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

Master Workers. XVII.
Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace. (S742: 1904)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An interview by Harold Begbie printed in the September 1904 issue of The Pall Mall Magazine. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S742.htm

[[p. 73]] The wrestling for the world asketh a fall;
Here is no home, here is but wilderness.
Forth, pilgrim, forth! forth, beast, out of thy stall!
Know thy country, look up, thank God of all;
Hold the high-way, and let thy ghost thee lead,
And truth thee shall deliver, it is no dread.

     It is natural to think of Dr. Wallace as a veteran, a grave and venerable figure sitting in an arm-chair half-asleep over volumes of forgotten lore. His name sounds naturally with Darwin's, and his fame reaches back far beyond the period of Huxley and Tyndall. The few photographs, too, with which the public are familiar suggest a man full of years, quietly waiting through the winter of life for the spring which is to be. But, in fact, Dr. Wallace is never quiescent, except for a few impatient moments before an importunate camera. He is electric in all his movements. He is a force, physically as well as mentally. Very tall and very spare, with high shoulders, long limbs, and a countenance alert and vivacious, he contradicts his age as effectually as any man in these wonderful days of eternal youth. His voice has a ring, his eyes have a fire, and all his movements are full of spring and elasticity. The white hair is thick and clustering; the eyes behind their spectacles gleam and twinkle with vivacity. He talks quickly, cross-questions in conversation with swiftness and point, and tells an anecdote with directness and energy. In no single particular, either of countenance or manner, does this contemporary of Darwin impress one with a sense of veteran years or the slackness of retirement. He is still a soldier in the front rank of the grand army, still a leader in the march of progress. One talks to him as one [[p. 74]] talks to a contemporary, and conversation turns always to the work and the glory which lie just a little ahead in the future of science. He is the youngest of men.

     But Dr. Wallace must always seem, to those outside his acquaintance, a veteran whose life's work is at an end. His name is so honourably, so romantically, and so closely associated with Natural Selection, that most people can think of him in no other way than as the co-discoverer with Darwin of what is called the Origin of Species. The story of that coincidence is one of the romances of science, and it is familiar to all the world. But it is not general knowledge, I believe, that both Darwin and Dr. Wallace derived their inspiration from Malthus' work on Population; nor is it quite realised that but for Dr. Wallace Darwin's work might have been presented to the world in volumes so many that few would have read them! Darwin had been working on Natural Selection for twenty years when Dr. Wallace sent his famous pamphlet to him for Sir Charles Lyell to read; and but for this sudden surprise of his great secret it is most probable that the careful and laborious Darwin would have spent another twenty years on the completion of its presentation. Dr. Wallace's pamphlet, so similar to Darwin's work that even some of its phrases appeared as titles in Darwin's MS., had at any rate the happy result of hurrying into the world a brief and concise exposition of the case for Natural Selection from the pen of Darwin.

     Those are far-off days--so far, indeed, that certain learned men are now beginning to throw over "Darwinism." Edward von Hartmann has written an article entitled "The Passing of Darwinism," and Professor Zoeckler has described this essay as "the tombstone inscription for Darwinism." American journals are asking, "Are the Days of Darwinism Numbered?" and the French savants, who have never been enthusiastic Darwinians, are said to be fighting against all schools of transformism. Professor Fleischmann declares that "the Darwinian theory of descent has not a single fact to confirm it in the realm of nature; it is not the result of scientific research, but purely the product of the imagination." Mr. John Gerard has lately published through Messrs. Longmans, Green and Co., a work1 which presents the case against "Darwinism" clearly and vigorously, and this book has been sympathetically reviewed in some of the most responsible newspapers. On all sides there is a certain amount of doubt and hesitancy. "In the sixties of the past century," says von Hartmann, "the opposition of the older group of savants to the Darwinian hypothesis was still supreme. In the seventies the new idea began to gain ground rapidly in all cultured countries. In the eighties Darwin's influence was at its height, and exercised an almost absolute control over technical research. In the nineties, for the first time, a few timid expressions of doubt and opposition were heard, and these gradually swelled into a great chorus of voices, aiming at the overthrow of the Darwinian theory. In the first decade of the twentieth century it has become apparent that the days of Darwinism are numbered."

