, , , ,

Go to the Index of 120 Philosophers Squared

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) is the discoverer of the theory of natural selection. In a letter to Darwin four years before Darwin published The Origin of Species, Wallace wrote to him, “Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.” 1853

Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace, natural philosopher

Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace created the theory of Natural Selection.

Alfred Russel Wallace quotes: Web search, Medal Acceptance Speech,

“To expect the world to receive a new truth, or even an old truth, without challenging it, is to look for one of those miracles which do not occur.”

In 1853 Wallace wrote in, A narrative of travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro : with an account of the native tribes, and observations on the climate, geology, and natural history of the Amazon Valley, “In all works on Natural History, we constantly find details of the marvelous adaptation of animals to their food, their habitats, and the localities in which they are found. But naturalists are now beginning to look beyond this, and to see that there must be some other principle regulating the infinitely varied forms of animal life. ”

“Truth is born into this world only with pangs and tribulations, and every fresh truth is received unwillingly.”

“In my early youth I heard, as ninety-nine-hundredths of the world do, only the evidence on one side, and became impressed with a veneration for religion which has left some traces even to this day. I have since heard and read much on both sides, and pondered much upon the matter in all its bearings. I spent, as you know, a year and a half in a clergyman’s family and heard almost every Tuesday the very best, most earnest and most impressive preacher it has ever been my fortune to meet with, but it produced no effect whatever on my mind. I have since wandered among men of many races and many religions. I have studied man and nature in all its aspects, and I have sought after truth. In my solitude I have pondered much on the incomprehensible subjects of space, eternity, life and death. I think I have fairly heard and fairly weighed the evidence on both sides, and I remain an utter disbeliever in almost all that you consider the most sacred truths. I will pass over as utterly contemptible the oft-repeated accusation that skeptics shut out evidence because they will not be governed by the morality of Christianity. You I know will not believe that in my case, and I know its falsehood as a general rule. I only ask, Do you think I can change the self-formed convictions of twenty-five years, and could you think such a change would have anything in it to merit reward from justice? I am thankful I can see much to admire in all religions. To the mass of mankind religion of some kind is a necessity. But whether there be a God and whatever be His nature; whether we have an immortal soul or not, or whatever may be our state after death, I can have no fear of having to suffer for the study of nature and the search for truth, or believe that those will be better off in a future state who have lived in the belief of doctrines inculcated from childhood, and which are to them rather a matter of blind faith than intelligent conviction.”

“In all works on Natural History, we constantly find details of the marvellous adaptation of animals to their food, their habits, and the localities in which they are found. But naturalists are now beginning to look beyond this, and to see that there must be some other principle regulating the infinitely varied forms of animal life. It must strike every one, that the numbers of birds and insects of different groups, having scarcely any resemblance to each other, which yet feed on the same food and inhabit the same localities, cannot have been so differently constructed and adorned for that purpose alone. Thus the goat-suckers, the swallows, the tyrant fly-catchers, and the jacamars, all use the same kind of food, and procure it in the same manner: they all capture insects on the wing, yet how entirely different is the structure and the whole appearance of these birds! . . . What birds can have their bills more peculiarly formed than the ibis, the spoonbill, and the heron? Yet they may be seen side by side, picking up the same food from the shallow water on the beach; and on opening their stomachs, we find the same little crustacea and shell-fish in them all. Then among the fruit-eating birds, there are pigeons, parrots, toucans, and chatterers–families as distinct and widely separated as possible,–which yet may be often seen feeding all together on the same tree; for in the forests of South America, certain fruits are favourites with almost every kind of fruit-eating bird. It has been assumed by some writers on Natural History, that every wild fruit is the food of some bird or animal, and that the varied forms and structure of their mouths may be necessitated by the peculiar character of the fruits they are to feed on; but there is more of imagination than fact in this statement: the number of wild fruits furnishing food for birds is very limited, and birds of the most varied structure and of every size will be found visiting the same tree.”

“It is, therefore, an important object, which governments and scientific institutions should immediately take steps to secure, that in all tropical countries colonized by Europeans the most perfect collections possible in every branch of natural history should be made and deposited in national museums, where they may be available for study and interpretation.

