Historical Account


                                     The Vision of Alfred Russel Wallace


                                                                    Howard Jones, Ph.D.


Abstract. The work of the explorer-naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace has become obscured over the last century by that of his contemporary and sometime collaborator, Charles Darwin. Wallace was also one of several scientists of the time who took an active interest in spiritualism, as this brief biography will show. I will also suggest why posterity favoured Darwin.


            Alfred Russel Wallace is once again receiving the recognition he deserves as one of the originators of the theory of evolution. At the time of his death he was not only one of the best known scientists in Britain but in the rest of the world, too. As a naturalist, Wallace travelled widely, and his work in the Amazon basin and then in the Malay Archipelago established his reputation amongst scientists and the lay public. His work as an explorer and biologist was well-known in his lifetime but his contributions to biology have been rather overlooked for the past century by the fame of Charles Darwin.

            Although Darwin trained to be an Anglican priest in his early years, his description of evolution envisages a thoroughgoing materialism in the process. Wallace, on the other hand, adopted a more teleological approach. Darwin had the advantages of a full schooling and study at two eminent universities, Edinburgh and Cambridge, while Wallace had only eight years of formal schooling and was largely self-taught. Darwin’s family were financially secure while Wallace had to be withdrawn from school because of the family’s financial hardship.

            Wallace lectured world-wide on biology but also on spiritualism in which he later developed an interest. His spiritual interpretation of evolution probably contributed to his neglect in favour of the materialist approach of Charles Darwin, which was more in line with scientific thinking and the ethos of Victorian society. Wallace saw human evolution as moving from physical to mental to spiritual – a process he described as “the progression of the fittest.”  In this, he endorsed the views of Richard Maurice Bucke (1837-1902) [[1]] and paleogeologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1885-1955) [[2]] .

            In commenting on the relation between spiritualism and evolution, Wallace wrote in one of his articles:


   “On the spiritual theory, man consists essentially of a spiritual nature or mind intimately associated with a spiritual body or soul, both of which are developed in and by means of a material organism. Thus, the whole raison d'etre of the material universe – with all its marvellous changes and adaptations, the infinite complexity of matter and of the ethereal forces which pervade and vivify it, the vast wealth of nature in the vegetable and animal kingdoms – is to serve the grand purpose of developing human spirits in human bodies.  

   “This world-life not only lends itself to the production, by gradual evolution, of the physical body needed for the growth and nourishment of the human soul, but by its very imperfections tends to the continuous development of the higher spiritual nature of man. In a perfect and harmonious world, perfect beings might possibly have been created, but could hardly have been evolved; and it may be well that evolution is the great fundamental law of the universe of mind as well

as that of matter.” [[3]]


            Like another of his scientist contemporaries, physicist Sir Oliver Lodge (1851-1940), Wallace saw no incompatibility between his study of psychic phenomena and the science of evolution. In the Victorian age of technological development, Wallace deplored the massive destruction of natural habitats even then. He saw how deforestation for timber and agricultural development would lead to soil erosion, a decrease in biodiversity and adversely affect regional climates.

            Alfred Wallace was born on 8 January 1823 in Kensington Cottage located just outside the village of Llanbadoc, some half-a-mile from the town of Usk, Monmouthshire in south-east Wales. So Wallace was, by birth, a Welshman, but as an adult he regarded himself as English as he had spent so little time in Wales – his first five years and a few years in his 20s in Neath – and neither of his parents was Welsh. Most of his adult life in Britain (rather than on his explorations abroad) was spent living in various parts of England.

            Families were larger in those days because infant death rates were higher and Alfred was the seventh of nine children born to Thomas Vere Wallace and Mary Anne Greenell. When Alfred was five years old, Mary Anne came into a small inheritance and the family moved to his mother’s family home town of Hertford, 20 miles north of London. Alfred attended Hertford Grammar School for eight years (1828-1836) until financial difficulties forced his parents to withdraw him.

            From 1837, Alfred, now in his teenage years, moved to London and Bedfordshire to live with his older brothers John and then William. It was William who taught Alfred the skills of surveying, drawing and mapmaking – skills that were to serve him well in his later professional life as a naturalist. In his 20s (1840s), Alfred worked with William as a surveyor in Radnorshire and in the Vale of Neath in South Wales.

            During his impressionable teenage years Alfred encountered the revolutionary ideas of the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen and those of the English philosopher Thomas Paine, who contributed so much to the American and French revolutions through his writings. These works were no doubt instrumental in shaping Wallace’s life-long socialist ideals. It was also in his 20s that Alfred’s interest in biology began, largely through his friendship with an enthusiastic entomologist called Henry Walter Bates. It was he who accompanied Wallace on his trip to the Amazon. It was also in the 1840s that Wallace developed an interest in mesmerism, particularly as a means of performing surgery without anaesthetic. In the 1840s, ether and nitrous oxide were the most frequently used anaesthetics available. In 1844 Alfred secured a teaching post in Leicester but he returned to Wales two years later to continue William’s work when his brother died quite suddenly.

            A joint paper by Darwin and Wallace was presented to the Linnaean Society of London on 1 July 1858 by Darwin’s friends Joseph D. Hooker and Charles Lyell. Darwin and Wallace had both published works previously that suggested the idea of evolution through natural selection. Darwin had published his Journal of Researches, now usually known as The Voyage of the Beagle, in 1839 and Wallace his essay On the Law which has regulated the Introduction of New Species in 1855. Even before these publications, Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin had published his Zoonomia (1794-96) and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck his Zoological Philosophy in 1809, exactly 50 years before Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). Both of these earlier works had suggested evolution of complicated plants and animals from more primitive life-forms, though the mechanism was thought to be predominantly the inheritance of characteristics acquired by the adult organisms during their lifetime.

            Just as Darwin’s key work emerged from his six-year long expedition (1831-36) to the South Atlantic aboard the Beagle, so Wallace’s reputation emerged from his four-year long trip (April 1848 to October 1852) to the Amazon jungle aboard the Mischief. Alfred’s younger brother Edward joined him on the expedition but had to leave soon after because he found the going too strenuous. Unfortunately he was in the tropics long enough to contract yellow fever and he died in 1851.

            Alfred made contact with many native peoples during the trip and formed a much more positive view of them than Darwin had done. Wallace bemoaned the results that European influences were going to have on these native peoples. Instead of being uplifted he thought they would lose all the good qualities of their lives and instead gain only the vices.

            The Amazon trip almost cost Alfred his life, too, as the ship he was on – the brig Helen – caught fire after only 26 days at sea on the way home: most of his specimens were lost and Alfred was lucky to escape with his life. Fortunately, after 10 days at sea, the survivors were picked up by the brig Jordeson and he arrived home on 1 October 1852. In 1853, two slim volumes did appear with data and conclusions from the expedition: Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Palm Trees of the Amazon and their Uses. The quest to find data enough to shape a theory of evolution still eluded him.

            And so it was that after only two years to rest and recuperate in Britain, Wallace set out once again on 4th March 1854 on an expedition, this time aboard the steamer Bengal to explore the East Indies. This excursion too was to last another eight years but brought much greater rewards for the explorer. Indeed, as the man himself put it – it became “the central and controlling incident of my life.”

            While Darwin’s father had financed his trip on the Beagle, Wallace had to finance his travels out of his own pocket by selling specimens he had gathered. Alfred’s father, Thomas Vere Wallace, squandered what little money the family had – just like T.H. Huxley’s father – by injudicious investments and extravagant living. However, Wallace had great respect and affection for the native peoples with whom he interacted – even for the Dyak headhunters of Borneo who lamented the prohibition of their old ways! Author Michael Flannery comments in his book: “This fact alone would be an important feature distinguishing Wallace from all his fellow naturalists (Darwin, Huxley and Hooker).” [[4]]

            Of great significance from Wallace’s time in the Malay Archipelago was the article “On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species,” which appeared in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History in September 1855 and generally known as Wallace’s Sarawak Law, though once again its significance apparently escaped both Lyell and Darwin himself. When he was ill with malaria in 1858, he re-read Malthus’ essay and realized that a species monitors itself in that only the fittest would survive – a phrase suggested by his (and Darwin’s) friend Herbert Spencer. He produced a paper entitled, “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type.”

