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  • Alfred Russel Wallace:The Power of Place
  • Andrew Berry (bio)

Charles smith (2010) has written that Alfred Russel Wallace, famously a biologist, is perhaps better thought of as a geographer (passim). David Stack offers a similar perspective: “Land, in fact, was integral to all elements of Wallace’s thought—social and scientific. His career was suffused with land-related questions, and all his most important work was concerned with the ecological interaction of men, animals, and their natural environment” (280). In his important 1997 paper, James Moore also emphasizes the role of Wallace’s formative years as a land surveyor in the development of his scientific thinking. Wallace, without question, approached biological (and anthropological) problems from a geographical point of view, and it is no accident that, other than for his famous evolutionary insights, he is primarily remembered for his influence on the field of biogeography, both as the discoverer of what came to be called “Wallace’s Line” between the Asian and Australasian faunas of Southeast Asia and as the synthesizer and theorizer who gave us the remarkable The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876). I will extend these ideas to assert that a key to understanding Wallace is an appreciation of the role of place in his thought. Wallace’s early training as a surveyor gave him skills and a mindset that led him to view the world—including the study of animals, plants, people, and even social issues—through the lens of place.

My title echoes that of the second volume of Janet Browne’s biography of Charles Darwin, Power of Place. Darwin’s place in this instance is both his home, Down House, and his position, in society and in science. Having spent five formative years aboard the Beagle and several subsequent years grappling with his nascent ideas on evolution—the title of Browne’s first volume is Voyaging—Darwin has settled down and created an environment that is maximally protective and productive:

The tumble of ideas that had characterized the first half of his existence was giving way to the methodical intensity of documenting and reinforcing his notions. His home and garden were his experimental laboratories, this book-lined study was his manufactory; these were the places where he most liked to be. He discovered that he valued routine—and went to great pains [End Page 91] to create a well-regulated household in which he was left free for the steady construction of facts.

(Browne 10)

Wallace’s sense of place differed markedly from Darwin’s, however: Wallace’s notion of place was not location-specific—for Darwin in later life, the place was Down House—but simply an appreciation of the significance of location in any context. Wallace’s place could be a tiny Indonesian island whose animal inhabitants were very different from those of the tiny Indonesian island next-door, even though the two islands had ostensibly identical environments. Wallace’s place could be one side of a great tropical river that had very different animals and plants on the other side. Wallace’s place could even be Earth, teeming with life, in contrast to the sterility of other planets—even our nearest neighbour, Mars. Wallace’s place could be the smallholding of a Scottish farmer forced to abandon his land under the Highland Clearances. Wallace’s “power of place” was thus in many ways the opposite of Darwin’s. Wallace’s was about difference, change, dynamism; Darwin’s was about fixity, equilibrium, establishment.

the origins of wallace’s power of place

Two features of Wallace’s upbringing, I believe, shaped his geographical focus. First, his was a somewhat rootless childhood. He was born close to Usk, in what today is South Wales, but his family was not Welsh in the least. His down-at-the-heels parents had moved to Usk simply because, as he put it in his autobiography, it was “a place where living was as cheap as possible” (My Life 1: 112). The role of place—where place signified origin—was apparent early on: “I was exceedingly fair and my long hair was of a very light flaxen tint, so that I was generally spoken of among the...


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pp. 91-111
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