Alfred Russel Wallace: The Forgotten Father of Evolution

Alfred Russel Wallace – The Forgotten Father
of Evolution The name “Alfred Russel Wallace” probably
doesn’t mean much to you, but it really should. If you have heard of Charles Darwin, then
you should also know Alfred Wallace since the two, basically, did the same thing. There was a point when Darwin’s famous theory
of evolution was referred to as the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution. However, the latter’s contributions slowly,
but surely began to fade away from the public consciousness in a fitting example of “publish
or perish.” Alfred Wallace was one of the most notable
scientists of the 19th century. And he was more than just a naturalist, as
he also studied geography, anthropology, ecology, and even astrobiology. And, to top it off, he was an autodidact – he
was self-taught, more out of necessity than desire because he didn’t come from money
and couldn’t afford a good education. Today, Alfred Wallace receives some of the
recognition he richly deserves as we take a look at the life and career of one of the
luminaries of natural history. Early Years Alfred Russel Wallace was born on January
8, 1823, at Kensington Cottage near the town of Usk, Monmouthshire, which is in Wales today,
but back then was located in more of a gray area that some considered part of Wales and
others part of England. This might sound inconsequential to us, but
some people have argued that this would make Wallace Welsh, while others believed that
he was English, including Wallace himself who always referred to himself as an Englishman. He was the eighth of nine children of Thomas
Vere Wallace and Mary Anne Greenell. His mother was English while his father was
Scottish and claimed to be a descendant of the famed William Wallace, although this was
never attested conclusively. Speaking of him, we do have a video on William
Wallace, if you want to check it out in the link below. Back to Alfred, when he was young, his family
moved around due to money troubles that would plague Wallace for most of his life. Before he was born, his parents lived in London,
but relocated to Monmouthshire to lower their cost of living. Thomas Wallace had a law degree but, for some
reason, never went into practice. Instead, he relied on an inheritance for the
first half of his adult life and, when that ran out, he attempted various business ventures
that usually proved unsuccessful and left the family worse off than it was at the start. When Wallace was five, his parents once again
set off for greener (and cheaper) pastures and relocated to Hertford. Young Alfred enrolled at Richard Hale’s
Grammar School where he received the only formal education of his life. Wallace never went to college because he never
had the money, but this did not stop him from becoming a first-class naturalist and explorer. When Alfred was a teenager in 1837, his family’s
financial situation went from bad to worse after his father basically lost everything
in a swindle. They could not afford to keep Alfred in school
anymore so, instead, they sent him to London to live with his older brother, John, who
found an apprenticeship as a carpenter. Alfred only stayed there for a few months,
though, before leaving the capital and moving in with another of his brothers, William,
who could take him on as an apprentice land surveyor. The two Wallace brothers worked as surveyors
for six years until business slowed down so much that Alfred, once again, had to find
new employment. In 1844, he managed to parlay his experience
into a teaching position at the Collegiate School in Leicester where he taught surveying
and mapmaking. This proved to be a crucial moment for Wallace
because he met a man who would have an enormous influence on his life – Henry Walter Bates. At the time, Bates was somewhat of a celebrity
in the entomology world. He was only 19 years old, but already had
a paper on beetles published in the scientific journal The Zoologist. Bates and Wallace struck a friendship together
and the former sparked the latter’s interest in entomology. Alfred’s life took a turn in 1845 when his
brother William died suddenly. He left his teaching position in Leicester
and went to Neath where William’s surveying company was located and assumed control of
the business. During these years, Wallace’s interest in
the natural world increased greatly. He corresponded frequently with Bates and
had become an insect collector himself. It was at this time that he first expressed
an interest in evolution, and wrote in a letter to Bates from 1847 that he grew dissatisfied
with the local selection of bugs and that he would like to take one family of insects
and study it thoroughly “with a view to the theory of the origin of species.” His passion was aided by his new job, as being
a surveyor meant long walks through the British countryside which he could explore at his
leisure. What he didn’t like, though, was all the
paperwork, and the fee collection, and all the other bureaucratic responsibilities that
came with the job. Wallace had read up on the travels of naturalists
who came before him such as Alexander von Humboldt, or Ida Pfeiffer, or, more relevant
to us, Charles Darwin who had published The Voyage of the Beagle a few years prior. Wallace realized that the only way for him
to join their ranks was to travel to mysterious, faraway lands and see for himself what sights
