The author had graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web this essay from his rich Alfred Russel Wallace site, which contains extensive bibliographies of primary and secondary materials, a section on frequently asked questions, the complete text of Wallace's most popular works, interviews with the great scientist, obituaries published at the time of his death, and an archive of portraits. Readers interested in Wallace, Darwinism, evolution, and zoology of South East Asia are urged to consult the original.
On 28 May 1848 Wallace and Bates disembarked at Pará and began to organize their operations. For nearly two years they worked as a team, but in March 1850 or perhaps as much as eighteen months earlier they split up (for reasons that have never been clarified). Wallace centered his activities in the middle Amazon and Rio Negro regions; Bates would remain in Amazonian South America eleven years, securing his permanent reputation as a leading naturalist and entomologist, and contributing significantly to the early development of the theory of natural selection through his elucidation of the concept of mimetic resemblance--"Batesian mimicry"--and various writings on biogeography. Wallace managed to ascend the Rio Negro system further than anyone else had to that point, and drafted a map of the Rio Negro region that proved accurate enough to become the standard for many years (see S11).
Apart from playing the role of collector and explorer, Wallace had an overriding reason for coming to the Amazon: to investigate the causes of organic evolution. His contacts with the Owenists had left him with an early interest in social/societal evolution, an interest that had extended itself in the direction of natural science with his mid-1840s readings of two crucial works: Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, and Robert Chambers's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Lyell's work had become the bible of uniformitarianism, and instilled in Wallace an appreciation of how long-term change could be effected through the operation of slow, ongoing processes. Vestiges was an early, popular, effort to examine the notion of biological evolution; it was a bit short on its appreciation of mechanism but argued pursuasively against both Creationism and Lamarckism. Wallace was apparently an instant convert to the feature arguments of each work, and very quickly recognized how he might go about demonstrating that evolution did in fact take place: by tracing out, over time and space, the geographical/geological records of individual phylogenies. He soon focused on two particular elements of this study: (1) the way geography limited or facilitated the extension of species range, and (2) how ecological station seemed to influence the shaping of adaptations more than did closeness of affinity with other forms. His investigation of these subjects included efforts to come to grips with the region's ornithology, entomology, primatology, ichthyology, botany, and physical geography, but in the end he was unable to come to any conclusion about the actual mechanism of evolutionary change. He also spent much time studying the ways of the native peoples he worked among, including collecting vocabularies of many of their languages (S714).
By early 1852 Wallace was in ill health and in no condition to proceed any further. He decided to quit South America, and began the long trip back down the Rio Negro and Amazon to Pará. When he finally reached the town on the 2nd of July, he found that his younger brother Herbert had died. Herbert had been working in the area since 1849, but in 1851 tried to return to England from Pará, where he caught yellow fever. Moreover, and further to Wallace's dismay, most of the collections from the preceding two years he had been forwarding down the Amazon had been delayed at the dock through a misunderstanding; he would therefore have to secure passage for these as well as himself. Within a few days he had been successful in so doing, and soon set out for England. Unfortunately, on the 6th of August the brig on which he was sailing caught fire and sank, taking almost all of his possessions--including some live animals--along with it. For ten days Wallace and his comrades struggled to survive in a pair of badly leaking lifeboats, then were sighted and picked up by a passing cargo ship also making its way back to England. As luck would have it this vessel was also old and slow, and itself nearly foundered when hit by a series of storms. In all, Wallace's ocean crossing took eighty days.
When Wallace stepped back on English soil on 1 October 1852, he was faced with some decisions. His collections had been insured, but only to an extent buying him some time. He was now twenty-nine and reasonably well-known as a travelling naturalist, but he had not been able to come up with the key to the mystery of organic change. Further, he now had no collections he could study at his leisure that might help him do so. For eighteen months his activities were mixed: a vacation in Switzerland, attending professional meetings and delivering papers, and, finally, the production of two books: Palm Trees of the Amazon and Their Uses and A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro. These made a slight but generally positive impression; the first was an ethnobotanical study based in part on drawings he had managed to save from the ship's fire; the second, a pleasant but not terribly profound account of his four years' work and travels.
With no other prospects immediately apparent, Wallace decided to carry on with his collecting activities. He chose the Indonesian Archipelago for his next base of operations, using his record of accomplishments to that point to secure a grant from the Royal Geographical Society covering his passage to what was referred to in those days as "the Malay Archipelago." He arrived in Singapore on 20 April 1854, to begin what would turn out to be the defining period of his life.
