Dorset’s Darwin – Alfred Russel Wallace
Adrian Newton looks at the life and work of Broadstone's Alfred Russel Wallace, the father of biogeography
Published in May ’13
If you had been standing in Broadstone, around a century ago, you might have witnessed the passing of a funeral cortege on its way towards the cemetery and been impressed by the smart horse-drawn carriage, its attendants dressed in top hats and long overcoats demanded by Victorian society. At its destination, a small crowd had gathered to witness the laying to rest of a great naturalist, one who had played a leading role in developing the most important scientific discovery of the era: the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Few people now know the name of Alfred Russel Wallace, realise that Broadstone is his final resting place, nor know that it was he who shared the discovery of evolutionary theory with Charles Darwin. Today his grave is marked by a monument of fossil wood collected from a Dorset beach, and lies in a quiet corner of this Victorian cemetery. It is a peaceful spot, perhaps a relict of a quieter age.
This year is the centenary of his death, and it is a fitting time to remember the scientific legacy of this great naturalist.
Although Wallace was originally born in southern Wales, he spent the later years of his life at a number of homes in Dorset, including both in Parkstone and finally in Broadstone. The son of a solicitor, Wallace had worked as a land surveyor at the time of the great Victorian railway expansion. With his elder brother, he travelled widely throughout the country, his work enabling him to pursue the outdoor life that he had enjoyed from an early age – a love of nature, particularly of plants, which he started to collect and identify. His scientific knowledge was largely self-taught, acquired through avid reading of the latest scientific literature. Volumes that particularly inspired him included Darwin’s Journal of the Voyage of the Beagle and Alexander von Humboldt’s epic accounts of his explorations in the Amazon.
Such stirring descriptions of scientific exploration must have awakened in Alfred a thirst for adventure that his existing employment failed to slake. However, it was not until he met another enthusiastic young naturalist, Henry Walter Bates, that he began to realise his ambitions. Bates had introduced Wallace to the joys of beetle hunting, and the two young men regularly exchanged information on their latest finds. In 1848, Wallace and Bates set off for the Amazon together, aged 25 and 22 respectively. They spent much of the next four years collecting thousands of specimens in the region, including hundreds of species of insects, as well as many birds and plants. Today it is perhaps hard to believe that such an adventure could be considered as a potential route to fame and fortune; Wallace’s plan was to profit from the Victorian mania for natural history, by selling his specimens to collectors. Tragically these plans were thwarted; on the journey back to England, Wallace was forced to abandon many of his collections after his boat caught fire off Bermuda.
A setback such as this would have deterred many a lesser man, but Wallace soon set about organising his next expedition. This was to be to the Malay Archipelago, which mostly lies within modern-day Indonesia. Again, his objective was the commercial collection of specimens, and he shot, netted or caught thousands of animals during his eight years in the region, including more than 100,000 insects of which several thousand were species new to science. Most notable among his discoveries were Wallace’s Standard-Wing Bird of Paradise (Semioptera wallacei) and the spectacular Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing Butterfly (Trogonoptera brookiana). At this point in his life, Wallace could be considered as one of a number of Victorian commercial collectors, albeit a very industrious one, but what sets him apart are his thoughts about what he observed. An effective collector depends on intuition to guide him to his quarry, which can only develop through years of
Wallace coupled such insights with acute powers of observation and a reflective and enquiring mind, seeking not only to identify patterns in what he saw, but to explain them. He noticed that species were not always the same: they varied in shape and colour from place to place. The development of domestic breeds was already well recognised, by Darwin and others, indicating that the characteristics of species could change over time. However, the observations made independently by both Darwin and Wallace revealed that such variation could occur in nature. But what was the process that created this variation? And how might it lead to the creation of new species?
Wallace received his main insight during a bout of malarial fever, when he reflected on the ability of many animals, such as insects, to reproduce rapidly. This extraordinary capacity for population increase had to be balanced by similarly high rates of mortality. But why should some individuals die, and others survive?
The answer came to him suddenly: it was the fittest that survived. Imagine if there was variation in some characteristic that affected survival, such as the camouflage pattern on a butterfly’s wing. Would this not inevitably lead to some forms surviving better than others? And would not the next generation therefore be different in character, being better suited to its environment? Over time, would this not eventually lead to new species being formed? Here Wallace had achieved one of the greatest scientific insights of the age. But he was not the only person to have done so.