the natural world had to offer. His idea was met with great enthusiasm by
Henry Bates who became his traveling companion. The two concluded that they could fund their
trip by selling specimens of insects and other animals that they found to British museum
and private collectors so, in April 1848, the young duo set off from Liverpool to the
Amazon Rainforest. A Trip into the Amazon
The explorers landed in Belém, a Brazilian port city that served as the gateway to the
Amazon River, in late May and off they went into the rainforest. Wallace and Bates only explored together for
a few months before deciding to go their separate ways. The reason for this is still unclear and,
while some historians opine that the two had a falling out, others say it was done simply
to cover more ground. It was just as well, though, since Bates ended
up spending over a decade in the Amazon collecting insects while Wallace was there for less than
half that time and diversified his interests. Wallace collected plenty of specimens, sure,
but he also studied the people he encountered, the languages, and the cultures. He put his surveying experience to good use
and charted the Rio Negro, one of the Amazon’s largest tributaries. More importantly, though, he began developing
his theory of natural selection. During this trip, in particular, Wallace came
to realize that geographical barriers are often congruous with species barriers which
makes sense when animals adapt and develop traits to suit their environments. In 1852, Wallace was in poor health so he
decided that it was time to return to England. However, on the way there, disasters struck
one after another. Once he reached civilization back in Brazil,
he found out that his younger brother, Herbert, had died. The sibling had also come to explore the Amazon,
but did so mostly on his own. In 1851, Herbert intended to head back to
England, but caught yellow fever and passed away. Then, Alfred Wallace discovered that all the
specimens he had sent back for the last two years of his trip had never made it out of
Brazil and were instead delayed at a dock in Manaus. Wallace had to secure passage for himself
and the bulk of his collection, but another tragedy occurred while he was in the middle
of the Atlantic Ocean. The ship he was aboard caught fire and sank. There were no fatalities as the crew and passengers
managed to survive for ten days in lifeboats until a cargo ship passed by and rescued them. However, all of Wallace’s specimens and
notes were lost to the bottom of the ocean, except for just a couple of notebooks that
he managed to save. Back in London, Wallace had to think long
and hard about his next step. The bulk of the collection he gathered in
the Amazon may have been destroyed but, fortunately, it was partially insured so the naturalist
had some breathing room, financially. Despite losing his notes, Wallace knew enough
that he wrote several academic papers which were well-received and helped establish him
among British naturalists. You might think that the end of his Amazonian
trip might have put him off exploring, but Wallace was soon ready to go again and, in
1854, he set off to the Malay Archipelago, better known back then as
the East Indies. The Malay Expedition
This trip proved to be far more fruitful for Wallace who spent the next eight years of
his life there. He collected well over 120,000 specimens and
sent them back to England, at times employing up to 100 assistants who traveled the archipelago
far and wide in search of curious species of animals. Among them was a young boy named Ali who went
into Wallace’s employ while the naturalist was in Singapore. He started off doing the cooking and cleaning,
but learned from his employer and began accompanying him on journeys and, eventually, went out
alone looking for specimens to study. He ended up being Wallace’s most faithful
servant and collected and prepared over 5,000 animals, many of which still sit in natural
history museums around the world. Wallace described him as “the faithful companion
of almost all [his] journeyings among the islands of the far East.” The boy married while working for the naturalist
and took on the name Ali Wallace. Unsurprisingly, during his time in the East
Indies, Wallace discovered and described many new animal species. He also observed that there seemed to be a
significant change in the wildlife when you traveled between the islands of Bali and Lombok. The short stretch of water that separates
those two landmasses is now known as the Wallace Line and is regarded as the natural partition
between the Asian and Australian wildlife. Wallace chronicled his entire expedition and
all his observations in a book titled The Malay Archipelago. He published it in 1869 and it became a big
hit and seen as one of the most significant science books of the 19th century. The Theory of Evolution
Of course, Wallace’s biggest achievement was his work on the theory of evolution. By 1855, he already became convinced that
living things evolve over long periods of time, but he didn’t understand the mechanism
behind this natural process yet. The answer came to him in 1858 after he fell
ill with a fever and suffered hallucinations. Once the fever broke, Wallace had a bit of
a “Eureka” moment and realized that species evolve in order to adapt to their environment. This revelation prompted him to act immediately. He wrote down his theory in a short paper
