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

Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace at Home (S745: 1909)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An interview by Ernest H. Rann printed in the March 1909 number 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/S745.htm

    [[p. 275]] Last July the Linnean Society met to celebrate the jubilee of the famous meeting at which was made public the joint discovery of natural selection by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin died more than a quarter of a century ago, but Dr. Wallace is still alive. When the Doctor was presented with the first Darwin-Wallace medal at the Linnean meeting, he modestly described himself as the young man in a hurry, while Darwin was the painstaking and patient student, for when their theory had been given to the world, Darwin had spent twenty years on its elaboration, whereas he himself had spent one week. During the last half-century Dr. Wallace has worked unceasingly for the faith that is in him, and the King has recognised his services to science by conferring on him the signal honour of the Order of Merit. His recent lecture (January 22) before the Royal Institution was an eloquent vindication of the theory that the labours of the last fifty years have almost converted into a positive fact.

    One-and-fifty years ago there lay in the Island of Ternate, in the Malay Archipelago, a young naturalist, stricken with fever. His enthusiasm for collecting had received a sudden check, and his work was brought absolutely to a standstill. He could do nothing out of doors, and inside the native house where he had made his home he could only lie and ponder over the problems which study and research had suggested to his fertile brain. One of the problems was that of the origin of species, which had engaged the attention of the greatest naturalists of all countries from times immemorial. The patient had convinced himself that one species changed into another, but the question was--how? As he lay there in Ternate, he called to mind Malthus's exposition of the checks to increase afforded by war, pestilence, and famine; and then it suddenly flashed across his mind that this self-acting process would improve the race--that the weakest would go to the wall, and the fittest would survive. It was like a streak of illuminating lightning on the dark sky of ignorance and conjecture,--the explanation of many problems for the solution of which scientific men had been groping for centuries. Conscious of the stupendous nature of his discovery, the young naturalist had perforce to wait for the termination of his spasm of fever, until he could make notes; and then, weak and feeble, he wrote out his ideas, and despatched them with a letter to Charles Darwin, then living in his quiet home in Kent.

    The young naturalist was Alfred Russel Wallace. The discovery was that of the principle of natural selection; the essay written at Ternate was the communication read before the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858, along with an abstract of a volume on which Darwin himself was engaged. Jointly they showed that both men, acting entirely independently, and in ignorance of each other's labour, had conceived the brilliant theory which has freed us from the dogma of special creation, and has guided and suggested the work of every naturalist during the last fifty years.

    Darwin sleeps in Westminster Abbey; Alfred Russel Wallace still remains, a mid-Victorian giant who, in spite of his six-and-eighty years, retains his intellectual vigour and a measure of physical strength which would do credit to many a man of half his age. The Malayan habitation has been exchanged for a many-gabled warm brick house on the southern coast, perched on an upland rise from which the ever-changing beauties of a heathery landscape, and the flashing waters of Poole Harbour, are always in view. It is an ideal retreat for this veteran of science; remote enough from the world to give him security from interruption, and yet sufficiently near for him to keep in touch with every movement in its intellectual life. In spite of his many activities and achievements, Dr. Wallace [[p. 276]] is by no means minded to rust out: he strengthens with constant exercise, like a fine blade of Toledo make.

    From the summit of the hill, under the brow of which the house stands, you dip down, with the waters of the Channel always before you, and turn aside along a winding fir-lined pathway that leads to "Old Orchard." The house stands in four or five acres of land--half cultivated and half wild, in all its Dorset beauty. It is built after the design of the Doctor himself, who, past his eightieth birthday, felt equal to such a task, and also to that of reducing the wilderness of the little estate to a semblance of cultivation. The garden has the order of disorder; nothing of sharply defined paths and trimly kept lawns, but wild firs, bunches of bracken, hosts of evergreens and subtropical plants, and here a pool with broken irregular edge to add a mirror of nature to the rustic scene.

