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

 
 
Ninety Years of Science. (S752aa: 1913)
Dr. Russel Wallace's Survey.

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An anonymous interview printed on page 9 of the 8 January 1913 issue of The Morning Post (London). To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S752AA.htm


     One of the most wonderful men now living is Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, O.M., who to-day celebrates the completion of his ninetieth year. It is not only that he is eminent as a man of science--the man who shares with Darwin the honours of the discovery of the great principle of natural selection is sure of a niche in the Temple of Immortality--but that, having attained the patriarchal age of four score and ten, he is still full of enthusiasm for the cause to which he has devoted his life, and is possessed to all appearance of the energy and the clearness of mental vision of a man of forty. A representative of the Morning Post saw him one day last week at his pretty home at Broadstone, in Dorsetshire, from the windows of which stretches out a magnificent panorama that includes the New Forest and Poole Harbour in the distance. In this peaceful retreat Dr. Wallace still occupies himself with his favourite pursuits, and he is apparently only too pleased to fight his scientific battles over again. He was the recipient some years ago of the distinguished honour of being admitted a member of the Order of Merit. Well, it will hardly be believed, but it is a positive fact, that the letters patent accompanying the insignia which he received describe him as "President of the Land Nationalisation Society." That, in the official view, appears to be his outstanding claim to distinction. Dr. Wallace receives his visitor most courteously, and in a clear, strong voice tells anecdotes of his past life and discusses scientific problems with keenness. When he has occasion to get a volume from the bookshelf he declines assistance, jumping up from his chair and taking it down himself. "I was brought up as a land surveyor," he said; "my elder brother was engaged in that profession, and I was apprenticed to him. The work did not suit me at all; in fact, I hated it. We had to take measurements, but mathematical science had little to do with it; it was done chiefly by rule of thumb. Of systematic scientific training I never had any to speak of; in fact, I left school before I was fourteen years of age. Books of popular science were not so plentiful in those days--I am speaking of the time when the first railways were being constructed--as they are now, but there was a well-known series issued by the Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge, of which Lord Brougham was President. They were very good of their kind, and they afforded me the greatest delight. I began with a volume on mechanics; then I got others on physics and on optics. I had nobody to help me, and looking back I can see that that was an advantage. What I could not understand I had to worry out for myself, and that was a valuable mental training. Natural history, too, was a favourite subject with me, and having read Humboldt's 'Personal Narrative of Travels in South America,' I became extremely desirous of visiting that country. In the meantime my brother had died, and I had succeeded to his practice in South Wales, but, as I have said, I did not like business, and before long, having made the acquaintance of Henry Bates, I easily allowed myself to be persuaded to go with him on a voyage up the Amazon River. We first of all ascertained by making inquiries at the British Museum that we had a good chance of covering our expenses by making up a collection of natural history specimens.

Burned Out at Sea.

     "We went out in a vessel called the Frolic, 192 tons,1 which sailed from Liverpool to Para in what was then considered the remarkably quick time of twenty days. I do not suppose there is any vessel of such small tonnage running regularly in these days from England to South America. The wretched cockle-shell pitched and tossed about dreadfully, which to me meant serious discomfort, as I was always a bad sailor. I remained four years on the Amazon, collecting specimens of birds, beasts, and butterflies. The product of my first two years' work was consigned to England, and then at the end of four years I determined to return home with the remainder, representing the labours of another two years. Bates remained behind. The voyage home was destined to bring about a crisis in my life, for I was shipwrecked, and lost the whole of my collection. This event was one of the first things that led me to entertain what many people think is a superstition, and that is that misfortunes are often sent for our good. The vessel by which I sailed from South America caught fire, and the passengers and crew had to take to open boats. The fire broke out on board at eight o'clock in the morning, and by 12 o'clock the vessel was burned right to the water's edge. I thus saw the results of two years of labour destroyed. We were glad to escape with our lives, though we were in a terrible plight, for we were in open boats on the broad Atlantic for ten days and nights before we were picked up, and we had only the scantiest clothing, for the most part the equivalent of what would now be called pyjamas. Our provisions during that dreadful time consisted of raw ham, biscuits, a few tinned vegetables, and water. At length a passing vessel came along and rescued us, when we found that we were about a thousand miles from the Bermuda Islands. The vessel was bound for England, and we were conveyed there, but not before we had had some exciting experiences, for she leaked badly and the weather was horrible. As we came up the English Channel there was four feet of water in the hold, and the men were pumping continuously, or we should have gone to the bottom. After that I vowed, like Robinson Crusoe, that I would never go to sea again; but after a time, also like that hero, I wanted to be off again. I have said that my misfortune was a blessing in disguise. Well, it happened in this way. I thought to myself that it was of no use going out again to South America, as Bates was there and he would have, as it were, two years' start of me. I determined, therefore, to seek my fortune in a new country. I made inquiries, and I found that from the point of view of the naturalist the richest and least known, and at the same time the easiest to get about in, was that region round about the Malay Archipelago including Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and New Guinea. Accordingly I set forth and spent twelve of the best years of my life in that part of the world, where I gathered a very large number of beautiful natural history specimens. While visiting the several islands I became immensely interested in the problem of the distribution of the different forms of life, owing to my having noted the fact that these forms differed greatly in the various places. I was absolutely alone during the greater part of my time, and that was a good thing, for what the student wants is solitude.

