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

Public Responses to Questions Asked
About Alfred Russel Wallace

In this space I (Charles H. Smith) will reply to questions about Wallace posed by the public.  These responses will usually be brief, and may refer to literature listed in the secondary sources pages at this site.  Please, no trolling:  we are here for honest discussion, not to roll eyes!  To link directly to this page, connect with:  http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/fquestions.htm .  To pose a question, send an email to:  charles.smith@wku.edu .

    Public Question: I have often seen it said that Wallace's scientific friends, such as Darwin, were horrified by Wallace's belief in spiritualism, and that this cooled relations with them. However, I can only find the odd comment by his friends about this, so has this been greatly exaggerated?

    My response: In Victorian times, the majority of scientists probably took spiritualism as 'rubbish,' and Darwin, Hooker and Huxley no doubt counted themselves among this group of detractors. But there was also a fairly large minority who were believers, or at least willing to remain uncommitted on the matter. Wallace counted many friends among both groups, and I see little evidence that he was truly ostacized by members of either. Certainly he remained good friends with Darwin and Huxley, and even the arch-conservative Hooker once wrote to Darwin, concerning Wallace's publication of Island Life in 1880, how "It is splendid, what a number of cobwebs he has swept away--that such a man should be a Spiritualist is more wonderful than all the movements of all the plants" (a referral to the title of the then-new Darwin book Movements in Plants)--a pretty good indication of his evaluation of Wallace's science, at least. Sometimes Wallace promoted spiritualism in ways that some felt were crossing the line (as when as a chair of a committee he attempted to allow a paper on spiritualism into the 1876 annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science), and he was usually publicly rebuked accordingly, but such skirmishes were commonplace for him over his career, and over a variety of matters. People of all persuasions seemed to appreciate Wallace, despite his adoption of what he termed his various 'heresies.' So 'horrified' looms as a bit of an overstatement, though Darwin may have felt privately that his colleague was a bit of a 'loose cannon' at times. Another indication of people's reactions to Wallace is the almost total lack of known unpublished manuscripts by him: editors were not so 'horrified' that they didn't eat up just about everything he put out.


    Public Question: In a 1984 book by John Brooks called Just Before the Origin the argument was made that in several ways Darwin, in his Origin of Species, did not appropriately credit Wallace and his contributions; in instances, it was even suggested that Darwin may have possibly incorporated aspects of Wallace's work in ways that today might be considered plagiarism. Are any of Brooks' arguments valid or accepted?

    My response: Brooks and a number of others, before and since, have made these assertions, but their 'sticking power' so far remains to be seen. Without doubt Darwin might have done a better job of citing Wallace's input over the years following 1858, but he certainly didn't try to shut him out of the conversation either. As far as the plagiarism complaint goes, this is a more serious accusation, but I am swayed by two facts: (1) in one sense, it's all 'water under the bridge,' anyway: it doesn't seem that the following development of theory in this area was much affected, one way or the other, and (2) despite the presence of bloodthirsty predators in this direction (who would be happy to weaponize any related information revealed), little convincing evidence has been produced of such a theft. Sometimes people just can't well enough leave things alone: in this instance, the controversy, centering on 'nasty-tidbit-izing' and the possible embarrassment of Darwin, has led to 'poor Wallace-izing' and a diversion of attention away from the more important matter of the content and intent of Wallace's own body of work.


    Public Question: It is well known that Wallace was an enthusiast for spiritualism. What are the links, if any, with Wallace's biological studies?

    My response: They are important, though not obvious. I believe the evidence clearly suggests Wallace never believed the natural selection model he came up with in 1858 could account for the 'higher faculties' of humankind. In natural selection he recognized what we would term a negative feedback loop; populations were in a constant state of selecting for adaptations that would keep them in balance ('harmony') with their overall environment, as this changed (especially, complexified) over time. The key concept was utility: all adaptations thus produced had to be useful to the organism in some way. Wallace could not identify a physical utility angle for many 'higher' human traits, so he asked himself how these traits could come about, and further develop. He finally concluded there must be another layer of organization to reality, one that, though complementary to the biological and physical realms, must be separate from it. In this realm utility is defined increasingly by cooperative action, instead of competition, and is organized in some way that could help people expand their awareness of causes he recognized as being "beyond time and space." Spiritualism fit this bill, not because of the sensationalist nonsense connected to mediums and seances, but instead because the 'spirit realm' made it possible (through dreams, premonitions, feelings of conscience, etc.) for people to revisit/reconsider their past bad actions, and then improve upon them, causing positive change. This is why Wallace emphasized the Spinozian notion of what I have termed 'informed belief' (see in particular the Wallace writing I have transcribed as S110, and the Wallace letter to his brother-in-law Thomas Sims reproduced in Marchant 1916, starting on page 65): the idea that because belief is not voluntary and therefore not inherently meritorious, it can only be overcome by considering and being open to new and meritorious facts (or even feelings). In short, at some point the leading edge of biological/geophysical/cosmological evolution (within which, he felt, natural selection is only one of many contributing elements) becomes the ability to perceive how one's actions produce more than just immediate results (as in the case of animals and plants), but also events extending, remotely, beyond time and space (i.e., in the 'noosphere'). Need I add that Wallace's consideration of such ideas in no way 'interfered' with his purely systematic efforts, executed according to standard methodologies. It perhaps should also be pointed out that this understanding of the basic dynamics involved does not preclude its being associated with more conventional operating mechanisms--or even more unusual ones yet!


    Public Question: Did Wallace lose his entire Amazon collection with the sinking of the 'Helen'?