Wallace's name is now inextricably linked with his travels in the Indonesian region. He spent nearly eight full years there; during that period he undertook about seventy different expeditions resulting in a combined total of around 14,000 miles of travel. He visited every important island in the archipelago at least once, and several on multiple occasions. His collecting efforts produced the astonishing total of 125,660 specimens, including more than a thousand species new to science. The volume he later wrote describing his work and experiences there, The Malay Archipelago, is the most celebrated of all writings on Indonesia, and ranks with a small handful of other works as one of the nineteenth century's best scientific travel books. Highlights of his adventures there include his study and capture of birds-of-paradise and orangutans, his many dealings with native peoples, and his residence on New Guinea (he was one of the very first Europeans to live there for any extended period).
Beyond his travel and collecting activities, Wallace's time in the Malay Archipelago was marked, of course, by the 1858 event that would assure his place in history. Three years earlier he had still been cogitating on the causes of organic evolution when an article by another naturalist prompted him to write and publish the essay 'On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species', a theoretical work that all but stated outright Wallace's belief in evolution. The paper was seen by Lyell, who thought highly of it and brought it to Darwin's attention. Darwin, however, took relatively little notice.
Now that he had a provisional model of the relation of biogeography to organic change, Wallace quickly applied the related concepts in two further studies, published in 1856 and 1857. In February of 1858, while suffering from an attack of malaria in the Moluccas (it is not fully certain which island he was actually on, though either Gilolo or Ternate seems the likely candidate), Wallace suddenly, and rather unexpectedly, connected the ideas of Thomas Malthus on the limits to population growth to a mechanism that might ensure long-term organic change. This was the concept of the "survival of the fittest," in which those individual organisms that are best adapted to their local surroundings are seen to have a better chance of surviving, and thus of differentially passing along their traits to progeny. Excited over his discovery, Wallace penned an essay on the subject as soon as he was well enough to do so, and sent it off to Darwin. He had begun a correspondence with Darwin two years earlier and knew that he was generally interested in "the species question"; perhaps Darwin would be kind enough to bring the work, titled 'On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type,' to the attention of Lyell? Darwin was in fact willing to do so, but not for any reasons Wallace had anticipated. Darwin, as the now well-known story goes, had been entertaining very similar ideas for going on twenty years, and now a threat to his priority on the subject loomed. He contacted Lyell to plead for advice on how to meet what just about anyone would have to admit was a very awkward situation. Lyell and Joseph Hooker, a prominent botanist and another of Darwin's close friends, decided to present Wallace's essay, along with some unpublished fragments from Darwin's writings on the subject, to the next meeting of the Linnean Society. This took place on 1 July 1858, without obtaining Wallace's permission first (he was contacted only after the fact).
Whatever one thinks about Wallace's treatment in this matter, the events of summer 1858 did ensure that the world wouldn't have to wait any longer for its introduction to the concept of natural selection. Darwin had been working on a much larger tome on the subject that was still many years away from completion (and in fact never was completed); Wallace's bombshell had the immediate effect of forcing him to get together a more compact, readable, and, ultimately, probably more successful work. On the Origin of Species was published less than eighteen months later, in November of 1859. And, although Darwin would overshadow Wallace from that point on, Wallace's role in the affair was well enough known to insiders, at least, to ensure his future entry into the highest ranks of scientific dialogue. It should in all fairness to Darwin be noted that Wallace took full advantage of this opportunity, an opportunity he might not otherwise have received.
Wallace's discovery of natural selection occurred almost at the midpoint of his stay in the Malay Archipelago. He was to remain there four more years, continuing his agenda of systematically exploring and recording the circumstances of its faunas, floras, and peoples. By the end of his trip (and for the rest of his life) he was known as the greatest living authority on the region. He was especially known for his studies on its zoogeography, including his discovery and description of the faunal discontinuity that now bears his name. "Wallace's Line," extending between the islands of Bali and Lombok and Borneo and Sulawesi, marks the limits of eastern extent of many Asian animal forms and, conversely, the limits of western extent of many Australasian forms.
- The Origins of an Evolutionist (1823-1848)
- Wallace the Evolving Polymath (1862-1880)
- Wallace the Social Radical and "Grand Old Man of Science" (1880-1913)
- Wallace's Accomplishments: A Summary List
- A Wallace Chronology
Last modified 6 November 2000