Alfred Russel Wallace

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Alfred Russel Wallace : biography

df=y August 1 – 7 November 1913

In 1880, Wallace published the book Island Life as a sequel to The Geographical Distribution of Animals. It surveyed the distribution of both animal and plant species on islands. Wallace classified islands into three different types. Oceanic islands, such as the Galapagos and Hawaiian Islands (then known as the Sandwich Islands) formed in mid-ocean and had never been part of any large continent. Such islands were characterised by a complete lack of terrestrial mammals and amphibians, and their inhabitants (with the exceptions of migratory birds and species introduced by human activity) were typically the result of accidental colonization and subsequent evolution. He divided continental islands into two separate classes depending on whether they had recently been part of a continent (like Britain) or much less recently (like Madagascar) and discussed how that difference affected the flora and fauna. He talked about how isolation affected evolution and how that could result in the preservation of classes of animals, such as the lemurs of Madagascar that were remnants of once widespread continental faunas. He extensively discussed how changes of climate, particularly periods of increased glaciation, may have affected the distribution of flora and fauna on some islands, and the first portion of the book discusses possible causes of these great ice ages. Island Life was considered a very important work at the time of its publication. It was discussed extensively in scientific circles both in published reviews and in private correspondence.Slotten p. 361.

Environmental issues

Wallace’s extensive work in biogeography made him aware of the impact of human activities on the natural world. In Tropical Nature and Other Essays (1878), he warned about the dangers of deforestation and soil erosion, especially in tropical climates prone to heavy rainfall. Noting the complex interactions between vegetation and climate, he warned that the extensive clearing of rainforest for coffee cultivation in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India would adversely impact the climate in those countries and lead to their eventual impoverishment due to soil erosion.Slotten pp. 352–53. In Island Life, Wallace again talked about deforestation and also the impact of invasive species. He wrote the following about the impact of European colonization on the island of Saint Helena:

… yet the general aspect of the island is now so barren and forbidding that some persons find it difficult to believe that it was once all green and fertile. The cause of this change is, however, very easily explained. The rich soil formed by decomposed volcanic rock and vegetable deposits could only be retained on the steep slopes so long as it was protected by the vegetation to which it in great part owed its origin. When this was destroyed, the heavy tropical rains soon washed away the soil, and has left a vast expanse of bare rock or sterile clay. This irreparable destruction was caused, in the first place, by goats, which were introduced by the Portuguese in 1513, and increased so rapidly that in 1588 they existed in the thousands. These animals are the greatest of all foes to trees, because they eat off the young seedlings, and thus prevent the natural restoration of the forest. They were, however, aided by the reckless waste of man. The East India Company took possession of the island in 1651, and about the year 1700 it began to be seen that the forests were fast diminishing, and required some protection. Two of the native trees, redwood and ebony, were good for tanning, and, to save trouble, the bark was wastefully stripped from the trunks only, the remainder being left to rot; while in 1709 a large quantity of the rapidly disappearing ebony was used to burn lime for building fortifications!Wallace Island Life pp. 283–84.

Astrobiology

Wallace’s 1904 book Man’s place in the universe was the first serious attempt by a biologist to evaluate the likelihood of life on other planets. He concluded that the earth was the only planet in the solar system that could possibly support life as we know it, mainly because it was the only one in which water could exist in the liquid phase. More controversially he maintained that it was unlikely that other stars in the galaxy could have planets with the necessary properties (the existence of other galaxies not having been proved at this stage).