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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 (to me, via Quora): Did Charles Darwin make any mention of Alfred Russel Wallace in his book "The Origin of Species"?

    My response: Many observers have commented that, relatively speaking, Wallace is *not* that much referred to in Darwin's writings. The first edition of Origin mentions him but four times, and later editions only add a few more. Of all of Darwin's post-1859 books, Only The Descent of Man frequently brings him up (more than sixty times), while most have no mentions at all. By contrast, Wallace cites Darwin in more than 175 of his own publications, with total notices approaching 500 in number (p.s.: Yes, I actually do keep track of such things!). Darwin was reasonably generous to Wallace in a number of ways, but his private correspondence shows that on occasion he was also not so approving. Generally, he wanted nothing to do with Wallace's ideas on anything outside of biology/natural history, and whenever Wallace brought up such subjects Darwin would avoid discussion.


    Public Question (to me, via Quora): Would it be correct nowadays to give credit to both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace for substantiating that the "survival of the fittest" is the most important step in the species theory of evolution?

    My response: "Survival of the fittest" is actually a pretty good description of the essence of natural selection, à la Darwin. While it is tautological in portraying "the survival of the survivors" and doesn’t pinpoint why differential survivorship only touches on the more core notion of differential reproductive success, it still works--mis-extensions to eugenics and other self-serving agendas notwithstanding. What is most interesting here, however, is not so much Darwin's adoption of the phrase from the writings of Herbert Spencer, but the fact that it was Alfred Russel Wallace who suggested that Darwin use it. In a famous letter to Darwin, Wallace in effect identifies the tautology implicit in the term 'natural selection' by drawing attention to Darwin's use of it as both a process and a result, and application of the term as if it were some kind of transcendental first cause force (e.g., "natural selection acts to produce…"). This was one of Wallace's slyest and most brilliant moves, as it allowed him to distance himself from Darwin: Wallace’s preferred definition of natural selection was as a law of nature (not a theory) depicting an elimination of the unfit--that is to say, not as a process, but as a result. One might attempt to argue that this too is tautology, but not so! In Wallace's natural selection, populations are kept 'in harmony' with their surroundings through a negative feedback reaction (as in his steam engine governor analogy) removing from the gene pool, through differential death, those less able to cope. Fitness is merely existence, and the interactive emergence of novel adaptations is both the product of chance, trial and error, and contingent on population variation. Wallace wanted this distinction because he regarded evolution in more complex terms than did Darwin--but that is another story.


    Public Question: Did Wallace accept the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus? Is it possible to say that Wallace was an unorthodox Christian (like Emanuel Swedenborg)?

    My response: Thanks for the very useful question. No, Wallace was not an "unorthodox Christian," or any other kind of Christian. He basically had little use for any sort of conventional, dogmatic, religion. In 1908, replying to an inquiry, he wrote (item S664 in my list of his writings): "I have never given any special study to the character and influence of Jesus Christ. But as one who from boyhood till middle age was a confirmed materialist, and in his later life has become a confirmed spiritualist--but at no time a believer in dogmatic Christianity--my growing impression of late years has been that Jesus of Nazareth was, in his moral and human aspect, the finest character of whom we have any record, and that his influence upon humanity has been--notwithstanding the gross perversion of his teaching by priests and rulers--of supreme value. The story of his life impresses me as being on the whole a truthful one, as handed down by his disciples; and, of course, as a Spiritualist, I have no difficulty in accepting the record of his miracles as being, substantially, truthful also." In an 1894 book review (S496) he wrote: "...[religion] has been one of the most important agencies in social development, and is closely bound up with that portion of our nature to which all recent social advance is due, and which will inevitably decide the course of our future progress. Of course this has nothing to do with dogmatic religion, but only with those great ethical principles which have always formed part of religious teaching, and whose influence is in great part due to it." And Wallace's acceptance that 'miracles' might be real occurrences had nothing to do with his believing in Godly first causes; instead, like Spinoza, he believed they were merely unusual events that could be explained through scientific understandings of nature we did not yet possess (this is spelled out quite clearly in 1870's S174). Indeed, Wallace was a lifelong agnostic who even refrained from using phrases like 'God knows' or 'in the name of God' in his private correspondence. Any attempt to conceive him as in any way supportive of dogmatic religious belief, or the notion of a monotheistic deity, is a futile effort (though many have done so, leading to much confusion).


