Microbiographia | Issue 17

Microbiographia | Issue 17

Alfred Russel Wallace - Successful naturalist and hapless seafarer

In the late 19th century, Alfred Russel Wallace independently produced a theory of evolution equivalent to Darwin’s, while also developing ecological ideas that have striking relevance today. Not bad for a working class boy with eight siblings.

Wallace grew up in Britain in a state of Dickensian poverty (think Oliver). Throughout his teen years he worked in construction, but tough economic climes eventually left him unemployed. At 25, Wallace set off for Brazil to make his fortune. His plan was to collect natural history specimens which he could sell back in Britain. At this he proved remarkably talented. In four years, Wallace had enough to set him up for life. So, with a cargo consisting largely of beetles and birds, he set off for home.

Disaster struck. One month into the trip, the captain reported a fire in the cargo hold. Realising that many of his specimens were preserved in oil, Wallace barely had time to jump into a lifeboat before the ship exploded (ok, so it probably just burned up). Adrift in the middle of the ocean, his fortune sunk or incinerated, things looked bleak. Fortunately, Wallace and the other survivors were rescued by a passing brig. Unfortunately, the brig’s supplies were exhausted. Wallace and the hapless sailors made their way onwards on a diet of rats. Alas, their woes were not over — the ship was hit by a tempest just outside the English Channel. Half-starved, destitute, on a half-sunk ship, Alfred Russel Wallace made his triumphant return to London.

Not one to be put out, Wallace soon embarked on a collecting trip to the East Indies. This time fortune favoured him, and he was able to sell the specimens collected over the next eight years to obtain financial stability. It was during this time that Wallace developed his biological theories. In a flash of inspiration, he conceived the mechanism by which species are formed. Though he didn’t call it natural selection, the paper that Wallace produced was remarkably similar to Darwin’s (then unpublished, though largely completed). Indeed, when Darwin read Wallace’s, before publication, he commented to a friend that “[Wallace] could not have made a better short abstract [for Darwin’s own work]!” The two works were announced simultaneously (how cute).

While Darwin went on to focus on ever smaller facets of life (his last work was on earthworms), Wallace took a broader view. He considered the Earth a “a wonderful piece of machinery”, whose various parts weave together into the fabric of life. With this in mind, he opposed the “criminal apathy” behind smoke-belching factories. Fast-forward one hundred years: them smoke-belchers still be belching smoke.
This article first appeared in Issue 17, 2012.
Posted 11:08am Sunday 22nd July 2012 by Toby Newberry.