     It was through a reference to this spirit of anti-Darwinism that I was able to lead Dr. Wallace to talk to me on a far greater and more engrossing subject--the spiritual destiny of man. He chuckled with quiet delight at the idea that Natural Selection was an exploded theory. Darwin's work, he told me, is buttressed and fortified by every fresh discovery in natural history. Darwin's work, as set forth in the Origin of Species, is safe from the attacks of German savants. But--"Darwinism," that is a different matter.

     "Certain writers pretend that Darwin said more than he said, and proved more than he proved," quoth Dr. Wallace. "Darwinism is very often a different thing from the Origin of Species. Darwin never touched beginnings. Again and again he protested against the idea that any physicist could arrive at the beginning of life. Nor did he argue for one common origin of all the variety in life. He speaks of "more than one" over and over again; and he also speaks of the Creator. It is only a few of his followers who have presented Darwin to the world as a man who had explained the beginning of everything, and who had dispensed altogether with the services of a Creator. Darwin must have turned in his grave more than once if any echoes of 'Darwinism' ever reached him there."

     [[p. 75]] "But you differed with Darwin on one great point?"

     "Yes, we differed on the question of the mind. Darwin implied that the nature of man, in its wonderful totality, was derived from rudiments in the lower animals, just as the body was derived. He did not deny the action of any First Cause, remember, but he seemed to believe that just as the physical structure of man had been developed from its first form by the struggle for existence, so, too, the moral and intellectual nature of man had been produced from lower forms by the movement and labour of humanity. My point is that man's mind has obviously been influenced by the struggle for existence, but that its origin is not the result of natural selection. In my book on Darwinism I point out that it is unscientific to believe in one single cause for every effect. It was believed for many years that the face of this earth, with all its majesty and homely beauty, was caused by volcanic action, by wind, frost, rain and rivers, and by marine denudation on coast-lines. Those causes accounted perfectly for the general result, and nobody dreamed that any other force was necessary. But when science began to study the action of glaciers, it was found that here too was a cause of the modelling of the earth's surface. There was no break in continuity, no supernatural interference, no upsetting of the old causes, but a new force, a new cause, a new means, for the old and familiar effect. Evolution is so interesting, and the arguments are so nice and so compact, that many men fasten upon it greedily as the one and only explanation for all the manifold mysteries of creation. The temptation is great, but to yield to it is highly unscientific. There is not one cause, but many causes; evolution is a truth, but it is not all the truth."

     Dr. Wallace holds that evolution does not account for the mathematical, musical and artistic faculties in man. These have been developed under natural selection, but natural selection never could have called them into being. These things were not derived from the animals, any more than Alpine lake basins were caused by sub-aerial denudation by wind and frost, rain and rivers. Some other cause has to be added to the other causes and influences. In a word, the spiritual nature of man, separating him completely and absolutely from the highest of all mammals, has to be acknowledged and recognised. The gulf which separates the ant from Newton, the ape from Shakespeare, and the parrot from Isaiah, cannot be bridged by a struggle for existence. To call the spiritual nature of man a "by-product" is a jest too big for this little world.

     On the hypothesis of this spiritual nature, superadded to the animal nature of man, we are able to understand much that is otherwise mysterious or unintelligible in regard to him, especially the enormous influence of ideas, principles, and beliefs over his whole life and actions. Thus alone we can understand the constancy of the martyr, the unselfishness of the philanthropist, the devotion of the patriot, the enthusiasm of the artist, and the resolute and persevering search of the scientific worker after nature's secrets. Thus we may perceive that the love of truth, the delight in beauty, the passion for justice, and the thrill of exultation with which we hear of any act of courageous self-sacrifice, are the workings within us of a higher nature which has not been developed by means of the struggle for material existence.

     In this passage Dr. Wallace makes the supreme distinction, unrecognised by many materialists, between the struggle for existence per se, and the struggle for spiritual, intellectual, and moral existence. It may perplex an evolutionist to explain how it is that the struggle for existence has not produced such useful machinery as wings in man, but it must perplex him far more to demonstrate that the struggle for material existence has produced in man self-sacrifice, heroism, disinterested affection, and that sense of honour which sets death in any form, however horrible and protracted, before the momentary telling of a lie or an act contrary to the still small voice of conscience. Evolution can account well enough for the land-grabber, the company promoter, and the sweater, but, if it fails to account for Raphael and Wagner, Swedenborg and Wesley, Newton and Laplace, Damien and Catherine Booth, it has not explained the whole mystery of humanity. The world, so far as history teaches, has been moved infinitely more by spiritual forces than by material and selfish forces.