and sent it to a colleague of his and another expert in the field to review it before publication. That person was Charles Darwin. Now just to be clear, we’re not suggesting
that Darwin stole any of Wallace’s work or even that the two were competing against
each other. In fact, one of the main reasons why Wallace
sent his ideas to Darwin was because he knew that the other naturalist was studying something
similar. Darwin also had some previous work in the
form of a letter and an unpublished essay which attested to the fact that he developed
his ideas independently. Even so, Darwin realized that some controversy
may arise so he asked his colleagues, Sir Charles Lyell and Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker
for advice. In the end, they decided that Darwin and Wallace
should write a joint article comprising both their scientific papers. Therefore, on July 1, 1858, the Linnean Society
of London heard a presentation of On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation
of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection. Wallace was still in the East Indies, he wasn’t
there to share his findings in person, but this represented the first announcement of
the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution by natural selection. The paper appeared in print a month later. Because the paper stirred enough interest,
Charles Darwin decided to take the “big book” that he was working on and condense
it into an abstract that was easier to take in by the average reader. He published it the next year under the title
On the Origin of Species. Needless to say, it became hugely successful
and hugely influential and the defining work on the theory of evolution. That is how Charles Darwin’s name became
inexorably linked with this notion while Alfred Wallace was slowly pushed to the side. It probably didn’t help that Wallace seemed
in no hurry to capitalize on his newfound success as he was still interested in studying
the biogeography of the Malay Archipelago. After his paper was published, he still spent
another four years in the East Indies before finally returning to London. Back in England, Wallace began giving presentations
on the theory of evolution. He met and befriended Darwin, as well as many
other scientists who were eager to ask questions and praise the naturalist for his work. Wallace was given, more or less, every science
award under the Sun so it’s not like the scientific community was trying to deny or
diminish his accomplishments. It was just unfortunate timing that doomed
him to semi-obscurity. When he returned from his trip, he dedicated
his efforts towards writing the Malay Archipelago. By the time he published Contributions to
the theory of natural selection. A series of essays in 1870, the public already
associated Darwin with evolution and it was too late to change their minds. The Bedford Level Experiment
Explorations and evolution aside, Wallace has been involved in a few other interesting
episodes that merit discussion. One of them, known as the Bedford Level Experiment,
he came to regard as “the most regrettable incident in [his] life” when he tried to
prove to a flat-earther that the planet was round. What Wallace thought would be an afternoon
of work and easy money turned into “fifteen years of continued worry, litigation, and
persecution.” It all started in 1838 with a convinced flat-earther
named Samuel Rowbotham who made a series of observations along the Old Bedford River in
the Fenlands of Cambridgeshire which he claimed proved that the Earth was flat. He watched a boat with a flag tied to its
mast three feet above water level sail in a straight line for six miles. According to his calculations, the flag should
have dipped below his line of sight eight inches for every mile traveled if the Earth
was curved. It stayed at the same level, however, showing
that the planet was flat. In reality, any engineer, surveyor, or physicist
would have been able to spot Rowbotham’s mistake. He placed his telescope only eight inches
above water level and did not account for atmospheric refraction which causes light
to deviate as it passes through our atmosphere because the air density changes at different
heights. Even so, Rowbotham was happy with his findings
and published them under the pseudonym Parallax. Then, nothing happened for a few decades until
1870 when Rowbotham’s experiments found an enthusiastic supporter in a religious fanatic
named John Hampden. Hampden had been converted by another flat-earther
named William Carpenter and quickly became obsessed with “defending Genesis to the
hilt”, convinced that any notion that went against the literal word of the Bible was
nonsense that needed to be eradicated from society. He also had a lot of resources and free time
on his hands thanks to a generous inheritance from his father. Eventually, Hampden wanted to put his money
where his mouth was and placed a wager in the journal Scientific Opinion. He was willing to bet anywhere between £50
to £500 that no man of science would be able to prove to him and a referee that a canal,
river, lake, or railway was convex. Alfred Wallace saw the notice and, since he
had never been a rich man, considered it easy money. He even consulted his friend and esteemed
colleague Charles Lyell who encouraged him to “stop these foolish people.” Wallace and Hampden began conversing and,
at first, it seemed like the matter would be straightforward. Wallace proposed they used Bala Lake for their
