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Darwin Correspondence Project

Alfred Russel Wallace


Alfred Russel Wallace
Alfred Russel Wallace
Copyright of The University of Manchester

Wallace was a leading Victorian naturalist, with wide-ranging interests from biogeography and evolutionary theory to spiritualism and politics. He was born in 1823 in Usk, a small town in south-east Wales, and attended a grammar school in Hertford. At the age of 13, he was forced to leave school and enter a trade because of financial hardship. He joined an older brother in London as a builder’s apprentice, and the following year started work as a land surveyor with another brother, travelling to different parts of England and Wales and collecting plants. In 1844 he became friends with the entomologist Henry Walter Bates, and the two men travelled to Brazil in 1848 to pursue natural history. Despite losing most of his collection in a fire on the return to England in 1852, Wallace became known for his exotic specimens and was able to finance another extended voyage to Malaysia. Between 1854 and 1862, he travelled some 14,000 miles across different islands, often living with native inhabitants, and collected around 125,000 specimens, especially butterflies and birds, many of which were unknown to European science. He became one of the most well-travelled and experienced field naturalists of his day, with unsurpassed knowledge on tropic flora, fauna, and native peoples. This extensive field experience formed the basis of theoretical work, especially on geographical distribution (the so-called ‘Wallace line’ dividing Indian and Australasian faunal zones), the origin of human races, and most famously, the problem of species change.

In 1857, Darwin and Wallace exchanged several letters on species variation and distribution. Darwin was impressed by Wallace’s observations and theoretical abilities. In a letter of 1 May 1857, he alluded to his own unfinished work: “This summer will make the 20th year (!) since I opened my first-note-book, on the question how & in what way do species & varieties differ from each other”. Latter in the year he remarked, “I get on very slowly, partly from ill-health … I infinitely admire & honour your zeal & courage in the good cause of Natural Science … may all your theories succeed” (22 December 1857). It may have been this shared interest in the problem of species, along with Darwin’s encouraging words, that led Wallace to send a draft of his own theory of descent to Down in 1858. “I never saw a more striking coincidence”, Darwin wrote to Lyell on 18 June, “if Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract!” This pivotal event galvanized Darwin to finally publish his own theory, initially in a joint paper with Wallace to the Linnean Society, and then in Origin of Species the following year. Darwin sometimes scolded Wallace for being too modest in his own publications, not taking more credit for his co-discovery: “You are the only man I ever heard of who persistently does himself an injustice & never demands justice” (14 April 1869). But Wallace continued, both privately and publically, to assume a subordinate role in the discovery. “As to the theory of ‘Natural Selection'’ itself,” he wrote on 29 May [1864], “I shall always maintain it to be actually yours & your's only. You had worked it out in details I had never thought of, years before I had a ray of light on the subject, & my paper would never have convinced anybody or been noticed as more than an ingenious speculation, whereas your book has revolutionized the study of Natural History, & carried away captive the best men of the present Age. All the merit I claim is the having been the means of inducing you to write & publish at once.”

Wallace returned to London in 1862. Lacking the social connections that were still essential for securing a livelihood in science, he struggled to find a paid position, supporting himself through writing, lecturing, and the sale of specimens. He quickly established ties with other naturalists and specialist societies, worked on his large collections, and published papers on zoology, biogeography, and anthropology. He formed a close friendship with Herbert Spencer, and took up Spencer’s phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, urging Darwin to adopt it as an alternative to ‘natural selection’, which he regarded as too metaphorical and prone to misinterpretation (see letter from A. R. Wallace, 2 July 1866). Wallace became one of Darwin’s most important correspondents, especially on theoretical topics. Although the men referred to each other in their published work, letters were a space where they discussed the details of evolutionary theory, and aired their differences openly. Their correspondence is full of lively debate on the origins of hybrid sterility and sexual dimorphism, the role of sexual selection, and the limits of natural selection in the development of mental and moral faculties. Wallace first expressed reservations about the application of natural selection to ‘man’ in 1869, and looked instead to a ‘higher intelligence’ as the best explanation for the large brain of early humans, which he argued was superfluous to their needs. At the same time, he confessed his belief in spiritualism, and began to publish articles on spiritualism as a ‘natural’ phenomena, open to scientific investigation (see letter from A. R. Wallace, 18 April [1869]). Wallace’s views on man were also consistent with his long held belief in the progressive nature of evolution, views that he had formed through exposure to the work of socialist authors such as Robert Owen in the 1840s.

Despite their increasingly fundamental differences, Darwin and Wallace remained highly supportive and friendly toward each other in their letters and publications. Darwin praised Wallace’s later writing on geographical distribution, and lobbied extensively for a government pension, which Wallace received in 1881 (see Darwin’s letters to Wallace, 17 June 1876 and 7 January 1881, and the letter from A. R. Wallace, 29 January 1881). Wallace was a very forceful writer and arguer, powers that served him well in the public arena, where he was active against critics of natural selection. Wallace once described himself as a “Guerilla chief”, while Darwin was the “great General” (letter to Charles Kingsley, 7 May 1869). In later years when Darwin reflected on the events of 1858 and his many debates and disagreements with Wallace, he regarded the mutual respect and collegiality that they sustained as epitomizing how science ought to be: “I hope it is a satisfaction to you to reflect,—& very few things in my life have been more satisfactory to me—that we have never felt any jealousy towards each other, though in one sense rivals” (letter to A. R. Wallace, 20 April [1870]).

Wallace outlived Darwin by more than twenty years, writing vigorously on evolutionary cosmology, as well as socialist and feminist causes, such as land nationalization and women’s suffrage. He died in 1913 at his house in Broadstone, Dorset, the last of a series of homes that he had designed, drawing on his early experience as a surveyor and builder.


Further information: 


The copyright in works by Alfred Russel Wallace that were unpublished at the time of his death belongs to the executors of the A. R.Wallace Literary Estate.

Related sources

See the Wallace Correspondence Project, and in particular, letter from Wallace to Charles Kingsley, 7 May 1869 (Wallace letters online, WCP4314.4452)