Alfred Russel Wallace was born on January 8, 1823, in his family home of Kensington House in Usk, Monmouthshire, Wales. He was the eighth of nine children, born into a middle-class family. By all accounts, Wallace had a happy childhood until his family fell on very hard times in 1835, due to his father being swindled out of his family’s property. In late 1836, Wallace’s parents were forced to remove him from school due to their lack of funds, and the young thirteen-year-old was sent to London to room with his older brother John. By 1837, he was now living his brother William in Bedfordshire, where he was learning the trade of his brother’s surveying business. It was during this time that Wallace was beginning to take interest in the natural world, particularly in geology, botany, and astronomy.
In 1843, Wallace was twenty-years-old, and had taken a position at the Collegiate School in Leicester to teach surveying, amongst other trades. In 1844, he became friends with an entomologist named Henry Walter Bates, whose love of the natural world would help spur Wallace’s curiosity in this arena. Alfred Wallace would be introduced to the concept of “transmutation of the species” (later known as “evolution”) in 1845, through the revolutionary book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, written by Robert Chambers. Fascinated by this new concept, Wallace would eventually make it his mission to discover the engine that drives evolution to occur (an area that Chambers fell short on in his book). Wallace wasn’t quite sure what this hidden mechanism was himself, but he thought he might be able to find the answer by studying the geographical and geological ranges of organisms and their evolutionary history. Inspired by Chambers’ book, along with another work entitled A Voyage Up the River Amazon, by W.H. Edwards, Wallace convinced Henry Bates that they should go on a specimen collecting trip to Brazil. For Wallace, this expedition had three purposes: collect specimens for himself, earn much-needed cash by acquiring specimens for collectors and museums, and to find what causes evolution. On April 26, 1848, Wallace and Bates departed Liverpool for Brazil.
THE AMAZON & THE MALAY ARCHIPELAGO
Wallace and Bates arrived in Brazil on May 28, 1848. While there, Wallace would collect countless animal specimens, as well as document the local peoples, the geography, and the course of the Rio Negro. Suffering ill health, Wallace concluded his expedition and departed for Britain on July 12, 1852 aboard the brig Helen. He had still yet to discover what drives evolution to occur. His accomplice, Henry Walter Bates, would continue collecting in South America for over ten years. Disaster struck Wallace as he was almost four weeks into his journey back home: the cargo hold of the Helen had caught on fire, and the crew was forced into lifeboats to escape the consuming flames. Wallace had lost most of his notes, journals, and specimens. After being marooned out in the open ocean for ten days, Wallace and the crew were eventually rescued by a cargo ship that was making its way from Cuba to England. He finally arrived back home on October 1, 1852.
Having no specimens to study or sell, and with no other job opportunities for his gain, Alfred Wallace decided to start from scratch with a new expedition. His chosen area of study would be the Malay Archipelago (the islands between southeastern Asia and Australia), and it was there that Wallace would spend eight years collecting, observing, and seeking out what causes evolution. He arrived in Singapore on April 20, 1854. Wallace’s discoveries would seem never ending, as he collected tens of thousands of animal species (mostly insects, and many of which were new to science), and had traversed a collective 14,000 miles through his travels of the archipelago.
Throughout Wallace’s journeys, he made careful notes of the different plants and animals he encountered, and where he encountered them. He was surprised to see that similar animals that lived in different areas separated by rivers, mountains, and other barriers, had developed different adaptations for their surroundings. Of particular interest to him were the butterflies of the Malay Archipelago. Like Darwin’s observations of Galapagos finches, Wallace had observed that a butterfly species had evolved into different species throughout the thousands of islands of the archipelago, having adapted different characteristics for specific conditions on each island. With these observations, Wallace had not only expounded greatly on biogeography, but had also discovered the engine of evolution: natural selection. Excited about his new discovery, Wallace wrote a draft for a paper on the subject, entitled, "On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type,” and sent it to a fellow naturalist that he had been corresponding with for the past two years. Wallace had hoped that this friend would be able to get his paper published if he deemed it worthy. Enter, Charles Robert Darwin.
Fortunately for Wallace, Darwin did feel his paper was worthy of publication, although Darwin had also similarly come upon evolution by means of natural selection through his own discoveries. On July 1, 1858, a joint presentation of both Darwin and Wallace’s views was given to the Linnaean Society of London. Though Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin were equally responsible for the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, Wallace would be eclipsed by Darwin thanks to his impacting book on the subject, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life,” along with his fame that was already evident in the academic community due to his voyage on the HMS Beagle. Alfred Wallace would not even know of his paper’s publication until months later. He would remain in the Malay Archipelago for four more years, and would eventually return home to England on April 1, 1862.
Wallace’s goal was to retire and live on the small fortune he had gained through his specimen collecting. In 1866, he married Annie Mitten, whom had been introduced to Wallace by his botanist friend, Richard Spruce. Though Wallace would be forever remembered as the man who co-discovered natural selection, it would come as a shock to many in the scientific world when he revealed that he believed another factor played a part as well: spiritualism. Wallace believed that while the biological process of evolution was guided by natural selection, he also felt that man’s consciousness was guided by a spiritual process. The academic world (including Charles Darwin), did not buy into this alternative evolutionary synthesis however, and it was Wallace’s conversion to spiritualism that continued to bring him further into Darwin’s shadow.
Although Alfred Wallace enjoyed immense success and popularity as a naturalist, in part greatly to his immensely popular 1869 book The Malay Archipelago, he would eventually fall onto hard times due to a series of bad investments. Wallace would attempt to make ends meet with a series of lectures and other academic jobs, but would also be helped by Charles Darwin, whom convinced the government to allow Wallace an annual civil list pension of two hundred pounds for his services to the scientific world. In the 1880's, Wallace turned his attention towards social issues, including taking up causes in the labor movement. He would also conduct a series of lectures that would take him throughout the United Kingdom, as well as the United States and Canada in 1886 and 1887. Towards the end of his lifetime, Wallace was probably the best known naturalist of his day, having outlived Charles Darwin. Much like Darwin, Wallace would receive numerous honors throughout his academic life. At ninety-one years old, Alfred Russel Wallace died peacefully in his sleep at his house in Dorset, England. Though many in the scientific community wanted him to be buried in Westminster Abbey, Wallace’s wife Annie went through with his last wishes and had him buried at a small cemetery in Dorset. On November 1, 1915, a medallion bearing Alfred Russel Wallace’s name was unveiled at Westminster Abbey, near where his colleague Charles Darwin was laid to rest.