Misinformation Alert!


    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.
  • Contrary to a number of sources, Wallace's 1858 essay on natural selection was not sent to Darwin with the expressed goal of having it published. Both Darwin and Wallace later indicated that the accompanying cover letter said nothing about publication.

  • 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" section.

  • 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.

  • One all too frequently sees Wallace's name spelled out as: "Alfred Russell Wallace." This is incorrect! His second name is spelled with only one "l": Russel!

  • Wallace is sometimes judged as becoming a spiritualist so he could reach out to his dead son--but this is in error because his son actually died several years after Wallace's acceptance of spiritualism in the mid and late 1860s.
  • 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.

  • After Wallace returned to England from the Amazon, he did not immediately set out for the Malay Archipelago; indeed, it was only after a full eighteen month stay that he took off again.

  • The famous papers on natural selection were delivered in July 1858 at a meeting of the Linnean Society, not the Royal Society.

  • 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 abandon natural selection in his later years. He aggressively defended the theory in print right up through his final year of life at the age of ninety.

  • 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.


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