means, but Hampden insisted on Bedford River, the same stretch of water that, unbeknownst
to the naturalist, had been used by Rowbotham 30 years prior. They also agreed that the referee should be
an editor of a science journal, a land surveyor, civil engineer, or member of the Royal Geographical
Society. They settled on John Henry Walsh, editor of
Field magazine, who knew neither man and had no stakes in the debate. Then, things started going wrong. For starters, even though both men agreed
on Walsh as referee, Hampden insisted there would be a second referee of his choosing. He selected William Carpenter, the same flat-earther
who converted him. Not only did he not have any of the qualifications
agreed upon, he was about as far removed from impartial as you could imagine. Wallace made two crucial modifications to
the original Bedford Level experiment. He placed his sight line 13 feet above water
level to minimize the effects of refraction and put a long pole at the halfway mark to
make it easier to see the curvature between the two end points. Unsurprisingly, his experiment correctly showed
that the Earth was round, but his opponents were not satisfied. They kept demanding changes and Wallace acquiesced
to all their requests, knowing full well that none of them would magically flatten the planet. A half day’s work soon turned into a week
but, in the end, Walsh decided in favor of Wallace and the fanatical Hampden threw a
fit. He demanded his money back, saying that he
had been cheated and, when the scientist refused, he took him to court. What followed was 15 years of protracted legal
battles and harassment campaigns that went so extreme that they eventually landed Hampden
in jail. Even though, at one point, he had gotten his
money back, Hampden would not stop tormenting Alfred Wallace. None of his friends and family members were
safe either, as the flat-earther sent them all vitriolic letters, decrying that they
would have a relationship with a “lying infernal thief” and a “convicted felon”
such as Wallace. At one point, he even sent a death threat
to the naturalist’s wife, saying that he will ensure that Wallace “never dies in
his bed” and, instead, will one day by carried home “with every bone in his head smashed
to pulp.” This went too far and Hampden was imprisoned
but, in the end, the whole ordeal cost Wallace a lot of time, effort, and hundreds of pounds
in legal fees. Other Interests
Perhaps one of the reasons why Wallace was not as well-known as Darwin was his reluctance
to dedicate himself to a single topic. He was sometimes called the “Grand Old Man
of Science” because he studied and wrote about many different subjects. He was an early environmentalist and, even
150 years ago, he warned that human activities such as large-scale deforestation and soil
erosion will have a negative impact on the climate. Wallace became an even more fervent environmental
advocate as the decades rolled on. In The World of Life, published a few years
before his death, Wallace accused “all the greatest nations claiming the first place
for civilization and religion” of causing “widespread ravage of the earth’s surface”
on a scale never seen before. Also in his later years, Wallace turned his
attention towards the sky and wondered if there was any life out there. He wrote a book in 1904 titled Man’s Place
in the Universe which represented one of the first scientific attempts to examine planetary
habitability. He concluded that Earth was the only planet
suitable for life in the Solar System because it was the only one that could sustain liquid
water. A few years later, Wallace wrote a second
book on the subject, focusing on Mars. This was at a time when a man named Percival
Lowell stirred the public into a frenzy by claiming there were canals on Mars built by
an intelligent species. Wallace’s book debunked the claim and, obviously,
he was later proven correct when higher-quality telescopes revealed the “canals” to just
be optical illusions. Wallace also held some controversial beliefs
that often strained his relationships with fellow scientists. He was a devoted believer in spiritualism
and had investigated it for decades – mesmerism, séances, spirit photography, he believed
in all of them to various degrees. Even some of his closest colleagues such as
Henry Bates and Charles Darwin thought that Wallace was being stubbornly credulous and
it did have an effect on his reputation within the scientific community. At one point, it almost cost Wallace a civil
pension that he desperately needed and it was mainly thanks to Darwin’s interference
that he received it in the end. Perhaps even more controversial and certainly
more pertinent to our times, Alfred Wallace was also part of the anti-vaccination movement
in Victorian England. Particularly, he was against mandatory vaccination
for smallpox because he felt it would disturb the balance of nature. Again, this landed him in hot water with many
of his scientific colleagues. Despite his follies, Wallace remained active
all his life, writing almost two dozen books and over 500 scientific papers. He died on November 7, 1913, at the age of
90 in his home in Broadstone in the English countryside. There were calls to bury him at Westminster
Abbey, but Wallace was buried in the local Broadstone cemetery, according to his wishes,
while a medallion was placed at Westminster, next
to Charles Darwin.