Wallace communicated his great idea in a letter to Charles Darwin, already established as a leading naturalist and society figure. What Wallace did not know, of course, was that Darwin had previously had the same idea himself. Here begins a controversy that continues to be debated, even today. Had Darwin fully developed his theory by the time Wallace’s letter arrived, or was the insight provided by Wallace the final missing piece in a complex jigsaw? Conspiracy theorists like to point out that Wallace’s original letter to Darwin has disappeared, along with other crucial correspondence relevant to the affair.
What is not in doubt is the emotional turmoil and anguish that Darwin experienced as a result of Wallace’s letter. How could he now claim intellectual ownership of a theory that he had been developing in isolation for nearly twenty years? The solution was presented by a friend, Charles Lyell, who suggested that both Darwin and Wallace’s idea should be presented jointly to a meeting of the Linnean Society.
Although it attracted relatively little comment at the time, this meeting represents a major scientific landmark. Eventually, the theory of evolution would lead to a revolution in understanding of both ourselves and the entire living world, and provide the foundation for modern biological science. What is often forgotten is that Wallace himself was never consulted about this solution.
If Wallace ever resented this outcome, and the fact that the theory of natural selection was forever linked with Darwin’s name, he never showed it publicly. He remained a close correspondent and friend of Darwin until his death, and greatly respected Darwin’s exceptional genius and rigorous accumulation of evidence. But Wallace is commemorated today in another major discovery, which he can claim entirely as his own.
Wallace’s Line is an invisible boundary that separates neighbouring Indonesian islands, for example between Bali and Lombok. The line marks a division between two biogeographical realms, or two assemblages of plants and animals that have very different evolutionary histories. Identified through careful observation, Wallace’s discovery would subsequently provide one of the sources of evidence for continental drift – the idea that landmasses have moved over time, as a result of processes occurring deep in the earth’s mantle. Today, Wallace is justifiably recognised as the father of biogeography, the study of species distributions. This remains an active scientific discipline, and has recently received new impetus as a key approach for understanding the impact of climate change on species.
After returning to England at the age of 39, Wallace spent the next part of his life curating and selling his collections. He then took up a wide range of other pursuits, which included developing a passion for spiritualism, something of a fashion at the time. He also became involved in campaigns for land reform and against mandatory smallpox vaccination. Darwin, by contrast, remained entirely committed to natural history throughout his life, even feeling somewhat betrayed by Wallace’s refusal to accept that the theory of natural selection might also provide an explanation for the origin of humans.
Wallace clearly enjoyed his final years in Dorset; photographs survive of a family picnic at Badbury Rings, near Wimborne, and of substantial Victorian homes packed with a lifetime of acquisitions. He was a member of the Bournemouth Natural Science Society, which survives as a remarkable relict of the Victorian passion for natural science that Wallace helped engender. At his death, Wallace was recognised as a leading figure of the age, but arguably his scientific contribution was subsequently overlooked as Darwinism took centre stage.
In fact, by the end of the 20th century, his grave in Broadstone was overgrown and almost forgotten, until his scientific successors at the Linnean Society arranged for it to be refurbished and also installed the memorial that now marks his final resting place. It is fitting that the Society, which introduced his ideas to the world, should now care for his memory, even if motivated perhaps by a twinge of guilt about how he was treated at the time.
Yet the real legacy of Dorset’s Darwin is a scientific one. Alfred would surely be delighted to know that just a few miles from his resting place, staff and students at Bournemouth University are currently building on his ideas by studying the distribution of plants and animals in the tropical Andes, Central
Asia, Africa and South-East Asia, as well as Dorset itself. Much of this work now focuses on identifying which species are at risk of extinction, as a result of human activities.
Given the current crisis facing many of the world’s species, Wallace’s words now sound prophetic: ‘It seems sad that such exquisite creatures should live out their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions… while on the other hand, should civilised man ever reach these distant lands, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature so 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.’
• Adrian Newton is presenting a series of Alfred Russel Wallace events at the Bournemouth University Festival of Learning including a joint meeting with the Linnean Society and the Society for the History of Natural History (10.00-5.00) and a reception at the Bournemouth Natural Science Society (6.00-7.30), both on Friday 7 June, then on Saturday 8 June, a field trip (10.00-3.00) to Broadstone cemetery examining the life and death of Wallace, and, at 3.30-5.00, a play entitled You should ask Wallace. For details of all these events, and others at the festival of learning, visit www.bournemouth.ac.uk/fol or call 01202 962362.