Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Alfred Russel Wallace


In 2013, 100 years after his death, we celebrate the life of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), one of the greatest Victorian naturalists, travellers and collectors, a scientific and social thinker, early bio-geographer and ecologist, co-founder with Charles Darwin, of the theory of evolution through Natural Selection.

The Hope Entomological Collections (HEC) has many examples of species named after Wallace and
of specimens collected by Wallace himself including species types such as Wallace's giant bee.


Hymenoptera, Megachilidae, Megachile pluto, bee, insect, type, OUMNH, HEC
Megachile pluto described by B. Smith, 1869 is the largest bee species in the world. It occurs in Indonesia and builds its nest inside active termite nests.

The OUMNH also has nearly 300 letters written by Wallace discussing scientific topics, social issues, his relationship with Charles Darwin, and family matters which have been scanned as part of the Wallace Correspondence Project (WCP). Recently, the WCP has launched a new searchable open access on-line database entitled  'Wallace letters on-line'. Staff and volunteers in the HEC have put in many hours of work in order to add our own holdings of letters and correspondance to this exciting project.

Wallace, correspondance, letter, entomologist, naturalist, archives

Wallace, correspondance, letter, entomologist, naturalist, archives
A letter from A.R. Wallace to E.B. Poulton, a former curator of the Hope Entomological Collections.

Wallace was largely self-educated. He developed an interest in natural history when young, and, like Darwin, became a keen beetle-collector. Fourteen years younger than Darwin, and from a less wealthy background, Wallace always had to earn a living while developing his scientific ideas. The Victorians were fascinated by the mystery behind the development of species and the anonymous publication in 1844 of ‘Vestiges of the Origin of Creation’ (actually written by Robert Chambers) caused a sensation. Wallace determined to resolve the species question himself, and travelled to South America with Henry Walter Bates to collect specimens and theorise about species, inspired by earlier travellers such as Humboldt, Edwards and Darwin himself. 

Wallace spent four and a half years in Amazonia before returning to England (losing most of his precious collections and notes in a ship’s fire on the way home) and had already published some scientific articles before publishing two short books, ‘A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro’ and ‘Palm Trees of the Amazon and their Uses’, but he realised he needed to continue collecting if he was to achieve his aim.
Wallace chose as his new collecting ground, the Indonesian region. Before leaving England, Wallace happened to meet Darwin briefly at the British Museum. While Darwin continued his painstaking work on barnacles and other researches, Wallace arrived in Singapore in 1854 and spent eight and a half years travelling an estimated 14,000 miles throughout the region, as described in his much republished book ‘The Malay Archipelago’.
It was here that Wallace wrote his illuminating essay ‘On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species’ (known as the ‘Sarawak Law’ paper) in 1855. This was followed in February 1858 by Wallace’s most famous paper ‘On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type’ which did lead Darwin to publish On The Origin of Species the following year.

Wallace was suffering from malarial fever when the idea crystallised in his mind. Between bouts of fever, he wrote out his theory in a few days, and sent it to Darwin (whom he knew would be sympathetic to his ideas), hoping for advice on whether and how to publish it. A key for both Darwin and Wallace in formulating their theories of natural selection was recollection of Malthus’s essay on population. Of course, when Darwin received Wallace’s letter, he was presented with a dilemma. He had been working on his theory for twenty years, and here was an outline of that theory, written by a relative unknown, far away in the tropics. Darwin sought advice from Sir Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker (later Sir Joseph Hooker), who decided that it would be fairest to publish some extracts of Darwin’s earlier writings together with Wallace’s paper, at the next meeting of the Linnean Society. It happened that an emergency meeting was being called and the papers were added to the agenda and read on 1 July 1858, with neither author present (Wallace was still in the Malay Archipelago and Darwin’s son Charles had just died).

Darwin was relieved when he found that far from resenting his treatment, Wallace felt honoured for their ideas to be associated. In fact, when writing about natural selection, Wallace chose the term ‘Darwinism’ and defended ‘Darwinism’ with vigour, both in England and abroad, describing himself as a ‘Darwinian’. Both Darwin and Wallace recognised that their theory (which they both acknowledged had been arrived at independently) had anticipators and were fully aware of the importance of recognising the contributions of others. They remained correspondents, consulting each other on various topics and Wallace was one of the pall-bearers at Darwin’s funeral.
Wallace was a believer in inspiration and said ‘all my best ideas have come to me suddenly’. Modest to a fault, he was happy to receive (among many other honours heaped on him) the Royal Society’s ‘Darwin’ medal, and described as ‘outrageous’ attempts to put him on same level as Darwin. 

When presented with the first ‘Darwin-Wallace’ medal by the Linnean Society on 1 July 1908 (celebrating the anniversary of publication of the Darwin-Wallace papers), Wallace contrasted himself with Darwin: “I was then (as often since) the "young man in a hurry": he, the painstaking and patient student, seeking ever the full demonstration of the truth that he had discovered, rather than to achieve immediate personal fame.”.  Wallace felt himself more suited to fieldwork (he was meticulous with his labels and had always recognised the importance of noting the location where each specimen had been found) and was glad that Darwin had been able to provide the vital detailed proofs and analysis for their controversial ideas.
Although they did not agree on everything (and sometimes had to agree to disagree), Darwin and Wallace shared mutual respect and friendship, and believed ardently in the spirit of co-operation, which their relationship personified.

Wallace, correspondance, postcard, entomologist, naturalist, archives
The postcard above, written in Wallace's handwriting reads as follows 'Many thanks for the kind congratulations- Am feeling quite jolly! Alfred R Wallace'

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