Wallace's contributions to scientific thought

Near the end of his life Wallace listed in his autobiography what he considered his ten most important ideas. These included the creation of the science of island biogeography, his identification of the causes of glacial epochs and accompanying geographical changes, and his arguing for the permanence of continents and deep seas in contrast to commonly held theories of “vanished continents” such as Atlantis. Natural selection made the list, but Wallace did not necessarily consider it his most important achievement. Since the discovery of it came out of his interest in understanding the distribution of organisms, contrasted with Darwin’s desire to find a mechanism that explained how species change adaptively, it is important to acknowledge the many other interests that contributed to Wallace’s view of human evolution. Wallace firmly believed that humans’ place in nature was “strictly due to the action of natural law,” but he also wanted to develop an evolutionary model that was much broader than just explaining change within the physical/ biological realm. He wanted the boundaries of science to be extended to include phenomena that could not be explained in strictly materialistic terms. He regretted that he had titled an essay “The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural.” As he wrote, “Supernatural” was a misleading term because “all the phenomena, however extraordinary, [are] really ‘natural’ and involving no alteration whatsoever in the ordinary laws of nature.”

Wallace’s pointing out what he regarded as the limitations of natural selection for humans highlights a tension that permeates evolutionary theorizing. Many ardent selectionists continue to argue that every trait is a product of natural selection, but often their explanations, particularly when it comes to human evolution, seem little more than wishful adaptive storytelling.... in spite of the vast increase in our understanding of evolution since Wallace's time, we still do not have fully adequate explanations for the origin of consciousness and all the other abilities that consciousness has made possible: language, art, music, abstract thinking, mathematical reasoning, and a highly developed moral sense. [185-86]

Note: Lyons' quotations here come from Wallace's My Life: A Record of Events and Opinions, Vol. II (London: Chapman and Hall, 1905), 280.

Related Material


Lyons, Sherrie. "The Many Influences Shaping Wallace's View on Human Evolution." An Alfred Russel Wallace Companion. Edited by Charles H. Smith, James T. Costa, and David Collard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019 [Review]. 167-89.

Created 8 August 2019