Science Talk

The Man Who Wasn't Darwin: Alfred Russel Wallace on the Centenary of His Death

Alfred Russel Wallace biographer Peter Raby of the University of Cambridge talks about the great naturalist and co-creator of the theory of evolution by natural selection on the 100th anniversary of Wallace's death

Podcast Transcription

Steve Mirsky:         This Scientific American podcast is brought to you by Audible.com, your source for audiobooks and more.  Audible.com features more than 100,000 titles, including science books you’ve been meaning to check out, like Kevin Dutton’s The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success, and Richard Panek’s The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality.  Right now, Audible.com is offering a free audiobook and a one-month trial membership to the Scientific American audience.  For details, go to Audible.com/sciam. 

Welcome to this Scientific American podcast science talk, posted on November 7th, 2013.  I’m Steve Mirsky.  Today is the 100th anniversary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace, co-developer, along with Darwin, of the idea of natural selection as the driving force of evolution.  To mark the occasion, I spoke with Peter Raby of the University of Cambridge, author of the 2001 biography: Alfred Russel Wallace—A Life.  I called him earlier today at his home near Cambridge.  So you’re about to leave for the unveiling of his statue. 

Paul Raby:         Yes, Wallace’s statue is going to be unveiled at 4:30 PM this afternoon in the Natural History Museum, and this is the kind of culmination of the celebration of the centenary of Wallace.  So I think the comedian and writer Bill Bailey is going to unveil it, and David Attenborough is giving a lecture afterwards.  So that’s the marking of this year. 

Steve Mirsky:         For those who have only heard about Darwin, tell us about Wallace. 

Paul Raby:         Wallace was Darwin’s co-discoverer of natural selection, and he conceived his theory of evolution by natural selection independently while he was on a collecting journey in the Malay Archipelago.  And he had been thinking about evolution for some time, and had written one important proprietary paper, but neither Darwin nor anybody else had any idea, really, that Wallace was on the hunt, and close to his discovery.  So he was in correspondence with Darwin at the time.  First, he started collecting for him, and then a more sort of intellectual and friendly correspondence continued.  But I think neither man realized in detail what the other was doing, but various things that Darwin put in his letters encouraged Wallace to send Darwin his theory, which he wrote in Ternate and posted off saying to Darwin, if you think well of this perhaps you would show this to Sir Charles Lyell – Wallace having heard from Darwin that Lyell had taken note of previous writings _ Wallace. 

And the letter arrived on Darwin’s doorstep at the Down House in Kent, and for all intents and purposes, Darwin opened it, and read the paper, and saw his own theory, which he had been working on for 20-odd years, but had not yet published.

Steve Mirsky:         And this is 1858?

Paul Raby:         So this is 1858 – June, 1858, when the letter arrived.  And Darwin was shattered and somewhat panicked, I think, by this letter, and sought advice from Lyell and from his friend Hooker, and, following the advice of the two men, they really took over the proceedings and they decided that it would be fair, whether it was fair or not was up to others to decide, but they decided that it would be fair for certain writings of Darwin to be published, to be presented to the Linnean Society alongside Wallace’s paper.  So this joint declaration to the world about the new theory was made very rapidly at the end of June to the Linnean Society in London.

And Wallace is therefore sort of joined, irrevocably, to Darwin.  But the reason why Wallace is less well-known, well there are lots of reasons why he’s less well-known from Darwin, but I think the principal reason is that Darwin then set to and wrote On the Origin of Species, which came out the following year, which was the publication which really cemented his name and reputation and had all the detailed background proof to support the theory.  So Wallace has this hugely important role alongside Darwin in bringing about the publication of the theory.

Steve Mirsky:         Yeah, it should be said that in your book, Alfred Russel Wallace – A Life, you make much more extensive use of the Wallace correspondence, not just with Darwin, but with everyone, than previous biographers had, and so I think to many people who are aware of the Darwin-Wallace connection, this post from Wallace just arrives out of the blue at Darwin’s home in 1858, and that Darwin perhaps had never heard of Wallace before, but that’s obviously not the case.  They had been in correspondence.

Paul Raby:         Yes, they had been in correspondence.  I just think that Darwin had not fully appreciated the detail of Wallace’s thought, which is perfectly understandable.  Somebody is writing letters half the world away, letters which take several months to arrive, in the midst of a very busy schedule of collecting, and writing papers, and just surviving, and obviously he’s not sitting down to do an A to Z on what’s in his mind.  He tends to either respond to Darwin’s previous letter or write about what’s on the top of his head.  And so I think it’s perfectly understandable that Darwin would be genuinely taken by surprise by this sudden extremely elegant writing of the theory. 

