One of England’s greatest scientists, Alfred Russel Wallace was born on the 8th of January – 200 years ago, in Llanbadoc, Monmouthshire, Wales.
He was a man of many talents – naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist, biologist, illustrator and social commentator. He is famous for simultaneously having formulated with Charles Darwin, a theory about the origin of species by natural selection.
He was awarded in 1868, the Royal Society’s prestigious Royal Medal and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1893. In 1908, he received the Copley Metal and Order of Merit.
Wallace was a prolific author, having published 22 full-length books and at least 747 shorter pieces, 508 of which were scientific papers (191 of them published in Nature).
Of the remaining shorter pieces 29% were on biogeography and natural history, 27% were on evolutionary theory, 25% were social commentary, 12% were on anthropology, and 7% were on spiritualism and phrenology
Wallace’s most important work – published in 1870 – was ‘Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection’. In this tome, we read of how he differed from Darwin on the theme of ‘natural selection’, contending that unlike other ‘animals’, the appearance of mankind was to a certain extent, the result of some non-physical causes. Wallace maintained that natural selection could not account for mathematical, artistic, or musical genius, metaphysical musings, or wit and humour.
right: photograph of Wallace taken in Singapore in 1862. courtesy of Wikipedia
He was had an abiding interest in spiritualism and other psychic phenomena, which was developed some years before his investigations on ‘natural selection’. In 1875, he published ‘On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism’ in which he outlined the rationale for his beliefs. He expanded the teachings of spiritualism in a number of later writings, excerpts which are reproduced below.
“…The universal teaching of modern spiritualism is that the world and the whole material universe exist for the purpose of developing spiritual beings–that death is simply a transition from material existence to the first grade of spirit-life–and that our happiness and the degree of our progress will be wholly dependent upon the use we have made of our faculties and opportunities here…”
“…our condition and happiness in the future life depends, by the action of strictly natural law, on our life and conduct here. There is no reward or punishment meted out to us by superior beings; but, just as surely as cleanliness and exercise and wholesome food produce health of body, so surely does a moral life here produce health and happiness in the spirit-world…”
As Charles Smith contends in his 1992 paper, Alfred Russel Wallace on Spiritualism, Man and Evolution, Wallace did not view his adoption of spiritualism as a retreat from natural selection; rather, he considered “spiritualism the best available accounting of the overall direction of evolution at the moral/intellectual level”, and endorsed it accordingly.
In 1876, Wallace joined the Theosophical Society.
Henry Steel Olcott, (pictured left) the first President of the Theosophical Society, was in correspondence with Wallace, and sent him a copy of his book, ‘People from the Other Worlds’ (1875)
Olcott’s fellow co-founder of the Theosophical Society, H. P. Blavatsky, (photo below) also sent Wallace a copy of her recent publication, Isis Unveiled, and in 1878 received the following reply
“Dear Madam, / I return you many thanks for the handsome present of your two very handsome volumes . . . I am amazed at the vast amount of erudition displayed in them and the great interest of the topics on which they treat . . . Your book will open up to many spiritualists a whole world of new ideas, and cannot fail to be of the greatest value in the enquiry which is now being so earnestly carried on . . . / Yours with sincere respect, / [signed] Alfred R. Wallace” (printed in the Adyar Theosophist 7: 27 [April 1906]: 559).
Alfred Russel Wallace was the eighth of nine children born to Mary Anne Wallace and Thomas Vere Wallace. His mother was English, while his father was of Scottish ancestry and claimed a connection to William Wallace – the leader of Scottish forces during the 13th century Wars of Scottish Independence.
When Alfred was five years old, his family moved to Hertford. There he attended Hertford Grammar School until 1837, then moving to London where he boarded with his older brother, John, who was an apprentice builder.
While in the nation’s capital, Alfred attended the London Mechanics Institute where he was exposed to the radical political ideas of Robert Owen, the Welsh social reformer and Thomas Paine, the English-born political theorist.
Between 1840 and 1843, Wallace worked as a land surveyor in the countryside of the west of England and Wales. Quite taken by the beauty of his surroundings he collected flowers and plants as an amateur botanist from1841.
In late 1843, Wallace composed a lecture ‘The advantages of varied knowledge’ in which he set out his personal philosophy, extracts of which appear in his autobiography of 1905, My Life.
