Alfred Russel Wallace: Evolution of an Evolutionist.


    My first contact with the work of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) came during the second semester of my senior year in college in 1972, when I elected to take a reading tutorial on "biology-related geological subjects" from one of my professors. During the course of this survey I came upon several of Wallace's classic writings, including his book The Geographical Distribution of Animals. I didn't know it at the time, but serious historical study of Wallace had only begun in earnest just a few years earlier, most notably with the pioneer efforts of Gerald Henderson, Wilma George, Barbara Beddall, and H. Lewis McKinney (all of whom have now passed on). People had been at least vaguely aware of Wallace in the years after his death in 1913, of course, but it took the centennial celebration of the 1858 Darwin-Wallace Linnean Society papers on natural selection in 1958 to really ignite interest, and within ten years the die had been cast.

    It was not until the late 1970s that I again ran into Wallace. By that time I had begun a Ph.D. program in biogeography, and anyone involved in such an intellectual trajectory cannot help but become familiar with his work. Wallace is in fact recognized as the "father of biogeography" (or, at the very least, of zoogeography, one of its two main subdivisions), and it did not take me long to conclude that, co-discoverer of natural selection or not, Wallace was most fundamentally a geographer--that is, a geographer who happened to be interested in evolution.

    Having always been the kind of person who liked to compile lists and such, I took up the challenge of putting together a bibliography of Wallace's published writings, for continuing reference. I quickly found that the only substantial attempt at such work had been made by one James Marchant in 1916, in a commemorative volume on Wallace published three years after his death. It listed around four hundred Wallace items, but it soon became apparent that it contained various inaccuracies, and even more omissions. I began to "collect" Wallace publications that had been missed in 1916, and hardly before I knew it the new additions totaled over two hundred in number. This success made me try all the harder to come up with even more.

    By this time I thought I recognized a basic element in Wallace's model of natural selection that had largely escaped other observers (save a few, like Gregory Bateson, who commented on the similarity of certain elements of his thought to modern cybernetics theory). This became the philosophical starting point for my Ph.D. Dissertation, concerning biogeochemical cycle controls on range change in vertebrates. Eventually I came to feel that the development of Wallace's entire cosmology, including natural selection, appeared to be due to his adoption of a unique brand of final causes-related thinking. I made it a long term goal to explore the evolution of his thought, including some aspects of that evolution on which others had already formed different opinions.

    Although a fair number of investigators had done good work on Wallace by the mid-1980s, few had apparently looked at more than a sample of his writings overall (perhaps feeling--wrongly--that he can be understood through a reading of his major books alone). Considering the actual range of Wallace's attention, it is amazing how little respect has been given to that range, or its significance. The best survey of Wallace's life and work in the years immediately following 1958, by Wilma George in 1964, touches on that diversity, but doesn't put all the pieces together very satisfactorily, coming up short in explaining the reasons for his diverging interests. McKinney's excellent 1972 analysis looks at a good percentage of Wallace's pre-1858 writings, but wholly ignores the remaining fifty-five years of his life. Brackman in 1980 and Brooks in 1984 in their monographic studies follow parallel routes, veering off the main subject in an effort to tie Wallace's later overshadowing to misconduct by Darwin. Meanwhile, those engaged in shorter analyses were even more assuming in their appreciations. Historian Joel Schwartz, for example, published a well known paper in 1984 attempting to link Wallace's changing views on humankind to Darwin's publication of The Descent of Man in which the grand total of four Wallace works are cited in the development of his argument.

    The plain fact of the matter is that until quite recently only a very limited number of investigators had bothered to read and fully digest the whole, or nearly the whole, of Wallace's oeuvre. Things have improved over the past ten years, but the momentum of earlier fragmented opinion is difficult to reverse.

    By 1991 I felt I had found most, at least, of Wallace's publications and brought out an anthology and bibliography of his writings for Oxford University Press. This included more than three hundred works of his that had not been listed in the 1916 Marchant memoir. Most of these "rediscovered" writings were individually of limited import, but together they significantly clarified the trend of Wallace's thought. Since 1991 (and as of this writing, 3/06) I have added another eighty-five items to his bibliography: again, most of them minor, but a few affording important clues as to what was going on in his mind at various periods.

    Is there really still a need to continue harping on such fundamentals in the study of the man's work? I believe there is. In reviewing the literature on Wallace en masse one is impressed with the number of inaccurate statements that continue to find their way into print. A brief sample of this morasse is perhaps necessary to make my point (the authors of the sources of the following statements will not be given, but the reader may rest assured that the errors both exist and are accurately represented).

    There are plenty of things to find fault with in the popular literature, but I will spare the reader mention of these here (see my online essay "'It's on the Web...'--Or, When is a 'Russel' a 'Russel'?" for some examples of erroneous statements about Wallace one can find on the free Web) and move directly on to the scholarly literature. In a recent ethnological study, for example, Wallace is incorrectly referred to--twice--as "Sir" Alfred Russel Wallace, a very inept, or possibly even deliberately devious, error. The same paper states that Wallace's field endeavors were subsidized by the British and Dutch colonial regimes (they weren't, except for the fact that he was able to secure free passage from London to Singapore at the beginning of his eight-year stay as the result of a small grant from the Royal Geographical Society), and that Wallace adhered to the "'conservative evolutionary gradualism' which pervaded scientific and anthropological discourse in the late nineteenth century"--nonsense, as he did not. All of this is just a bit much for a paper published in a prominent journal. In another recent work, a second investigator (who has actually done some very good work on Wallace) states that there is no "testimony" by Wallace himself as to whether his long-assumed change of mind regarding the application of natural selection to man was due to his adoption of spiritualist beliefs--there is, however, and in a most conspicuous place: the Preface to On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism. The same source states "there is no evidence" that Wallace was "in any way" influenced by the writings of William Whewell--despite the fact that Wallace himself discusses Whewell on several occasions, and that the recent literature (including an entire Master's Thesis) includes several articles on this very subject.