100 thoughts on “Alfred Russel Wallace: The Forgotten Father of Evolution

  1. Alfred Wallace might have been an anti-vaxxer, but at least he was an anti-vaxxer because he correctly believed that disease exerts selective pressure on populations to cull the weak and infirm, rather than being an anti-vaxxer for idiotic reasons like believing vaccines cause disease.

  2. Excellent content, sirs (Edit: and Ladies! Sorry!). I'm pleased to learn more about Wallace.

    He found out first hand that you can't argue with a fanatic. Minds cannot be changed with facts. It's super interesting he was against the Smallpox vaccine. It makes sense that he would be, but it's still funny.

  3. Where in the Bible does it say that the Earth is flat?
    I never Read that, so i'm wondering where they got
    That from? Have they rewritten the Bible.

  4. FOUR ads in your video ON TOP of your sponsors?? If I could down vote your video 20 times for that I would. You’re about to advertise your way out of my subscription.

    Four ads and the video isn’t even over yet. Thats just ridiculous.

  5. Wallace was the greatest antagonist of Samuel Birley Rowbotham (the "Zetetic" flat earther). Read about their wager in , Flat Earth by historian Christine Garwood, Ph.D. (Open University, IIRC).

  6. Well we all know now that life forms are sung in to being by invisible higher level beings made of light. So primitive but these men knew the truth. All hail the black cube on SATURN that binds us all in a simulation running on a substrate. There is no escape.

  7. 100 years before Mr. Darwin, many books were written which hinted to natural selection. Many prehistoric animals were being discovered. But totally overlook was a Scottish gardener named Patrick Matthew. He published the first comprehensive theory of natural selection when Mr. Darwin was on the HMS Beagle. Later when Mr. Darwin discovered this master work, he duly apologised to Mr. Matthew realising that his ideas where no so original.

  8. I think he was an antivax because he knew it would mean a higher population rate, leaving us in an overpopulated world, ravaged to the brink of destruction by deforestation and contamination.

  9. I suppose if you’re going to be an anti-vaxer might as well go pure naturalist about it and say it messes up evolution’s survival of the fittest system! Don’t hear anyone bringing up that as a reason not to vaccinate their kids! haha Death and destruction aside it is probably the most valid argument ever for no vaccinations! We can give those who get nearly extinct illnesses the “Wallace Award”

  10. The canals Percival Lowell saw where actually a reflection of the vains in his eyes that somehow (I don't exactly remember how science talk about light and stuff) reflected on Mars while he was observing it

  11. At the point of the ad break, Wallace's story is sounding ever so much like the many stories fabricated by those seeking to defraud people in other videos. Collected a huge number of specimens, but they were mysteriously held up at port until he left. Made copious notes, but everything save these two books was lost.

  12. Why would people dislike this video? I mean come on peeps, i am not one for the theory of evolution either but Bioghraphics did some work to make this video!

  13. I just did an exam about theories of evolution including Lamarck and Darwin and it’s astonishing how much Wallace was ignored in the information given

  14. Hey Simon, have you heard about grandson of last King of Italy, Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy who sells pasta at LA. Pls make a video about him if you can.

  15. Could you do a video on the late and great philosopher and author Sir Roger Scruton, his role in setting up underground networks alongside dissidents in the former Eastern Bloc was instrumental in the toppling of communism in Europe. He also set up a think tank which helped the rise of Thatcher and the large changes she bought to British politics. Many thanks

  16. Evolution is real! Of course we evolved from apes. Why would any mammal need fur? The temperature never varies from about 80°F.

