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

 
 
Alfred Russel Wallace (S753: 1913)

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An interview/obituary by W. B. Northrop printed in the 22 November 1913 edition of the New York magazine The Outlook. Note the several flagged errors of factual detail. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S753.htm


    [[p. 619]] Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, the famous English scientific and sociological writer, who recently passed away in his ninety-first year, was a man of marked personality. It was the good fortune of the writer some time ago to spend a day with him at his country home in Kent,1 near Broadstone, and to obtain from him first-hand an interesting account of his own life, together with his views on some of the many present-day topics on which the versatile mind of the naturalist delighted to speculate.

    Dr. Wallace, with all his distinction as the co-discoverer, or rather expounder, of the theory of natural selection--sharing the honor with Darwin--and despite his many other achievements in intellectual pursuits, was a man of great modesty. It is seldom that greatness in this world is allied to humility; but Dr. Wallace possessed self-abnegation to a rare degree. This was evinced early in his career, when his researches in natural history led him to conclusions in natural selection identical with those of Darwin. In 1858 Dr. Wallace was in New Guinea and made a careful study of the inhabitants of the Malay Archipelago, a treatise on whom he forwarded to Sir Charles Lyell, President of the Royal Society.2 He requested Sir Charles to show his paper to Darwin, and the latter was astounded to find that young Wallace had worked out in its entirety his own ideas on natural selection. The reception of this paper by the President of the Royal Society compelled Darwin to "rush into print" with the "Origin of Species," thus receiving all the credit for the so-called discovery of natural selection. Dr. Wallace never attempted to deprive Darwin of any of the glory of the work, and when he lectured in America some years later insisted on paying all honor to his co-discoverer and friend.

    Dr. Wallace's home life was ideal. He occupied a small tract of land called the Old Orchard, not far from the little village of Broadstone, one of the prettiest hamlets of Kent, about five hours' ride southwest from London. His house was of the rambling English country type, and stood on a knoll commanding a view of the town of Poole and its pretty harbor. Here Dr. Wallace spent the evening of his days, devoting his spare time, when not writing books and magazine articles, to raising chickens, gardening, cross-country walking, and playing chess with neighbors who chanced to call. Up to within a year or two ago Dr. Wallace had been assisted in his work by Mrs. Wallace, who helped to prepare all his manuscripts and to read the proofs of his various books and articles. Dr. Wallace, like our Mark Twain, did all of his work with a pen, and never cultivated dictating to stenographers or using a typewriter. He made it a point to turn out each day about six thousand words--a high average for literary production.

    As President of the English Society for Land Nationalization Dr. Wallace took a keen and active interest in the crusade of Chancellor Lloyd George against landlordism. Dr. Wallace's book on Land Nationalization has recently sold extensively throughout England, and accomplished much toward educating the democracy as to the power possessed by those who own the soil.

    There was scarcely a living topic of the day in which Dr. Wallace was not interested. He was a great believer in country life, and one of his dreams was the "demagnetization" of great towns. He believed that a return to country life was a panacea for many social evils, and lent every encouragement in his power to the efforts put forward in many parts of England to build "garden cities." The reading of Edward Bellamy's famous "Looking Backward" exerted considerable influence on the mind of Dr. Wallace, and it was the attempt to carry out some of the ideas of Bellamy that gave the learned Doctor the reputation of being an out-and-out Socialist. Among others who exerted a strong influence on his mind were Robert Owen, Adam Smith, and Ebenezer Howard. The last-mentioned person was the builder of the first English "garden city" at Letchworth, in which enterprise Dr. Wallace was deeply interested. He hoped by building numerous "garden city" centers near the big towns to attract most of the residential population away from the latter, and thus, in time, to [[p. 620]] destroy their glamour for the multitude. Congestion of population would thus naturally eliminate itself, through the process of "demagnetization;" that is, by the great centers losing their attractiveness.3

    The first occasion on which the writer met Dr. Wallace was the result of a visit following a request for an interview. On arriving at the village of Broadstone I was met by a tall, lank, broad-shouldered figure, with snow-white beard and hair, wearing a broad-brimmed hat of Western style and blue glasses which emphasized the pallor of the countenance. The suit of dark material which Dr. Wallace wore seemed a few sizes too large and the shoes looked particularly well adapted for cross-country walking. Though a certain amount of disregard of conventionality was displayed in his dress, there was no untidiness. Dr. Wallace showed no signs of old age except his white hair. His gait was a vigorous stride and his conversation brisk and full of human interest. He had walked over to meet me--a mile from home--and thought nothing of walking back, though it was raining with that persistent downpour so typical of the English climate.

    On the way Dr. Wallace discoursed eloquently on the advantages of country life. He had lived in London for some time after his return from the Malay Archipelago in 1858,4 but in 1871 he decided definitely to shake the dust of cities from his feet forever.

