22 May 2019


Patrick Armstrong. Critical Lives: Alfred Russel Wallace. Reaktion Books, 2019.

Although Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin discovered the principle of evolution through natural selection, the life of Alfred Russel Wallace can be seen “as a story of an individuals triumph over tragedy and hardship”.
The author explains that Wallace had a happy early childhood; he was the eighth of nine children, and was brought up in Wales because his father Thomas Wallace, according to Armstrong, “lived idly and enjoyed himself in London as a fairly well-to-do middle class gentleman” who eventually fell on tough economic times, relocating to Wales as it was somewhere they could live more cheaply. Their house was built along the bank of the River Usk, but in 1828 they moved to Hertford, and the young Alfred was educated at Hertford Grammar School, a Dickensian establishment were he was flogged by the cane and one of the masters used to “rap the boys knuckles with a ruler until they were black, swollen and had the skin cut”

He worked with his elder brother John, who was a Joinery apprentice, making doors, staircases and other building items. He did little manual work but liked to observe and mix with the working class and formed his Socialist, Leftist Radical leanings while there, equipping him with a questioning manner that ran through his later works.

Armstrong relates that in the summer of 1837, Wallace at fourteen years old, went with his eldest brother to Bedfordshire to train as a Land Surveyor, and at this time he gained an interest in geology when his brother showed the younger lad fossil oysters of the genus Gyphaea and belemites, both of which were common in the local area.

Wallace learnt the basics of surveying and mapping and rejoiced in the hard physical outdoor work. Having learnt the use of the sextant in surveying he then bought a cheap paperback published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge giving the outline of the structure of plants - “Great was my delight when I found that I could identify a Crucifer, an Umbellifer, and a Labiate; as one after the other the different orders were recognised, I began to realize for the first time the order that underlay all the variety of nature”

Sometimes he found species which were not described in his book, leading him to use his meagre allowance buying more comprehensive titles, and borrowing books where he could. By carefully comparing plants he found with the various reference sources at his disposal, he set to work “with increased ardour “ to collect specimens all the plants he could find: “I therefore began to form a herbarium, collecting good specimens and drying them between drying papers and a couple of boards weighted with books or stones”.


His first scientific publication came a little bit later: it was a one-sentence reply to a correspondent of The Zoologist journal, who regretted that no specimen of a particular species of beetle had been collected for twenty years. Wallace replied “Capture of Trichius fasciatus near Neath. - I took a single specimen of this beautiful insect on a blossom of Carduus heterophyllus near the falls at the top of Neath Vale - Alfred R. Wallace”

Wallace decided to go to South America with the naturalist and explorer Henry Bates (1825-1892), and in 1847, his first substantial scientific paper On the Umbrella Bird was published. It was intended that the expedition should be funded through collecting insects and other specimens in the Amazon and selling them to private collectors and museums in the United Kingdom and Europe. The map Wallace produced of the area of the expedition became the standard map of the area for decades.

The author relates that the notion of the 'struggle for existence' or 'the battle of life' became a key to the concept of evolution by natural selection, described later by both Wallace and Darwin.

On his return to England Wallace fell ill, but later wrote six scientific papers and two books and established links with a number of British naturalists, including Charles Darwin, with whom he had a few minutes conversation in the Insect Room of the British Museum. His paper on 'Butterflies of the Amazon Valley' was read before the Entomological Society in 1853 were he spoke as an experienced collector and observer and he was beginning understand the way that organisms change over time. He was able to acquire funding from the Royal Geographical Society and decided to travel to the Malay Archipelago and the islands of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).

Despite falling ill again, he began to note the ways in which species differed and resembled each other, helping him formulate his theory of natural selection.

He sent his initial paper on the subject to Charles Darwin  to pass on to Charles Lyell if he thought it was interesting. Darwin took the paper to geologist Lyell and botanist Joseph Hooker asking for their advice. Darwin was clearly worried that despite over twenty years of work, he might lose scientific priority in publishing the Theory. Without Wallace knowing, the paper was combined with Darwin’s own theories and was published a few weeks later as 'On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection'. Just a couple of years later, in 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

Perhaps tiring of his travels and the resultant illnesses, Wallace was eager to settle down to make a steady living, but found that was unable to gain any proper salaried employment. Armstrong notes that “at one stage in the 1860’s he applied for the position of Assistant Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society – a post for which he might have assumed he was well qualified. It went to H. W. Bates – his companion on the expedition to South America”.

He was forced to tour the country presenting lectures, and obliged to sell some pieces from his private collections. This and his books were his main sources of income, and although he lived the typical life of a Victorian gentleman, he remained influenced by his early working class encounters and stayed true to his radical socialist ideals: “He felt that societies tended to progress (or evolve) towards the goal of a state where each person could fulfil their purpose.”

The book is well illustrated, comprehensive and is presented in a direct and readable manner, displaying clearly the many sides of Wallace's scientific career. The author gives us an enjoyably fascinating journey through Wallace' life story, noting that “Wallace['s] attributes were supreme courage and persistence, almost to the point of foolishness” Perhaps, reading here of the massive contribution Wallace made to scientific knowledge, we might conclude that we all need to display a little foolishness from time to time! – Gerrard Russell.

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