Alfred Russel Wallace

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Alfred Russel Wallace : biography

df=y August 1 – 7 November 1913

Another factor in Wallace’s thinking was his belief that, because of the action of natural selection, organisms were in a state of balance with their environment, and that everything in nature, even disease-causing organisms, served a useful purpose in the natural order of things; he feared vaccination might upset that natural balance with unfortunate results. Wallace and other anti-vaccinationists pointed out that vaccination, which at the time was often done in a sloppy and unsanitary manner, could be dangerous.Shermer pp. 215–16.

In 1890, Wallace gave evidence before a Royal Commission investigating the controversy. When the commission examined the material he had submitted to support his testimony, they found errors, including some questionable statistics. The Lancet averred that Wallace and the other anti-vaccination activists were being selective in their choice of statistics, ignoring large quantities of data inconsistent with their position. The commission found that smallpox vaccination was effective and should remain compulsory, though they did recommend some changes in procedures to improve safety, and that the penalties for people who refused to comply be made less severe. Years later, in 1898, Wallace wrote a pamphlet, Vaccination a Delusion; Its Penal Enforcement a Crime, attacking the commission’s findings. It, in turn, was attacked by The Lancet, which stated that it contained many of the same errors as his evidence given to the commission.

Legacy and historical perception

As a result of his writing, at the time of his death Wallace had been for many years a well-known figure both as a scientist and as a social activist. He was often sought out by journalists and others for his views on a variety of topics.Shermer pp. 292–94. He received honorary doctorates and a number of professional honours, such as election to the Royal Society, the Copley Medal, and one honour from the British monarch: the Order of Merit. Above all, his role as the co-discoverer of natural selection and his work on zoogeography marked him out as an exceptional figure. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest natural history explorers of the 19th century. Despite this, his fame faded quickly after his death. For a long time, he was treated as a relatively obscure figure in the history of science. A number of reasons have been suggested for this lack of attention, including his modesty, his willingness to champion unpopular causes without regard for his own reputation, and the discomfort of much of the scientific community with some of his unconventional ideas. Recently, he has become a less obscure figure with the publication of several book length biographies on him, as well as anthologies of his writings. In 2007 a literary critic for New Yorker magazine observed that five such biographies and two such anthologies had been published since 2000. There has also been a web page created that is dedicated to Wallace scholarship.

Notes

Other scientific contributions

Biogeography and ecology

In 1872, at the urging of many of his friends, including Darwin, Philip Sclater, and Alfred Newton, Wallace began research for a general review of the geographic distribution of animals. He was unable to make much progress initially, in part because classification systems for many types of animals were in flux at the time.Slotten p. 301. He resumed the work in earnest in 1874 after the publication of a number of new works on classification.Slotten p. 315. Extending the bird system developed by Sclater—which divided the earth into six separate geographic regions for describing species distribution—to cover mammals, reptiles and insects as well, Wallace created the basis for the zoogeographic regions still in use today. He discussed all of the factors then known to influence the current and past geographic distribution of animals within each geographical region. These included the effects of the appearance and disappearance of land bridges (such as the one currently connecting North America and South America) and the effects of periods of increased glaciation. He provided maps that displayed factors, such as elevation of mountains, depths of oceans, and the character of regional vegetation, that affected the distribution of animals. He also summarised all the known families and genera of the higher animals and listed their known geographic distributions. The text was organised so that it would be easy for a traveller to learn what animals could be found in a particular location. The resulting two-volume work, The Geographical Distribution of Animals, was published in 1876 and would serve as the definitive text on zoogeography for the next 80 years.Slotten pp. 320–25.