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

Scientist's 88th Birthday.
Interview with Dr. Russel Wallace. (S748: 1911)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An anonymous interview printed on page one of The Daily News (London) of 9 January 1911. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S748.htm


    Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, the joint discoverer with Darwin of the principle of natural selection, and almost the last of the great group of scientists of "the wonderful century," attained his eighty-eighth birthday today. Lyell, Owen, Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, and Tyndall have gone; Hooker, Galton, and Wallace are still with us, famous links in a famous chain.

    I came down yesterday to visit Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace in his beautiful Dorset home, and to offer my respectful congratulations. "Old Orchard" is a picturesque, many-gabled house perched high above the quiet waters of Poole Harbour, giving from its windows ever-changing views of the English Channel far below. I found Dr. Wallace in his study, clearly the workshop of a thinker rather than the retreat of a literary man, and the spare figure with the student stoop which rose to greet me and gripped my hand so strongly, showed no trace of feebleness. Winter has placed its mark on the thick hair, white as snow, on beard and bushy eyebrows, but the eyes which glance so swiftly, challengingly and humorously behind their glasses bear no trace of age.

    "I am better than I have been for years," said the doctor, "thanks to strict dieting. The secret of keeping well in old age is regularity of diet; medicines are no good."

    "I expect, doctor, you followed the recent election with interest?"

    "Yes, I did. We are moving, though very slowly. When the veto of the House of Lords has gone we shall move faster; its departure is the one essential thing of the present day."


    "You welcome, I take it, the social programme of the Government: for instance, compulsory insurance against sickness and unemployment?"

    "Compulsory insurance," replied Dr. Wallace, the light of battle coming into the quick blue eyes, "is only a roundabout way of doing what ought to be done in a much better way; it is a temporary way, and a very partial way, calculated to help only those who are better off, and not those of the very lowest class of workers, who will continue to starve."

    "By a better way you mean Socialism?"

    "I mean," said Dr. Wallace, "a definite approach to Socialism, and this scheme is not in the direction of Socialism at all. I was greatly impressed years ago, when reading Herbert Spencer's work on 'Social Statics,' by his statement that when you have a radically unsound system there is no best way or right way; you must get your foundations right," and the Doctor tapped the table emphatically. "I am disappointed," he continued, "with the Socialists in the House of Commons; they don't seem to know their own principles, or to act upon them, but suggest the very things the Government proposes, which, good as they are, are but partial remedies."


    "Yet as you say, Dr. Wallace," I said, "we are moving. You think, do you not, that the world is a better place to live in to-day than it was fifty years ago?"

    "No; I should say for the very poorest it is a worse place. The wonderful discoveries of science and their application to industry, with the corresponding increase in wealth, have not lessened the increase in poverty, which is absolutely, and I believe relatively, enormously greater than it was fifty years ago. It is very difficult to say whether there is any real improvement. I think the majority of people in my youth were just as well off and enjoyed their lives just as much as people do to-day. Of course, there was not the same interest in science and art, and in that direction the outlook is encouraging, but the foundation of all, the providing that every English man, woman, and child shall have a chance of a decent livelihood, is still to seek. The present Government--which I have never seen approached--has, I rejoice to say, for the first time in the history of Governments, recognised that it is the duty of a Government to abolish starvation, and that is the most hopeful thing I see. When we get one man one vote and one woman one vote we shall get more Labour men and Socialists into Parliament, and may then go ahead more quickly."

    "You think Socialism is making progress?"

    "Immense. Everything else has failed so utterly. The present system of competition for individual wealth prevents civilization. You cannot be said to possess civilization when your people are without food, clothing, and warmth. To give your old folk five shillings a week to prevent them from starving is a demonstration of our degradation, in my judgment. Still, it is a beginning, and I am most grateful for the smallest beginnings."

    "I should like to learn, Dr. Wallace, whether you think aviation will become one of the utilities of life?"

