November Gardening: Phrenology, spiritualism, Darwin, Coleoptera

Centenary of Death of Alfred Russel Wallace

By —— Bio and Archives--November 3, 2013

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Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of evolution with Charles Darwin, died 7 November 1913 in Usk, Monmouthshire. If Darwin’s life lacked adventure following his famous world circumnavigation in the Beagle, Wallace’s was for many years the opposite. And if Darwin engaged in recognized sciences, his associate dabbled in several dubious pursuits in later life. Phrenology and spiritualism may have engaged many a respectable Victorian – and the latter a lawyer and past prime minister of Canada – suffrage and socialism were not greeted quite so enthusiastically at the time – or since in certain quarters. Nevertheless, David Quammen in a recent issue of the journal Nature has called him ‘the greatest field biologist of the nineteenth century.’


While Darwin procrastinated over publishing his massive studies offering sound proof of evolution, Wallace was flitting through the Indonesian archipelago collecting and preserving numerous species for forwarding back to Britain as a commercial enterprise in the very best Victorian fashion. His had been an often difficult and not always successful path to what in many ways is still the remotest of areas.

Born into what was a low-income if not frankly poverty-stricken circumstances on 8 January 1823, his formal education was cut short at just 13, when he joined his elder brother, assisting him as a land surveyor. This opened his eyes to the plants of England’s then extraordinary countryside. When just 21, a meeting with another young self-educated naturalist, Henry Walter Bates, added beetles to his interests, opening his eyes to the diverse world of the Coleoptera.

In 1848, the pair with typical Victorian aplomb, decided to explore the Brazilian Amazon for specimens. These they would send home for sale to supporters, a fairly common practice at the time and for many years afterwards. By 1852, Wallace decided to head home while his partner Bates stayed on for another seven years. Wallace had amassed a considerable collection, including live animals, which he hoped would make his name in London.

Alas, it was not to be. The ship caught fire in the middle of the Atlantic. As it exploded into a furnace, Wallace had just time to seize a box of drawings before escaping in a lifeboat. There he had the heartbreak of watching four years of efforts and future hopes evaporate in flame and smoke. It was to be ten days before a passing vessel rescued him and others.

The resilience of such exploring naturalists as Wallace was remarkable. Within two years, he had put to sea once more, this time heading east instead of west. He based himself at Singapore, founded little more than 25 years earlier by Sir Stamford Raffles who had also once lost an extensive collection in a ship fire. The settlement was merely a base for eight years of collecting and naturalizing in the vast archipelagoes of Southeast Asia almost to the shores of today’s Australia.

It remains an area of extraordinary diversity. In the middle years of the nineteenth century it remained a scientific paradise for an enquiring naturalist such as Wallace. It has been pointed out that unlike Darwin and others like him, Wallace had no inherited fortune to fall back on. He supported himself and his endeavours by dispatching collections back to an agent in Britain who sold them for him. This made it necessary for him to collect multiple specimens of the same species allowing him to observe the differences in their development.
It was then no sudden insight, no flash of instant recognition that led him to write the paper On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type. Darwin had taken two decades to arrive at similar conclusions, assembling supporting studies to support the then startling theory of natural selection. The paper reached Darwin in England and was read at a meeting of the Linnean Society in London in July 1854. It made little impression at that time. The following year, when On the Origin of Species was published, it was a different matter.

If that were Wallace’s only contribution to the natural sciences, it would be remarkable enough. But this largely self-educated man went on to be recognized as the founder of biogeography and the propounder of what came to be known as Wallace’s Line – the separation of distinct populations by the deep strait between the Indonesian islands of Bali and Lombok. By the time of his death, he had published 20 books and around 800 papers – hardly the ‘sidekick to Darwin’ as he has been disparagingly described. In his own words, he was a ‘red-hot radical,’ but Andrew Berry in a Nature article argues that Alfred Russel Wallace (note the correct spelling of his middle name) was a ‘visionary scientist in his own right, a daring explorer and a passionate socialist.’

Today, both men have their own websites. John van Whye, a science historian at the National University of Singapore, assembled thousands of pages of their writings and historical documents along with similar numbers of images at Darwin Online and Wallace Online.


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Wes Porter -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. Wes has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.

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