The great Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace 1862 - Project Gutenberg eText 15997Alfred Russel Wallace in 1862 (from Wikipedia)

Alfred Russel Wallace was one of the great naturalists of the 19th century.  He was also co-discoverer (with Charles Darwin) of the the theory of evolution by natural selection.  Wallace died one hundred years ago and his work is now largely forgotten.  When I started reading about Wallace, I was surprised to find that for the last 14 years of his life he lived near Poole in Dorset.  This is a part of the country I know well as it is where I grew up.

To mark Wallace’s centenary year and his contributions, I have written a piece in the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine and a different post on another blogging network.

Here is the piece from the Marshwood Vale Magazine where I go in  search of Wallace’s Dorset connections:

On a warm afternoon in early May, I fought my way out of Poole through chaotic Fleetsbridge traffic to find the small cemetery in Broadstone. Surrounded by Dorset heath and mature houses, this is a place for quiet contemplation, the only noise being the murmur of the wind in the pine trees and the song of the birds. I had come in search of the grave of Alfred Russel Wallace, who lived in Dorset for the last 14 years of his life.

grave of Alfred Russel Wallace

You can’t miss the grave with its massive fossilised tree trunk (from Portland). The plaque on the base of the grave informs me that Wallace was “Co-discoverer (with Charles Darwin) of evolution by natural selection”. Natural selection is arguably the greatest idea ever and when Wallace died, a century ago, he was one of the leading scientists and thinkers in this country, probably as well known as David Attenborough is nowadays. It is Darwin’s name, however, that is indelibly linked with natural selection and Wallace is now largely forgotten; to understand this paradox we need to look at his life and work.
Wallace was born in Monmouthshire in 1823. His family were never prosperous and Wallace had little formal education. He trained as a surveyor and for a time he was a teacher but in his spare time he began to study and collect wildlife. A seminal influence on Wallace was the controversial but highly popular book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation published anonymously by Robert Chambers in 1844. Wallace wanted to understand why there were so many species of plants, animals, insects etc and this book lead him to consider evolution as the answer. At the time the prevailing religious view was that the number of species and their form was fixed when the universe was created. Evolution proposes that species can change or evolve.
Wanting to find evidence for these ideas, Wallace went on two major expeditions where he studied and collected numerous native animals, birds, and insects. Some of these he kept for himself and some were sold to wealthy collectors back in England. The proceeds of these sales went to finance the expeditions but here we see the darker side of Victorian naturalism. Although Wallace was overawed by the species he discovered, he was not averse to killing them in large numbers to make money.
His first expedition, in 1848, was to the Amazon and ended in disaster; Wallace lost most of his specimens and nearly died. In 1854, undeterred, he embarked a more ambitious expedition. This was an eight year voyage of discovery through the jungles of the Malay Archipelago (now Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia). Here he suffered many privations including illness and shortage of money.
Despite these problems, it was on this expedition that Wallace had his key insight. This occurred in 1858 when he was on the island of Halmahera recovering from malarial fever. He had mapped the distribution of species on different islands and found good evidence for evolution but he had been unable to work out the mechanism. As an avid collector, however, he noticed that there was considerable variation even between examples of the same species. He realised that when species reproduce, many of the offspring die because of this variation. The offspring that survive will be those best fitted to the particular circumstances of food, habitat etc. and fitter individuals will leave more descendents. Gradually, over time, species will adapt to their surroundings and new forms may appear. This is the basis of Wallace’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
When he was strong enough, Wallace wrote an essay summarising his theory and sent it to Charles Darwin in England for comment, completely unaware that Darwin had been working on the same theory for 20 years. Darwin had been very reticent about publishing his own ideas because of the religious implications; natural selection effectively does away with a creator. Darwin was horrified when he read Wallace’s essay as it contained most of the ideas he had been incubating for so long and he was concerned that he might lose the credit for natural selection. Darwin consulted his influential friends and a presentation was made at a meeting of the Linnean society in 1858 outlining the idea of natural selection and crediting both men. 15 months later, Darwin published his famous book, “On the Origin of Species” which captured public imagination and began the association between Darwin and natural selection.
In his lifetime, however, Wallace was lauded for his ideas on natural selection and for his explorations. He was showered with honours including the Order of Merit; he became one of the best known scientists in the world. So why has he been forgotten? Towards the end of the nineteenth century, natural selection became unfashionable and both men fell from prominence. In the 1930s, however, the idea was revived but largely because of his famous book, only Darwin’s name was now associated with the theory. In this centenary year, it is fitting to recognise Wallace’s true contribution.
But what about Wallace’s Dorset connections? Wallace moved to the county in 1889, living at Corfe View in Sandringham Road, Parkstone. When developers began to build near his house he decided to move and found land in Broadstone, near the present Wallace Road, with “a view right across Poole Harbour to the Purbeck Hills”. Here he built a house called “Old Orchard” where he lived from 1902 until he died. Although there was pressure to have him buried next to Darwin in Westminster Abbey, it was Wallace’s wish to be buried in Broadstone.

2 thoughts on “The great Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace”

  1. Interesting to read his story, he lived a remarkable life. It seems both men developed their ideas through travelling and collecting specimens, particularly from islands. Maybe developing the theory of evolution could only have happened at a time when travelling was beginning to become easier.

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  2. Yes, and it required two very determined people who wanted to travel. Darwin was independently wealthy and wanted to find out about different species. Wallace had to make a living by collecting and selling but he was equally determined to find out how different species arose.

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