Steve Mirsky:         As a younger man, Wallace had traveled in the New World and it’s an amazing story.  Can you tell us a little bit about his adventures and what happened to him?

Paul Raby:         Yes, well, Wallace was very much a self-educated and self-made man, and he was actually trained as a surveyor.  He was apprenticed to his older brother, and worked as a surveyor on – in various places in England and Wales.  For instance, on the early railways surveys, and so on.  And he became more and more interested in natural history, and taught himself about that also in conjunction with another young naturalist called Henry Walter Bates, who he met at Lester.  And these two young men decided that they could make a living by traveling, collecting, and sending back the specimens they collected for sale in London. 

And they set off for the Amazon together, and after a while, they separated and went slightly different routes in the Amazon, and Wallace went up the Rio Negro.  And he didn’t – for somebody with no background and no money behind him, they were self-financing themselves.  They had a little money to begin with, but then they were totally dependent on the success of their collecting, and their agent, Stevens, in London, selling their beetles and butterflies and everything else, and then transmitting more funds out to the Amazon so that they could fund the next stage of their journeys.  And Wallace was amazingly successful in this venture, but decided to come home, partly because I think of exhaustion, partly perhaps because his younger brother, who he persuaded to join him, had died of yellow fever in Para, and partly because I think he wanted to capitalize on what he’d collected. 

So he set sail for England.  Some of his collections had gone ahead of him, but he had live animals and birds with him.  He had his notebooks.  He had specimens and so on.  And the ship he was on caught fire.  Had to take to the boats.  And he lost practically everything.  And in fact the boat that rescued them after they’d been tossing about in the Atlantic for a lengthy time, they were picked up by another boat which was extremely leaky and unseaworthy.  Limped back to England.  And Wallace arrived basically with the clothes he stood up in and had to begin all over again. 

So that was his sort of first collecting phase.  And he then rapidly sort of pulled himself together.  His agent had fortunately insured against loss, so he had a little money, and because he’d done so well, he began appearing at some of the learned societies in London, and he was actually sponsored by the World Geographical Society, who arranged a passage for him out to – from Malay Archipelago out to Singapore.  So after about 18 months, he set out for an eight-year journey to the Malay Archipelago, which, during which, he made this scientific discovery, but during which he also made astonishing collections in some very out of the way places.  And incidentally discovered the demarcation line between the Asian and the Australian former, which is now known as Wallace’s Line. 

Steve Mirsky:         Can you give us any detail as to his thinking that led him to understand natural selection while he was in the Malay?

Paul Raby:         Yes.  I’m not sure that I can.  It is a slight mystery how – which isn’t the jigsaw puzzle suddenly fell into place for him.  He gives various accounts of this.  And they’re not terribly detailed.  But one of them – one important piece, as it was for Darwin, was from his reading of Malthus.  And realizing that food supply would be limited in any area or sub-area, and therefore those animals most fitted and suited to the particular niche in which they were, or the strongest, and so on, would be the ones who were likely to survive and to breed successfully.  So there is the sort of Malthusian element there, but in terms of how species evolve, and the difference between varieties in species and so on, I don’t think he’s vague, but there are certain steps in the logic that are not presented to us.  So there is no kind of logical kind of sequence that one can follow, although one can speculate.

Steve Mirsky:         That’s rather remarkable.  In the course of writing the book, did you generate feelings toward Wallace?  Did you come to like him a great deal?  Or perhaps not like him?  I would imagine, like him – he seems to be a very likeable guy.

Paul Raby:         Yes, I generated a lot of work towards him [laughter], I have to say.  And it’s partly I think you mention that I was able to quote a lot of correspondence, a lot of family correspondence, and I was given access to the Wallace family papers, very generously, by Wallace’s grandsons.  And I got a strong sense of family continuity through them, and through looking at both the papers I did quote and other papers that were simply part of the family treasures.  And I came to admire Wallace a great deal. 

He was a very generous, spirited man, and he never seemed to bear any resentment about the fact that Darwin had priority, and in fact devoted a lot of his time to promoting Darwin and promoting Darwin’s ideas so that even when he came – he comes back to England and he – he is received well by the scientific community, but he never finds good paid employment back in England after his travels came to an end.  He always took this very generously and positively and would then set down to write another book or towards some other project.  He always thought it for the best.  And the other side that I came to admire hugely about him was that he was hugely interested in people and in the flight and fortunes of people and peoples. 

I mean he was a socialist.  He was.  He believed in land reform.  He believed in inequality.  And he was prepared to work with organizations, some of them less than popular with the scientific or the political establishment, to try and bring about a better world.  He had a very strong sense of progress, and what the world should be able to advance, and that if people were thoughtful and intelligent enough, and had unselfish thoughts, and unselfish practices, that they could bring about better living standards for everybody.  So that side of him I really admired.