Germ of the Evolution Theory.

     "It was then that I began the course of study that eventually led me to hit on the theory of natural selection. With the late Mr. Darwin, who, as you are aware, also evolved independently precisely the same theory, I was always on the most friendly terms. He was too great a man, too earnest a seeker after truth, to feel the slightest jealousy of any other worker in the field which he himself cultivated. Nor did he ever show the slightest trace of resentment when anyone ventured to differ from him, as I did myself at times. I used to visit him at Downe, in Kent, and also at the house of his brother, a physician, living in Queen Anne-street, where Darwin stayed when he came to London to visit the museums. But, though Darwin never resented opposition, I could see that he was very much disturbed when I rejected some of his views, in particular when I hinted to him that there were other forces at work in Nature besides mechanical and chemical forces. With wonderful skill Darwin in his 'Descent of Man' tries to explain that not only has man's body descended from animal bodies of a lower type by variation and natural selection, but that man's mind also was a mere development of the mind of his humble progenitors. There I parted company with him. I maintain that there are things connected with man's mental powers that cannot have been developed in this way, and that those things must have required an influx from a higher mind. People sometimes say to me: 'That is not science. You talk of supernatural action.' But it is not supernatural at all. Everything that happens is Nature. However long you may mix ordinary matter you will not get life out of it, or even any sign of life. The simple word 'growth' implies such a wonderful series of changes, not only in the substance but in the cells, in the atoms of which the cells are built up, and the electrons, which bear the same relation to the old atoms that planets do to our sun, that it is impossible that they can be caused by material and chemical forces. In ordinary living things where does the force and guiding power come from to make them assume such intricate forms until a living being is formed?

Materialistic Theory Unthinkable.

     "The conclusion I have arrived at is that the materialistic theory is unthinkable. I am aware, of course, that that theory is held by many scientific men. Professor Schäfer recently maintained at the British Association that life is nothing but a matter of chemistry, and that if you only knew enough of chemistry you would be able to produce life. From that view I emphatically dissent, and I have given my reasons in a little paper I wrote for the first number of Mr. Dent's Everyman's Magazine. The further we go, and the more we learn, the more mysterious everything becomes, and the more it seems to us there is to know. Look at the present position of our conceptions with regard to atoms and the nature of matter compared with what it was years ago. Of course, on the purely physical or materialistic side the theory of natural selection still holds the field. It has undergone some slight modification as a result of further investigations, but that is of secondary importance. The man who has made the most important contributions to our knowledge of the subject since Darwin is Dr. August Weismann, one of the greatest biologists now living. Dr. Weismann has demonstrated, as I think, that acquired characteristics cannot be transmitted. Darwin thought otherwise, but he had no very strong view on the subject. All he said was that the evidence appeared to show that particular characteristics acquired during life could be inherited. Weismann's discovery does not affect the main theory of evolution, but it carries with it some very important conclusions. If it is not true so much the worse for humanity. On the supposition that the effects of education are hereditary, it is difficult to see why the state of affairs in the Middle Ages, with the constant wars, bloodshed, and persecution that went on at that period, had not a more debasing effect on the peoples of this and other countries. The facts of the case show that you cannot destroy the good qualities of a race by ill-treatment, and thus they support Weismann's contention."

Some Reflections.

     Dr. Wallace proceeded to refer to the immense changes brought about in his lifetime through scientific discoveries. Most wonderful of all, he thinks, is the development of electricity in the service of man, culminating in wireless telegraphy. "By means of vibrations in aether," he says, "we now put a girdle round about the earth in forty seconds, instead of Puck's forty minutes, which shows that modern science outstrips even the fancy of the poet. Another modern marvel, I consider, is photography. I have seen it develop from the rudest beginnings even before the days of Daguerre, when it was considered wonderful that one could produce a sort of picture by placing a leaf or a piece of lace on a sheet of paper in the sun." As he surveys a world in which he has seen such portentous changes, Dr. Wallace regrets to see commercialism or self-interest mixed up, as it is, with the pursuit of science. Doctors and professors of various kinds join scientific societies, he believes, as an aid to their own advancement, and in his view even the Royal Society, the oldest and greatest of them, is not free from this taint. People are too much disposed, too, he considers, in these days to call on the Government to equip expeditions to the North Pole or the South Pole or to endow research in some way or other. Such things, he declares, lie beyond the province of Government. Even our Museums, in his opinion, should be self-supporting. All our national collections, he says, were formed by private individuals originally, and when Government comes forward and pays £40,000 or £50,000 for a picture private donors are reluctant to give. At all events, he thinks, Government should not give away a single penny of public money to such objects as long as a single person in the country dies of starvation.


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Editorís Note

     1. Wallace is remembering incorrectly here: the Frolic was the ship he was originally supposed to take to Singapore, in 1854.

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