Alfred Russel Wallace : biography
During this period he read avidly, exchanging letters with Bates about Robert Chambers’ anonymously published evolutionary treatise Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, and Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology.Raby p. 78.Wallace My Life pp. ,
Exploration and study of the natural world
Inspired by the chronicles of earlier travelling naturalists, including Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin and William Henry Edwards, Wallace decided that he too wanted to travel abroad as a naturalist.Slotten pp. 34–37. In 1848, Wallace and Henry Bates left for Brazil aboard the Mischief. Their intention was to collect insects and other animal specimens in the Amazon rainforest and sell them to collectors back in the United Kingdom. Wallace also hoped to gather evidence of the transmutation of species.
Wallace and Bates spent most of their first year collecting near Belém do Pará, then explored inland separately, occasionally meeting to discuss their findings. In 1849, they were briefly joined by another young explorer, botanist Richard Spruce, along with Wallace’s younger brother Herbert. Herbert left soon thereafter (dying two years later from yellow fever), but Spruce, like Bates, would spend over ten years collecting in South America.Wilson p. 36; Raby pp. 89, 98–99, 120–21.
Wallace continued charting the Rio Negro for four years, collecting specimens and making notes on the peoples and languages he encountered as well as the geography, flora, and fauna.Raby pp. 89–95. On 12 July 1852, Wallace embarked for the UK on the brig Helen. After 26 days at sea, the ship’s cargo caught fire and the crew was forced to abandon ship. All of the specimens Wallace had on the ship, mostly collected during the last, and most interesting, years of his trip, were lost. He could save only part of his diary and a few sketches.
Wallace and the crew spent ten days in an open boat before being picked up by the brig Jordeson, which was sailing from Cuba to London. The Jordeson’s provisions were strained by the unexpected passengers, but after a difficult passage on very short rations the ship finally reached its destination on 1 October 1852.Shermer pp. 72–73.Slotten pp. 84–88
After his return to the UK, Wallace spent 18 months in London living on the insurance payment for his lost collection and selling a few specimens that had been shipped back to Britain prior to his starting his exploration of the Rio Negro. During this period, despite having lost almost all of the notes from his South American expedition, he wrote six academic papers (which included "On the Monkeys of the Amazon") and two books; Palm Trees of the Amazon and Their Uses and Travels on the Amazon.Wilson p. 45. He also made connections with a number of other British naturalists—most significantly, Darwin.Raby p. 148.
From 1854 to 1862, age 31 to 39, Wallace travelled through the Malay Archipelago or East Indies (now Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia), to collect specimens for sale and to study natural history. A set of 80 bird skeletons he collected in Indonesia and associated documentation can be found in the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology. His observations of the marked zoological differences across a narrow strait in the archipelago led to his proposing the zoogeographical boundary now known as the Wallace line.
Wallace collected more than 126,000 specimens in the Malay Archipelago (more than 80,000 beetles alone). Several thousand of them represented species new to science.Shermer p. 14. One of his better-known species descriptions during this trip is that of the gliding tree frog Rhacophorus nigropalmatus, known as Wallace’s flying frog. While he was exploring the archipelago, he refined his thoughts about evolution and had his famous insight on natural selection. In 1858 he sent an article outlining his theory to Darwin; it was published, along with a description of Darwin’s own theory, in the same year.