Alfred Russel Wallace: Socialist and co-founder of evolutionary theory

March 7, 2012 8:47 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Next year will see the centenary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace. Simultaneously with Darwin the discoverer of evolution due to natural selection, but history has largely eclipsed his name under Darwin’s immense shadow.

Wallace was also a committed socialist all his life. He was particularly active in the Land Nationalisation Society, as he was convinced that private land ownership was one of the chief causes of wealth inequality and injustice in society. He wrote regularly on socialism for, among other journals, Robert Blatchford’s Clarion.

There were two books published in the 19th century that literally shook the world and whose reverberations are still being felt today. One was Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in 1859 and the other, Das Kapital, written by Karl Marx and published in 1867. The works of both men detonated like hand grenades in the melee of debate. The former transformed how we viewed ourselves and the processes of biological development. Das Kapital changed how we understood economics, and the role of class struggle in social development. Both works overthrew traditional and widely-accepted thinking about their chosen subjects and had cataclysmic impacts on individuals and societies throughout the world and provided new roadmaps for future research.

Like all new breakthroughs in thinking, the theories of these two men didn’t arise out of the blue but were built on the thinking and writing of many who went before them. However, history invariably selects single individuals to be celebrated as the unique inventors or discoverers of new ideas. In Marx’s case it is readily acknowledged that Friedrich Engels played a very significant and close participatory role in the development of the ideas that we now term ‘Marxism’.

Darwin’s case is somewhat different. He was very much a lone worker, even though he conferred and corresponded regularly with others in his field and incorporated their ideas. However, one man who did appear to have reached similar conclusions at exactly the same time, on the basis of similar research, was Alfred Russel Wallace, who actually pipped Darwin to the post in terms of writing down and circulating his ideas on evolution and the development of species before Darwin had attempted to raise the issues publicly.

Wallace came from a lower middle class background – his father was a provincial solicitor, at that time a lowly occupation. He left school at 14-years old to work as an apprentice surveyor with his brother William in order to supplement the family income. This itinerant job took him all over the country and engendered in him a love for the countryside, science and nature.

While carrying out this work, Wallace talks of being forced to travel in the ‘wretched third class’ carriages where passengers in open trucks were transported like cattle. After one such journey with his brother William, they took cheap lodgings in a damp room in Bristol, which led to his brother consequently dying of pneumonia.

Wallace was an avid reader even as a child, but the real formation of his ideas began while he was working with his brother. It was itinerant work with many days away from home and lengthy periods of under-employment. Wallace utilised his free time in local libraries or exploring the countryside. While out surveying, he would mix with weavers, factory inspectors, railway workers and farm labourers, and noted the creeping industrialisation of the countryside.

He was completely self-educated in the sciences and became an early socialist, greatly influenced by lectures he heard in the Hall of Science in Tottenham Court Road in London, given by followers of Robert Owen. He said: ‘I have always looked upon Owen as my first teacher in the philosophy of human nature and my first guide through the labyrinth of social science.’ He, like Owen, took a prominently anti-Malthusian line (Malthus’s work was used to justify the thesis that disease and early death were necessary among the working masses to keep the population down). Darwin, given his class background, was much more sympathetic to Malthus’s views than Wallace was.

Owen’s lectures on co-operation and socialism as a social goal as well as a means of overcoming the iniquities of capitalism, clearly chimed with Wallace’s own inchoate ideas and perceptions. He was very much of the opinion that all men and women had the potential for social good, creativity and self-betterment, given the education and opportunity.

During his wanderings throughout the country Wallace’s avid curiosity and thirst for knowledge led him to attend many lectures at the local Mechanics’ Institutes – in Victorian Times places where ordinary working men and women could listen to prominent and learned speakers on a whole range of subjects. He also made full use of the free libraries for his studies.

Although his family was ‘old fashioned Church of England’, Wallace very soon shed all shreds of religiosity, developing advanced secularist views on society and human nature. Like almost all Victorian naturalists, he also began his career by collecting – in his case beetles and butterflies. At one of the Institute lectures in Leicester he met hosiery apprentice, Henry Walter Bates, who’d also left school early, at 12-years old, and who was embarking on his own self-education. He, too, was an enthusiastic naturalist and the two began making excursions together. From this time on Wallace began reflecting on the origins of the human race and the idea of continuous change of species.

