In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Politics, Paternalism, and Progressive Social Evolution:Observations on Colonial Policy in the Scientific Travels of Alfred Russel Wallace
  • Jeremy Vetter (bio)

This article examines the case of Alfred Russel Wallace, the famed British naturalist and co-discoverer, with Charles Darwin, of evolution by natural selection. In many ways, a study of Wallace provides the best means to examine an alternative tradition within nineteenth-century scientific travel that critiques conventional Victorian assumptions about culture and race. Wallace was a radical, unconventional thinker, and his early moral beliefs about social progress were heavily influenced by Owenite socialism at the Halls of Science in late-1830s London (Durant; Jones). Kind-hearted and open-minded, Wallace remains one of the most sympathetic Victorian scientific travellers, and his work “disrupts the conventions concerning the representation of tropical nature” (Stepan 60). He was also an emphatic opponent of the “demarcation between ethical and scientific ideas,” as Roger Smith recognized over four decades ago (177–78). By the 1880s, Wallace would become a leading opponent of the biologists’ strategy of ideological neutrality (Fichman, “Biology and Politics”). If anyone of his era could serve as a model for present-day critiques of Victorian-era assumptions of European cultural and racial superiority masked by purportedly value-free science, it might seem to be Wallace.

Yet, despite all this, the case of Wallace is not as simple as it first appears. Egalitarian thinker though he may have been, Wallace’s work in South America and the Malay Archipelago was decisively influenced by his (temporary) position in the colonial social structure. Despite his willingness to criticize many aspects of western European culture, especially the pernicious effects of free-market capitalism, Wallace assumed that Western culture was ultimately superior to all others. And like his contemporaries, Wallace freely used the language of “superior” and “inferior” races without seriously questioning the attitudes underlying such conceptual deployments. Wallace’s adherence to widely held Victorian assumptions about racial and cultural differences should be evident throughout this essay.1 In sum, Wallace refracted his factual observations about human societies in colonial settings through an [End Page 113] unconcealed lens of moral value: the imperative to push non-European societies through progressive social evolution.

The role of science in European imperialism and capitalism is by now well established. The powerful contours of these crucial economic, social, and political processes will be obvious in what follows. But in this paper I focus on how that context shaped Wallace as a scientific traveller constructing knowledge of human societies encountered alongside non-human nature in the colonial periphery. His observations took place in what Mary Louise Pratt calls the “contact zone”—“the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict” (6–7). In her classic study of travel writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Pratt identifies the “seeing-man” as the main protagonist of “anti-conquest,” by which bourgeois Europeans attempted to “secure their innocence in the same moment as they assert[ed] European hegemony” (7). Ascribing such an identity to Wallace might seem problematic given his self-proclaimed radicalism and decidedly anti-capitalist point of view. Yet despite his vigorous critique of the impact on the lives of the colonized peoples of a market economy based on free trade, his own observations endorsed colonial policies that expanded systems of labour and commerce in the modern capitalist world-economy, though based on a coercive paternalism rather than markets alone. Indeed, this is the central theme of my analysis of Wallace’s observations on human social development in the colonies: how an avowed critic of conventional British capitalist values nevertheless articulated a colonial philosophy founded on a paternalistic relationship between Europeans and native peoples.

the amazon voyage

Wallace’s first overseas collecting voyage took him to the Amazon Basin in South America. As a European scientific observer in the Americas, Wallace followed a line of predecessors who constituted what Pratt calls the “capitalist vanguard”:

Subsistence lifeways, non-monetary exchange systems, and self-sustaining regional economies are anathema to expansive capitalism. It seeks to destroy...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 113-131
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.