Alfred Russel Wallace

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue May 16 07:22:40 MDT 2000


>From Andrew Berry's review of "Footsteps in the Forest: Alfred Russel
Wallace in the Amazon" by Sandra Knapp.

Full article at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v22/n10/berr2210.htm

It is the difference in their responses to the fame afforded by their
discovery of natural selection that most obviously sets Darwin and Wallace
apart. Darwin knuckled down. In the 23 years between the publication of the
Origin and his death, he published ten books, each one building in some way
on the platform provided by the Origin. His often overlooked final book,
published in 1881, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of
Worms, with Observations on their Habits, is in fact the ultimate
illustration of Darwin's strategy. His theory of evolution is based on
extrapolation: he borrowed the uniformitarianism of the geologists to argue
that processes that have minor effects on a day-to-day basis can have major
consequences over long periods of time. Thus the subtle action of natural
selection may be barely discernible from one generation to the next, but
give it a few thousand generations and significant changes will occur. So,
too, with the impact of earthworms on landscapes: only over long periods
will their soil-churning activities be noticeable. Darwin stuck to his
theme to the very end.

Wallace, on the other hand, went wild. Between his return from South-East
Asia and his death in 1913, he cranked out some 665 publications, 20 of
them books. He remained astonishingly productive as a scientist, with The
Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876) and Darwinism (1889) among his
important contributions, but his scientific reputation served also as a
springboard for wide-ranging forays beyond science. PLUNGING INTO A SECOND
CAREER AS A SOCIALLY ENGAGED PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL, HE WROTE ON SOCIALISM, IN
PARTICULAR THE NATIONALISATION OF LAND; ON PACIFISM; ON SPIRITUALISM (which
he first espoused publicly in 1866, having earlier disavowed orthodox
religion); on smallpox vaccination (he was opposed: his splendidly titled,
Vaccination a delusion; its penal enforcement a crime was published in
1898); on the possibility of intelligent non-human life in the universe
(whose existence he doubted); on votes for women (which he favoured).

Paradoxically, despite his role in one of history's most important
intellectual revolutions, Darwin avoided confrontation. It took Wallace's
letter to break his twenty-year habit of procrastination, so unwilling was
he to deal with the controversy he knew his ideas would ignite. Wallace, in
contrast, took up causes with abandon, impelled either by his profound
humanitarianism, or by outrage at a perceived transgression against
scientific truth. His choice of causes was sometimes ill-advised, but
always well-intentioned. For example, he responded to the challenge of a Mr
Hampden, a committed flat-earther, who wagered £500 that nobody could prove
the surface of a body of water to be convex. Drawing on his surveying
skills, Wallace duly supplied an excellent proof, and was, for his pains,
pursued in the courts for many years afterwards by Mr Hampden, who remained
unimpressed - the earth, after all, is flat so it's impossible to prove it
otherwise. Wallace had not picked his adversary well, as his young wife
found out when she received a letter from Mr Hampden: 'Madam - If your
infernal thief of a husband is brought home some day on a hurdle, with
every bone in his head smashed to pulp, you will know the reason.'

Wallace's work is consistently cogent and logical. Even his writings on
some of his more eccentric causes bear these hallmarks. In defending
spiritualism - a position that inevitably attracted the scorn of the
scientific establishment - he disputed Hume's definition of a miracle as a
'violation of the laws of nature'. Wallace pointed out that such a
definition presupposes knowledge of those laws - knowledge that Wallace the
scientist knew to be incomplete at best. And on inspection, what with
hindsight appears to be the most quixotic of all his enthusiasms, his
campaign against smallpox vaccination, is also surprisingly rational. He
objected to the statistics used by the medical profession to justify its
implementation, and revealed many instances in which they were manipulated
to enhance the establishment's claims. For example, one report exaggerated
the number of smallpox cases nationwide prior to vaccination by multiplying
the number in London by 12 on the premise that approximately one 12th of
the population lived in the capital. Such an extrapolation was unwarranted
because the dense and dirty (i.e. disease-fostering) living conditions in
London did not obtain elsewhere. Wallace may have been wrong to oppose
vaccination, but his critique of the evidence in its favour was sound.

Darwin and Wallace disagreed on a number of issues, most notably the
evolution of humans. Darwin, Wallace wrote in My Life (1905), believed that

"there was no difference in kind between man's  nature and animal nature,
but only one of degree.  My view, on the other hand, was, and is, that
there is a difference in kind, intellectually and  morally, between man and
animals; and while his  body was undoubtedly developed by the  continuous
modification of some ancestral animal  form, some different agency,
analogous to that  which first produced organic life, and then  originated
consciousness, came into play in  order to develop the higher intellectual
and  spiritual nature of man."

Wallace has as a result traditionally been derided both as a wimp - for his
failure to apply natural selection consistently - and as a flake for his
invocation of some kind of ill-defined teleological agent. This is unfair:
his position was surprisingly enlightened.

HIS EMBRACE OF SPIRITUALISM SEEMS TO HAVE INFLUENCED HIS VIEWS ON HUMAN
EVOLUTION. HOWEVER, ANOTHER, MORE SCIENTIFIC FACTOR MAY ALSO HAVE
CONTRIBUTED: HE WAS MUCH BETTER INFORMED AND LESS RACIST THAN HIS MORE
CONSISTENTLY MATERIALISTIC COLLEAGUES. T.H. Huxley, an abolitionist and as
good a liberal as any, wrote: 'The higher places in the hierarchy of
civilisation will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins.'
Wallace, who by virtue of his extended solo expeditions had much more
first-hand experience of the 'savage races' than Darwin (who invariably
travelled in the company of other Europeans) was less of a white
supremacist: 'The more I see of uncivilised people, the better I think of
human nature on the whole, and the essential differences between civilised
and savage man seem to disappear.' IN FACT, WALLACE BELIEVED THAT
NON-EUROPEANS WERE ENDOWED WITH MINDS EVERY BIT AS CAPABLE OF THOSE OF
EUROPEANS, and he was troubled by the implicit redundancy: why should
people who had never seen a piano, and never would, nevertheless be
equipped mentally to play it? In an era when human races were typically
regarded as steps en route to evolution's crowning achievement, Caucasians,
Wallace, unlike his scientific colleagues, was intimately familiar with the
'lowest' representatives of humanity.

He was also the only one among the prominent evolutionists of his day to
have carried out field work on the 'highest' representatives of the
non-human world, the Great Apes. He was an authority on the orang-utan, and
even tried for several months to hand-rear an orphan - 'I am afraid you
would call it an ugly baby,' he wrote to his mother, 'for it has dark brown
skin and red hair.' With his first hand knowledge of the 'lowest' humans
and 'highest' animals, he could conceptualise the gulf between humans and
other animals, and it may be that his recognition of its vastness
contributed to his refusal to leave the divine out of evolution - to have
bridged the ape-human gap was, for him, asking too much of natural
selection. Racism, on the other hand, made the consistent application of
natural selection easier because it insinuated that the 'savage races' are
anyway close to apes, implicitly narrowing the divide.

Whatever the reasons for his stance, Wallace's insights into human
evolution remain valuable.

"From the moment when the first skin was used  as a covering, when the
first rude spear was  formed to assist in the chase, the first seed sown
or shoot planted, a grand revolution was effected  in nature, a revolution
which in all the previous  ages of the earth's history had had no parallel,
for  a being had arisen who was no longer necessarily  subject to change
with the changing universe."

Thus Man 'is, indeed, a being apart, since he is not influenced by the
great laws which irresistibly modify all other organic beings'. If only
sociobiologists - or 'evolutionary psychologists' as they call themselves
these days - would heed Wallace. Maybe they would then be less inclined to
their view of a brutish human nature predicated on the primacy of natural
selection in determining our actions.

Wallace was a prominent figure at the time of his death, aged 90, in 1913,
but his star seems subsequently to have dimmed rapidly. That he was so
self-effacing was no doubt a factor. His gentlemanly deference to Darwin is
famous: not only did he not complain about Darwin's arrangements for joint
publication on natural selection, made without consulting Wallace, but he
entitled his major later work on their joint discovery, Darwinism. Even his
autobiography lacks the self-congratulation characteristic of the genre -
it includes, for instance, an account of 'certain marked deficiencies in my
mental equipment'.

Despite his best efforts, Wallace is today undergoing a minor renaissance.
A project is underway to renovate and protect his neglected grave in
Broadstone, Dorset, and the Linnaean Society - at which the Darwin-Wallace
joint paper was presented in 1858 - has belatedly commissioned a portrait
to hang alongside Darwin's. Knapp's engaging account of Wallace's Amazon
period, too, is part of the renaissance, as will be a forthcoming major
critical study from Martin Fichman. It's about time. G.K. Chesterton
considered him to be one of two candidates for the title of 'most important
and significant figure of the 19th century' (the other was Walt Whitman).
Chesterton appreciated Wallace's enigmatic mix of materialism and
mysticism: Wallace, he wrote, has simultaneously 'been the leader of a
revolution and the leader of a counter-revolution'.


Louis Proyect

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