    "Since that time," he said on this occasion, "I have stuck to the country, and nothing could ever again induce me to return to city life. The life now lived by people in modern cities is absolutely false--not false in that it is not true, or that it is deliberately deceitful, but false in the fact that it is not the life conducive to human happiness. I believe," he continued, "that a strong reaction is setting in towards a return to more healthful conditions, and in order to obtain them the cities must be abandoned. I have traveled a great deal," added the Doctor, "not so much because I wished to travel as that I wished to study life under different conditions, and I am convinced that the truly happy life of the future will be that spent in the country. Life in the cities destroys the spiritual in man; and while it is true that more money is to be made in cities, and more creature comfort may be obtained, the materialism of cities offsets any advantage which might otherwise be derived in the centers of population."

    On the occasion of my visit to Dr. Wallace he was asked to sit for the photograph which accompanies this article. He demurred a little to the ordeal, but finally consented, and while thus posing for the camera discussed the advantages of modern illustrated journalism. No subject seemed too small for his keen analysis, and his conversational powers were exceptional. With all his great knowledge on many deep subjects of science, he displayed no self-assertiveness whatever, and, though having pronounced and daring views on many debatable topics, he put forward his arguments without dogmatism.

    On the occasion of this visit I asked Dr. Wallace to sketch for me briefly the principal events of his career. He said:

    "I don't know that there is anything especially interesting in being born, but of course I was. You always begin with that, I think, in interviews. The day was January 8, 1823, to be exact. My father was Thomas Vere Wallace, and he died when I was eleven years old.5 I am of Scottish descent.6 I was educated in the ordinary way at Hertford School, where I lived until my fourteenth year.

    "My brother was a surveyor and architect, and from my fourteenth to my twenty-first year I worked in his office. I enjoyed outdoor life, and the career of architect did not appeal to me. When twenty-one, I became a teacher of English in the Collegiate School at Leicester. My brother died in the following year, and I succeeded to his business.

    "I spent some time as a surveyor on the railway, but, as part of my duty was to collect money from farmers in the neighborhood, I became thoroughly disgusted with that phase of life and made up my mind to abandon it. As a matter of fact, I never did take to business, my bent being more towards travel and science.

    "I applied at this time to H. W. Bates, whom I met at Leicester, and asked him to send me to the Amazon River on an expedition which he was fitting out.7 I wished particularly to go to that section, having read Edwards's 'Voyage up the Amazon' and Humboldt's 'Personal Narrative.' My object in going to this place was to collect natural history material, with a view to solving the great problem of the origin of species. I returned to England in 1853, and wrote a book called 'Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro.' The following year I set out on an expedition and spent eight years between [[p. 621]] Malacca and New Guinea, writing a book on the Malay Archipelago and the 'Land of the Orang-Utan.'

    "I did a great deal of work on the natural selection theory, and my paper came before Darwin in 1858. It seems that Darwin had been working along the same lines, and shortly after reading my paper he published his 'Origin of Species.'

    "On my return to London, in 1866, I gave up traveling for a while and married the daughter of William Mitten, the well-known botanist. I soon tired of London and decided to live the rest of my life in the country. I have never had cause to regret this decision."

    Dr. Wallace was, as every one now knows, a confirmed spiritist, and it was his research into the occult that, perhaps more than anything else, brought upon him much of the unfriendly criticism which he had to face in later years from his fellow-scientists. Like Sir Oliver Lodge and the late William T. Stead, however, he has not lacked the courage to uphold his opinions boldly with pen and voice, and his work in the field of psychical research awaits the test of time. Now that another famous spiritist, Dr. Charles Richet, of Paris, has just won the Nobel Prize for work in medical research, perhaps the world will begin to lend a more attentive ear to the subject of future life: a theme which for many years occupied much of the attention of Dr. Wallace.

    In the course of our interview Dr. Wallace was asked how he first came to direct his attention to Spiritism.

    "When I returned from abroad," he replied, "I had read a good deal about Spiritualism, and, like most people, believed it to be a fraud and a delusion. This was in 1862. At that time I met a Mrs. Marshall, who was a celebrated medium in London, and after attending a number of her meetings, and examining the whole question with an open mind and with all the scientific application I could bring to bear upon it, I came to the conclusion that Spiritualism was genuine. However, I did not allow myself to be carried away, but I waited for three years and undertook a most rigorous examination of the whole subject, and was then convinced of the evidence and genuineness of Spiritualism.

    "The religion of the future will be based solely on Spiritualism. When great scientists like Sir Oliver Lodge, Professor W. F. Barrett, Lord Kelvin, and others are coming out in favor of the spiritualistic truth, it is time for ordinary people like myself to fall into line.

    "While I am a pronounced Spiritualist, it is not exactly in the popular sense of the term. I believe that there is a great deal to be learned along lines of legitimate psychological investigation, and I am of opinion that many students who are pursuing these studies earnestly will, before long, arrive at some startling truths. Most scoffers will tell you that this is entirely speculative, but the well-attested experience of hundreds of investigators cannot be so lightly set aside.

