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The Early Evolution of Wallace as a Thinker
Charles H. Smith
Apart from his obvious importance to the development of evolutionary biology and biogeography, one of the main reasons that Wallace has been the subject of more than twenty books over the past several years is that he was, simply, one interesting character. Actually, there has never been another quite like him: respected naturalist and scientist, leading social critic, inspiring explorer and collector, intrepid defender of spiritualism, contributor to a dozen fields of knowledge, and ultimately earner of "The Grand Old Man of Science" tag out of respect for his nearly fatherly position within the Victorian intellectual community. With all these (and more) credits to his biography, the writer assigned to providing a succinct but insightful introduction to his early evolution as a thinker may be pardoned for accepting his charge with some trepidation. But on close examination Wallace's intellectual trajectory seems to follow a logical progression, most of the elements of which were established long before his gaining fame as codiscoverer of natural selection at the age of thirty-five in 1858. Not all the relevant influences and their manner of synthesis are completely understood as yet, to be sure, but we are making progress.
In surveying Wallace's intellectual career, one is struck first by the sheer range of subjects he took up, extending from evolutionary theory to economics, biogeography to socialism, astronomy to descriptive statistics, physical geography to spiritualism, and beyond. He was both a major voice for Darwinism and natural selection, and a well-known defender of social evolution and spiritual agendas at a time when the latter were not always universally popular topics. One may reasonably wonder at the outset how such a person could come to be: perhaps all this creativity was the product of a totally detached and isolated mind, one that did not follow the usual paths merely because of a lack of exposure to them? But this was not the case.
Actually, Wallace appears to have been enamored from his earliest adult years with thoughts of "the advantages of varied knowledge." Portions of his early essay with this title, perhaps drafted for presentation at a local mechanics' institute around 1843, were reprinted in his autobiography, My Life, in 1905. It contains the following remarks:
There is an intrinsic value to ourselves in the[se] varied branches of knowledge, so much indescribable pleasure in their possession, so much do they add to the enjoyment of every moment of our existence, that it is impossible to estimate their value, and we would hardly accept boundless wealth, at the cost, if it were possible, of their irrecoverable loss. And if it is thus we feel as to our general store of mental acquirements, still more do we appreciate the value of any particular branch of study we may ardently pursue. What pleasure would remain for the enthusiastic artist were he forbidden to gaze upon the face of nature, and transfer her loveliest scenes to his canvas? or for the poet were the means denied him to rescue from oblivion the passing visions of his imagination? or to the chemist were he snatched from his laboratory ere some novel experiment were concluded, or some ardently pursued theory confirmed? or to any of us were we compelled to forego some intellectual pursuit that was bound up with our every thought? And here we see the advantage possessed by him whose studies have been in various directions, and who at different times has had many different pursuits, for whatever may happen, he will always find something in his surroundings to interest and instruct him.
Can we believe that we are fulfilling the purpose of our existence while so many of the wonders and beauties of the creation remain unnoticed around us? While so much of the mystery which man has been able to penetrate, however imperfectly, is still all dark to us? While so many of the laws which govern the universe and which influence our lives are, by us, unknown and uncared for? And this not because we want the power, but the will, to acquaint ourselves with them. Can we think it right that, with the key to so much that we ought to know, and that we should be the better for knowing, in our possession, we seek not to open the door, but allow this great store of mental wealth to lie unused, producing no return to us, while our highest powers and capacities rust for want of use?
One might imagine from these words that Wallace had been, early on, a close admirer of the thought of Benedict de Spinoza, but there is no indication he ever read anything by the great Rationalist philosopher. A few years later, however, he probably did encounter similar ideals, as expressed by the German geographer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (see below). With such an impressive figure on whom to model himself (at that point Humboldt was probably the most famous naturalist in the world) — to reinforce his innate enthusiasm — Wallace's exuberance in exploring each and every new subject that came to his attention is easily understood. His was in no sense a genius born of isolation; on the contrary, he took every opportunity to sift through the literature surrounding any idea that seemed relevant to his subject of the moment.
Two further ingredients contributing to the basic "Wallace formula" can be identified. First, as mentioned in the introduction, he was supremely confident of his ability to reason from the basic facts of a matter. In My Life he wrote, "This rather long digression may be considered to be out of place, but it is given in order to illustrate the steps by which I gradually acquired confidence in my own judgment, so that in dealing with any body of facts bearing upon a question in dispute, if I clearly understood the nature of the facts and gave the necessary attention to them, I would always draw my own inferences from them, even though I had men of far greater and more varied knowledge against me." This in good part explains the ease with which he immersed himself in so many kinds of discussions. And, of course, his continuing successes did little to stem the tide.
It should further be noted that Wallace's father Thomas V. (1771–1843), though not much of a family provider, likely encouraged his young son's varied interests — especially his literary ones, as Wallace Sr. was himself at various times a dabbler in literary projects, and for some years a town librarian. In My Life Wallace discusses some of the many books he digested as a boy and adolescent, ranging from The Boy's Own Book, to Shakespearean plays, to the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. From that time on, he remained a ravenous reader across many subjects. This was his habit right up to his final illness.
