This guest post is required reading for everyone here, as today is a special day, creating what they call a “teachable moment” about the history of biology.
For today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace, which means there are people still alive who were his contemporaries. He is, of course, best known as the man who came up with the idea of natural selection at about the same time Darwin did. But Wallace was also a great biologist and naturalist in his own right, and the father of biogeography.
In honor of Wallace’s life and accomplishments, I asked my friend Andrew Berry, a teacher at Harvard and a Wallace expert (see his book in the references below), to give us a brief overview of Wallace. He kindly obliged, and added a link at the end to a wonderful animation of Wallace’s life that recently appeared in the New York Times. Andrew also provided a list of the major works by and about Wallace that would interest our readers.
ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE: AN ANIMATED LIFE
by Andrew Berry
Alfred Russel Wallace died 100 years ago today, just shy of his 91st birthday. Wallace, as all regular readers of WEIT will know, is best known for discovering the theory evolution by natural selection during his biological explorations of Southeast Asia and then co-publishing the idea, under unusual circumstances, with Charles Darwin in 1858. He is also, these days, famous for being not famous: the other thing everyone knows about Wallace is that he has been overlooked by posterity. Wallace fans in particular object to the way that their man has been relegated to footnotes in textbooks while Darwin becomes ever more prominent in the public sphere as both thinker and icon.
The reasons for Wallace’s relative obscurity are many and complex but it’s worth noting two things. It started early: his eclipse by Darwin is not solely a function of hindsight’s preference for one over the other. During the years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, when Darwin was at the height of his powers and Wallace was scientifically at his most productive, it was Darwin, and Darwin alone, who was co-identified in the public eye with the theory of evolution. A survey of contemporary cartoons and caricatures lampooning the idea reveals a plethora of Darwin-themed (or Darwin-apeing) images, and none—zero—that feature Wallace.
Second, Wallace himself was partially responsible for this. His wonderful account of his 8 years in Southeast Asia, The Malay Archipelago, which recounts what he did and what he saw in some considerable detail (a contemporary review in The Atlantic Monthly put it a little unkindly, “Mr. Wallace apparently exhausts a very copious diary in the production of his book, and seems almost to have made it a point of conscience not to leave anything out”), does not mention, even in passing, the events surrounding his evolutionary discoveries. In The Malay Archipelago Wallace refers repeatedly to the idea of natural selection, but always calls it “Mr. Darwin’s theory”. There is something pathologically modest about Wallace.
Wallace was an extraordinary man, and his was an extraordinary story. I have previously told the tale here of what I consider to be the most poignant episode in all of the history of science: Wallace’s loss of his Amazon specimens, living and dead, in a fire in the middle of the Atlantic. After such a crushing experience, to be able to pick himself up, as he did, and head off within a couple of years on his eight year journey through Southeast Asia is evidence of almost superhuman resilience. That he was able to make any significant collections at all under extremely trying circumstances—he was frequently sick, suffered wildly frustrating logistical nightmares, and had to contend with endless pests and distractions as he tried to prepare his specimens—is impressive enough, but it is the scale and scope of his collecting that is truly mind-blowing.
Take birds. This is arguably the best described taxonomic group on the planet. Finding a new species of bird, even in Wallace’s day, was a challenge (unlike, say, finding a new species of weevil). In a retrospective paper published in 1865 (Wallace, A. R. (1865) Descriptions of New Birds From the Malay Archipelago. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1865: 474-481) on his bird collections, he notes that he had collected 212 new species. Given that there are approximately 10,000 species of birds, this means that, in eight years, Wallace discovered 2% of all known bird species!
But, of course, Wallace’s years in Southeast Asia are best known not for the collections but for the grand ideas they inspired. His discovery of evolution by natural selection was a two step process: his first evolutionary paper, his “Sarawak Law” (1855), recognized the genealogical nature of evolutionary change (what Darwin would call “Descent with Modification”), and the second, his “Ternate Paper” (1858), supplied a mechanism (“natural selection” being Darwin’s term that Wallace objected to) to entrain that generation to generation change to adaptive ends. But it was not just evolution: Wallace, always interested in the geographic distribution of plants and animals, identified what was subsequently dubbed “Wallace’s Line”, the boundary between Asian and Australasian biogeographic realms. The journey was a scientific tour de force. In 1863, shortly after Wallace’s return to England, T H Huxley, never one to be extravagant with praise, summarized it:
“Once in a generation, a Wallace may be found physically, mentally, and morally qualified to wander unscathed through the tropical wilds of American and Asia; to form magnificent collections as he wanders; and withal to think out sagaciously the conclusions suggested by his collections.” —Huxley, T. H. (1863) Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature. London: Williams & Norgate.
Sharon Shattuck and Flora Lichtman, Brooklyn-based filmmakers, have created a brief animated tribute to Wallace that is available through the New York Times [disclaimer: I was involved with the project]. Do take 7 minutes on the centenary of his death to appreciate this lovingly-crafted appreciation of a brilliant, quirky, and humble man.
The Malay Archipelago; The Land of the Orang-utan and the Bird of Paradise; A Narrative of Travel With Studies of Man and Nature. 2 volumes. Macmillan & Co., London, 9 March 1869. A wonderful account of Wallace’s journeys. A true travel writing classic.
My Life; A Record of Events and Opinions. 2 volumes. Chapman & Hall, Ltd., London, Oct. 1905. A sprawling and engaging autobiography.
Berry, Andrew, ed., 2002. Infinite Tropics: An Alfred Russel Wallace Anthology. London & New York: Verso. 430 pp. Provides a (hopefully) representative sample of Wallace’s copious writings on a huge range of subjects.
Costa, Jim, 2013. On the Organic Law of Change: A facsimile edition and annotated transcription of Alfred Russel Wallace’s Species Notebook of 1855-1859. Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press. 573pp. Just out. A scholarly dissection of the notebook that Wallace kept in the field in mid-1850’s — when he was thinking about evolutionary ideas.
Quammen, David, 1996. The Song of the Dodo; Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions. New York: Scribner. 702 pp. An introduction to biogeography and conservation, but there is a lot of Wallace in there too.
Raby, Peter, 2001. Alfred Russel Wallace, A Life. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press; London: Chatto & Windus. 340 pp. The most readable of the recent biographies.
Slotten, Ross A., 2004. The Heretic in Darwin’s Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace. New York: Columbia University Press. 602 pp. The most comprehensive of the recent biographies.
Wallace young and old. The first picture was taken in Singapore at the end of his time in Southeast Asia, the second when he was a venerable doyen of biology.
Wallace’s Standardwing (Semioptera wallacii), a bird of paradise he discovered:
A “flying” frog he also discovered; illustration from The Malay Archipelago derived from Wallace’s sketches: