The World Wide Web is a marvelous resource,
but it also has some drawbacks. One is that it has the tendency to promote
the rapid spread of misinformation. All one has to do is to put up some
sloppily researched and/or incorrect data, and this will be picked up
on by other persons who have no reason to believe otherwise, and who
don't have the time or inclination to check their facts. Certain bits
of misinformation about Wallace are currently being circulated in this
fashion, and one fears that the inaccuracies will continue to spread
unless somebody makes some effort to stem the tide. The following represent
some of the more common errors regarding Wallace's life and work that
are now blindly plying the electronic seas (see also my "It's
On The Web..."--Or, When is a "Russel" a "Russel"?):
- Sometimes one sees it remarked in the literature that Wallace coined the term "Darwinism." He did not, actually;
the word entered into general usage very soon after Darwin's Origin
appeared in 1859, apparently as a natural reaction from many sources.
Wallace did, however, give the term a final endorsement when he used
it as the title of his book Darwinism (S724) in 1889.
Although I realize that doing so will undoubtedly
annoy my Welsh readers, I feel I must protest at the increasing number
of sources that refer to Wallace as being "Welsh" instead
of "English." With all due allowances for various past disrespects
that have been committed concerning the Welsh people, I feel it is
only fair in this instance that Wallace be referred to for general
purposes as an Englishman. My reasons for this are set out in some
detail in one of the items in the "FAQ"
In many sources one sees the inference that Wallace's
1855 "Sarawak Law" essay (S20)
represented a stating of the theory of natural selection predating
his and Darwin's 1858 publication. This is absolutely incorrect, for
the simple reason that the 1855 work, while all but coming out in
favor of the idea of organic evolution, contains not a word
even hinting at the notion of natural selection. Instead, it discusses
the geological/geographical pattern of species divergence, with Wallace
referring to such divergences as "creations," an indication
that he had no grasp of the generating process, just its results.
Wallace's expedition to the Malay Archipelago was
not supported by Royal Geographical Society (or any other group)
funds, though he was able to secure a grant from that institution
covering the expense of his passage to Singapore in 1862, and he did
benefit from letters of introduction and the like prepared for him
by representatives of the British and Dutch governments.
Wallace's historical contribution to the study
of the Martian surface has been somewhat exaggerated by some sources.
While it is noteworthy that he was a pioneer in the application
of sound scientific reasoning methods to the assessment of Martian
geographical and climatological conditions (in a successful effort
to counter the claims of Percival Lowell and others regarding the
Martian "canals"), he did not, on the one hand, suggest that Martian
surface craters had been created by meteor impacts, nor on the other
suggest that the "canals" had resulted from surface erosion by water
(his theory invoked a combination of surface shrinkage and volcanism).
Wallace was never knighted or similarly honored.
Thus, one should never refer to him as "Sir Alfred," "Lord
Alfred," or the like.
Henry Walter Bates, the naturalist who accompanied
Wallace to South America in 1848, was not in any larger
scale sense Wallace's mentor or teacher (though he did originally
introduce Wallace to the joys of natural history collecting). In
fact, he was two years younger than Wallace. Neither was
Bates a teacher at the Leicester school where Wallace was working
when they met, as some sources have reported. Further, it was by
all accounts Wallace, not Bates, who had the idea of undertaking
an expedition to South America.
Thomas Vere Wallace, Wallace's father, did not
die when Wallace was a child. In Wallace's autobiography My
Life (S729) he specifically states that the family moved "to
Hoddesdon in 1837 or 1838, where my father died in 1843." Thus he
was nineteen or twenty when his father died.
Wallace was not "lower class"; in fact, his parents
came from quite upstanding stock: his father had been trained and
sworn in as a lawyer (but because of inherited wealth did not practice),
and had reputedly hung around with leisure-seekers (and met Beau
Brummel) when he was younger; another paternal-side relative who
died in 1803 had been an Admiral and was knighted. On his mother's
side some of his relatives had held prominent positions such as
architect and town mayor. Of course the family did fall on hard
times financially, but that is another matter.
Wallace was not a spiritualist in his "later years"
only. He first publicly supported study of the belief in 1866 (and
was certainly a full convert by 1869); thus, he lived as much of
his life as a spiritualist, as not.
Wallace did not coin the phrase "survival of the
fittest"--Herbert Spencer did. It was Wallace, however,
who suggested that Darwin use the phrase as a means of conveying
the basic idea of natural selection to nonspecialist readers.