scientists seem to regard it as a sign of insanity to avow belief in any other than what are called the ordinary laws of nature."

    "But is not science to-day less dogmatic than it was a generation ago, less confident of being able to discover the ultimate secret of things, less disposed to reduce everything to terms of matter?"

    "I cannot see it. For instance, take the recent correspondence in the Times. When Lord Kelvin and Sir Oliver Lodge expressed their belief in some outside power, some external cause, leading scientific men went dead against them. They seem to think, and to like to think, that the whole phenomena of life will one day be reduced to terms of matter and motion, and that every vegetable, animal, and human product will be explained, and may some day be artificially produced by chemical action." Even if that were done, Dr. Wallace agreed, behind it all there would still remain an unexplained mystery.

    I carried with me from "The Old Orchard" into the dark night increased admiration for the brave and grand old scientist, who in his quiet and beautiful retreat is still studying the wonders of nature and pondering the deep things; a profounder sense of the marvels of the universe; and a strengthened confidence that

               God's in His heaven--
               All's right with the world!


*                 *                 *                 *                 *


Editor's Notes

1Thomas Vere Wallace actually died in 1843, when Wallace was twenty years of age.
2Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892), English entomologist, best known for his origination of the concept of protective mimicry.
3Robert Blatchford (1851-1943), English journalist, editor of that prominent socialist newspaper and author of the best-selling book Merrie England.
4Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), Swedish scientist, philosopher, and mystic.

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