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Alfred Russel Wallace

Date of birth : 1823-01-08
Date of death : 1913-11-07
Birthplace : Usk, Monmouthshire, England
Nationality : British
Category : Science and Technology
Last modified : 2010-11-22

The English naturalist and traveler Alfred Russel Wallace, independently of Darwin, dis cerned the mechanism of evolution by natural selection.

Alfred Russel Wallace, the eighth of nine children, was born on Jan. 8, 1823, at Usk, Monmouthshire. He was educated at Hertford Grammar school and left at the age of 14. He learned surveying and some geology from his brother William.

In 1844 Wallace became a schoolmaster at the Collegiate School in Leicester, where he met the naturalist Henry Bates. Wallace convinced Bates to join him on an expedition to the Amazon to collect specimens. They sailed in April 1848; by March 1850 they separated so as to exploit wider collecting grounds. Wallace sailed for England in 1852; his specimens were lost when the ship was destroyed by fire. He reported on his findings in Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro and Palm Trees of the Amazon (both 1853).

In 1854 Wallace was given a government passage to Malaysia, where he spent 8 years and amassed an outstanding collection of specimens. In 1855 he wrote the essay "On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species," demonstrating that "every species has come into existence coincident both in time and space with a preexisting closely-allied species." This attracted the attention of Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin.

By February 1858 Wallace conceived a method of evolution and sent his account, "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type," to Darwin. To his amazement, he found Wallace's material to be almost identical with his own 1842 manuscript that had never been published. Anxious considerations of priority were solved by Lyell and J. D. Hooker, who advised Darwin to make a joint presentation of both papers. This took place on July 1, 1858, at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London. Darwin's extended summary of his views became the Origin of Species (1859); Wallace's fame as the codiscoverer of the principle of descent with modification through selection was assured.

Wallace continued his studies of the distribution of animals. The sale of his collections of biota yielded an annual income of £300, later lost through unwise speculation. He supported himself thereafter through his publications. His most notable works were The Malay Archipelago (1869), which combined sketches of travel and natural history with a discussion of evolutionary biology: Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (1870), which contained reprints of his earlier papers and indicated his differences with Darwin's views; and The Geographical Distribution of Animals (2 vols., 1876), a noteworthy pioneering work that was fundamental for all subsequent investigations in this field. Wallace was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1893 and was a recipient of the Copley, Royal, and Darwin medals. He received the Order of Merit in 1909. He died at Broadstone, Dorset, on Nov. 7, 1913.

Considerable biographical information can be gleaned from Wallace's own writings, My Life: A Record of Events and Opinions (2 vols., 1905) and A. R. Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences (2 vols., 1916). Books on his life and work include Lancelot T. Hogben, A. R. Wallace: The Story of a Great Discoverer (1918); Wilma George, Biologist Philosopher: A Study of the Life and Writing of Alfred Russel Wallace (1964); and Amabel Williams-Ellis, Darwin's Moon: A Biography of Alfred Russel Wallace (1966). For background see Lorin C. Eiseley, Darwin's Century (1958).

Brackman, Arnold C., A delicate arrangement: the strange case of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, New York: Times Books, 1980.


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