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.
Wallace left the Malay Archipelago in February of 1862 and returned to England on 1 April. His collecting activities had earned him a sizable nest egg with which he hoped he could retire to a quiet life as a country gentleman. First, however, there was the matter of coming to grips with the implications of his vast personal collection of specimens. For the next three years he immersed himself in them, producing a string of systematic revisions (mainly of birds and insects) and several interpretative works. Over that period (to the end of 1865) he presented at least sixteen papers at professional meetings, to the British Association, and Entomological, Zoological, Linnean, Anthropological and Geographical Societies. He soon met nearly every important English naturalist, and began to count many as friends.
In certain respects, the period 1862 through 1865 also represented a rather difficult time for Wallace. Eager to marry and settle down, he was rebuffed by one woman before wedding the eighteen-year-old daughter of a botanist friend in 1866. Although one of their three children would die only a few years later, their marriage was by all accounts a happy one: his wife Annie proved an excellent companion, and was well enough educated and sufficiently interested to help him from time to time with his work. Further, both Wallaces loved gardening, and spent many hours together pursuing this recreation. The real crisis for Wallace in the years after his return to England revolved, however, around his relation to the theory of natural selection. Although Wallace was known as a co-originator of the natural selection concept, the premature reading of the Ternate essay and Darwin's subsequent publication of On the Origin of Species led everyone to believe he was a full supporter of Darwinian doctrines. Subsequent events would prove he was not.
We unfortunately do not know whether Wallace felt at the time that his 1858 model of natural selection could be extended to explain the origin and/or development of humankind's higher mental and moral qualities. Surprisingly, he wrote not another word about natural selection (at least, in the sense of doing more than just mentioning it) until late 1863 (the classic analysis 'Remarks on the Rev. S. Haughton's Paper on the Bee's Cell, and on the Origin of Species'). In 1864 he presented a milestone paper on the evolution of human races to the Anthropological Society: 'The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced From the Theory of "Natural Selection."' In this work Wallace sought to reconcile the positions of the monogenists and polygenists on human origins through an application of the general Darwinian model. But by 1865 at the latest (and possibly going back many years), he had been experiencing some doubt as to whether materialistic models, including Darwinism, could account for humankind's higher attributes. He began investigating the philosophy and manifestations of spiritualism, most likely (in my opinion) in an effort to complete what he had started in 1858. The result was a wholly new evolutionary synthesis, one in which a material process (natural selection) was understood to rule at the biological level, while a spiritual one (as described through spiritualism) operated at the level of consciousness. This overall approach was later taken up by the theosophists (Madame Blavatsky et al.), who based most of their more esoteric teachings (including, for example, theories of cyclic reincarnation) on ancient religious and literary texts, but who also acknowledged a role for natural selection in producing a Darwinian kind of material phylogenesis. (Wallace himself, however, would never take much interest in theosophy, considering it much too abstruse.)
Wallace's conversion to spiritualism in mid-1866 took many of his colleagues by surprise (Hooker would write in disbelief "that such a man should be a spiritualist is more wonderful than all the movements of all the planets"). Wallace spent a few years urging them to look into the matter in more detail, but few followed his lead. He would remain a spiritualist the rest of his days, never recounting his belief, and publishing some one hundred writings on the subject. It is in fact generally thought that Wallace's thinking regarding the application of Darwinian concepts to the development of humankind's higher attributes changed around 1865 in response to this apparent new influence in his life; I personally feel this is a mis-reading of the situation, and that the apparent "change" in his position simply represented a solidification of an already-existing, but not yet formally stated, evolutionary model.
Whatever one believes about the influences on Wallace's thoughts during this period, there can be no disagreement as to the sudden broadening of his attention that followed soon thereafter. In 1865 he produced his first published writing on politics; in 1866 writings on geodesy; in 1867 his first of many treatments of glacial features; and in 1869 the first of several essays on museum organization. Primarily, however, he was gaining recognition as one of Darwin's two main (the other being Thomas Huxley) "right-hand men." His reputation as a naturalist soon extended itself to the popular arena with the publication of his hugely successful The Malay Archipelago in early 1869, and the essay collection Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection a year later.
In the decade that followed, Wallace published over 150 works, including essays, letters, reviews, book notices, and monographs. His scientific writings would focus on natural selection, geographical distribution, and glaciology, and include three classic books: The Geographical Distribution of Animals in 1876, Tropical Nature, and Other Essays in 1878, and Island Life in 1880. Each work is still frequently referred to today: The Geographical Distribution of Animals for its formalization of the faunal region concept and treatment of zoogeographical methodology; Tropical Nature, and Other Essays for its attention to the causes and characteristics of tropical floras and faunas (including its discussion of the concept of latitudinal diversity gradients); and Island Life for its systemization of island types and biotas, and relation of glaciation processes to the known characteristics of geographical distribution of plants and animals. In Wallace's work in biology and anthropology, further departures from Darwinian thinking were evident. He continued to argue against some of Darwin's positions on human evolution, and in addition the latter's approach to sexual selection and several biogeographic matters. His 1870s writings were also characterized by an increased attention to social issues. In 1870 he spoke out against government aid to science; in 1873 he produced essays on the Church of England, free trade principles, and the abolishment of trusts; in 1878 he wrote on a suburban forest management issue; and in 1879, again on free trade.
Meanwhile, personal problems were creating a considerable distraction. Most of the profits accrued from his Malay collections were badly invested, and lost. He was not well suited for most kinds of permanent positions, and despite applying for a number of them never succeeded in landing one. He took on odd jobs (editing other naturalists' manuscripts, correcting state-administered examinations, giving lectures, etc.) to help make ends meet, and moved progressively further and further from London to minimize costs and find more suitable living quarters. In 1870 Wallace took up a ’500 challenge from a flat-earther to produce a proof that the earth was not flat; he won the challenge with a neatly conceived demonstration but, on a technicality, not a penny of the wager, and was seriously harassed by the loser for over ten years. Eventually his financial situation degenerated far enough to cause a friend to intervene; in 1881, with help from Darwin (see Colp 1992), the government was convinced to grant him an annual civil list pension of ’200 for his services to science. It was not enough to live on, but it helped.
- The Origins of an Evolutionist (1823-1848)
- Travels in the Amazon and Malay Archipelago (1848-1862)
- 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