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  • Alfred Russel Wallace:A Survey of Recent Literature
  • Martin Fichman (bio)

Alfred russel Wallace (1823–1913) was a brilliant, at times puzzling figure of the Victorian age. Although Wallace was one of the most original theoretical and field biologists of the nineteenth century, his fame rests largely on having been, with Charles Darwin, the founder of evolutionary biology by means of natural selection. Yet his impact was greater than that of a scientist alone, however eminent he was in the scientific domain: Wallace was a prolific generator of ideas on a broad spectrum of issues spreading out from evolutionary biology to controversial social and political concerns. Wallace’s significance and reputation have long been the subject of vigorous debate by historians of science and culture, and he is now, approximately a hundred years after his death, experiencing something of a major renascence.

Wallace’s strictly scientific achievements are the least controversial aspects of his career, though even these have not been without scholarly debate. As a relatively young man, Wallace undertook two tropical journeys that were to transform his life and the emerging science of evolutionary biology: a four-year exploration of the Amazon basin of South America (1848–52) and an eight-year exploration of the Malay Archipelago (1854–62), including the islands of Java, Borneo, Celebes, New Guinea, and Bali. Wallace later generalized his findings from Southeast Asia to elaborate a global paradigm for identifying the earth’s fundamental biogeographical regions in his magisterial Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876). It was, of course, Wallace’s elucidation of the mechanism of evolution that constitutes his greatest scientific legacy from his Malay travels. In February 1858, while in the Molucca Islands (on either Gilolo or Ternate), Wallace wrote out a draft of his theory in the now-classic essay “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type” (1858) and mailed it to Darwin in England. A copy of Wallace’s essay, along with extracts from an unpublished manuscript on natural selection written by Darwin in 1844, were presented together at the historic meeting of the Linnean Society (London) on 1 July 1858. This meeting—a year prior to the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859)—ensured that both Wallace and Darwin received recognition and joint priority for their momentous achievement. Nonetheless, Wallace has never achieved the renown, either public or scholarly, accorded to Darwin. This situation is now beginning to change. [End Page 49]

The precise nature of the relationship between Wallace and Darwin was complex. Scholars still disagree about certain aspects of the path leading up to the joint discovery and about how Wallace’s elaboration of the theory of natural selection differs from that of Darwin. Upon his return to England in 1862, Wallace spent the remainder of his long life elucidating the implications of evolutionary theory for a vast array of subjects ranging from biogeography, sexual selection, the phenomenon of organic mimicry (in which one animal species evolves to so closely resemble another animal or even plant species as to be mistaken for it by predators), taxonomy, physical geography, and geology to anthropology. It was Wallace’s theories and writings in the last domain, particularly relating to human evolution, that elicited the greatest controversies of his career. Although he remained an ardent selectionist in his overall analysis of evolutionary processes, Wallace considered natural selection inadequate to account completely for the origin and development of certain human characteristics, notably consciousness and the moral sense. He insisted that certain aspects of theism and of political and social ideologies, including socialism, spiritualism, and anti-vaccinationism, were not merely compatible with the evolutionary process but also essential for comprehending the full significance of human evolution.

Wallace thus echoed the views of many of his Victorian contemporaries (if not all those in the scientific community) who shared his conviction that adherence to a scientifically rigorous evolutionary biology did not preclude explanations that transcended dogmatic mechanistic reductionism. The issues that Wallace confronted continue to resonate in contemporary debates on the scope, mechanism, and, ultimately, significance of evolution in both scientific and cultural domains. In the past two decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in...


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