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Evolution Explained, Part 17 – Alfred Wallace

Last updated on February 2, 2019

Alfred Wallace Young
A young and dashing Alfred Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace

While Darwin huddled up in his study, gently coddling his theory of evolution like a rare pigeon for twenty years, another man, Alfred Russel Wallace, was sweating and traipsing through the South American and Asian countryside, collecting biological samples and thinking thoughts very similar to Darwin.

The two men came from very different backgrounds: Darwin was wealthy enough to explore without pay – he took no wages for his work on The Beagle – while Wallace needed steady and paying work to feed and clothe his family and to stave off bill collectors. Poverty was not new to Wallace. In fact, as a child, he was sent away from home to stay with a brother when his parents could no longer afford to feed him. Both were excellent students. Darwin focused on natural history and little else but for enough theology to figure out that the life of a simple pastor was not for him. Wallace was more of a polymath: he worked for years as a surveyor and studied all manner of carpentry, geology, mathematics, and just about anything else that struck an interesting chord.

In the years after Darwin’s Origin was published (Part 15) and as Darwin worked to extend his ideas and his presence, Wallace ventured into politics, city planning, theology, and farming. But in 1858, wondering what Darwin’s friend Lyell thought of the matter, Wallace mailed a letter from Indonesia to England, addressed to Charles Darwin, with Wallace’s ideas about ‘the species question’. Darwin was shocked and wrote to Lyell that

I never saw a more striking coincidence [than Wallace’s idea]. If Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as Heads of my Chapters!

Darwin Shaken

Darwin and his supporters were so shaken by the letter that Charles began finishing up work on Origins in earnest. Eighteen months later it was published and is now considered the most influential science book of all time.

It wouldn’t have surprised friends that Wallace was party to such a radical idea. He was well-known among acquaintances for glomming onto controversial science or pseudo-science ideas evidenced by his deep interest in phrenology and mesmerism. But natural history is a thread pulled easily through his entire life.

Alfred Wallace Butterfly
I admit to wanting to chase after these beauties with Wallace.

Wallace The Collector

He grew up in love with nature and fascinated by natural history. He honed his collecting skills and spent four years in Brazil collecting insects, mapping terrain, and learning about native peoples. After collecting in Brazil, he landed in Malay where he collected, mapped, and studied for eight years leading over seventy expeditions. He wrote a steady stream of papers until finally combining nascent ideas about evolution and speciation with Malthus’ ideas about populations and the availability of goods. I’m sure that he was hoping for a listening ear and he gathered his ideas on paper and sent them off to Darwin. In haste, Darwin, unbeknownst to Wallace, combined Wallace’s ideas and excerpts of his own work and presented evolution for the first time to the Linnean Society. Neither Darwin nor his friends ever detracted from Wallace nor denied that he contributed to evolutionary theory. But the publication of Origins – a far more overarching treatment than anything Wallace wrote – has cemented Darwin as the father of evolution in popular thought.

Later Years

Wallace never achieved the fame enjoyed by Darwin. After his return to England from Indonesia, Wallace looked for a suitable wife and then spent his time between construction projects, gardening, and writing. A series of bad investments consumed any profits from his prodigious collecting enterprises and he spent his last years earning a meager living from writing, grading tests, and enjoying a small family inheritance. In 1881, primarily with help from Darwin and his Bulldog, he was placed on The Civil List and received an annual state pension of £200 to help defray living expenses.

Wallace’s explanation of evolution was slightly different than that of Darwin. He sided with Lyell in doubting that natural selection alone could account for the human mind and seemingly self-evident position of man as higher than that of animals. He focused more on external pressures or ‘varieties’ that forced speciation. Darwin focused more on differential reproduction among individuals within a given environment or niche. Both are accurate to a degree and both ideas are expanded and synthesized with a modern understanding of genetics, populations, sex selection, and geographic isolation.

The older Wallace

It is sometimes said that Wallace was at odds with Darwin and this is true in regards to natural selection and humankind’s mental and emotional capacities. But he remained a stout devotee of evolution throughout his life and was often referred to as one of Darwin’s ‘two right-hand men’. The other, of course, was Darwin’s’ Bulldog, Thomas Huxley. But along with science, Wallace was an equally strong believer in spiritualism. He strongly believed that evolution was the apex of biological theories explaining both the origin and the diversely of life. He was just as sure that spiritualism was the apex of theological thought and explained the then unexplainable questions about man and mankind. I find no reference where Wallace is recorded as being acrimonious or vindictive against Darwin and his wealth and fame. It seems that, though not close friends, the two men held each other in high regard and esteem throughout their lives.

Odd Company: Wallace And Creationists

In recent years, and because of his interest in spiritualism, creationists have sometimes oddly held Wallace up as a kind of patron saint. As a religionist who argued with Darwin. As is their wont, creationist pick and choose to their liking from Wallace’s vast output. But though he was a believer in the spirit world, he was no believer in anything akin to Christianity. He did, though,  believe in a kind of ‘directed’ evolution which apparently is good enough. This isn’t completely mysterious – without any understanding of genetics, even Darwin himself was unsure of what mechanism natural selection worked on. Now we understand that the clockworks of the natural world work perfectly fine without divine winding. That creationists have come to hold bits and pieces of Wallace in high regard speaks more to the paucity of their position than to Wallace’s putative agreement with their ideas.


Wallace had a truly interesting life. Refer to the following pages for more detail:

The Alfred Russel Wallace Page here.
Alfred Wallace at Wiki here.
Worthwhile biography of Wallace at Amazon here.

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