Ideas

Remembering Alfred Russel Wallace

November 7, 2013

Alfred Russel Wallace c. 1895. Photo by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company now in the public domain.
Alfred Russel Wallace c. 1895. Photo by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company now in the public domain.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of Alfred Russel Wallace’s passing. Celebrations of his work are planned in dozens of cities including Boston, London and New York where David Quammen will sum up Wallace’s magnificent quest and Sir David Attenborough will speak on Wallace and the birds of paradise.

Wallace’s place in history comes as the co-discoverer of evolution with Charles Darwin. But that’s not why he is revered among conservationists.

It was his fieldwork that put him into the pantheon of conservation greats.

He spent four years in the Amazon before DEET and antibiotics. He survived his ship burning to the waterline and stranding him in the middle of the Atlantic in a small boat.

When he made it back to England half alive, he did not quit but regrouped and sailed to Southeast Asia to explore the fauna and flora of 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago. He was tenacious in finding new species and rare specimens.

He made five voyages in native vessels to the far east of the Indonesian archipelago just to collect birds of paradise specimens. It was a bout of malaria that gave him his feverish insights into evolution.

He discovered what is now known as the Wallace Line that separates the placental mammals of Southeast Asia from the marsupial mammals of Australia.

Wallace’s gift was that he could go deep into a topic — such as the 80,000 species of beetles — as well as wide, including how one species evolves into another.

His story is not only compelling but improbable. Who would have guessed that the eighth child of impoverished English parents who left school at age 14 would one day have 800+ species named after him? (Darwin has a mere 120.)

His book The Malay Archipelago is a classic. Read it and see why it has been in print for more than 140 years.

Wallace died in his sleep at 90—a life well lived.

Title Page of The Malay Archipelago. Image from Wallace Online via Wikimedia Commons.
Title Page of The Malay Archipelago. Image from Wallace Online via Wikimedia Commons.
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4 comments

  1. Thanks! I enjoyed this. I’d like to quibble about a point. Wallace did not make “five voyages … just to collect birds of paradise specimens. ” He went to the achipelago to collect a multitude specimens for sale and scientific study (one suspects that he might have preferred to concentrate just on insects), and engaging local help gathered more than 125,000. His goal was in large part to determine the original of species, and, as you say coming from modest means, selling these specimens was how he funded his expeditions. Still, four years in, things were not going well financially,and so he made the trip to the far reaches of the archipeligo to add birds of paradise to his collection, mostly because he knew they would fetch a good price. They did – they netted him 1000 pounds – allowing him to continue his work.

    He was, in his lifetime, one of the most famous people in the world, his scientific work spanned some 20 books and 700 articles, and delved into topics from evolutionary biology to exobiology. He was also an early advocate of conservation, and took stands for land reform and women’s suffrage among other progressive causes.