Saturday, August 12, 2023

Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life

I finally finished this book by Peter Raby. It isn't very long, but I didn't find it very engrossing. I read it mainly to learn about Wallace's relationship to Charles Darwin and how they agreed or disagreed. In particular, I wanted to know whether Wallace was intentionally marginalized by Darwin and the British scientific community.  

Wallace was born in 1823 in Wales, of English and Scottish descent, and was the eighth of nine children. His father was a non-practicing lawyer who thought that he could live off his investments, but he wasn't shrewd and found that he didn't have enough income to support his family. This caused them to move frequently, and Alfred's schooling ended in 1837, when he was fourteen; he began looking for work. Initially he moved to London and lived with his older brother, John, who was an apprentice builder. In London, he was exposed to the radical politics of the time. Later in 1837, he began an apprenticeship as a surveyor with his eldest brother, William, which lasted six years. This position left him with lots of time outdoors. In 1843, his father died, and William's surveying business was moribund. For a time, Alfred held a teaching job in drawing, mapmaking and surveying. There he met Henry Bates, who encouraged him to collect insects and later accompanied him to South America. William died in 1845, and Alfred and John unsuccessfully attempted to revive his surveying business. Then Alfred and John decided to start an architecture and civil engineering business. Alfred was recruited to give lectures on science and engineering at the local Mechanics' Institute.

Inspired by Alexander von Humboldt's account of his travels in the Americas from 1799 to 1804, and Darwin's account of his travels in The Voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836), Wallace and Bates decided to travel to the Amazon in 1848 and cover their expenses by collecting insects and other animal species and selling specimens to collectors and museums. Wallace stayed for four years, keeping notes and observing the indigenous population. He was joined by his brother, Herbert, who died there of yellow fever. On his return trip in 1852, without Bates, there was a ship fire that destroyed his collection, which, fortunately, was insured. Back in London, he wrote some papers and met a few scientists, including Darwin.

Since Bates and others were already exploring the Amazon, Wallace elected to explore the Malay Archipelago, this time better-prepared, again collecting specimens. The trip lasted from 1854 to 1862 and was far more successful than the Amazon trip. At times, Wallace had a huge staff of helpers. While there, he sent a paper to Darwin that outlined his ideas concerning evolution, which was still a nascent topic. Darwin panicked, because he had been sitting on his idea for years but had yet to publish much about it. The result was the joint reading of Wallace's paper with a hastily-assembled paper of earlier writings by Darwin at the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858. The title of Wallace's essay was "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type." Both essays were later published. Because Darwin's essay was based on earlier writings, his paper was read first. There is much discussion in this book and elsewhere about whether Wallace was treated fairly, and I think that he was. Darwin did have an advantage at that point, and he began writing On the Origin of Species while Wallace was away at sea. The fact is that Darwin went out of his way to assist Wallace: he could have thrown Wallace's paper in the trash and forgotten about it, and no one besides Wallace would have known the difference. Furthermore, in their subsequent interactions, Darwin was always magnanimous with Wallace and significantly boosted his career.

Wallace organized his collection while living with his sister, Fanny, and her husband. He became a defender of the theory of natural selection and met Darwin at his house. He had a courtship but was rejected in 1864 shortly before the wedding by his fiancée, presumably because he had little money – at the age of forty-one. In 1866, Wallace married another woman, Annie Mitten, who was the daughter of a moss expert. They had three children, two of whom survived to adulthood. Like most of his family, he was poor at managing money and ran into financial difficulties. I might add that, Darwin, comparatively speaking, came from a financially savvy family. The situation improved when he published The Malay Archipelago in 1869 and it became his most popular book. He made several attempts to get a well-paying job but always failed. Like Darwin, he was an introvert, and he probably made a weak impression at interviews. Similarly, both of them disliked participating in public events. In 1881, Darwin campaigned for and won a pension for Wallace, which relieved some of his financial pressures.

Evolution was only one of Wallace's interests. In science he is also known for advancing biogeography and ecology. But he also became a proponent of phrenology, hypnosis, and spiritualism, the latter in the form of séances. Once he believed something, it was difficult to change his opinion. He attended many fraudulent séances but still found them convincing. This caused his scientific colleagues to raise their eyebrows. In my view, he substantially weakened any claim he might make to be a leader in evolutionary thought by stating that humans are exempt from evolutionary forces and are operating on a plane that is separate from physical reality and includes God. Not only is this a ludicrous idea, but it also misunderstands the important idea that humans are part of nature and not much different from other animals. That is something that Darwin understood perfectly well, so I think Darwin deserves far more credit for the development of early evolutionary theory than Wallace.

Wallace also adopted many of the progressive ideas of his day. He was an early advocate of socialism and had opinions on women's rights. He did not support the private ownership of land. But he also led a campaign against vaccinations. 

More so than Darwin, Wallace liked to observe people throughout the world. Whether it was through the Romantic poets or Rousseau, he held a sort of noble savage theory and found that indigenous people were purer and happier than modern Westerners. On a late lecture tour of the U.S., he had a negative impression of American culture, which he thought followed the European exploitative model, in which the environment is essentially trashed just so that a few people can get rich.

Because Wallace lived to the ripe old age of ninety, he became one the most famous scientists of his era. After that, he sank into obscurity, and I think that is probably appropriate. His skills seem to have been quick learning, good observation and good writing. He was also talented at developing ad hoc theories, but seems to have lacked the follow-through to become a good theorist. So, on the whole, I'm not particularly impressed, and see him mainly as part of the British intellectual milieu of the mid-to-late nineteenth century: George Eliot, G.H. Lewes, Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, William Morris, Charles Lyell, Robert Owen, T.H. Huxley, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, etc.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated in order to remove spam.