Alfred Russel Wallace : biography
Spiritualism appealed to many educated Victorians who no longer found traditional religious doctrine, such as that of the Church of England, acceptable yet were unsatisfied with the completely materialistic and mechanical view of the world that was increasingly emerging from 19th-century science.Slotten p. 4. However, several scholars who have researched Wallace’s views in depth have emphasised that, for him, spiritualism was a matter of science and philosophy rather than religious belief. Among other prominent 19th-century intellectuals involved with spiritualism were the social reformer Robert Owen, who was one of Wallace’s early idols,Slotten p. 232. the physicists William Crookes and Lord Rayleigh, the mathematician Augustus De Morgan, and the Scottish publisher Robert Chambers.Shermer p. 183.
Wallace’s very public advocacy of spiritualism and his repeated defence of spiritualist mediums against allegations of fraud in the 1870s damaged his scientific reputation. It strained his relationships with previously friendly scientists such as Henry Bates, Thomas Huxley, and even Darwin, who felt he was overly credulous. Others, such as the physiologist William Benjamin Carpenter and zoologist E. Ray Lankester became openly and publicly hostile to Wallace over the issue. Wallace and other scientists who defended spiritualism, notably William Crookes, were subject to much criticism from the press, with The Lancet as the leading English medical journal of the time being particularly harsh. The controversy affected the public perception of Wallace’s work for the rest of his career.Slotten pp. 298–351. When, in 1879, Darwin first tried to rally support among naturalists to get a civil pension awarded to Wallace, Joseph Hooker responded:
Wallace has lost caste considerably, not only by his adhesion to Spiritualism, but by the fact of his having deliberately and against the whole voice of the committee of his section of the British Association, brought about a discussion of on Spiritualism at one of its sectional meetings. That he is said to have done so in an underhanded manner, and I well remember the indignation it gave rise to in the B.A. Council.Slotten pp. 357–58.
Hooker eventually relented and agreed to support the pension request.Slotten p. 362.
Flat Earth wager
In 1870, a Flat-Earth proponent named John Hampden offered a £500 wager (equivalent to about £ in present-day terms) in a magazine advertisement to anyone who could demonstrate a convex curvature in a body of water such as a river, canal, or lake. Wallace, intrigued by the challenge and short of money at the time, designed an experiment in which he set up two objects along a six-mile (10 km) stretch of canal. Both objects were at the same height above the water, and he mounted a telescope on a bridge at the same height above the water as well. When seen through the telescope, one object appeared higher than the other, showing the curvature of the earth.
The judge for the wager, the editor of Field magazine, declared Wallace the winner, but Hampden refused to accept the result. He sued Wallace and launched a campaign, which persisted for several years, of writing letters to various publications and to organisations of which Wallace was a member denouncing him as a swindler and a thief. Wallace won multiple libel suits against Hampden, but the resulting litigation cost Wallace more than the amount of the wager and the controversy frustrated him for years.Shermer pp. 258–61.
In the early 1880s, Wallace was drawn into the debate over mandatory smallpox vaccination. Wallace originally saw the issue as a matter of personal liberty; but, after studying some of the statistics provided by anti-vaccination activists, he began to question the efficacy of vaccination. At the time, the germ theory of disease was very new and far from universally accepted. Moreover, no one knew enough about the human immune system to understand why vaccination worked. When Wallace did some research, he discovered instances where supporters of vaccination had used questionable, in a few cases completely phony, statistics to support their arguments. Always suspicious of authority, Wallace suspected that physicians had a vested interest in promoting vaccination, and became convinced that reductions in the incidence of smallpox that had been attributed to vaccination were, in fact, due to better hygiene and improvements in public sanitation.Slotten pp. 422–36.