            Also in March 1858 Wallace wrote to his childhood friend George Silk what is now called the Ternate Letter. He also wrote of his discoveries to Darwin who finally realized that Wallace had indeed discovered one of the keys to evolution of species. Darwin was reluctant to accept that anyone could have usurped what he regarded as his theory, though Lamarck had already covered some of this territory 50 years earlier and Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus had done so a few decades earlier still. To associate the theory of evolution solely with (Charles) Darwin is to deny the events of scientific history. A thorough study of barnacles (Cirripedia) for eight years (1846-54) showed Darwin what field studies in the Malay Archipelago had demonstrated to Wallace – that species variations occurred naturally and spontaneously, as Slotten has pointed out. [[5]]  Darwin had reached many of these conclusions about the path of evolution earlier but his training in Edinburgh as an Anglican priest made him very aware of the implications of his ideas for theists and those who believed in the Creation myths of the Bible, and this must have inhibited his publishing his thesis. In short, by 1859, Darwin had become a thoroughgoing materialist.

            From his study of fauna in Asia, in 1859 Wallace proposed what has become known as the Wallace Line, a hypothetical boundary running from south-west to north-east between Indonesia and Australia. The line runs through the Indonesian Archipelago, but islands to the west of the line have fauna closely related to those of Asia or the Sunda region, while islands to the east of the Wallace Line are more closely allied to those in Australia, designated the Sahul region. This idea formed the core of his 1869 treatise on The Malay Archipelago, dedicated to his friend and colleague Charles Darwin. Wallace’s suggestions were therefore made several decades before Alfred Wegener’s idea of “continental drift,” which was advanced in 1912, and the subsequent ideas of plate tectonics. The Wallace Line follows closely the border between the Australian and the Eurasian plates, the existence of which, unknown in Wallace’s time, provides a rational explanation for Wallace’s surprising discovery. The edges of these plates form shallower shelves bordering these regions.

            On 31 March 1862, Wallace finally arrived back in England with a huge bounty of specimens – mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, and shells. He moved into the London home of his sister Fanny and her husband and set about writing papers (28 in the next three years) and giving numerous lectures to consolidate his reputation as a naturalist. The 1860s were significant for Wallace also because in 1865 he developed an interest in spiritualism and in 1866 he married 18-year-old Annie Mitten – 23 years younger than himself. The two formed a close bond for the rest of their time together. Wallace’s father-in-law, William Mitten, was also a naturalist and an expert in mosses.

            On 22 July 1865, Wallace’s sister Fanny persuaded him to accompany her to a séance, and his interest in psychic phenomena began.   In the latter half of the 19th century many prominent rationalists began investigating spiritual phenomena. These rationalists included a number of physicists, like William Crookes, Oliver Lodge, William Barrett, J.J. Thompson, and Lord Rayleigh; British mathematician Augustus de Morgan, French physiologist Charles Richet, American logician James Hervey Hyslop and philosopher William James.  All were ultimately persuaded of the essential validity of the evidence. Importantly, Wallace’s view of the validity of such spiritual experiences persuaded him of a more teleological interpretation of evolution than even Darwin had envisaged, despite his training for the clergy.

            Wallace was not, however, a passionate advocate of spiritualism: he thought only that mechanistic forces alone could not account for all human qualities and urged scientists to consider spiritual phenomena seriously by investigation. Wallace maintained that “an Overruling Intelligence” governed the processes of nature and, in particular, endowed Man with his aesthetic sensibility. This view was a source of discord between Wallace and Darwin. The would-be priest had already agonized much over his Origin of Species in that it seemed to dispense with a need or even a role for a divine creator. Now he was disturbed by the suggestion that any kind of external agency participated in the process of evolution. The two naturalists differed in many details of their interpretation of the biological influence of individuals or populations, Darwin focussing on the former, Wallace the latter.

            Although Darwin used the term “creation” he made it clear that this was not intended in any theological context but merely equivalent to “appearance” – by some unknown mechanism. Darwin in his writing showed great admiration for the views of atheists David Hume and Auguste Comte.  As Fichman has observed: “Wallace constructed a theistic evolutionary model that made natural selection subservient to much higher teleological directive powers.” [[6]] Flannery comments that Wallace had “gone beyond man to include the origin of life and sentience in animals as clear entry points for design and purpose.”          Although Wallace continued to refer to his evolution theory as Darwinism, from this point on Wallace was really describing “intelligent evolution” or as it might be called today, “evolution through intelligent design.”  In 1889, he published a book entitled Darwinism: An exposition of the theory of natural selection with some of its applications, that confirmed that even he was not fully aware of just how fundamentally different was his view of evolution. The most complete statement of Wallace’s position is expressed in his book The World of Life, published in 1910 by Chapman and Hall when Wallace was 87.

