Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 - 1913) - The Forgotten Evolutionist

Alfred Russel Wallace doesn't immediately spring to mind as one of the great scientists of the nineteenth century. Charles Darwin is the name every boy and girl learns as synonymous with the theory of evolution. Yet an essay sent by him to Charles Darwin in 1858, on a theory of evolution, shook Darwin to the core. Alfred Russel Wallace’s contributions to science are little known to the general public. But how important was his time spent in Neath? He wasn’t born in Neath, he didn’t spend his final days at Neath, he had only two short spells living in Neath. They were, however very important times for the young Wallace. He saw his time at Neath as a ‘turning point’ in his life. Indeed Neath should be regarded as the place where Wallace’s determination to discover ‘the origin of species’ had its own beginnings.

Alfred Russel Wallace was born in 1823 in Kensington Cottage, Llanbadoc, near Usk. He was the eighth of nine children. As a small boy he played on the riverbank, caught lampreys with his brothers and listened to Aesop’s fables while sitting on his mother’s knee. Due to money worries, the family relocated from Llanbadoc to Hertford in 1828, where he attended the local Grammar school. When his father was declared bankrupt he was forced to leave school and took up apprenticeships in watch making and surveying. At the age of 18 he made his first journey to Neath, to join his elder brother, William, in his surveying business. The two young men took lodgings at Bryncoch Farm with the farmer, David Rees and his wife. While at Bryncoch he describes the locality – very much the same today. He swam in the rock pool, he explored the countryside and began his unofficial training as a young field naturalist.

It seems he also had an eye for the young ladies of Neath saying: "the girls are often exceedingly pretty when about fifteen to twenty, but after that hard work and exposure make their features coarse, so that a girl of twenty five would often be taken for nearer forty".

William’s business didn’t attract enough work for both men giving the young Alfred lots of time to explore the countryside. This signalled the beginning of ‘Wallace the naturalist’. Not content to just look at the plants he came across in the countryside, he wanted to identify them. To do this he needed books that would tell him how to identify plants. David Rees, of Bryncoch farm took the Gardener’s Chronicle a magazine that also advertised botanical books. In one copy of the Chronicle Alfred found an advertisement for a new edition of Lindley’s Elements of Botany. Using Mr Hayward’s bookshop in Neath he ordered it, though the price of 10s 6d was really more than he could afford. With great expectation he collected the book some weeks later only to find to his great disappointment that it didn’t describe any of the plants he was likely to find. Confiding his disappointment to the Mr Hayward, he was lent a copy of Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Plants, a much better guide to the local flora. Over the coming weeks he painstakingly copied out descriptions of local plants on sheets of paper which he slipped into his own book. This was the start of his education as a naturalist.

When surveying work dried up, William could no longer support his brother and Alfred was forced to look elsewhere for work. Though it was never his intention to become a teacher, he nevertheless found employment at the Collegiate School in Leicester. Here he met Henry Walter Bates, another amateur naturalist, and began discussing the possibility of travelling to far off places. He was also introduced to beetle collecting in Leicester (something Charles Darwin also enjoyed).

Then tragedy struck. His brother William died suddenly from pneumonia. William had been giving evidence to the railway committees in London and on the journey back to Neath, travelling third class on the railway, he caught pneumonia.

In 1845 Alfred, aged 22, returned to Neath to take over his brother’s business. He disliked it. Collecting debts caused him grief, with some farmers claiming that they had paid his brother already. Alfred continued to keep in touch with Bates and letters between them at the time showed that he was thinking of bigger things; a trip to South America to discover the origin of species. The problem was one of money, how to raise enough to fund the trip to South America.

He was commissioned to design and build the Mechanic's Institute in Neath. With the small profit from this commercial venture and some money from part time teaching he travelled with Bates to South America in 1848. After four years of collecting, Alfred’s younger brother, Herbert, decided to join him in South America. Tragedy struck again as Herbert Wallace was struck down by yellow fever and died. This came as a heavy blow to Alfred and he decided to return home with the bulk of his collection.

More bad luck was to befall him. After a month at sea his ship caught fire and sank. He lost his collection. The passengers and crew were thankfully rescued after 10 days adrift and transported back to England. After landing in Deal, Kent with nothing more than a thin calico suit and a tin of drawings of palm trees, he determined to travel once more, this time, to the Malay Archipelago. With insurance money from his lost collection he planned his trip and wrote his first scientific book Palm Trees of the Amazon.

He sailed to the Malay Archipelago in 1854 as a professional collector sending specimens of new and rare species back to England to be sold to museums and private collections. In 1855 he published his first essay on the subject of evolution, but it did not explain the mechanism for evolution. This essay came to the attention of Charles Darwin, who wrote complimenting him on his work. Darwin was also warned by close friends that Wallace was writing about matters close to Darwin’s own work, but Darwin did not take heed of the warnings.