    Another Wallace scholar has recently backed up the statement that Wallace "had at least enough income to support himself" by quoting a section of My Life (Vol 1, p. 414) referring to the value of his collections, ignoring the subsequent loss of his money in bad investments and the very well known story of Darwin's intervention on his behalf to secure him a pension. Elsewhere, one of the most prominent of current historians of science states in a book review that Wallace thought that as of 1858 his 1855 paper ('On the law...') had been "totally ignored"--despite the inclusion of the well-known 4 January 1858 letter to his friend Bates in the Marchant collection stating how Darwin had written to him and "he agrees with 'almost every word' of my paper."

    Now one can of course forgive such errors as mere oversights, but again, they do point up what seems to be a clear problem in Wallace studies--a general lack of familiarity with Wallace's own writings (and to a certain but lesser extent, secondary analysis thereof). All the more reason, I feel, for the emphasis of the present work on those writings themselves.

    Another independent--but not wholly unimportant--point that needs to be taken is that Wallace was anything but unappreciated for his accomplishments in his own time. Some sources have suggested that his work went unrecognized in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth. The truth of the matter, however, is that by the end of his life Wallace was very likely the most famous scientist in the world. This conclusion is easy enough to arrive at if one takes the time to survey both the obituary notices that appeared after his death, and interviews that were printed during his last years. There should be little reason to doubt that this evidence reflects the truth of the situation. It must be remembered that Wallace's work and writings extended far beyond natural science, and that he was well known in general as a humanist and advocate for social reform. This point is made here not only to correct other impressions, but for the important reason that it needs to be recognized that the effect of his ideas on other thinkers of his time is likely a good deal more pervasive than he is usually given credit for.

    In the following work I present a summary of my interpretation of the basic development of Wallace's intellectual evolution. In it I deliberately avoid more than passing references to Darwin, since in my opinion Darwin is not the key to understanding Wallace, Wallace is. I do not disagree with many of the specific conclusions that have been drawn by past students of Wallace's work such as Beddall, McKinney, Kottler, Brooks and others, but I do question the accuracy of their interpretations of the overall evolution of his thought. There is one matter in particular that is crucial.

    Only a few years after the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Wallace shocked the scientific community with the announcement of his opinion that natural selection was not an all-sufficient cause of the evolution of man--particularly, as regards the higher human faculties (moral, artistic, and mathematical abilities, etc.). Most workers have drawn the direct conclusion that Wallace "changed his mind" about the theory he originally set out--perhaps because of an inability to reconcile "the survival of the fittest" with his utopian social views, or in conjunction with his adoption of spiritualist beliefs. In the present work, however, a rather different interpretation of the events is presented: that Wallace's natural selection views derive from a cosmological position utterly distinct from that underlying Darwinian principles, that Wallace never believed natural selection could explain the presence of man's higher faculties to begin with, and that in turn he never needed to have the change of mind usually attributed to him. In my opinion, Wallace's approach to evolution was shaped by his youthful rejection of the doctrine of first causes and by a distrust of then-existing notions regarding continuity. His first response was to adopt a unique brand of anti-first causes teleology, but this position later matured into a body of ideas compatible with materialist logic upon his recognition of the principle of natural selection and his adoption of spiritualism.

    Thus I interpret Wallace as before 1858 having rejected the argument that adaptations were necessarily adaptive: previously he had equated such acceptance with endorsements of first causes-based doctrine. The 1858 Ternate essay not only signaled his recognition of this mistake, but anticipated his later arguments that the adaptive process was associated with a hierarchical domain of causality. Wallace had been trying from the beginning to develop an evolutionary model that described a continuity of causality extending beyond the immediate domain within which natural selection operates. Wallace did not view his adoption of spiritualism as a retreat from natural selection; rather, he considered spiritualism the best available accounting of the overall meaning of evolution at the level of consciousness, and endorsed it accordingly.

    Three interrelated analyses comprise the present study. In the first I argue that Wallace's eventual adoption of spiritualism was assured many years before either his initial studies of the belief, or earlier discovery of natural selection. The second discussion focuses on the development of Wallace's evolutionary views, my conclusion being that these were broadly enough constituted to accommodate both natural selection and spiritualism without internal inconsistency. Lastly, the idea that Wallace supposedly underwent a "change of mind" regarding the applicability of natural selection to the evolution of man is refuted by reference to earlier discussion, by showing how certain contentious passages in his writings are more easily accounted for through the interpretation of his work presented here, and by taking note of the significant fact that Wallace himself never wrote anything referring to, or conceding, such a change. The analysis remains close to Wallace's own writings; not only is this not the place to attempt to treat fully of all period connections, but frequent reference to what he actually wrote is still necessary in view of the many dubious conclusions that have been reached in the past about his various ideas and positions.

    Over the years I have been fortunate enough to correspond extensively with Wallace scholars and other historians of science, and I would especially like to thank several of these individuals--Martin Fichman, James Moore, Michael Shermer, John van Wyhe, Andrew Berry, and John Lynch--for their continuing willingness to share and discuss their Wallace-related thoughts. I am also indebted to the interlibrary loan group here at Western Kentucky University for their excellent work in coming up with copies of all the obscure documents I continually pester them to find for me.



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