     But the mass of men, interested but slightly in evolution or in metaphysics, is not yet convinced of the spiritual idea. [[p. 76]] In Matthew Arnold's phrase, we are only "light, half-believers of our casual creeds." The world waits for proof. Neither Moses nor Darwin has yet conquered mankind. Life, with its mysteries of consciousness and personality, is still the dumping-ground of theories and dreams. Until science has demonstrated either the Soul or the Happy Accident, man approaches death with an open mind.

     I asked Dr. Wallace whether he believed that light and proof would come from occultism.

     "Why are you afraid of the term spiritualism?" he asked, with a smile. "Spiritualism means the science of the spiritual nature of man, and that is surely a science which deserves a place among the investigations of mankind. Geology is important, chemistry is important, astronomy is important; but 'the proper study of mankind is man,' and if you leave out the spiritual nature of man you are not studying man at all. I prefer the term spiritualism. I am a spiritualist, and I am not in the least frightened of the name!"

     "Well, then," I answered,--"from spiritualism. Are we likely to get from this science proof of the existence of the soul and the persistence of consciousness beyond the grave?"

     He smiled quietly. "I hold that those two points are already established," he answered. "It is only because the scientific investigations of spiritualists are confounded in the popular mind with the chicanery and imposture of a few charlatans that the undiscriminating world has not studied the literature of spiritualism. A study of that literature, an honest and unbiassed examination of spiritual investigations, would prove to the world that the soul of man is a reality, and that death is not the abrupt and unreasoning end of consciousness."

     "But why," I asked, "is science--speaking generally--antagonistic to the spiritual theory?"

     "Science has not always proved itself a discerner of truth," answered the naturalist, with his eyes twinkling behind their spectacles. "Science has had its bulls of excommunication for the righteous, as well as Mother Church. Copernicus, Galileo, even Harvey! Think of the history of those men. Who was it that laughed at the lightning conductors of Benjamin Franklin?--The Royal Society! Who ridiculed the notion that London could be lighted with gas?--Sir Humphrey Davy! The public were recommended by the learned Edinburgh Review to put Thomas Gray into a strait jacket for maintaining the practicability of railroads; and when Stephenson proposed to use locomotives on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, men of science gave evidence proving that it was impossible for a locomotive to travel at the rate of even twelve miles an hour. The history of science is full of such instances, and I have given several of them in my book on spiritualism.2 One has to remind oneself again and again that truth is born into this world only with pangs and exceeding tribulation. Every fresh truth is received with the slings and arrows of outrageous conservatism. To expect the conversion of the world to any new truth, or its appreciation of any new aspect of truth, is to expect one of those few miracles which do not occur!"

     "And yet," I said, "the mystery of life is the one subject which should attract the interest of the world."

     "It is interesting the world more than some people suppose," he replied. "The number of spiritualists--honest and announced spiritualists--is now very great; and as for the timid and secret inquirers, they are legion. It is coming more and more to the front of human inquiry, this study of the spiritual nature of man: it is certainly destined to attract the energies of men of science more and more as purely physical science exhausts its field of inquiry. When you have got to the confines of the material globe you must either sit down or go back, unless you are sensible enough to go forward. Many of the younger school of physicists are now studying psychology, and psychology is only a polite term for elementary spiritualism. As soon as you begin to examine the mind of man you become a spiritualist."

     Dr. Wallace has furnished spiritualists with their charter of science in his work on "Miracles and Modern Spiritualism." No book has had such an effect upon inquirers into the mysteries of existence, and no book on spiritualism has so completely survived the attacks of scepticism and materialism. However many may be disposed to disbelieve some of its [[p. 77]] stories, and however incapable they may be of realising the commonness of such spiritual experiences, it is impossible, I think, for any man of fair judgement to deny that the author has made out his case for inquiry. The book, in its total effect, is a destruction of that ridiculous word supernatural. With irresistible logic and extraordinary sweet reasonableness Dr. Wallace shows that the "supernatural" of one generation or of one country is the natural law of the next generation or of another more enlightened country. He will admit no supernatural agency into the world: but he protests against the phrase a violation of the laws of nature, because it implies that mankind is aware of all those laws.

     "To suppose that we have discovered all the laws of nature," he told me, "is quite ridiculous. Radium has come into the world to prove--not only that there was one law unsuspected hitherto by men of science, but that some of the former laws and dogmas of science were the heresies of partial knowledge. Humanity must always remain a learner. There is no finality in knowledge. If instead of thinking that to call a phenomenon supernatural demolishes the phenomenon and proves it to be mythical, men would only study the phenomenon as Darwin studied earthworms or Lyell studied fossils, there would be a speedier end to the number of mysteries still remaining in the world. It is only because these things are not studied that we still employ such terms as 'miracle' and 'supernatural.'"

     Dr. Wallace is not one of those men who believe that everything not made by man must have been made by God. His cosmogony is spacious, and finds room for other intelligences than those of humanity and deity. We are compassed about, he believes, by an infinity of beings as numerous as the stars, and the vast universe is peopled with as many grades of intelligences as the forms of life with which this little earth is peopled. To deny spiritual phenomena because some of them appear to be beneath the dignity of Godhead, seems to this patient and courageous investigator an act of folly, a confession of narrow-mindedness. No phenomenon is too insignificant or too miraculous for his investigation, and in his philosophy there is no impossible and no preternatural.

     He is, undoubtedly, the most courageous of men of science. Other eminent men have examined spiritual phenomena as carefully and as earnestly as he, and some of them have uttered their faith in the reality of these mysteries; but from the year 1863, from the very beginning of his scientific career, on the very threshold of his work in a materialistic and suspicious world, this brave and earnest man--with everything to lose and nothing to gain--has been the avowed champion of spiritualism, and has fought for his belief with a steadfastness which has only increased with time.

     As one looks at him, so young and vigorous for all his eighty-odd years, and listens to the ring in his voice as he answers the criticism of materialism, one is conscious of a kind of heroism, an order of knight-errantry, rare and wonderful in the intellectual world. He has fought for truth openly and eagerly when it would have served his reputation and his position in the world of science to have kept silence. He has suffered for his courage, but he is so sure of the faith which is in him, and so comforted by the assurances of spiritual reality, that he is undismayed by the number of his enemies, and unaffrighted by all the punishments they can mete out to him. He is one of the happiest and placidest of men, a man who laughs often into his beard, a man content with his lonely path, a man who has no use for the honours and flatteries of the crowd.

     He has built himself a house in the midst of fine scenery, and looks from his windows across rolling hills at the distant sea. In his garden, where he grows the flowers that he loves and introduces the animal life he desires to study, he spends his happy hours and asks little more of the world. It is a garden half-wild, half-cultivated, full of slopes and dips and angles, with an ancient orchard clinging to one of its hills, a circle of water gleaming in a hollow, and with flowers springing out of its long grasses as gladly as they grow in its beds. One can imagine no more fitting dwelling-place in England for this tall spare man of science, with the crouching head, the snow-white hair and beard, the grey luminous eyes, and the quick movements of the long vigorous hands. It is good to see this courageous truth-seeker standing there in the wind, with his face set towards the distant sea, his eyes shining with sheer [[p. 78]] joy of existence, and his lips half-parted to drink the boisterous air. At such moments he seems an incarnation of Browning's optimism--the man who knows that faith will pierce the thickest cloud earth ever stretched, and the fighter who never turns his back, but goes breast-forward.

     If I were to begin to tell some of the spiritual experiences of this great man there would hardly be an end to this paper. The reader anxious to know upon what grounds so careful a naturalist has been led to believe in what other people call the supernatural, must turn to Miracles and Modern Spiritualism, where he will find incident enough and to spare. I may be permitted, however, to relate the first spiritual manifestation in the long experience of Dr. Wallace. He began, as so many others have begun, to take an interest in spiritualism through reading of medical hypnotism.

     It was about the year 1843 that I first became interested in psychical phenomena, owing to the violent discussion then going on as to the reality of the painless surgical operations performed on patients in the mesmeric trance by Dr. Elliotson and other English surgeons. The greatest surgical and physiological authorities of the day declared that the patients were either impostors or persons naturally insensible to pain; the operating surgeons were accused of bribing their patients; and Dr. Elliotson was described as "polluting the temple of science." The Medico-Chirurgical Society opposed the reading of a paper describing an amputation during the magnetic trance, while Dr. Elliotson himself was ejected from his professorship in the University of London. It was at this time generally believed that all the now well-known phenomena of hypnotism were the result of imposture.

     It so happened that in the year 1844 I heard an able lecture on mesmerism by Mr. Spencer Hall, and the lecturer assured his audience that most healthy persons could mesmerise some of their friends and reproduce many of the phenomena he had shown on the platform. This led me to try for myself, and I soon found that I could mesmerise with varying degrees of success, and before long I succeeded in producing in my own room, either alone with my patient or in the presence of friends, most of the usual phenomena . . . I thus learnt my first great lesson in the inquiry into these obscure fields of knowledge, never to accept the disbelief of great men, or their accusations of imposture or of imbecility, as of any weight when opposed to the repeated observations of facts by other men admittedly sane and honest.

     It was many years after these experiments in hypnotism that Dr. Wallace saw a materialisation. The medium was a nonconformist minister, at that time under the sole charge of the late Mr. Hensleigh Wedgwood, Mr. Stainton Moses, and a few of their friends, for purposes of investigation; and it was these gentlemen who invited Dr. Wallace to the sitting. In broad daylight this minister stood before the party, and presently from his side there emerged a little fluttering white cloud, which struggled, as it seemed, to break away from him. "Look!" he exclaimed quietly, "it has come!" and he manifested as great an interest in the appearance as any of the observers in the room. The cloud fluttered and swerved and pulsated, growing larger and larger, until at last it stood as high as the medium's shoulder and assumed the appearance of a draped female form. But it was still attached to the body of the medium by a narrow white nexus, and appeared to tug at this as though it would break away and be free. At this point the medium clapped his hands, and the form drifted suddenly away from him and moved a yard or two off. Then, when the medium clapped his hands a second time, the form clapped her hands with a sound heard by all present. It then returned to the side of the medium, grew fainter, flickered, and appeared to be absorbed again into his body.

     From that moment there was never any thought of turning back. Proof after proof was given of the reality of these appearances, and all the efforts to discover trickery, or explain the phenomena by hypnotism or legerdemain, only deepened his conviction that they were realities of fact.

     I asked Dr. Wallace how it was that so few people possess mediumistic powers. He believes that we are witnessing a new birth of these faculties, and thinks that the only period in the world's history when the phenomena of spiritualism appeared to cease may be accounted for by "a well-known natural law." Witches were, undoubtedly, mediums--that is, "persons of the peculiar organisation required for the manifestation of modern spiritual phenomena." Witches are real enough, and common enough in history, and by [[p. 79]] calling them witches we do not explain the mystery they present to science. In the dark ages, however, any woman whose organisation lent itself to the operations of spiritual intelligences, was described as a witch, was believed to be possessed by the devil, and was burnt at the stake. They were "burnt or destroyed by thousands all over the so-called civilised world."

     "The mediums being destroyed," Dr. Wallace points out, "the production of the phenomena become impossible; added to which the persecution would lead to concealment of all incipient manifestations. Just at this time, too, physical science began to make those rapid strides which have changed the face of the world, and induced a frame of mind which led men to look with horror and loathing at the barbarities and absurdities of the witch persecutors. A century of repose has allowed the human organism to regain its normal powers; and the phenomena which were formerly imputed to the direct agency of Satan are now looked upon by spiritualists as, for the most part, the work of invisible intelligences on the average little better or worse than ourselves."

     Dr. Wallace attaches considerable importance to spirit photography. In the old days when a camera was employed, and the photographer used his own plates or did his developing in secret, there was some just excuse for the incredulity of the world. But now, when a man may buy his own plates, take them unopened to a medium, let the medium merely lay his hand upon the package, and then himself take them away and develop them, there can be no excuse for ridiculing as trickery or accident the figures which appear upon the photographs. Dr. Wallace believes that this method of investigation is likely to arouse the attention of the scientific world.

     But he is nothing of a propagandist. He fights for spiritualism when it is attacked, and he is never afraid of announcing his own faith in psychical phenomena; but he is not at all anxious to make converts. Men who are ripe for new truth will receive it, and it is good that the world should grow as slowly into the realisation of the spiritual facts of existence as it grew into the knowledge of electricity or evolution. There is no hurry. He spends his days among his plants and his books, he reads with interest on almost every subject under the sun, and he is content that progress should follow its own course. A happy warrior, fond of study and meditation, devoted to the intellectual life, contented with his lot, and well pleased with the simple unaffected satisfaction of his charming home. In some respects he is one of the most heroic and splendid figures in science; he is certainly a man of simplicity and unaffected good faith.

Notes Appearing in the Original Work

1. The Old Riddle and the Newest Answer. [[on p. 74]]

2. Miracles and Modern Spiritualism. By Alfred Russel Wallace. (Nichols.) [[on p. 76]]

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