    Public Question (to me, via Quora): Why was Wallace not given equal credit with Darwin when they both discovered the same thing at roughly the same time period?

    My response: There are several reasons. Darwin deserves some weight for having thought out at least a rough version of the natural selection concept some twenty years before Wallace, even if he hadn't yet published anything on the subject as of 1858. Further, by the time "On the Origin" was released in late 1859, he had come up with an array of arguments based on his collections in the 1830s, knowledge of the literature, his creative powers of reasoning, and experimentation; Wallace had not had the time or opportunity to do such. Also, Darwin was a member of the naturalist elite already, and had powerful friends in the right places who could aid his cause; Wallace, much lesser so. And Darwin went ahead and put out a major monograph on the subject while Wallace was still in the field, 10000 miles away. Wallace also was the more explorative thinker, adopting positions on all sorts of things Darwin studiously avoided dealing with--including subjects many science-types were very uncomfortable with. Darwin, moreover, was more methodical in his ways, which scientists like. And, in point of fact, Darwin had a greater direct influence on nuts and bolts science, both immediately, and now. But it should be pointed out that the 'competition' is far from over: W's and D's conceptions of evolution in general (i.e., as a distinct matter from the natural selection concept) were quite different, and we may eventually regret not looking into Wallace’s point of view more carefully, earlier.


    Public Question (to me, via Quora): Who was a better writer, Darwin or Wallace?

    My response: I don’t think there's much of a contest here. Darwin was an adequate, what I would term "four-square," writer whose greatest writing positive was clarity of expression. Chugging through Darwin is a bit of a slog, whatever the genius of his ideas and argumentation. Wallace on the other hand was frequently looked to as one of the best nonfiction writers of his era, whether describing tropical scenery, the habits of orangutans, the thoughtlessness of the upper classes, the stupidity of war and imperialism, the forces behind glaciation, or the design of museums. The great American philosopher Charles Peirce once said of him that "he never wrote a dull line in his life, and couldn't if he tried." Many others, including Darwin himself, made similar observations on his talent in this direction. It helped that he always conveyed a high level of passion for his subject; beyond this he was renowned for his talent at marshaling evidence (being a ravenous reader himself, both of fiction and nonfiction), and fairness in argument with his adversaries.


    Public Question (to me, via Quora): Certain people refer to the Theory of Evolution as Darwinism. As Charles Darwin died in 1882, are they under the impression that no new evidence has been added to his previous conclusions in the past 141 years?

    My response: 'Darwinism' is the theory of evolution by natural selection, especially as described by Darwin. It is not 'the theory of evolution.' In 1900 Darwin's colleague Alfred Russel Wallace wrote: "Evolution, as a general principle, implies that all things in the universe, as we see them, have arisen from other things which preceded them by a process of modification, under the action of those all-pervading but mysterious agencies known to us as 'natural forces,' or, more generally, 'the laws of nature.'" He intended us to understand that natural selection was but one of those 'forces/laws'; it takes place as the inevitable result of collision of three realities: 1) potential superfecundity in all species 2) variation within populations & 3) an absolute limit of resources supporting existence. The notion that evolution reduces to the operation of natural selection is rampant, and just not true.


    Public Question (to me, via Quora): Could Charles Darwin have figured out evolution on his own without Alfred Russel Wallace's help?

    My response: Darwin had already largely, at the least, figured out how evolution was propelled by natural selection before coming into contact with Wallace. There is still some question as to whether he had fully figured out the exact mechanism of divergence, and perhaps Wallace's ideas helped him with that, but a final verdict is impossible at this point because we still do not fully understand it, or their exact positions. Darwin would likely eventually have published--something--on his model even without Wallace's input, but the latter's perspective was important for a number of reasons, not the least of which was his appreciation of how natural selection operated in the field, supported by direct observations. One point: Darwin's and Wallace's understanding of evolution in general, as opposed to the mechanism of natural selection, remained quite distinct, natural selection being arguably their closest touching point.


    Public Question (to me, via Quora): What is the definition of a 'god' in the context of Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory?