Before attempting to survey Wallace's intellectual evolution from his youthful years through to the milestone essay of 1858, it seems prudent to devote a few pages to the main cast of characters involved. I proceed roughly chronologically, in the approximate order in which Wallace became exposed to their influence.
Wallace's Influences prior to 1858
Wallace's immediate family. Wallace's father was just one family member who was an influence. In 1837, through his older brother John (1818–1895), Wallace first became acquainted with the problems experienced by working men, and had his initial taste of the philosophy of socialism (John's friends in London included a group that had fallen in with the Owenist movement; see below). Brother William (1809–1845), for whom Wallace worked most of the next several years, taught him the technical skills needed to be a surveyor, and provided him with a responsible adult model during his late teen years; he also effectively became Wallace's first teacher on subjects of geological, geographical, and astronomical nature. Wallace's only surviving sister Fanny (1812–1893), meanwhile, was an inspiration for independent action: after spending some time in France in the late 1830s and opening a school back in England, she left home to teach students in Georgia and Alabama from 1844 to 1847. Fanny was also the person most centrally responsible for getting Wallace to investigate spiritualism in 1865, and helped fuel his early interest in photography when she married one of London's first professional practitioners of the art, Thomas Sims (1826–1910).
Robert Owen (1771–1858). The socialist-utopian ideals of Robert Owen had generated a full-scale movement by the time of Wallace's brief residence in London in 1837, and Wallace was quickly caught up in it. Owen's philanthropic ideas on social organization foreshadowed secular humanism, Owen himself being a strong religious skeptic. Like many other dissenters of his time, in his late years he became a spiritualist. Wallace remained receptive to Owenism for the rest of his life, and many of his social sympathies ultimately may be traced to this source: "His great fundamental principle, on which all his teaching and all his practice were founded was that the character of every individual is formed for and not by himself, first by heredity, which gives him his natural disposition with all its powers and tendencies, its good and bad qualities; and, secondly, by environment, including education and surroundings from earliest infancy, which always modifies the original character for better or for worse."
Thomas Paine (1737–1809). According to My Life, Wallace read Paine's Age of Reason during his London stay in 1837. Its criticism of organized religion and rejection of miracles inspired many a budding free-thinker, as Wallace was at this time. And, it might be noted, one of the major influences on Paine's assessment of religion was Spinoza, so perhaps it could be said Wallace had been exposed to his philosophy, if indirectly, after all.
Robert Dale Owen (1801–1877). Robert Owen's son Robert Dale helped further his father's projects in a number of ways, but also had a successful political and writing career of his own. Wallace was particularly impressed early on by Dale Owen's Consistency, released in late 1839 as a pamphlet (but was predated by similar writings of his that Wallace may also have seen), which criticized the doctrine of eternal punishment as "degrading and hideous." Dale Owen was also a spiritualist; he produced two important midcentury surveys of the subject that Wallace would later praise.
George Combe (1788–1858). Combe, a lawyer by profession, became one of the early nineteenth century's leading promoters of phrenology. It is not certain when Wallace was first exposed to his writings, especially The Constitution of Man, but this might have come as early as 1837, again during his months in London. Wallace was undoubtedly impressed with Combe's operating philosophy, which espoused a naturalistic model of cause and effect for human endeavor. Further, its secular and humanitarian implications — especially the notion that natural science had "outstripped" moral evolution — undoubtedly appealed to Wallace as he drifted away from conventional beliefs.
The enclosure movement. For several hundred years, extending into the nineteenth century, a legal process of combining small landholdings into larger ones had been forced upon the rural working class in England. This often involved hardships, and young Wallace witnessed them during his years as an apprentice surveyor in the late 1830s and early 1840s. He never forgot these experiences.
Charles Darwin (1809–1882). Darwin's pre1858 influence on Wallace was actually rather small, restricted to the latter's appreciation of the older man's Journal of Researches. Judging from comments in My Life, Wallace first read Darwin's book in the early 1840s.
Henry Walter Bates (1825–1892). Wallace met Bates in Leicester in 1844. It was Bates who, by his example, turned Wallace into an insect collector, a critical step in his ascendance to naturalist superstardom. Bates was in fact his main sounding board for the next several years, and the younger man's elucidation of the concept of protective mimicry was quickly extended by Wallace on his return to England from the East in 1862.
Charles Lyell (1797–1875). Lyell, the leading geologist of his time, presents an interesting case in terms of his influence on Wallace. As the leading proponent of geological uniformitarianism — the doctrine that geological/geographical structures evolve gradually, and through processes observable at the present time — Lyell provided Wallace with a model of earth evolution that appealed to the latter's conservative, "no first causes" approach to things, even early on. At the same time, however, Lyell viewed the dynamics of the living world through creationist lenses — so, ultimately, his position became a challenge Wallace had to overcome. Lyell's writings might also have been the source of Wallace's first exposure to full-blown evolutionism, in the form of his description of the views of the French zoologist Lamarck.
Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). Wallace first read the great German geographer's Personal Narrative of Travels (in South America) while at Leicester, around 1845. This work (along with Darwin's Journal) became a potent influence on his desire to travel to the tropics. English editions of Humboldt's Cosmos and Aspects of Nature, moreover, may have provided Wallace with an earth-systems view guiding his later (late 1840s and 1850s) thoughts on physical geography, biogeography, and evolutionary biology (see below).
Thomas Malthus (1766–1834). According to My Life, Wallace first read Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population during his time in Leicester. Malthus's notion of the "positive checks" on population growth would, of course, become a central element in the natural selection model, both for Darwin and for Wallace.
Robert Chambers (1802–1871). Chambers and his brother William were a force in the literary world, the publishers of an array of magazines, reference books, and other works. Robert himself was an educated amateur who wrote or edited a large number of titles (mostly on subjects of historical, biographical, geological/geographical, and popular nature). One of these stands out: Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Published anonymously in 1844, it advanced a theory of progressive transmutation of species, and Wallace was quickly taken with the discussion, if not with its inability to identify particular agents of change.
Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). By the time Wallace returned from the Amazon in 1852, Spencer's career as a philosopher and sociologist was already on the ascent. His Social Statics, published in 1851, made an immediate impression, not least with Wallace, who first read it around 1853. Two themes that Spencer explored especially resonated with Wallace, later becoming central elements of his views on social evolution. These were (1) that everyone should enjoy no more or less than what was truly due them on the basis of their abilities and efforts, and (2) that access to the land should be considered a fundamental right of the individual, not just another commodity that is bought and sold.
Other influences. A good number of other early influences on Wallace's thought have been identified. I briefly note just a few of these: Sir Humphry Davy and Justus von Liebig (Wallace read their works on agricultural chemistry, influencing his later ideas on land reform and his early thoughts on the effect of environment), Sir William Lawrence (who wrote early works, for example The Natural History of Man, that anticipated later evolutionary models), and Hugh Strickland and William Swainson (who excited Wallace's interest in classification).
With these introductions made, we can proceed to some particulars.
The Evolving Wallace: A Framework
Although it is clear enough that Wallace absorbed influences from a wide range of sources, observers have been less successful in coming to grips with the redirections he fashioned from them. To understand these, one must look at some of the basic guiding principles he adopted. Among the most important and long-lasting of these was his acceptance of a "no merit to belief" ethical foundation, seemingly derived originally from his reading of Robert Dale Owen. This began with the idea, inherent in the teachings of the older Owen, that we are largely a product of our environment, and that it is institutions, not individuals, that are most to blame when things go wrong. Beliefs were therefore transient and could be modified; we are responsible for our actions, but often not their causes. This position is most beautifully expressed in one of Wallace's signature writings, a letter from the field he sent to his brother-in-law Thomas Sims in 1861:
You intimate that the happiness to be enjoyed in a future state will depend upon, and be a reward for, our belief in certain doctrines which you believe to constitute the essence of true religion. You must think, therefore, that belief is voluntary and also that it is meritorious. But I think that a little consideration will show you that belief is quite independent of our will, and our common expressions show it. We say, "I wish I could believe him innocent, but the evidence is too clear"; or, "Whatever people may say, I can never believe he can do such a mean action." Now, suppose in any similar case the evidence on both sides leads you to a certain belief or disbelief, and then a reward is offered you for changing your opinion. Can you really change your opinion and belief, for the hope of reward or the fear of punishment? Will you not say, "As the matter stands I can't change my belief. You must give me proofs that I am wrong or show that the evidence I have heard is false, and then I may change my belief"? It may be that you do get more and do change your belief. But this change is not voluntary on your part. It depends upon the force of evidence upon your individual mind, and the evidence remaining the same and your mental faculties remaining unimpaired — you cannot believe otherwise any more than you can fly.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "An Alfred Russel Wallace Companion"
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Table of ContentsIntroduction
by Charles H. Smith, James T. Costa, and David Collard Chapter 1 The Early Evolution of Wallace as a Thinker
by Charles H. Smith Chapter 2 Wallace and the “Preter-normal”
by Charles H. Smith Chapter 3 Field Study, Collecting, and Systematic Representation
by James T. Costa Chapter 4 Wallace, Darwin, and Natural Selection
by James T. Costa Chapter 5 Wallace on the Colors of Animals: Defense against Predators
by Hannah M. Rowland and Eleanor Drinkwater Chapter 6 The Many Influences Shaping Wallace’s Views on Human Evolution
by Sherrie Lyons Chapter 7 Wallace as Social Critic, Sociologist, and Societal “Prophet”
by Martin Fichman Chapter 8 Land and Economics
by David Collard Chapter 9 Physical Geography, Glaciology, and Geology
by Charles H. Smith Chapter 10 Historical and Ecological Biogeography
by James T. Costa Chapter 11 Wallace at the Foundations of Biogeography and the Frontiers of Conservation Biology
by Mark V. Lomolino Chapter 12 Wallace and Extraterrestrial Life
by Robert W. Smith Coda
References List of Contributors Index