If this is not done, future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations. They will charge us with having culpably allowed the destruction of some of those records of Creation which we had it in our power to preserve; and while professing to regard every living thing as the direct handiwork and best evidence of a Creator, yet, with a strange inconsistency, seeing many of them perish irrecoverably from the face of the earth, uncared for and unknown.”

“It is the constant search for and detection of these often unexpected differences between very similar creatures, that gives such an intellectual charm and fascination to the mere collection of these insects; and when, as in the case of Darwin and myself, the collectors were of a speculative turn of mind, they were constantly led to think upon the “why” and the “how” of all this wonderful variety in nature–this overwhelming, and, at first sight, purposeless wealth of specific forms among the very humblest forms of life. “

“It was the external conditions that led Darwin and myself to an identical conception, that also serves to explain why none of our precursors or contemporaries hit upon what is really so very simple a solution of the great problem. … the doctrine of “survival of the fittest,”

“I have long since come to see that no one deserves either praise or blame for the ideas that come to him, but only for the actions resulting therefrom. Ideas and beliefs are certainly not voluntary acts. They come to us–we hardly know how or whence, and once they have got possession of us we can not reject or change them at will. It is for the common good that the promulgation of ideas should be free–uninfluenced by either praise or blame, reward or punishment.

But the actions which result from our ideas may properly be so treated, because it is only by patient thought and work, that new ideas, if good and true, become adopted and utilized; while, if untrue or if not adequately presented to the world, they are rejected or forgotten.”

“So far back as 1844, at a time when I had hardly thought of any serious study of nature, Darwin had written an outline of his views, which he communicated to his friends Sir Charles Lyell and Dr. (now Sir Joseph) Hooker. The former strongly urged him to publish an abstract of his theory as soon as possible, lest some other person might precede him–but he always refused till he had got together the whole of the materials for his intended great work. Then, at last, Lyell’s prediction was fulfilled, and, without any apparent warning, my letter, with the enclosed Essay, came upon him, like a thunderbolt from a cloudless sky! This forced him to what he considered a premature publicity, and his two friends undertook to have our two papers read before this Society.”


If a person doesn’t publish an idea and make it available to the interested public it can not be accessed. Even if Darwin had the idea of natural selection it wasn’t until Wallace sent him an accurate description of how it worked that Darwin even began to write a document intended to go to the public. There are not even short documents such as Wallace’s very clear letters from Indonesia back to England, before or since the publication of Origin of Species, that show that Darwin understood the essential concept before Wallace sent him his theory. The Origin covers a mass of important material, collected from his correspondents world wide, but it is held together in a meaningful way by the theory which Wallace sent him. Shortly later, The papers by Wallace and Darwin were read to the Linnean Society of London but they were mostly ignored while Darwin pulled together his book.

Neither Wallace or Darwin nor even Steven Gould understood how humans evolved such a great variety of unusual useful characteristics as they possess, like language and throwing ability, so quickly. Generally, they thought it should take a long time to evolve each independent ability. Wallace’s speculations for rapid evolution included his explorations into Spiritualism, which got him into to deep trouble with the scientists, even though some of them were performing experiments themselves. Many years later, in 1922, the Scientific American offered a large cash prize for demonstrating paranormal phenomena under test conditions. Even foolish speculations are tested by science, and they never are by standard religious communities.

The theory of Natural Selection was already in the air, and even published by Patrick Matthew years before in 1831, but his and others’ writing was done by people who were outside of the establishment. “Simple priority is not enough to earn a thinker a place in the history of science: one has to develop the idea and convince others of its value to make a real contribution,” wrote Peter J. Bowler. Even Wallace was on the edge of British acceptability even though he was an established professional field specimen-collector. He had published books on ecology but he had the greatest of faults — he was economically poor and thus considered lower class.

Both Wallace and Darwin said they were sparked to the idea of survival of the fittest by Thomas Malthus‘s ideas on population controls. It is strange that they didn’t go beyond Malthus’s inspiration for their theory, to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, where he discusses the survival and evolution of business guided by the still famous “invisible hand”. The invisible hand is natural selection, although applied to another subject, but done so 82 years earlier. If Smith had simply mentioned it applied to living organisms as well as business enterprises, he might be even more hallowed than he already is.