    My response: No, he didn't. In his My Life he writes: "As it happened (owing to Custom House formalities at Barra), the whole of my collections during the last two voyages [i.e., up the Rio Negro] were with me on the ship that was burnt, and were thus totally lost." According to an itinerary published by Limeira-DaSilva in 2022, at least four consignments of his specimens were sent to England before the later materials were delayed at the docks at Barra. The last of the earlier four was dispatched around February 1850; he left Barra for the final time with the doomed collections on 10 June 1852, so it seems that the items lost were collected over a period of almost two and one half years.


    Public Question: What use did Wallace make of museums, and how did he contribute to their collections?

    My response: Museums, being storehouses of collected specimens, were critical to Wallace's efforts as a systematist, both in terms of his mid-life efforts to classify his captures, and his decisions as to which specimens to seek while in the field. Wallace himself contributed many tens of thousands of specimens to the museums of the world, benefitting the later efforts of others. Beyond this, Wallace was keenly aware of the importance of museums as educational facilities, offering many suggestions for their improvement (see items S143, S157, S170, S292, S401 and S404 in the "Texts of Wallace Writings" page at this site). At one point he even submitted architectural plans for a new Museum of Natural History facility when this was being discussed in the 1860s.


    Public Question: I have heard Wallace referred to as the originator of the concept of aposematic (warning) coloration, but didn't Bates propose that concept earlier in his famous 1862 paper on mimicry in Amazonian butterflies?

    My response: Wikipedia defines aposematism, or warning coloration, as "the advertising by an animal to potential predators that it is not worth attacking or eating. This unprofitability may consist of any defenses which make the prey difficult to kill and eat, such as toxicity, venom, foul taste or smell, sharp spines, or aggressive nature. These advertising signals may take the form of conspicuous coloration, sounds, odours, or other perceivable characteristics. Aposematic signals are beneficial for both predator and prey, since both avoid potential harm." I asked a biologist familiar with Bates about this matter, and he noted that while Bates certainly had identified how adopting a coloration similar to a different, noxious, species could offer protection, he seems to have not quite gotten to the more general idea that bright coloration in particular could signal--advertise--to predators the inadvisability of attacking, thus being a warning advantageous to prey and predator alike (and whether or not a mimetic situation was involved). There was a famous exchange between Darwin and Bates in early 1867 in which the latter suggested that the former contact Wallace for an explanation of the bright coloration of certain caterpillars, whereupon Wallace came up with the concept. Wallace would later introduce several other theories related to protective coloration and form, some related to camouflage within the physical environment, and others to organism-organism relations. Interestingly, Wallace's work in this arena makes him a clear anticipator of the kind of communication process studied in the field of biosemiosis. For more on aposematism, click here.


    Public Question: What was ARW's position on vaccination, and did it change over the course of his career?

    My response: Prior to the mid or late 1870s Wallace had pretty much accepted the government line that vaccination was a powerful tool in preventing smallpox; he even had his own children vaccinated. But then he started looking at the available smallpox incidence statistics over time and changed his mind. Hearing of many individual instances, it appeared to him that too many people might possibly be suffering the effects of unsanitary vaccination procedures (little knowledge of germ theory existed at that point), and that some doctors might have been cooking the books besides. Further, he argued that the long-term reductions in smallpox deaths might be more attributable to improving public sanitation systems than to vaccination. Worst, he lamented over the fact that the mandatory vaccination laws often cost the average working man an amount equal to a month or two of their annual pay. He remained relatively hostile to mandatory vaccination practices for the rest of his life.


    Public Question: In which fundamental sense is Wallace’s contribution most different from Darwin’s work?

    My response: There are a number of possible ways of answering this question, but I'll go with two I find striking. First, a lot of Darwin's insights were bolstered by analogies made to artificial selection practices. Darwin was struck by the fact that deliberate selection efforts on domesticated plants and animals could make them change into physically different organisms--this, good evidence that adaptive change could take place at all. Wallace, however, believed the analogy to be a false one, being more committed to the unpredictable kinds of changes that were going on in the natural world. These did not produce adaptive structures that were predetermined. An important element of Wallace's contribution thus became his ability to draw on his greater experience of natural situations to illustrate his points. Wallace's was also a more ecological or systems approach to understanding how evolution unfolded than was Darwin's, which focused on continuities over time: biological phylogenesis. Wallace set natural selection as a form of environmental feedback in which the less fit are eliminated, keeping the relationship between organism and environment more balanced, if still capable of change. Wallace thought that at least some of the forms taking part in this ongoing balancing act would eventually advance to beings (us) whose cooperative actions could extend "beyond space and time" to control planetary-level processes. This is ultimately a conception of information organization extending beyond conventional Darwinism.


    Public Question: Should Wallace be called "the father of biogeography"?

    My response: Biogeography is a complex field, often subdivided in two ways: (1) into ecological biogeography and evolutionary biogeography (sometimes called 'historical biogeography') and (2) into animal geography (zoogeography) and plant biogeography (phytogeography). The origins of modern forms of ecological biogeography study date back to the late eighteenth century with people like Alexander von Humboldt and Karl Willdenow--that is, to well before the work of Darwin and Wallace, who added an evolutionary perspective into the mix. Wallace himself never once used the term 'biogeography' in his writings, preferring the wordings 'geographical zoology,' 'zoological geography,' and 'botanical geography'. It is fair to call Wallace the (main) father of evolutionary biogeography, or of zoogeography (which as a term has usually been applied to evolutionary studies of faunas), but a bit of a stretch to name him as the 'father' of the entire field of biogeography.


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