    "It was on this very point--the existence of spirit--that I differed so largely from Darwin. He implied that the nature of man--his mind and his soul (if he had one)--was derived from the lower animals, just as the body was so derived. While Darwin did not deny the action of the Great First Cause--most persons think Darwin was an atheist, but they do not understand his work--at the same time he believed that man's physical and mental structure developed from the struggle for existence, and that even the intellectual nature proceeded from the lower animals.

    "My argument has always been that the mind and the spirit, while being influenced by the struggle for existence, have not originated through natural selection. For hundreds of years it was believed that the surface of the earth, with all its beauty, was caused by volcanic action, by wind, frost, rain, and rivers. Most people admit this, but scientists had to point out that the action of glaciers was also a cause for the molding of the earth's surface. After the glacier theory was advanced all the old theories had to make way for it. It was the same with evolution. It accounts for a great many things, but there is a limit to its application. Evolution is extremely interesting, and men fastened on it as the only explanation for all the manifold mysteries with which they are confronted. Evolution is true in part, but it does not account by any means for all the facts. I am one who believes there is something in man that is infinite and which differs in nature as well as in degree from anything which is seen in the lower animals. I believe that at a certain epoch of our life, when the body is ready to receive it, there is an influx of spirit, and our existence in the future depends very largely [[p. 622]] on how we adapt ourselves to this new condition when it comes before us.

    "It is all very well to talk about the soul and the spirit and things of that kind, without any definite idea of just what these phrases mean. But, aside entirely from these considerations, I maintain that the theory of evolution does not account for many of the mental attributes of man. It does not account for our wonderful mathematical, musical, or artistic faculties. Who can claim that man has received these endowments from some lower animal which never possessed an inkling of them? Many of the lower animals, it is true, display a much finer physical and muscular development than man does. They are gifted with greater agility and endurance, and undoubtedly we have derived from them many of our physical attributes. But who can reasonably say that we are indebted to any of the lower animals for our high intellectual faculties? The gulf which separates the ant from Newton, the ape from Shakespeare, the parrot from Isaiah, cannot be bridged by the struggle for existence. To call the spiritual nature of man a 'by-product,' developed by us in our struggle for existence, is a joke too big for this little world. It was on this very point that I differed from Darwin, and it is on these points that I cannot meet the modern materialists who say that man is merely an animal and there is nothing for him beyond the grave. It is very well for us to try to account for the material on a mere material basis, and it may be very satisfactory to some people who do not seriously consider the subject; but, if the soul has come into being from what is popularly termed 'the struggle for existence,' how is it that in this very struggle for existence we meet daily with people who are making self-sacrifices, exhibiting wonderful heroism and disinterested affection--live men and women of the day who are actually spending their existence for the sake of others? If every one were merely engaged in the desperate struggle for existence, why should any member of the human family try to help along or support anybody else?

    "Evolution can account well enough for the land-grabber, the company promoter, the trust, and the sweater, but it fails to account for Raphael and Wagner, Swedenborg, Newton, Florence Nightingale, or others of this character. The world has been moved far more by spiritual forces than by material and selfish ones. Neither Darwin nor Moses 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 the existence of the soul man approaches death with an open mind. I hold that the existence of the soul and the presence of consciousness beyond the grave have been already proved. It is because the scientific investigation of psychical matters has become confused in the popular mind with the imposture of charlatans that indiscriminating people regard Spiritualism as a fake. An honest and unbiased examination of all the facts gathered by modern psychologists would certainly open the eyes of even the most doubtful of all the Thomases.

    "Truth is born into this world only with pangs and tribulations, and every fresh truth is received unwillingly. To expect the world to receive a new truth, or even an old truth, without challenging it, is to look for one of those miracles which do not occur."


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Editor's Notes

1Kent is not the correct county here--Wallace lived in Dorset.

2This and the following sentence contain gross inaccuracies. Lyell was not President of the Royal Society at this time, nor did Wallace send his essay (hardly a "treatise") to him--rather, it was sent to Darwin himself in the hope that the latter might forward it to Lyell if he (Darwin) thought it might interest him.

3Wallace's Land Nationalisation (S722) appeared in 1882, and he had already published an even earlier lengthy essay on the subject in a prominent review. This was well before Howard's main works appeared. It has never been suggested--but is quite possible--that Howard's ideas were as much or more shaped by Wallace's as the reverse.

4Actually, 1862.

5More reliable sources indicate that Thomas Vere Wallace died in 1843.

6Wallace's father was of Scottish descent, but his mother's family had been predominantly English for many generations.

7More reliable sources would have it that Bates, his colleague rather than his "outfitter," was enlisted by Wallace to make the trip, rather than the reverse.

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