    Immediately as you enter the house you are conscious of the intellectual atmosphere pervading the place. There are suggestive hints of the owner and his tastes--a large-scale map of the district on the wall, and a staircase lined with orchid pictures that recall the floral splendours amid which so much of his time was spent fifty-odd years ago.

    Dr. Wallace was seated at his desk in his sunlit study when I entered, but he rose immediately, strode rapidly across the room, and gripped my hand in a manner that suggested no mere formal welcome. I have been familiar with his portraits and his work for many years, but his appearance, in its spring-like vigour and abounding vitality, came as a complete surprise. Despite his great age his figure still bears traces of his commanding presence. The form is tall and spare, the shoulders are slightly bowed--though not, I would suggest, from physical weakness, but rather from long stooping over the desk whence he still sends forth his message to the world. The head, poised with strength and dignity, bears the heavy snows of winter, and from beneath the bushy brows kindly blue eyes look out [[p. 277 (photos)]] [[p. 278]] with alternate flashings of criticism and humour. I noticed, too, the large development of the lobes of the ear, which is an invariable accompaniment of great physical vigour and tenacity of life.

    This was the man who was co-equal with Darwin in the discovery of natural selection, the friend and confidant of Spencer, Huxley, Richard Owen, Mivart, and all the intellectual giants who have lifted science to the noble and commanding position which it occupies to-day. He holds the highest scientific honours that can be awarded--the Copley medal, the Linnean medal, and the first Darwin-Wallace medal presented to him at the Jubilee celebration, in July last, of the Origin of Species. It was, said the President of the Linnean Society, "really offering him his own." By virtue of his achievements Dr. Wallace might have been dignified and aloof, but I found him singularly modest and unaffected, jealous of his own opinions, it is true, but open to every wave of thought that came moving across his mental sea, no matter what the direction and the cause.

    "I am always at work," said Dr. Wallace, in reply to an early question as to how he was spending the evening of his days. "As a rule I manage two steady hours every morning. In the afternoon I take a quiet doze, or content myself with watching the harbour, which you can see from my window there; and in the evening I am ready for another spell of writing or study."

    The room, lighted from the south and west, bore every trace that it was meant for use rather than for ornament. Most of the walls were covered by the shelves of what Sir Walter Besant delighted to call a "working library," every book being intended for use, and showing that it was fulfilling its purpose. There was a strong array of scientific works, many of them presentation copies, a "file" of a well-known periodical devoted to gardening, an assertive row in blazing red of a certain much-advertised history in twenty-odd volumes, many novels, poetry down to the latest editions of Barnes, the Dorset poet, and solemn Fortnightlies mingling with the latest penny productions of the Socialistic press. Here and there I detected, nevertheless, the touch of a woman's hand, and I found Mrs. Wallace, when I met her and her daughter at lunch, a bright, intellectual woman keenly interested in her husband's work. There was a system of arrangement about the library, too, which suggested that its owner knew every corner of it, and could, if need be, find anything he wanted in the dark. To call it a library would suggest uniformity, with machine-made rows of books; and who in such a place ever saw a tea canister--not a tobacco-jar, mind you--peeping up from behind a pile of papers?

    "That silhouette you see on the mantelpiece," said Dr. Wallace, "is of my father. I have a miniature of him in another room. That daguerreotype on the other side is of my sister and myself as a young man, playing chess."

    A portrait on glass, taken when the Doctor was a young man--more than two generations ago--has a quaint appearance, and would not be without value to a student of early Victorian costume.

    Prominent on the south wall was a large, almost life-size portrait of Herbert Spencer. I had expected it to be an autograph picture from the author of the Synthetic Philosophy, and was surprised to find that it was not.

    "No," said the Doctor, "it is one of a number which Spencer had taken and gave away to his friends on the occasion of his visit to America. When I was over there some years later, on a transcontinental lecturing tour, it was given to me by one who had received it from Spencer himself. Of course it possesses a great personal interest for me, as I knew Herbert Spencer long and intimately, but it has other points of value. I am a firm believer in phrenology, as you may know--elsewhere I have described its rejection as one of the 'failures' of the wonderful nineteenth century; and Spencer's head, with its marvellous balance and dome-like shape, bears out exactly the truths of that maligned science.