Steve Mirsky:         I’m interested in how you came to write the book.  You’re primarily a theater person, I believe, based on my reading on the book jacket about you, but you do also have an interest in Victorian scientific travelers, and I assume that’s where the Wallace spark came from.

Paul Raby:         Yes, it came from that, and it came perhaps even from one step before that, which was I wrote a biography of Samuel Butler, who was heavily involved in Darwinian debates and ideas, and it was in reading about Butler that I came across Wallace first and just realized I didn’t know very much about him.  Then I wrote a book called Bright Paradise: Victorian Scientific Travelers, within which Wallace was one of my travelers.  I wrote particularly – the ones I got close to were the three naturalists who went out to the Amazon—Wallace, Bates, and Richard Spruce.  But I also wrote about people like Hooker and Arête Mary Kingsley and a whole range of travelers.  So that was my sort of broad background.  And then I decided I really wanted to concentrate and focus on Wallace and explore him further. 

Steve Mirsky:         And obviously you’re glad that you made that decision, but what do you think your – it takes years to write a biography.  What do you think you personally got out of this experience?

Paul Raby:         I probably should have spent longer writing it [laughter] and –

Steve Mirsky:         I think that’s what –

Paul Raby:         -my one regret –

Steve Mirsky:         I think Darwin said the same thing.

Paul Raby:         Yes [laughter].  Because I had an academic career in the teaching program, there was a limited amount of time that I could devote to Wallace.  And some of me wishes I’d spent another five years.  Some of me wishes that I could do it again now when so much material is available online.  So there’s a big difference between whistling through envelopes of manuscript letters in the drawers of somebody’s house and having all the correspondence published online and available.  And I guess I did it the old fashioned way, which is good from some points of view, in that it’s quite a sort of intimate way of doing it, rather than the sort of high tech way one might do it now. 

And I think – I mean I’ve derived enormous pleasure out of it, and for instance this year, my book has been published in French and I believe in Portuguese, in Brazil, though I’ve not actually seen the hard evidence of that.  So I’ve been fortunate in that my interest in Wallace has been maintained.  And I return to him as somebody I find quite inspirational. 

Steve Mirsky:         And one last thing before I let you go – Why has there been a – I’m not sure whether to call it a resurgence or a surgence, if you will, of interest in Wallace over the last decade or so?  When I went to school, you learned Darwin, and Wallace was never mentioned. 

Paul Raby:         I’d put it down to a number of factors.  And some of them are quite personal.  There is Dr. George Beccaloni of the Natural History Museum has been a standard bearer for Wallace over the last few years, and I would say that it’s very largely due not just to him but to a number of other enthusiasts of which he is perhaps the most prominent who have promoted Wallace not in a sense to disparage Darwin in any way, but to give Wallace his proper due, but ten years ago, I remember going around the Darwin exhibition at the Natural History Museum, and this was when I was first working on Wallace, and there was not a single reference to Wallace there at all. 

And the fact that now there is a portrait, a statue, is down to a band of enthusiasts, but there has been, now, a lot of very good writing and research on Wallace.  And for instance, this year, his correspondence from the Malay archipelago has been published, which is a lovely book, which presents all the letters that survived that we know of that Wallace wrote from the Malay archipelago in that eight years, plus significant letters to him, i.e. those from Darwin or from Roger Brook or from his agent, Stevens, and so on.  And I think that’s made Wallace much more accessible.  Wallace also, although I think his writing is brilliant, for instance, The Malay Archipelago is an un-put-downable book, but it’s also quite a modest book, and you don’t necessarily get the full flavor of the man from it, although you get the most wonderful reading experience.

And I think contemporary research is, as it were, brought him up, and allowed him, now, to stand alongside Darwin and others, and one can then appreciate the full sort of richness of the 19th century discovery. 

Steve Mirsky:         If you plan to be in New York City on November 12th, there’s a daylong symposium devoted to Wallace at the American Museum of Natural History.  That daylong symposium will conclude with an address by the aforementioned David Attenborough. 

Male:         The American Museum of Natural History can be found on Central Park West between 77th and 81st streets in Manhattan. 

Steve Mirsky:         That’s it for this episode.  Get your science news at our Web site, www.scientificamerican.com where you can check out our section on citizen science.  These are projects in which researchers depend on science-interested individuals like you to help them analyze data and evaluate evidence. You won’t merely be letting your computer do grunt work.  These projects require human eyes and ears like yours, I assume.  And, follow us on Twitter, where you get a tweet whenever a new item hits the Web site.  Our Twitter name is @sciam.  For Scientific American Science Talk, I’m Steve Mirsky.  Thanks for clicking on us. 

[End of Audio]

Share this Article: