A retrospective: Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace was born in Llanbadoc, close to Usk, Monmouthshire, Wales, in 1823. He entered a large family and was one of nine children, who’s parents belonged to the Church of England, and claimed to be descendants of the famous Scottish revolutionary, William Wallace. He attended services up until his teenage years, but once he discovered secularism, his interest in religion faded fast. He moved to London at the age of fourteen to board with one of his older brothers, where he studied and attended lectures at Birkbeck, University of London.

“There might have been a hundred or a thousand life-bearing planets, had the course of evolution of the universe been a little different, or there might have been none at all. They would probably add, that, as life and man have been produced, that shows that their production was possible; and therefore, if not now then at some other time, if not here then in some other planet of some other sun, we should be sure to have come into existence; or if not precisely the same as we are, then something a little better or a little worse.” – Alfred Russel Wallace

He attended lectures by the philosopher, and Socialist reformer, Robert Owens, who formed the basis of his scepticism and political philosophy. As a young adult, Wallace studied surveying and cartography, and due to his extensive time outside he developed an interest in naturalism, which led him to journey to Brazil for several years studying the Amazon river, in a search to discover the origin of plants and insects. Upon his return to England he published two scientific journals in 1853, which gained him notoriety and funding for another planned adventure to Malay Archipelago (East Indies) where he remained for eight years collecting over 100,000 specimens, and studying his findings, which included the (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus) Wallace’s flying frog.

“In all works on Natural History, we constantly find details of the marvellous adaptation of animals to their food, their habits, and the localities in which they are found.” – Alfred Russel Wallace

He proposed that during the struggle to survive, life evolves and adapts to suit their needs, and the environment that surrounds them. In 1858 he contacted Charles Darwin to share his conclusions, and allegedly Darwin was so impressed that Wallace’s theories almost matched his that he presented a combined paper from himself, geologist Charles Lyell, botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, and Wallace’s work to the Linnean society of London in 1858 titled ‘On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection.’ and was followed fifteen months later by Darwin’s famous work ‘Origin of the Species‘.

“Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.” – Alfred Russel Wallace

Wallace continued studying and published hundreds of scientific papers that gained him a number of awards, and also published twenty one books. In 1881 he became the first president of the Land Nationalisation Society, which was about land reform, and rural land should be owned by the state, and given to people who could make the most use that would benefit the most people.

“Why do some die and some live? The answer was clearly, that on the whole the best fitted live. From the effects of disease the most healthy escaped; from enemies, the strongest, swiftest, or the most cunning; from famine, the best hunters or those with the best digestion; and so on. Then it suddenly flashed upon me that this self-acting process would necessarily improve the race, because in every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain-that is, the fittest would survive.” – Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace died in 1913 at the grand age of ninety years old, and the man’s legacy will surely remain unequalled. His contribution to science, politics and human ethics leaves him as one of the most influential and important social leaders in history, and he shall be remembered for many areas including, naturalism, geology, surveying, biology, exploring, anthropology, illustrating, cartography, philosophy, political commentary, especially women’s suffrage.

He will also be remembered for the ‘Wallace problem‘ where evolution cannot explain language, as natural selection would only allow a creature to gain an advantage over competition in the struggle of existence, and Wallace concluded that language must have been a unitary entity, and the problem was how and why were certain words selected, and who decided? It’s suggested that due to the need for food, and to have an advantage over competition, cooperation was needed and this may well have been the birth of primitive language. Many scientists claim that language is too complicated to have arrived naturally through evolution, and that unknown factors must have played a significant role, hence the ‘Wallace problem‘.