    "Spencer, in spite of his vast learning, was not a well-read man. In fact, he read very little, and once he had made up his mind that a book was built on false premises he would go no further with it. I remember asking him, when Buckle's 'History of Civilisation' was making a stir, whether he had read that work, and I was surprised to hear that he had not. He had differed from Buckle on the question of the influence of mountains and plains and other natural features in forming human character, and had laid down the book in indignation.

    [[p. 279]] "No, Spencer was more a thinker than a reader--a born thinker, if ever there was one; and I have never met any one who could evolve such conceptions from the depths of his inner consciousness. It was no effort for him to think, and perhaps he was right in keeping his reading within limits and giving his attention solely to his philosophy. He was a terrible sufferer from insomnia, but his ill-health, following the break-down over the writing of his book on psychology, was real enough, and sufficient to excuse his economy of mental effort."

    From Sociology, as expounded by Spencer, it was an easy transition to Socialism, according to Dr. Wallace himself.

    "My politics are my own," he said later in the day to a lady who had called to solicit his support for one of the two great political parties of the State; and certainly the same is true of his Socialism, a creed he has thought out to conclusions far different from those of the professed leaders of the Socialist party.

    "Take, for instance, the proposal of the Socialist M.P.s for dealing with the unemployed problem," he said, as he roused himself from the fireside easy-chair in which he was reclining, and leant forward in vigorous assertiveness. "The mistake they make is in suggesting a new state of society on a profit-making basis, instead of arranging that each man should work to produce the chief necessaries of life for himself. In the co-operative community such as I would have it be, there would be no profits at all. They are trying to solve the question of unemployment on the old and false lines, but in a recent article I have, I think, shown them the better way.

    "One of the chief troubles at the present time is that we, as a country, are too little self-contained. We import hundreds of things which we could very well do without--tea and coffee, for instance. Until the time of Elizabeth these were unknown to the common people, who were content with beer. And the same with sugar: why should we not return to the old-fashioned honey, or, if we must have sugar, make it at home, as we could do from the ample supplies of beet that could be grown if the land were put to its proper use?

    "While importing what we do not want, we export such valuable assets as coal and iron, which I consider to be a crime against posterity."

    I put the question to Dr. Wallace, whether he saw immediate signs of the realisation of the Socialist dream, but he would only say that it must come some day, and either England or Germany would be the first country where the Socialist state would be established.

    In this country, he continued, the creed was making slow progress, and he feared [[p. 280]] that half the readers of what were really Socialist essays in the guise of novels did not apprehend the true meaning of what they read.

    "Take 'No. 5, John Street,' for instance. Have the public appreciated the scathing satire on the late Marquis of Anglesey which is contained in the character of Seton, who had a whole trayful of scarf-pins and hundreds of walking-sticks?"

    From Socialism we passed to Spiritualism, which Dr. Wallace holds as firmly as ever he did. He admitted that scientific men were, perhaps, not quite so materialistic as they were half a century ago, and that there was a marked change of attitude towards psychical questions, owing to the views of Sir Oliver Lodge and others.

    "But then," he said, with the air of one who has long settled the question for himself, "they are only coming round to accept the possibility of what we know."

    Hanging on the study wall are five panels. Two of them are photographs of Tinworth models, one showing "The Return of the Prodigal Son" and the other "The Release of Barabbas," which Dr. Wallace admires not only as works of art, but as pictures of human life, if indeed the two can be separated. The other three panels call for more particular notice, for they bear on his own spiritualistic beliefs, and also offer a problem for the opponents of that creed to solve as best they may.

    Briefly the story of them is this, as told in Dr. Wallace's own words.

