Alfred Russel Wallace : biography
Assessment of Wallace’s role in history of evolutionary theory
In many accounts of the development of evolutionary theory, Wallace is mentioned only in passing as simply being the stimulus to the publication of Darwin’s own theory.Slotten p. 6. In reality, Wallace developed his own distinct evolutionary views which diverged from Darwin’s, and was considered by many (especially Darwin) to be a leading thinker on evolution in his day, whose ideas could not be ignored. One historian of science has pointed out that, through both private correspondence and published works, Darwin and Wallace exchanged knowledge and stimulated each other’s ideas and theories over an extended period.Shermer p. 149. Wallace is the most-cited naturalist in Darwin’s Descent of Man, often in strong disagreement.Slotten pp. 289–90. Wallace remained an ardent defender of natural selection for the rest of his life. By the 1880s, evolution was widely accepted in scientific circles, but Wallace and August Weismann were nearly alone among prominent biologists in believing that natural selection was the major driving force behind it.Larson p. 123.Bowler & Morus p. 154. In 1889, Wallace published the book Darwinism as a response to the scientific critics of natural selection.Slotten p. 409. Of all Wallace’s books, it is the most cited by scholarly publications.Shermer p. 18.
In a letter to his brother-in-law in 1861, Wallace wrote:
… 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 sceptics shut out evidence because they will not be governed by the morality of Christianity … 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.
Wallace was an enthusiast of phrenology.Slotten pp. 203–05. Early in his career, he experimented with hypnosis, then known as mesmerism. He used some of his students in Leicester as subjects, with considerable success.Slotten pp. 234–35. When he began his experiments with mesmerism, the topic was very controversial and early experimenters, such as John Elliotson, had been harshly criticised by the medical and scientific establishment. Wallace drew a connection between his experiences with mesmerism and his later investigations into spiritualism. In 1893, he wrote:
I thus learnt my first great lesson in the inquiry into these obscure fields of knowledge, never to accept the disbelief of great men or their accusations of imposture or of imbecility, as of any weight when opposed to the repeated observation of facts by other men, admittedly sane and honest. The whole history of science shows us that whenever the educated and scientific men of any age have denied the facts of other investigators on a priori grounds of absurdity or impossibility, the deniers have always been wrong.
Wallace began investigating spiritualism in the summer of 1865, possibly at the urging of his older sister Fanny Sims, who had been involved with it for some time.Slotten p. 231. After reviewing the literature on the topic and attempting to test the phenomena he witnessed at séances, he came to accept that the belief was connected to a natural reality. For the rest of his life, he remained convinced that at least some séance phenomena were genuine, no matter how many accusations of fraud sceptics made or how much evidence of trickery was produced. Historians and biographers have disagreed about which factors most influenced his adoption of spiritualism. It has been suggested by one biographer that the emotional shock he had received a few months earlier, when his first fiancée broke their engagement, contributed to his receptiveness to spiritualism.Slotten p. 236. Other scholars have preferred to emphasise instead Wallace’s desire to find rational and scientific explanations for all phenomena, both material and non-material, of the natural world and of human society.Shermer pp. 199–201.