Three years later in early 1858, as Alfred suffered from a fit of malaria, he recalled an essay by Thomas Malthus on populations. This gave him a mechanism for evolution. The fittest in a population will survive the weakest will die. Over two evenings Wallace wrote out his 'new' theory and sent it to Darwin, the man who had commented favourably on his earlier essay. The idea it seems was not new to Darwin. At this point all the credit seems to go to Wallace.

When Alfred Russel Wallace’s letter dropped on the doormat of Down House in Kent, Charles Darwin was in no condition to deal with it. His baby was seriously ill and his scientific achievements seemed doomed to be overshadowed by Wallace. Darwin contacted his friends Charles Lyell, the geologist, and Joseph Dalton Hooker the botanist and asked their advice. Lyell and Hooker knew immediately what to do. They arranged for extracts from a letter written by Darwin in 1844 where he sketched his theory and Wallace's essay to be read to the Linnean Society of London on July 1st 1858. They made it clear in their introduction that Darwin had come to the theory first though had not written anything intended for publication. They read Darwin's extracts first followed by Wallace's essay. And so was born the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. In 1858, however, the scientific establishment didn’t recognise the importance of this theory. Its impact was clear to see over a year later, when Charles Darwin, urged on by his friends published On The Origin of Species in the November of 1859.

Darwin's book hit the shelves and caught the public imagination. Wallace was still in Malaysia unaware of the commotion 'Darwin's theory' had caused. So was Wallace pushed out of the limelight deliberately? Was his work justifiably relegated to second place? How should the world remember Wallace today?

Some people have tried to suggest that the official story of Wallace's contribution and the degree to which Darwin had finalised his thinking on the subject is not wholly correct. Vital correspondence between Darwin, Wallace and Lyell from around the time of Darwin's receipt of Wallace's essay is missing as is the original essay. Additions to Darwin's draft manuscripts for a big book he was writing on evolution were made around the time of his contact with Wallace, raising the question as to whether or not Darwin was influenced by Wallace's work. Two things remain a matter of record; Alfred Russel Wallace was not of the same social standing as Darwin, although he came from a professional family and the scientific establishment and the first publication of the theory of evolution by natural selection was a joint publication.

If anyone should have felt hard done by it was Alfred Russel Wallace himself, but at no point did he ever claim that he was cheated or ‘hard done by’. In fact he called his own book on evolution, a collection of lectures given on a tour of America, Darwinism and at one point claimed to be ‘more Darwinian than Darwin’. Wallace also gave Darwin the phrase which is most often mistakenly attributed to Darwin ‘survival of the fittest’. The term was actually coined by Herbert Spencer the philosopher and biologist. Wallace suggested it to Darwin. It is also one of the most misunderstood phrases in evolution, with most people thinking that fittest means strongest. It actually means best suited to the environment.

Perhaps we should no longer refer to "Darwin's theory" but the "Wallace/Darwin theory of evolution by Natural Selection".

Alfred Russel Wallace did not confine his talents to one discipline. He is the founder of the science of biogeography (the study of the location of different groups of flora and fauna) writing a two volume study called The geographical Distribution of animals. He wrote a vast number of essays, books and articles on scientific and social issues extending his interests to works on Mars and its ‘canals’; the prospect of life existing elsewhere in the universe; land nationalization (Wallace believed that no person should own land, only the buildings that are on the land) and psychic phenomena. The latter being something that his contemporaries were dismissive of and that today still tarnishes his standing with some historians and writers. His lasting scientific discovery for many biologists is a line separating two distinct groups of plants and animals in the Far East that is still referred to as Wallace's Line.

What is certain is that Alfred Russel Wallace was a celebrity of his time, often called upon to write popular articles for newspapers and magazines and he was also interviewed in what is best described as turn of the century ‘OK’ and ‘Hello’ style magazine articles. He was awarded many honorary degrees, even refusing some. He was awarded the Order of Merit and, with the help of Charles Darwin he was given a civil pension by Gladstone. Even after his groundbreaking work on evolution, he was never far from controversy. After winning a substantial bet to show (using his surveying skills) that the surface of the earth was curved and not flat, Alfred and his wife were hounded by the flat Earther John Hampden. Despite winning court cases against Hampden, the stalking of Alfred continued and, in the end, he returned the bet he had won. When Darwin died in 1882, Wallace was a pall bearer at his funeral.

Any association with Alfred Russel Wallace should be a source of pride for the community. Neath should be proud of its influence on the young naturalist and proud that the surrounding countryside should inspire this great man to learn about nature and decide to uncover one of the greatest mysteries of life, its origin.

James Williams

Lecturer in Science Education

University of Sussex

This site is © Copyright Greg Griffiths 2004-2005, All Rights Reserved. Development by Greg Griffiths, based on a template from Steve's free web templates.