    "The originals of those photographs were drawn by a young French iron-worker, whom distress and misfortune had brought to the verge of suicide. When about to throw himself into the sea at Marseilles, he was rescued by a sculptor interested in spiritualistic phenomena and taken to his home. Gradually the young man in turn became interested in this question, and on one occasion he was put into a trance, with a blank sheet of paper placed before him, along with a small print of a famous picture representing the battle between Constantine and Maxentius. In a series of sittings for some weeks the young iron-worker, who had never had any training in art, and in his ordinary state was totally unacquainted with drawing, produced the picture on a much larger scale, exactly as you see it in the photograph on the wall yonder.

    "The second cartoon is even more wonderful, for it is a trance copy of a picture in the Louvre which the youth may have seen, but which was not before him when he did the drawing. He worked entirely from memory, and I contend that the result is hardly to be accounted for by ordinary explanations.

    "The third is what I call the Raphael cartoon. It is in the style of that great artist, but such a picture is, I believe, entirely unknown in any of the galleries of Europe. That, too, was drawn under spirit influence stated to be that of Raphael himself."

    Dr. Wallace has come across no fresh evidence to induce him to change his opinion as to the impossibility of there being inhabitants on Mars. He is as firmly convinced as ever that the theories advanced by Professor Lowell are all "gammon and spinach," though he would probably express his arguments in more scientific terms. I asked him if he had ever met his opponent, reminding him of the famous case of Lord Salisbury, who at the end of the Home Rule controversy--if it ever came to an end--once confessed that he had never met Mr. Parnell, had never, in fact, seen the Irish leader.

    "Well," said Dr. Wallace, falling into reminiscence, "I believe I did see him once, but cannot be quite certain on the point. While I was in America I attended a conversazione at which Professor Lowell's father was present. I was introduced to him, and also to one of his sons, who, I believe, is now the commander at the Flagstaff Observatory, Arizona."

    The Doctor takes all criticism of his work with the utmost good humour. He is not at all perturbed by the opposition to his Martian views from those who perhaps are too ready to believe in astronomy according to the halfpenny press. But the Martian storm was nothing compared to that which greeted the publication of his book "Man's Place in the Universe."

    "The germ of the book, you must know," he said, "lay in a lecture on the science of the nineteenth century which I delivered at Davos Platz1 on the invitation of Dr. Lunn.2 I did not hesitate to express my 'unorthodox' views on phrenology and vaccination. My remarks on phrenology were greeted with much shuffling of feet and cries of 'No, no,' which were redoubled when I passed on to vaccination. However, I escaped sound [[p. 281 (photo)]] [[p. 282]] in wind and limb from my critics, and on my return home I conceived the idea of a volume on the subject--my 'Wonderful Century'--in a certain paragraph of which I casually mentioned the idea that, according to our best astronomical information, we on this earth were situated nearly at the centre of the stellar universe. This paragraph--a mere chance reference, I may say--was in turn developed into a review article, and, urged by a literary friend, I expanded that into a volume. I took nine months over the book, and I may tell you that the labour of research so as to support every argument with the greatest possible number of facts, not to mention the writing itself, was the quickest and hardest piece of work I have ever done. It made hosts of critics, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that it also brought me hosts of friends.

    "I am afraid that on another subject," said the Doctor, "I am still misunderstood. That is vegetarianism, in which I thoroughly believe; but although it may appear inconsistent, I am a meat-eater myself, as I have found that meat-eating, in the way I eat it, is, with a diet regulated in other ways, a remedy for a troublesome complaint from which I suffered for many years, and might be suffering now, if I had not changed my mode of living. You cannot alter the habits of mankind in a single generation. Vegetarianism is a reform which will come, but it must come gradually, when people have learned that there are other foods than those to which they have been accustomed. You cannot force the pace; if you try to do so, it simply gives a set-back to the movement."

    Like Darwin himself, Dr. Wallace is a firm believer in novels, but he prefers to read the books himself instead of having them read to him, and he does not trouble so much about the happy ending as Darwin did. Scott and Dickens lie ready to his hand, and he confessed that though familiar with them he could begin the series over again with undiminished interest. Modern novels claim a generous share of his attention, and he is young enough in spirit to admit that the present day has no reason to be ashamed of the general quality of its literature.

