National Geographic : 2008 Dec
Wallace's story is complicated, heroic, and perplexing. Besides being one of the greatest field biologists of the 19th century, he was a man of crotchety independence and lurching enthusi asms, a restless soul never quite satisfied with the place in which he lived, a believer in spiritualism and seances, a devotee of phrenology, a dabbler in mesmerism, a later apostate from Darwinian theory when it came to the development of the human brain, an opponent of smallpox vacci nation, and an advocate of nationalizing large private landholdings, who by these and other eccentricities gave his detractors some grounds for dismissing him as a crank. Which they did. The question that no scholar or biographer has adequately answered is: How to reconcile such brilliant achievements, radical convictions, and incautious zealotries within one human character-the character of a consummate empir icist and field naturalist? If he hadn't existed, this Alfred Wallace, it would have taken a very pecu liar Victorian novelist to create him. HE FIRST CARDINAL point in the biog raphy of Alfred Wallace is that for him, as for Will Shakespeare but not for Charles Darwin, impecuniousness was the mother of invention. He was a curious lad from a family with no money. At age 14, in 1837, hav ing left school, he went to work. Darwin, at that time a young gentleman of 28 with a wealthy father who subsidized his adventures, had just arrived home aboard the Beagle. Wallace was largely self-taught, frequenting town libraries and workingmen's institutes dur ing the decade he labored as a land surveyor, a builder, and a schoolteacher in the city of Leices ter. Early on he discovered the life and writings of Robert Owen, the founder of British socialism, who became his "first teacher in the philosophy of human nature," as Wallace later recalled, and an influence toward his own socialist convictions. During his surveying period, spent largely in rural Wales, he got interested in nature by way of botany, taking long walks across the moors and mountains, training himself to identify plant fam ilies with help from a cheap paperback guide. His teaching job left him time for an eclectic syl labus of personal reading that included Hum boldt's PersonalNarrative of Travels, and, most consequentially, Malthus's Essay on the Princi ple of Population,which had catalyzed Charles 114 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * DECEMBER 2008 Darwin's thinking about the struggle for survival and would catalyze Wallace's too. Although Wal lace found himself unsuited to teaching, the year at Leicester yielded one memorable event: He became friends with a young man named Henry Walter Bates, a former hosier's apprentice, who introduced him to the joys of beetle collecting. Books were always important to Wallace, and he testified that two others helped set his course. One was Charles Darwin's Journalfrom the voy age ofthe Beagle, a lively travel narrative that gave almost no hint of evolutionary ideas. The other, more daring and incendiary, was an anonymously authored best seller titled Vestiges ofthe Natural History of Creation, published in 1844, which did offer an evolutionary vision of life on Earth, though not in a form that most discerning read ers found persuasive. The prevailing orthodoxy in Western culture was that God had shaped all species through special acts of creation, and that every species was essentially fixed, incapable of varying much from an ideal type. Such fixity was not just a religious dogma but a scientific one; the science philosopher William Whewell, for instance, had recently written: "Species have a real existence in nature, and a transmutation from one to another does not exist." In opposi tion to that view Vestiges hypothesized a "law of development" in living creatures, whereby one species is transformed into another by exter nal circumstances, in incremental stages, from simple life-forms to complex ones, up to and including man. The result was adaptation. God still played a role, according to Vestiges, but more distantly-as ultimate designer of the process. The book was a potpourri of interesting facts, absurd factoids, savvy insights, tenuous supposi tions, and woozy deductive leaps, which variously satisfied or amused readers ranging from Queen Victoria to John Stuart Mill to Florence Night ingale. Darwin thought it shaky at best. Wallace, younger and more impressionable, saw in it "an ingenious hypothesis" yet to be proved, or maybe not, by further research. For him Vestiges repre sented both "an incitement" to gather natural his tory data and a provisional theory against which new data could be tested. Thus incited, he and his friend Bates cooked up a plan to go to the Amazon rain forest in quest of such data. Having almost no money, they paid their expenses by shipping back natural history speci mens for sale to museums and private fanciers.