This year marks the centenary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace, sometimes portrayed as "Darwin's goad". However, as Andrew Berry argues, Wallace should be remembered as a "visionary scientist in his own right, a daring explorer and a passionate socialist". He was awarded the Order of Merit, the highest honour that could be given by the British monarch to a civilian. He has left a -
"- huge scientific legacy, which ranged from discovering natural selection to defining the term species, and from founding the field of evolutionary biogeography to pioneering the study of comparative natural history." (page 162)
The portrait of Wallace is unveiled at the launch of Wallace100 (Source here)
Wallace's first exhibition (four years in the Amazon rainforests) ended in disaster and he narrowly escaped death. As he sailed home in 1852, the ship caught fire and all the specimens he had so carefully collected, including numerous living animals, were lost. Wallace watched the burning wreck from a lifeboat, and it was 10 days before rescuers arrived on the scene. Ever the scientist, he wrote:
"During the night I saw several meteors, and in fact could not be in a better position for observing them, than lying on my back in a small boat in the middle of the Atlantic." (page 163)
Two years later, he was off to the Far East for an 8-year trek. During this time, he established himself as an academic writer and an extremely successful collector, with over 1000 specimens new to science. A landmark paper pointed out that related species tend to be found in the same geographical area.
"Wallace had a prodigious ability to spot patterns in the apparently chaotic (and largely uncatalogued) world of tropical diversity. This is the skill of the true naturalist: to generate a mental database of observed plants and animals that can be referenced when similar forms are encountered elsewhere. It led to his first attempt at biological generalization, a paper he wrote in 1855 while in Sarawak, Borneo: 'On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species' (often called the Sarawak Law)." (page 163)
Ten years later, Wallace proposed a remarkably modern definition of the species concept:
"In his brilliant 1865 paper on the papilionid butterflies of southeast Asia, he parses variations within and among populations, among subspecies and species, and arrives at this definition: "Species are merely those strongly marked races or local forms which, when in contact, do not intermix, and when inhabiting distinct areas are generally believed to have had a separate origin, and to be incapable of producing a fertile hybrid offspring."
It is emblematic of history's neglect of Wallace that most undergraduates today are taught that the biological species concept was introduced in 1942 by Ernst Mayr." (page 163)
Many students have been introduced to the role played by Wallace in 1858 in triggering a joint presentation alongside Darwin of evolution by natural selection. Suffice to say here that the last word on this has not been written.
However, although Darwin's name is now dominant in evolutionary theory, Wallace is perceived as the Father of historical biogeography. The groundwork was laid in 1857, in a paper about the Aru Islands (off New Guinea). Textbooks today record his discovery of the distinction between Australian fauna and Asian fauna, separated by Wallace's Line.
"It is tempting to see echoes between Wallace's serendipitous path through life and his contingent interpretation of natural systems: his most famous biogeographical discovery also had a dose of luck. In 1856, having missed a connection as he tried to make his way to Sulawesi, he spent a couple of months on the islands of Bali and Lombok, and noted drastic differences in the wildlife even though the islands are only some 35 kilometres apart. To the south and east, the Australian fauna dominated; to the north and west, the Asian one. He had identified an ancient biogeographic split across southeast Asia that biologist Thomas Henry Huxley later dubbed 'Wallace's Line'." (page 163)
Wallace the scientist is often contrasted with the "other Wallace" who dabbled in "suffrage and socialism", "spiritualism and phrenology". But Berry cautions against thinking like this. "But Wallace's worldview was far more coherent than is often claimed." (page 164) Differences with Darwin came to the fore regarding human evolution. Whereas Darwin expected evolution by natural selection to transform an ape-like animal into a human, Wallace rejected this scenario. He argued for "some kind of non-material intervention in the genesis of humans". His religious views allowed him to be open to this hypothesis, although his arguments were drawn from scientific observations of different races of humanity.
"The more I see of uncivilized people, the better I think of human nature on the whole, and the essential differences between so-called civilized and savage man seem to disappear." (page 164)
"[Wallace realised that] many humans have abilities that they never have the opportunity to use. Such a situation, Wallace reasoned, cannot evolve through natural selection alone, which promotes only those traits that are useful. Wallace concluded that human evolution required some divine intervention. This argument shows an excellent appreciation of the mechanics of natural selection [. . . ]" (page 164)
Darwin's reaction reveals his own worldview, which was sometimes deistic and sometimes atheistic - but which never allowed any active role for God in the history of life. Berry puts it this way:
"Darwin was horrified, writing to his friend in 1869: "I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child."" (page 164)
Whilst Berry is willing to respect Wallace's integrity in departing from Darwin in this key issue, he does not elaborate on the broader implications of worldview thinking. No mention is made of Wallace's Man's Place in the Universe (1903), which discusses the teleological anthropic principle, or his World of Life (1910), which is devoted to intelligent evolution. Wallace saw himself as a theistic scientist who recognised design and purpose in the natural world. Thus, he is a powerful witness against those who portray intelligent design per se as antiscience. People are free to reach different conclusions, but Wallace should not be dismissed as someone who sacrificed reason and science to satisfy religious scruples. This is a worldview issue and, at this level, both theists and atheists are equally religious in their thinking. We can echo Berry's closing words, with the proviso that in the "etc., etc., etc." are found Wallace's advocacy of intelligent design in the natural world.
"As we remember Wallace 100 years after his death, let us celebrate his remarkable scientific achievements and his willingness to take risks and to advocate passionately for what he believed in. He was, after all, both a scientist, and, in his own assessment, a "Red-hot Radical, Land Nationaliser, Socialist, Anti-Militarist, etc., etc., etc." In short, a whole lot more than Darwin's goad." (page 164)
Alfred Russel Wallace: Evolution's red-hot radical
Nature, 496, 162-164 (11 April 2013) | doi:10.1038/496162a
Sidekick status does Alfred Russel Wallace an injustice. He was a visionary scientist in his own right, a daring explorer and a passionate socialist, argues Andrew Berry.
Flannery, M. Why Darwin Is Remembered More than Wallace, Evolution News& Views (5 March 2013)
Flannery, M. Hijacking Alfred Russel Wallace, Evolution News& Views (24 January 2013)
Tyler, D., Why Alfred Russel Wallace deserves to be remembered, ARN Literature Blog (11 March 2008)
Website: Alfred Russel Wallace
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