Ironically, because of his radical political views Wallace was, from the outset, a more likely candidate than the conservative Darwin to come up with such a radical hypothesis as evolution. 14 years younger than Darwin, he was a likeable, mild-mannered man full of visions for a reformed society. Evolution challenged the deeply held shibboleths of Victorian society, indeed of elites everywhere, that they ‘were born to govern’. It also challenged the foundations of religious belief which was a vital prop to class rule. The theory of evolution challenged a belief in the immutability of species but also by implication of societies and hierarchies.

In 1847 Bates and Wallace discussed travelling abroad and earning their living collecting specimens along the River Amazon. Unlike Darwin who was easily able to organise and finance his own long voyage on the Beagle, Wallace and Bates had to beg money for their trip. The mania of Victorians for collecting natural history specimens gave them the opportunity. In the end, Stevens, a natural history agent, advanced them money for the trip. In 1848 they set sail for Brazil and spent several years there, enduring disease, hardship and catastrophe. Their experiences were physically as far removed from Darwin’s relaxed and comfortable Beagle voyage as could be imagined. Unfortunately Wallace’s return voyage ended in shipwreck and the loss of all his meticulously recorded notes and arduously collected specimens.

In 1853, despite vowing never again to return to sea, Wallace headed for Malaysia with the same aims as before in the Amazon. He also wished to investigate primitive tribes and pursue his ideas on human origins. His readings of the anonymously published book ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’ had convinced him that humans were descended from apes, possible from an orang-utan like animal as found in Malaysia.

This was a dangerous expedition for a lone adventurer, and he lived for some time among the Dyaks – the notorious head-hunters of European legend. Before he left Sarawak he dispatched a short theoretical paper that Darwin and his friends Edward Blyth and the renowned geologist, Charles Lyell read, in which he speculated about how varieties of species arise and how geography was key in determining origins. His ‘betters’, including his agent Stevens, felt he should not waste his time with such pointless speculation, but concentrate on obtaining specimens for their collections.

However, Darwin wrote him a warm and encouraging letter complimenting him on his paper. In 1858, after a bad bout of Malaria Wallace wrote another paper setting out, for the first time, his basic idea of natural selection and evolutionary development. He was completely unaware that Darwin had been diligently working along similar lines. He sent his paper to Darwin and asked the latter to forward it to his friend, the geologist Edward Lyell. The way his seminal paper overlapped with Darwin’s thinking on the same issue was remarkable.

Darwin had also collected a mass of fascinating data during his trip on the Beagle and through an avid correspondence with other naturalists was leisurely developing his own draft ideas of evolution. He was, though, a naturally cautious man and also very aware of how his ideas, once in the open, would undoubtedly cause outrage among the deeply religious. Wallace’s paper, arriving out of the blue, hit him like a thunderbolt. He’d fleetingly met and then corresponded with Wallace, but the two men barely knew one-another. Darwin was aghast and shattered that someone had apparently beaten him to it. The idea of ‘losing’ the letter or ignoring it crossed his mind, but in the end he followed the honourable road and forwarded it to his friend, the renowned geologist Lyell as Wallace had requested.

Darwin was, in fact, about to write to Wallace congratulating him and had almost decided to throw in the towel on his own projected publication, but was dissuaded from doing so by his two close friends and Linnaean fellows, the botanist Joseph Hooker and Lyell. To give Darwin his due, he was in the genuine sense of the words an ‘honourable gentleman’ and felt he no longer had the right to publish his own views before Wallace’s now that he’d read his paper. He was, though, persuaded by his two friends not to give way and to publish a paper of his own alongside Wallace’s in the prestigious Journal of the Linnaean Society. His friends suggested this in the full knowledge that, as a renowned fellow, Darwin’s views would take precedence over the ‘mere collector’ who had no standing in scientific circles. Hooker and Lyell implied that Wallace should be grateful for being given publicity on Darwin’s coat tails. They did this without Wallace’s permission and in a manner unprecedented among scientific colleagues. But Wallace, far away in Malaysia, was in no position to protest. In the Amazon, Wallace’s friend Bates was also making interesting discoveries, and is remembered primarily today for his work on mimicry in the animal world – his contribution in this area provided Darwin with a significant piece of evidence for his theory of evolution.

Wallace, unlike Darwin, had no independent means, was not a member of the gentry nor was he university educated. Darwin and his colleagues viewed Wallace as a useful purveyor of information and specimens, but would not have considered him a philosopher or thinker on their own level. That’s why, in part, Wallace’s paper hit them with such force.

