Smithsonian magazine’s Lyn Garrity spoke with Wallace expert Andrew Berry about the naturalist. Berry teaches evolutionary biology at Harvard and is the author of the book, Infinite Tropics, an annotated anthology of Wallace’s writings.
How did Alfred Russel Wallace come to be a naturalist?
He grew up poor, was taken out of school very early because his family couldn’t afford it. He apprenticed at a young age to his brother, a railway surveyor. This is in the 1830s and 1840s when railways were springing up across the United Kingdom, and to be a surveyor was a good way to make a living. During this time, Wallace became interested in natural history in a completely self-taught way. When the surveying business died briefly, he took a job as a teacher in the town of Leicester and this was his big break. He met a man called Henry Walter Bates who was also very young at the time, around 19, and already a published beetle expert. Bates transmitted the beetle-collecting virus [enthusiasm], if you like, to Wallace.
These young kids read this slightly dubious but bestselling popular potboiler with evolutionary ideas called the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation that came out in 1844. (The book was one of the reasons Darwin delayed publishing for so long because it was pilloried by the scientific establishment.) Then in what I find mind blowing, these two, who’ve never been out of England or anywhere, conceived this idea of going somewhere beyond Britain where they would find interesting and exotic species. They organized a trip to Brazil, which in 1848 was extraordinarily enterprising. They were basically making ends meet by selling their specimens as professional collectors, which is about as low as you could get on the naturalist’s pecking order. This is very different from Darwin’s gig, where he sails around the world as the captain’s paying guest on a Royal Navy ship.
Wallace and Bates split up fairly early on when they were in the Amazon. Bates went up the Amazon proper and Wallace specialized on the Rio Negro, spending an extraordinary four years there: He nearly died of yellow fever; his brother came out to help and did die of yellow fever; uncontacted tribes; the works. And all this was really with a view to becoming a member of the scientific establishment. He was going to come back, four years later, with this great collection, all these new species, all these observations, and he was going to be a scientist. But his boat, with all his specimens, including 20-odd living specimens, caught fire in the middle of the Atlantic, and literally everything was lost. He took only one small case of drawings with him. He spends ten days in an open boat, and then the boat that rescued him nearly went down as well!
What a string of hard luck! It’s amazing he didn’t give up.
Having survived that, he spends 18 months in the UK, puts out a book on his Amazon travels, which was one of the worst-selling books in history. Darwin himself was rather hard on it, saying there was a certain want of facts. Eighteen months later, Wallace was on his way to Southeast Asia to do it all over again. This time it was eight years largely in modern-day Indonesia. And again an extraordinary scientific journey: He was completely reliant on local people for their help, traveling alone, learning local languages. It’s the same gig as his Amazon trip, selling his specimens to make ends meet.
Then comes the second great out-of-the-blue event—Wallace and Bates going to the Amazon is the first —when in 1855 he publishes his first theoretical paper. Previously, he’s published a number of natural history notes—classic collector sort of things, this is where you find these monkeys, these birds. Then, when he’s in Sarawak, in northern Borneo, he produces this remarkable work of synthesis. It’s a full-born evolutionary idea in so far as the standard theory of evolution has two strands. One is descent with modification, that we’re all related to everyone else. Two is the mechanism that entrains that descent with modification, namely natural selection. The 1855 paper, “On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species,” is essentially a statement of the first half of the theory of evolution. The observation was that you found closely related, or closely allied species (as he would have called them) in the same geographic area. You find kangaroo species in Australia; you don’t find them elsewhere. That implies a genealogical process of some kind—that kangaroo species were giving rise to new kangaroo species.
Wallace expects his paper to create a big splash, but it doesn’t. Demoralized, he writes to Darwin. Darwin was encouraging in a slightly cagey kind of way, but he does go out of the way to do to reassure Wallace that he, too, is interested in the big picture, what you might call theory as opposed to details of taxonomy. And it was of course because of this that Wallace knew Darwin had a serious interest in these questions. It is interesting to read the correspondence because you see that Darwin is being gentlemanly but also slightly territorial.
Geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin’s mentor and friend, was much more struck by Wallace’s paper than Darwin was. He warned Darwin that he had been sitting on his ideas for getting on to 20 years now and here’s this Mr. Nobody coming up on the outside pretty fast. Darwin didn’t take it that seriously, but Lyell urged Darwin to get on with it or he would find himself scooped.