  17. Awesome vid biographics! This actually reminds of the whole debacle of watson and crick not crediting rosalind Franklin after they showed the world their discovery of DNA structure. Pure example of 'publish or perish'.

  18. Neath is a Welsh Town and not an English Town! I’m from Neath and there is a plaque outside the Antiquarian Society he founded there!

  19. Love this channel, shame u werent around when i was at high school. History would ez pz.. for me i wanna see Hieronymus Bosch done by you 🙂

  20. There is a very well written and entertaining discussion of the progression of Wallace's and Darwin's theories on evolution and their later disagreements in Tom Wolfe's book "The Kingdom of Speech". It's written as a preamble to the more recent controversy between Daniel Everett and Noam Chomsky on the phenomenon of speech.

  21. Look up also the Scots tree grower Patrick Matthew. His 1829 paper, "On Naval Timber and Arboriculture" outlaid and even coined the phrase "natural selection". When Darwin's observations were published in a magazine, Matthew wrote a furious letter, accusing him of plagiarism. In fact, Darwin had never read Matthew's observations, but it sparked off a correspondence between the two, where they shared their ideas.

  22. Hi Simon, I have two names for you; Burke and Wills. This legendary exploration of the Aussie outback has all the ingredients for an awesome Biographics episode. It is tragic but disturbingly funny.

  23. I love how flat earthers try to use the Bible to get their point across but they forgot to look at Isaiah 40:22 it states the earth is a circle.

  24. Not entirely related to the fathers of modern evolutionary theory, but a Biographics video on Felix von Luckner would be awesome! The man certainly led an interesting life.

  25. Excellent. one thing might interest you. In Darwin's book on origin of species he managed to spare one sentence for the subject of the book, which otherwise was about pigeons and the notion that there is nos such thing as a species. He wrote, "As for speciation, it is happenstance, as hybrid infertility never did any species any good." Wallace, on the other hand – if my source is correct – said that as soon as a species enters a new niche, its first order of business is to undergo speciation so as to secure the new niche and retain the old. If you put that with Mendel's laws, you will see that they put a limit on a randomly mating animal population. Yet now going on a couple centuries, nobody has caught on and successfully pointed this out. If you have the slightest doubt, you can contact me at [email protected] .net.

  26. Please do a vid on Virginia woolf!!! She lived such a difficult life but she’s also incredibly inspiring! (And don’t skimp out on the sapphic affairs either, like an uncomfortable amount of bios about her do)

  27. He came up with one unproven theory that Darwin picked up on Big Fat Hairy deal. Like there's a shortage of unproven theories around

  28. Could you please do general haig, he ww1 a ww1 general and he was the man that coordinated the battle of the somme. I think it would be interesting + I'm doing my history course work on him so it would be a real help.

  29. Woah, Neath isn't and has never been located in England! It's 100% Welsh. In fact I'm pretty sure the photo you used in the video contains the flag of Owain Glyndŵr who is kind of famous for being extremely anti-English!

  30. I know of Wallace! I learnt about him from an episode of James Burke's great old show 'Connections'. Good video, this. Well done Biographics team for giving Alfred Wallace his due.

  31. Wallace never live in Darwin's shadow, everyone one of us has its own journey we all must partake life is far too short to live on other people's lives….

  32. What I like about this video it doesn't say Darwin was a sod who trampled Wallace. Darwin was more than generous and happy to share the idea and theory. Darwin had Thomas Huxley to fight his corner. Wallace was a clever man who added to our knowledge. It was in fact the weight of Wallace's evidence that made Darwin publish. I really enjoyed this. I was aware of him but not this much

  33. Pssssst! Hey! Can you do a video on Dicey Langston? I've searched everyone on youtube, & theres only old videos. Would love an in depth video from you. Love learning from your channel.

  34. Yo, I know you guys need to make money, but stop with the ads every few minutes. I want to enjoy your content, but you’re making it difficult. There are many other channels with similar content with little to no ads.

  35. This channel generally, and Simon more specifically, are major inspiration for me launching my own channel. One of my videos is approaching 200 views. Thanks for the inspiration!

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