    "That depends on what you mean by utility. Useful for the destruction of men in war; useful for the sport of the wealthy, yes. But, otherwise, I do not think aviation will emerge from being a sport, at any rate, during this century. I cannot recall a form of locomotion ever previously introduced where the death rate in proportion to the number of travellers was so high. I should think it must be twenty or thirty per cent. at least. But the death rate won't stop people flying, as the sensation must be wonderfully beautiful. The conditions of flying, however, are too erratic for aviation ever to become a general means of locomotion. You have one medium--the air--and no second medium to aid you."


    At Dr. Wallace's elbow I noticed lying Israel Querido's "Toil of Men." "Do you," I asked him, "read many novels?"

    "I read them every evening; they are my relaxation. The modern psychological novel I don't care for a bit. I have just finished 'A Walking Gentleman,' by James Pryor, a very clever book of its kind, and am reading 'Toil of Men' because it is about Dutch gardening, and I am much interested in Dutch gardening. It is a terrible book, but a book of wonderful power."

    "Maarten Maartens is a favourite of mine," he went on; "so is Eden Phillpotts; Hardy's earlier novels I like, but not his later ones, and Meredith I can't read, his style is so dreadfully mannered. One of the most perfect novels I know is 'The Silence of Dean Maitland,' by Maxwell Gray, and 'The Last Sentence,' by the same writer, is equally good. No, I have not read any of Galsworthy's or Arnold Bennett's works; William de Morgan I find too long for me."

    I turned to a subject in regard to which Dr. Wallace could not fail to have the keenest interest. Did he think, I asked him, there was an increasing tendency to give a spiritual interpretation to the universe?

    "Most decidedly I think there is. You mention Oliver Lodge's efforts, but Lodge is trying to harmonise Science and Theology, and I don't think that at all the right way to go to work. Scientists are less dogmatic than they were, though the majority will have it that I have left the paths of science in touching on final causes1 in my books. They say it is speculation: I say it is no speculation to point out that any mechanical explanation of the universe really explains nothing, and that you must have an intellect, or a Being, or a series of Beings."


    "How do you account for the number of scientific men who, as regards spiritual phenomena, are unscientific in that they decline even to consider the available evidence?"

    "Partly, I think, because scientific men are generally interested in one branch of study, and in nothing else. A large number are aware of the evidence to which you have referred, but hesitate to investigate it. They call themselves Monists, an absurd name which means nothing and explains nothing. Nevertheless there are a greater number of scientific men now than ever before who see that the deeper we go into things the more mystery there is, and the more need for Mind rather than Force. Force explains nothing, because of the infinite complexity of its results; moreover, force itself is inconceivable existing by itself. But these are things the great sceptics, such as Haeckel, never go into--they assume force."

    "Your use of the word 'mind,' doctor, leads me to ask if you think events can be influenced by prayer?"

    "I think prayer does affect those nearest and dearest to us who have died, and that they can in turn affect us. I think there is every bit as much evidence in support of this as there is for what are called scientific facts. There are innumerable and well-authenticated instances of warnings given of events that subsequently occurred which, if acted upon, would have saved from accident or death. But unbelievers do not examine the evidence. No, I have not read Professor James' 'Varieties of Religious Experience,' but everyone tells me I must, and now I will."

    "A last question, Dr. Wallace. Who of all the many great men you have known most impressed you with his personality?"

    "Oh," said Dr. Wallace, ruminatively, "that is a difficult question to answer. For combined intellectual and moral qualities I cannot think of anyone I could place above Darwin. Darwin was not only a great thinker and worker, but a really good man, thoroughly good," added the Doctor, "thoroughly kind, and thoroughly humane. For pure intellect I should place Huxley2 above Darwin, and Spencer3 above either; Spencer was a great, a very great thinking machine."

    With this I left the Grand Old Man of Science, who has played so great a part in the life and thought of the nineteenth century, and from the warmth and quiet of his study, where he made in the firelight a venerable and beautiful picture, stepped out into the stillness and freshness of the night. He had given me much to think of.

*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Editor's Notes

1Wallace's idiosyncratic view of nature invoked a teleology of final causes, but not of first causes.
2Thomas Huxley (1825-1895), English scientist and philosopher.
3Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), English philosopher and sociologist.

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