Alfred Russel Wallace

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Alfred Russel Wallace (circa 1895)

Alfred Russel Wallace, OM, FRS (January 8 1823November 7 1913) was a British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist, and biologist. He independently proposed a theory of natural selection ("On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type") which prompted Charles Darwin to publish his own more developed and researched theory sooner than he had intended. Wallace is sometimes called the "father of biogeography".


  • Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.
    • "On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species" (1855).
  • The smell of the ripe fruit is certainly at first disagreeable, though less so when it has newly fallen from the tree; for the moment it is ripe it falls of itself, and the only way to eat Durians in perfection is to get them as they fall. It would perhaps not be correct to say that the Durian is the best of all fruits, because it cannot supply the place of subacid juicy fruits such as the orange, grape, mango, and mangosteen, whose refreshing and cooling qualities are so grateful; but as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed. If I had to fix on two only as representing the perfection of the two classes, I should certainly choose the Durian and the Orange as the king and queen of fruits.
  • The powerful retractile talons of the falcon- and the cat-tribes have not been produced or increased by the volition of those animals; but among the different varieties which occurred in the earlier and less highly organized forms of these groups, those always survived longest which had the greatest facilities for seizing their prey. Neither did the giraffe acquire its long neck by desiring to reach the foliage of the more lofty shrubs, and constantly stretching its neck for the purpose, but because any varieties which occurred among its antitypes with a longer neck than usual at once secured a fresh range of pasture over the same ground as their shorter-necked companions, and on the first scarcity of food were thereby enabled to outlive them. [...] We believe we have now shown that there is a tendency in nature to the continued progression of certain classes of varieties further and further from the original type - a progression to which there appears no reason to assign any definite limits - and that the same principle which produces this result in a state of nature will also explain why domestic varieties have a tendency to revert to the original type. This progression, by minute steps, in various directions, but always checked and balanced by the necessary conditions, subject to which alone existence can be preserved, may, it is believed, be followed out so as to agree with all the phenomena presented by organized beings, their extinction and succession in past ages, and all the extraordinary modifications of form, instinct, and habits which they exhibit.
    • "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type" (1858).
  • I think I have fairly heard and fairly weighed the evidence on both sides, and I remain an utter disbeliever in almost all that you consider the most sacred truths [...] I can see much to admire in all religions [...] But whether there be a God and whatever be His nature; whether we have an immortal soul or not, or whatever may be our state after death, I can have no fear of having to suffer for the study of nature and the search for truth.
    • Letter to a relative, (1861).
  • On the question of the "origin of species" Mr. Haughton enlarges considerably; but his chief arguments are reduced to the setting-up of "three unwarrantable assumptions," which he imputes to the Lamarckians and Darwinians, and then, to use his own words, "brings to the ground like a child's house of cards." The first of these is "the indefinite variation of species continuously in the one direction." Now this is certainly never assumed by Mr. Darwin, whose argument is mainly grounded on the fact that variations occur in every direction. This is so obvious that it hardly needs insisting on. In every large family there is almost always one child taller, one darker, one thinner than the rest; one will have a larger nose, another a larger eye: they vary morally as well; some are more poetical, others more morose; one has a genius for numbers, another for painting. It is the same in animals: the puppies, or kittens, or rabbits of one litter differ in many ways from each other - in colour, in size, in disposition; so that, though they do not "vary continuously in one direction," they do vary continuously in many directions; and thus there is always material for natural selection to act upon in some direction that may be advantageous. [...] I will only, in conclusion, quote from it a short paragraph which contains an important truth, but which may very fairly be applied in other quarters than those for which the author intended it: - "No progress in natural science is possible as long as men will take their rude guesses at truth for facts, and substitute the fancies of their imagination for the sober rules of reasoning."
    • "Remarks on the Rev. S. Haughton's Paper on the Bee's Cell, And on the Origin of Species" (1863).
  • I have carefully measured the proboscis of a specimen of [Neococytius] cluentius from South America in the collection of the British Museum, and find it to be nine inches and a quarter long! One from tropical Africa ([Xanthopan] morganii) is seven inches and a half. A species having a proboscis two or three inches longer could reach the nectar in the largest flowers of Angræcum sesquipedale, whose nectaries vary in length from ten to fourteen inches. That such a moth exists in Madagascar may be safely predicted; and naturalists who visit that island should search for it with as much confidence as astronomers searched for the planet Neptune - and they will be equally successful!
    • "Creation by law". Quarterly Journal of Science 4: 470–488 (1867); The hawkmoth of Madagascar was later found and described in 1903, under the taxon name praedicta in reference to Wallace's quote.
  • In one of my latest conversations with Darwin he expressed himself very gloomily on the future of humanity, on the ground that in our modern civilization natural selection had no play, and the fittest did not survive. Those who succeed in the race for wealth are by no means the best or the most intelligent, and it is notorious that our population is more largely renewed in each generation from the lower than from the middle and upper classes.
    • Human Selection, Popular Science Monthly, volume 38 (November 1890) page 93.
    • (Misquoted in the article Evolution and You, in Awake! magazine, 8 August 1995).
  • He [the naturalist] looks upon every species of animal and plant now living as the individual letters which go to make up one of the volumes of our earth's history; and, as a few lost letters may make a sentence unintelligible, so the extinction of the numerous forms of life which the progress of cultivation invariably entails will necessarily render obscure this invaluable record of the past.
    • (1863) "On the physical geography of the Malay Archipelago." The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 33:217-234.

The Malay Archipelago (1869)

  • While upon the subject of plants I may here mention a few of the more striking vegetable productions of Borneo. The wonderful Pitcher-plants, forming the genus Nepenthes of botanists, here reach their greatest development. Every mountain-top abounds with them, running along the ground, or climbing over shrubs and stunted trees; their elegant pitchers hanging in every direction. Some of these are long and slender, resembling in form the beautiful Philippine lace-sponge (Euplectella), which has now become so common; others are broad and short. Their colours are green, variously tinted and mottled with red or purple. The finest yet known were obtained on the summit of Kini-balou, in North-west Borneo. One of the broad sort, Nepenthes rajah, will hold two quarts of water in its pitcher. Another, Nepenthes Edwardsiania, has a narrow pitcher twenty inches long; while the plant itself grows to a length of twenty feet.
  • I thought of the long ages of the past, during which the successive generations of this little creature had run their course — year by year being born, and living and dying amid these dark and gloomy woods, with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness; to all appearance such a wanton waste of beauty. Such ideas excite a feeling of melancholy. It seems sad that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while, on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man. Many of them have no relation to him. The cycle of their existence has gone on independently of his, and is disturbed or broken by every advance in man’s intellectual development; and their happiness and enjoyments, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would seem to be immediately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone, limited only by the equal well-being and perpetuation of the numberless other organisms with which each is more or less intimately connected.
  • We permit absolute possession of the soil of our country, with no legal rights of existence on the soil to the vast majority who do not possess it. A great landholder may legally convert his whole property into a forest or a hunting-ground, and expel every human being who has hitherto lived upon it. In a thickly-populated country like England, where every acre has its owner and its occupier, this is a power of legally destroying his fellow-creatures; and that such a power should exist, and be exercised by individuals, in however small a degree, indicates that, as regards true social science, we are still in a state of barbarism.
    • Last Words, addendum to later editions.

Quotes about Alfred Russel Wallace

  • 'We live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hugest, and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared,' Darwin's rival Alfred Russel Wallace observed in 1876.
  • If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; and anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for.
    • Mark Twain, "Was The World Made For Man?" (1903), critique of Wallce's book Man's Place in the Universe.

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