    "We are so apt," he remarked, "to judge the past entirely by its best, and to suppose that, say, Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot were representative of their contemporaries, instead of standing far above them. I find many of the books written recently are worth my time and attention--Richard Whiteing, Marion Crawford, Mary Johnstone, Rider Haggard, Winston Churchill, Harold Frederic, W. W. Jacobs, Mark Twain, Robert Blatchford--these and many other authors are my favourites, in whom I find continuous joy."

    Adjoining the study is a small conservatory, fitting into a right angle of the house. Here Dr. Wallace loves to experiment, for he still hears the east a calling, though no longer able to obey the summons, and is as keenly interested as ever in his fine collection of tropical plants.

    "When I took this plot of land five years ago," he said, "I was disappointed to find that, instead of its being one with the rich sandy soil of the district, it was practically a pocket of clay, which had to be put under treatment before it would yield the result I desired. I have been fairly successful, and now have more than two hundred subtropical shrubs flourishing out there in the grounds. It has been an experiment in acclimatisation, with which I am well pleased. Many of the plants came from Australia and New Zealand. In most cases I have bought the seed, and reared them entirely by myself.

    "But here"--as he opened a little glass frame--"are some plants which a friend has sent me from the mountains of Ceylon, and these"--pointing to others--"came from the Himalayas. I have a few orchids also; and this is a curious plant from the South African veldt, which can live entirely without water for six months of the year.

    "When the weather is too wet to venture out of doors, I can find plenty of occupation here, but there are few days when I cannot get into the garden. You see, I go well shod"--and he showed me a massive pair of strap "high-lows," wool-lined, with wooden soles nearly an inch thick, in which he takes his tramps abroad.

     The importunity of editors and correspondents, however, leaves Dr. Wallace little of the leisure to which he is entitled. Hardly a week passes without a request for his autograph, especially from America; and "I always send it, particularly," he added with a smile, "if a stamp is included for return." As we re-entered the study [[p. 283 (photo)]] [[p. 284]] a bundle of newspapers arrived by post, together with an editorial letter requesting an article from his pen on an absorbing political question of the day.

    "I am always being asked to write," he confessed, with a humorous twinkle, "even if I know nothing about the subject, and American editors think nothing of having my articles cabled across. In some cases I ignore the request, but when I can I oblige. Yet I wish it were more widely recognised that this is an age of specialisation, and that even scientists ought not to be expected to know everything."

    There was one topic, I found, on which Dr. Wallace was intent on putting pen to paper--an attempt, perhaps a final attempt, to vindicate the position of himself and his great co-worker Darwin in regard to modern views on evolution. The recent jubilee of the Origin of Species has brought into greater publicity a fact which close observers have known for many years--that the evolutionary school is split up into sections which are warring with each other, and obscuring the real issue in the smoke of battle. The true faith as set forth fifty years ago has become befogged by phrases that are simply unintelligible to the layman, and are little more than names even to the combatants.

    "What I want to do," Dr. Wallace said to me, as the light of battle glinted in his eye, "is to state once more the essential truth of Darwinism, and its relation to the world of life. I am busily engaged at this moment in preparing a lecture which I am to deliver in London before the Royal Institution. We of this generation seem to have forgotten the fundamental truths set forth by Spencer in his 'First Principles,' as well as by Darwin. There is a tendency to belittle, if not to ignore, their work; but Darwin, I tell you, will stand secure in the coming ages against all criticism."

    It was the impatience of the old warrior stirred afresh at the prospect of conflict. My last memory of him is as he paused at his study door to bid me farewell--a venerable figure crowned with white, standing, as it were, midway between the centuries. Behind him lies the one that he has done so much to mould and alter and convince; before him that mysterious future on which he gazes with unshadowed faith in the ultimate triumph of his views.

*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Editor's Notes

1A small but famous resort town in extreme eastern Switzerland.
2Sir Henry Simpson Lunn (1859-1939), English humanitarian and religious leader.

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