    My response: There is none, for either man. Darwin paid lip-service to the notion of Godly origins for 'big-picture' things, but he was really largely a conventional agnostic who didn’t want to offend his true-believer wife by denying God's existence outright. None of Darwin's science has any sort of debt to the concept of an influencing God. Wallace went even further; in his autobiography he mentions how while growing up he never gave the notion of an omnipotent being any thought or care. Neither did he have much tolerance for institutional religion. He ended up being a spiritualist, but felt the 'Spirit Realm' was just another aspect of the natural world, one contributing to humankind's evolutionary mental advance. His scientific theories also contained not a trace of 'first causes' thinking. The difference between Darwin and Wallace in this matter is best seen in how they treated the word 'God' in their writings and personal correspondence: Darwin often interjected phrases like 'God knows' or 'God willing' into his letters, but Wallace refrained from using such wording entirely, and almost never used the word ‘God’ in his published writings, apart from when he was describing someone else's thoughts on the subject.


    Public Question (to me, via Quora): Do you know what Alfred Tennyson thought about Charles Darwin?

    My response: No, I don't, but I know he was impressed with Alfred Russel Wallace. One day he asked a mutual friend to set up a meeting with Wallace; among other things, Tennyson wanted some advice on the colors of tropical foliage, and there was no one better to ask on that subject. He and Wallace also hit it off on the subject of spiritualism; I don't know Tennyson's full beliefs in that direction, but Wallace was an avid follower and the two apparently had a good discussion about it. The meeting is detailed in Wallace’s autobiography My Life, and in a memoir written by their mutual friend, poet William Allingham.


    Public Question (to me, via Quora): Do you think that natural selection can explain everything about the development of life on Earth, or are there other forces at work?

    My response: This sounds like a baited question to me: i.e., if natural selection doesn't explain everything, then do we need some purported supernatural force to provide an answer? In 1900 Alfred Russel Wallace, who did not believe in the 'supernatural'*, wrote: "Evolution, as a general principle, implies that all things in the universe, as we see them, have arisen from other things which preceded them by a process of modification, under the action of those all-pervading but mysterious agencies known to us as 'natural forces,' or, more generally, 'the laws of nature.' More particularly the term evolution implies that the process is an 'unrolling,' or 'unfolding' . . . and the word is therefore very applicable to an extensive range of phenomena; but it must not be taken as universally applicable, since in the material world there are other modes of orderly change under natural laws to which the terms development or evolution are equally applicable. The 'continuity' of physical phenomena, as illustrated by the late Sir William Grove in 1866, has the same general meaning, but evolution implies more than mere continuity or succession--something like growth or definite change from form to form under the action of unchangeable laws. The point to be especially noted here is, that evolution, even if it is essentially a true and complete theory of the universe, can only explain the existing conditions of nature by showing that it has been derived from some pre-existing condition through the action of known forces and laws. It may also show the high probability of a similar derivation from a still earlier condition; but the further back we go the more uncertain must be our conclusions, while we can never make any real approach to the absolute beginnings of things. Herbert Spencer, and many other thinkers before him, have shown that if we try to realize the absolute nature of the simplest phenomena, we are inevitably landed either in a contradiction or in some unthinkable proposition. Thus, suppose we ask, Is matter infinitely divisible, or is it not? If we say it is, we cannot think it out, since all infinity, however it may be stated in words, is really unthinkable." I think this answer is more to the point. Wallace regarded natural selection as one of those "laws of nature" he refers to above, meaning there are other relevant forces, probably extending beyond those we have already identified. *Note that Wallace was a spiritualist beginning in his middle years, but his view of related phenomena was Spinoza-like, i.e., that they represented a 'not-yet-understood' element of natural process.


    Public Question (to me, via Quora): The theory of evolution is essential to understand biology, but it can be difficult to wrap your head around. Can you explain how natural selection works in your own words?