            Also in his biology, Wallace favoured the idea of “transformation” or “transmutation” of species, as did Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin but in opposition to the “natural selection” suggested by Darwin that is now explained through the mechanism of genes. The earlier biologists believed that adaptation to environmental factors and some ill-defined life-force produced changes in life forms rather than changes determined primarily by parentage. It might be thought of as prescience on the part of Wallace to align himself with the idea that environmental and energetic factors influenced biological development.  

            The “life-force” idea has gained support in recent decades within the scientific establishment from the suggestion of the existence of an all-enveloping cosmic field of energy at the subatomic level of the quantum world. This concept has been applied in biology by Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake with his suggestion of “formative causation” resulting from the influence of “morphic fields.”  Such fields are suggested to influence both chemical reactions and biological (including mental) processes. It is not suggested that such forces replace genetic factors but rather supplement and influence them.    

            Wallace developed an interest in spiritualism during the 1860s and investigated various mediums with Sir William Crookes. They both witnessed the production of apports (physical objects) by mediums in trance. It is this aspect of Wallace’s work and his support for evidence of an afterlife for the human soul that is most likely to be the reason for his relative obscurity within academia and thence the general public. Wallace’s interest in spiritualism from witnessing evidence first-hand from mediums began in 1865, probably a year or two before Crookes began his studies following the death of his brother at age 21 in 1867. Now Wallace was a scientist to the core and therefore not likely to be easily duped or to join up with some fashionable craze. His investigation of spiritualism and mediumship was therefore undertaken in the true scientific philosophy of studying “new” phenomena (psychic phenomena had almost certainly been known to pagan peoples for millennia) and attempting to provide explanations. Wallace maintained that psychic phenomena “are proved quite as well as any facts are proved in other sciences.and that they are a part of the natural world and therefore fall squarely within the remit of science as a subject for study. They represent a channel of communication between the material and the spiritual worlds.  Wallace was at the home of Crookes in 1871 when the medium Daniel Dunglas Home communicated with the spirits of  the English mathematician Augustus de Morgan and the Scottish writer, publisher and geologist Robert Chambers, author  of Vestiges fame. [[7]]

            In 1872 Wallace built a house called the Dell near Grays in Essex to house his family of wife and three children – two boys and one girl, though young Herbert died aged seven. Wallace’s, perhaps subconscious, vision in aligning himself with Lamarckism as well as Darwinian evolution and in asserting the validity of psychic phenomena gives him a place among the great scientists of the 19th century. The last decade of Wallace’s life (1902-1913) was spent living in a house called Old Orchard that he designed and had built in the district of Broadstone, near Poole, in the county of Dorset, where there is now a memorial to the great man.

            Exactly a century after Wallace’s death, on 7 November 1913, a bronze statue of Wallace by Anthony Smith was unveiled by Sir David Attenborough at the Natural History Museum, London. There was a large crowd at the Darwin Centre, and among the guests was Richard Wallace, Alfred Wallace’s grandson. During the speeches, however, there was no mention of Wallace’s role as a psychic pioneer. Across the road from the Museum is the College of Psychic Studies, whose Memorandum of Association (under its old name, the London Spiritualists’ Alliance) included Wallace among its signatories.


[1] Bucke, Richard Maurice (1901) Cosmic Consciousness: A study in the evolution of the human mind,          Innes & Sons,                   Philadelphia

[2] Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre (1959), The Phenomenon of Man, Collins

[3] Wallace, A. R. (4 March 1886),  From a reprint of the 1885 article ‘Are the Phenomena of       Spiritualism in Harmony with Science?’ in The Christian Register,132

[4] Flannery, Michael A. (2011), Alfred Russel Wallace: A rediscovered life, Discovery Institute Press,             Seattle, Washington

[5] Slotten, Ross A. (2004), The Heretic in Darwin’s Court: The life of Alfred Russel Wallace,   Columbia University Press

[6] Fichman, Martin (2004) An Elusive Victorian: The evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace, University of         Chicago Press, Chicago, p.204.

[7] Chambers, Robert (1994) Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, 1844; University of Chicago Press


Correspondence should be sent to Howard Jones at jones.ha@btopenworld.com