“…He who has extended his inquiries into the varied phenomena of nature learns to despise no fact, however small, and to consider the most apparently insignificant and common occurrences as much in need of explanation as those of a grander and more imposing character. He sees in every dewdrop trembling on the grass causes at work analogous to those which have produced the spherical figure of the earth and planets; and in the beautiful forms of crystallization on his window-panes on a frosty morning he recognizes the action of laws which may also have a part in the production of the similar forms of planets and of many of the lower animal types. Thus, the simplest facts of everyday life have to him an inner meaning, and he sees that they depend upon the same general laws as those that are at work in the grandest phenomena of nature…”
Wallace’s father died in 1843 and a decline in demand for surveying led to temporary unemployment for Wallace but in1844 he was working in Leicester at the Collegiate School where he taught teach drawing, mapmaking, and surveying.
It was also here in Leicester, that Wallace attended a lecture by Spencer Hall on hypnosis, then known as mesmerism. Wallace then experimented and managed to hypnotise some of his students. As a result, Wallace concluded there was a link between his experiences with mesmerism and spiritualism. But it was not for another 20 years later, that Wallace devoted his full energies to investigating spiritualism.
He was a regular visitor to the town library, where he read such progressive writings as An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Robert Malthus, (A) Personal Narrative by Alexander von Humboldt, and Charles Darwin’s Journal, the latter which recounted ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’.
One evening Wallace met Henry Bates, the entomologist, (pictured right) who at just 19 years old, had published in the journal Zoologist, an 1843 paper on beetles. He befriended Wallace and encouraged him to collect insects.
Bates and Wallace undertook extensive fieldwork, in the Amazon River basin, beginning in 1848. From 1854 to 1862, he travelled through the Malay Archipelago, where he identified the faunal divide (now called ‘the Wallace Line’) which separates the Indonesian archipelago into a western portion in which the animals are largely of Asian origin, and an eastern portion where the fauna display Australasian characteristics.
Above image: A map from The Malay Archipelago shows the physical geography of the archipelago and Wallace’s travels around the area. The thin black lines indicate where Wallace travelled; the red lines indicate chains of volcanoes. courtesy of Wikipedia
In 1849, Leicester opened one of the first public museums in the UK. The collection was originally formed by the Literary and Philosophical Society. Renamed in 2020 as the Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, it contains displays of science, history and art, both international and local.
left: Leicester Museum and Art Gallery. photo by Colyn Boyce
Just outside the entrance of the building is a plaque outlining the strong associations of Wallace and Bates with this part of Leicester – Bates having been born just 100 yards away from the museum.
Above image: plaque dedicated to Bates and Wallace at Leicester Museum and Art Gallery. photo by Colyn Boyce
Following his return from Malaya, in 1865, Wallace began serious studies of spiritualism, possibly at the behest of his sister Fanny Sims. He became a regular attender at séances, and for the rest of his life, he remained convinced that at least some séance phenomena were genuine, despite accusations of fraud and evidence of trickery.
In 1874, Wallace visited the spirit photographer Frederick Hudson. He asserted that a photograph of him with his deceased mother, taken by Hudson, was genuine. Although previous photographs by Hudson had been exposed as fraudulent two years earlier. Even his relationships with Henry Bates, Thomas Huxley and even Darwin, were permanently strained as a result.
Wallace’s scientific reputation took a battering as result of his public advocacy of spiritualism and repeated defence of spiritualist mediums in the face of allegations of fraud in the 1870s.
Sometimes called the “father of bio-geography” (or more accurately of ‘zoogeography’), Wallace is often considered the 19th century’s leading expert on the geographical distribution of animal species.
Through his extensive work in biogeography he became all too aware of the impact of human activities on the natural world. In Tropical Nature and Other Essays (1878), he warned about the dangers of deforestation and soil erosion, especially in tropical climates prone to heavy rainfall. He outlined the dangers that extensive clearing of rainforest for coffee cultivation in Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) and India would have on the climate in those countries as it would lead to impoverishment caused by soil erosion.
left: Wallace and his signature on the frontispiece of his book Darwinism (1889), courtesy of Wikipedia
Far from mellowing with age, Wallace’s comments on environment grew more urgent later in his career. In The World of Life (1911) he wrote that people should view nature “as invested with a certain sanctity, to be used by us but not abused, and never to be recklessly destroyed or defaced.”
It wasn’t just on planet Earth that Wallace focused his scientific mind. His 1904 book, Man’s Place in the Universe, he seriously evaluated the likelihood of life on other planets. Along with his fellow theosophist, the astronomer Camille Flammarion, he was one of the first scientist to write comprehensively on the possibility of life on Mars.
Wallace was never one to shy away from controversy. Very topical now with a pandemic just behind us (or is it?) it’s interesting to read that in the 1880s, Wallace joined the debate over the mandatory smallpox vaccination. Always suspicious of authority, Wallace suspected that physicians had a vested interest in promoting vaccination, and became convinced that reductions in the incidence of smallpox that had been attributed to vaccination were due to better hygiene and improvements in public sanitation.