    My response: Not so hard. Four undeniable realities:
    1. Organisms are superfecund: that is, on the average they produce more offspring than enough merely to replace themselves in numbers.
    2. There is variation among the individuals of every population with regard to all their bodily characteristics.
    3. The resources available at any given location that support populations are limited in absolute terms.
    4. Earth is a finite body (that is, you can't just 'run away' indefinitely to avoid the reality of #3 above).
    These being so, it is inevitable that most individuals that are born will die before obtaining a long span of life. It is arguable that those who do last the longest, including to the age of reproductive capacity, will on the average have done so because their adaptive suite includes those characters most useful to survival (running faster to avoid predators, etc.), and that will be retained in the next generation. Alfred Russel Wallace referred to natural selection as a 'law' of nature, not a theory or hypothesis, since it is inevitable under the circumstances. Ironically, in his view, we have more of a situation of 'natural selection by evolution' than we do 'evolution by natural selection.'


    Public Question (to me, via Quora): Did Charles Darwin come up with his own version of "natural selection"? Why did he say that Alfred Russel Wallace discovered it first?

    My response: As far as I am aware, Darwin never said that Wallace "discovered it first," and it is clear Wallace didn't. By the time Wallace came to the concept Darwin had been entertaining the notion, or something close to it, for some twenty years. It is true, however, that the ideas of the two on the subject were first *publicly* disclosed at the same meeting of the Linnean Society of London on 1 July 1858. Had Wallace simply sent his essay in directly for publication instead of passing it by Darwin first, he would have been the first to publish the idea, though one could still say Darwin had 'discovered' it earlier. Water under the bridge, though, in either case.


    Public Question (to me, via Quora): How did Alfred Russel Wallace influence Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection? Why do some people say that he didn't fully understand it himself at first?

    My response: He didn't, at least in terms of what Darwin originally said. Wallace was instrumental in getting Darwin to publish "On the Origin" as early as he did, merely by sending D. an essay in 1858 capturing the notion before Darwin was ready to release his planned longer work on the subject (this in fact never was published; instead, D., worrying over a possible priority dispute, wrote up a 500+ page 'abstract' of the theory and got it into print as "On the Origin" in late 1859, in a mere fifteen months). Subsequently the two influenced each other on several significant points, but also were unable to make the other budge on several others.


    Public Question (to me, via Quora): What was the relationship between Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace?

    My response: Darwin and Wallace were on friendly terms, but not exactly as 'bosom buddies'. Each had a good deal of respect for the other's intellectual abilities; both were creative geniuses--Darwin a rather more cautious and conservative worker, Wallace a freer spirit known also as a master of the marshalling of evidence. Darwin sought Wallace's opinion more often than the other way around, and was more upset than Wallace was when they could not come to an agreement. Wallace was confident enough of his own intellectual abilities that he didn't hesitate to differ from Darwin when he read the evidence differently. Darwin probably regarded Wallace as a bit of a 'loose cannon' behind W's back; Wallace supported Darwin on most things, acknowledging the older man's priority on the 'evolution by natural selection' concept, and by no means grudgingly.


    Public Question (to me, via Quora): Did Darwin agree with Wallace's theory of evolution?

    My response: A difficult question to answer in a few words. With respect to natural selection in particular, the two agreed on most of its fundamental elements, though not on all specific applications of it. Importantly, Darwin regarded natural selection as a theory, whereas Wallace treated it as a law of nature: simply, when you have the combination of (1) limited resources (2) variation within a population, and (3) populations with a reproduction potential far outstripping mere replacement of numbers, then there *must* be natural selection. As to the more general question of whether evolution took place, they agreed it did, but while Darwin considered n.s. a dominating force in evolution, Wallace was inclined to look at evolution as a more multidimensional phenomenon, contingent on the operation of a wide range of contributing influences, up to and including spiritualism.


    Public Question (to me, via Quora): Was Alfred Russel Wallace the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution? How come he is not as well-known as Charles Darwin then?

    My response: First off, neither 'discovered' the theory of evolution, though they were the first to fully elucidate the hypothesis of natural selection: that is, evolution via the mechanism of natural selection. Wallace came to the concept many years after Darwin did, though the latter was only pushed into publishing his ideas on natural selection when Wallace approached him with his. Wallace deferred to Darwin largely out of respect for his having already considered the notion for so many years. Wallace was a gentleman and not the kind of person who pressed issues of this kind; further, while Darwin's and Wallace's understandings of natural selection had much in common, their views on evolution in general were rather different (Darwin being a four-square materialist, and Wallace a rationalist and spiritualist who believed natural selection to be but one of a number of influences on evolution).


    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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