Neither paper caused even a ripple of excitement or outrage at the time of publication, but Darwin, realising the danger to his own work if Wallace developed his ideas further, put his head down and worked like a man possessed to finish and publish his later world-renowned ‘On the Origin of Species’, a year later in 1859. This was the book that shook the world. Priests began apoplectically raging from their pulpits, fine ladies had fainting fits at the idea of being related to monkeys, and the popular papers never tired of ridiculing the idea of evolution as if a new flat-earth theory were being propounded.

These historical events again, demonstrated how class invariably determined an individual’s fortune and later historical status. The strictly stratified Victorian society left Wallace little chance of entering the hallowed halls of the elite scientific community of which Darwin was already a respected member. However, after his return from his travels and with selfless support from Darwin, he did eventually gain acceptance, becoming a revered member of those elite scientific circles. Unlike Wallace, Darwin came from a moneyed upper middle class family – his father was a wealthy doctor and financier – and he lived in ease and comfort in the Kent countryside with all the time in the world to pursue his research and write. After studying at Edinburgh and Cambridge, followed by his five-year voyage around the world on the Beagle, Darwin quickly established his credentials as a leading naturalist.

Wallaces’s socialism was based, like that of many others of his time, primarily on a deep humanitarian impulse, rather than on a rational philosophy or profound understanding of economics. There is no indication given in his writings that Wallace knew of Marx and/or Engels or that he had read any of their writings. However, he had read books and essays on socialism by Edward Bellamy, Robert Blatchford and William Morris, as well as the writings on society by J.S. Mill, John Ruskin and Herbert Spencer. He himself wrote for Blatchford’s socialist weekly newspaper, the Clarion, and he became a leading light in the Land Nationalisation Society.

His socialist ideas went through two phases, but he returned to his earlier ideas later in life. As noted above, the earliest influences were Owenite, and he believed in the co-operative project as a means of reforming society. Later, after the development of his and Darwin’s ideas of natural selection (a description which Wallace, based on Spencer’s first coinage of the term, preferred to replace with ‘survival of the fittest’) led him to adopt the more individualistic ideas of J.S. Mill and Spencer. These better fitted, he felt, the theory of evolution based on competition, wherein the fittest survived. At the time the idea of humans evolving and becoming adapted for social co-operation as well as or in preference to individual competition had not been developed. He later reverted back to Owen’s ideas.

In his memoirs, My Life, Wallace notes that it was the enclosures, near Llandridod Wells, that finally made him aware of the injustice to the labouring classes of the General Enclosure Act. However, it was not until some 30 years later, at the very end of his book, The Malay Archipelago (1869), that Wallace first entered the debate by criticizing land tenure – pointing out that:

“We permit absolute possession of the soil of our country, with no legal rights of existence on the soil, to the vast majority who do not possess it. A great land holder may legally convert his whole property into a forest or a hunting ground and expel every human being who has hitherto lived upon it.”

Shortly afterwards J.S. Mill invited Wallace to join his proposed Land Tenure Reform Association (later to become the Land Nationalisation Society) and to serve on its committee (1870). Wallace was delighted and one of his first proposals to the Association was that:

“The State be empowered to buy back land for itself and to resume possession of any land on payment of its value while the state should be made the owner of historic monuments as well as buildings.”

On the Society’s official reports it stated that the object of the society was: ‘to restore the land to the people and the people to the land’. Although Wallace became involved with a whole number of socialist demands and activities, nationalisation of the land remained central to his philosophy.

Throughout his life Wallace undoubtedly lacked the self-confidence that so often comes with a public school education and affluence. What he did achieve in his life was done the hard way, but humble and modest as ever, he subsequently accepted Darwin’s pre-eminence and his own secondary role in developing the theory of evolution. Darwin actually told him: ”you would, if you’d had my leisure, done the work just as well, perhaps better, than I have done it.’ This modesty characterised his own assessment of contributions he was able to make in every other field too. Wallace’s friend E.B. Poulton (later to become a professor of zoology at Oxford) described Wallace as a man of great ‘personal magnetism’ and ‘lofty ideals’. Undoubtedly Wallace deserves more prominence than history has granted him.

Tags: ,

Categorised in:

This post was written by John Green

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *