Alfred Russel Wallace
Cheryl and Philip Haxen, during one of their recent travels including Darwin (appropriate place!) visited an exhibition on the life of Alfred Russel Wallace. This re-awakened in Cheryl an interest in Wallace.
Wallace was born in 1823 into a family who had become poor through unfortunate circumstances. Wallace’s education was not neglected and he would have read many of the books that Charles Darwin would have read. His formal education came to an end at 14 years and he began to work with his older brother, eventually becoming an apprentice surveyor. This lasted only six years and after a short period of unemployment, he became a teacher, leaving this position also to return to surveying, a position that gave him ample opportunities to be outdoors in the countryside. During this time he read widely, including Charles Darwin’s book on his voyage on the Beagle and Lyell’s book on geology. Inspired by these books Wallace wanted to travel and he set off for South America to collect insect and animal species in the Amazon. During the four years there he collected a large number of species. Tragically on the return journey to England the boat caught fire and his species were destroyed, though he and the crew managed to escape with their lives.
After a brief stay in England he set off in 1854 for the Malay Archipelago in order to collect specimens and spent almost eight years in this part of the world. It was during a period when he was ill with high fever that he had a moment of epiphany and saw that natural selection could be a mechanism for evolution - an insight that Charles Darwin arrived at through much thought and study of specimens. Cheryl then related the well-known story of how Wallace sent his paper on natural selection to Darwin and this paper along with Darwin’s paper were published. Darwin’s publication of the book On the Origin of Species confirmed Darwin’s reputation and over decades the association of Wallace with the same idea as Darwin’s faded.
However, in recent times Wallace’s achievements have begun to be recognised again and there has been an increasing recognition of him and his ideas since the 100th anniversary of his death in 1913. His remarkable achievements are reflected in the fact that many butterflies are named after him and overall there are about 500 species named after him. Wallace’s Line through the Malay Archipelago is a beautiful example of the meticulous observation of nature he was known for – this line that separates the fauna of Asia and Australasia. He was also well-known for his drawings of flora and fauna. In his lifetime – he died at 90 – he had collected about 26, 000 specimens (about 5000 species). He was a prolific writer, having written 22 books, over 700 papers, and 4,500 letters. Cheryl also related the story of Wallace’s cabinet which was found to be full of specimens. This cabinet was sold to a lawyer in Washington who then discovered it contained specimens that were eventually confirmed as those collected by Wallace. Thus it is that ‘unclaimed baggage’ ends up in Washington with its treasure trove!
Cheryl’s own enthusiasm for the work and ideas of Wallace were very well conveyed in her talk to the members. She ended her talk with a quote from Wallace: “Truth is born into this world only with pangs and tribulations … every fresh truth is received unwillingly.”
(Report by Francis Mangubhai)