Another factor in Wallace’s thinking was his belief that, because of the action of natural selection, organisms were in a state of balance with their environment, and that everything in nature, even disease-causing organisms, served a useful purpose; he feared vaccination might upset this balance.
Wallace was a social activist, supporting the rights of the (downtrodden) commoner in Victorian England. He criticised the free trade policies of the UK for the deleterious effects they wreaked on the working-class.
Wallace was elected in 1881 as first president of the newly formed Land Nationalisation Society and the next year, he published a book, Land Nationalisation; Its Necessity and Its Aims. He was a staunch supporter of progressive land reformist Henry George, and described his best-selling book, Progress and Poverty as”Undoubtedly the most remarkable and important book of the present century”.
right: Henry George in the late 1880s. courtesy of Wikipedia
And in 1889, after reading the utopian novel Looking Backward’, written by Edward Bellamy, Wallace declared himself a socialist. He was ardently opposed to eugenics, an idea which found favour with a number of other prominent 19th-century evolutionary thinkers. He argued that contemporary society was too corrupt and unjust to allow any reasonable determination of who was fit or unfit. In his 1890 article “Human Selection” he wrote, “Those who succeed in the race for wealth are by no means the best or the most intelligent …”
Other social and political topics on which Wallace wrote included articles to support women’s suffrage and to alert the public to the immorality and wastefulness of militarism.
In an 1899 essay, he stated “that all modern wars are dynastic; that they are caused by the ambition, the interests, the jealousies, and the insatiable greed of power of their rulers, or of the great mercantile and financial classes which have power and influence over their rulers; and that the results of war are never good for the people, who yet bear all its burdens”.
Through his writings, Wallace became well known both as a scientist and social activist, and was regularly quoted in the press. In addition to the many awards he received, mentioned at the outset of this article, Wallace held many prestigious posts – being elected president of the anthropology section of the British Association in 1866, and of the Entomological Society of London in 1870. In 1873, he was elected to the American Philosophical Society.
However, his fame quickly faded upon his death and he became an obscure figure in the history of science. But, since 2000, he has again become better known, thanks largely to five book-length biographies and two anthologies. Western Kentucky University maintains a web page dedicated to Wallace scholarship.
London’s Natural History Museum, co-ordinated worldwide events to commemorate the Wallace centenary in 2013. A portrait of Wallace was unveiled in the Main Hall of the Museum and Sir David Attenborough unveiled a statue of Wallace at the museum on 7 November – the 100th anniversary of his death.
left: statue of Wallace, looking up to a bronze model of a golden birdwing butterfly. unveiled at Natural History Museum, London, November 2013. courtesy of Wikipedia
Mount Wallace, in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, was named in his honour in 1895. Impact craters on Mars and the Moon are named after him. A group of islands is known as the Wallacea biographical region, in the naturalist’s honour. And several hundred species of plants and animals, both living and fossil, have been named after Wallace.
We close with the following words taken from Wallace’s essay – ‘Advantages’, written as a twenty-year old, which distill the essence of his belief in the connection between justice and natural causality, and it is this connection that represents the cornerstone of his entire life’s work.
“…Can we believe that we are fulfilling the purpose of our existence while so many of the wonders and beauties of the creation remain unnoticed around us? While so much of the mystery which man has been able to penetrate, however imperfectly, is still all dark to us? While so many of the laws which govern the universe and which influence our lives are, by us, unknown and uncared for? And this not because we want the power, but the will, to acquaint ourselves with them. Can we think it right that, with the key to so much that we ought to know, and that we should be the better for knowing, in our possession, we seek not to open the door, but allow this great store of mental wealth to lie unused, producing no return to us, while our highest powers and capacities rust for want of use?…”
The author is grateful to Theosophy World and Wikipedia for background information.
Main photo at beginning of article – Alfred Russel Wallace in 1895.
Colyn Boyce is a former radio journalist, from Canada. From 1981 until 2018, he was Publicist for the English Section of the Theosophical Society – for about 25 years he was assistant editor of the house magazine, ‘Insight‘, which he typeset and illustrated. He is a National Lecturer for the TS in England and has spoken on numerous occasions in London and at various other locations throughout the UK, Canada and the USA. During 2021 and 2022 he has spoken for the TS in England, the TS in Ukraine, for the European School of Theosophy and the Philippines Section of the Society.
One thought on “ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE – NATURALIST, SPIRITUALIST AND THEOSOPHIST. By Colyn Boyce”
Excellent article! thank you so much!