THE GRANDFATHER OF EVOLUTIONARY THEORY
By Richard Russel Wallace
When asked to write this appreciation of Alfred Russel Wallace my first reaction was to refuse. After all what could I possibly add to a life which over the past half century had been so closely examined and written about? My grandfather had died just before the outbreak of the First World War, which had been followed by a period of economic trouble and political disorder leading to the second conflict in the Forties. The World had other things to think about and Wallace had to a large extent dropped off the radar, as one might say now. It was not until the 1958 centenary of first public announcement of the theory of evolution by natural selection at London’s Linnean Society that interest in ‘Darwin’s’ theory picked up. But Wallace, who was he? And where did he come into it? Researchers got busy and have been busy ever since, and this was when we, his relatives, became involved.
In 1913 it fell to my father to settle up Wallace’s estate and his remaining collections were passed to museums and other bodies willing to have them. Old Orchard, his last dwelling, had been sold and we were left with his insect cabinet and a bookcase containing his literary output, plus various boxes and trunks in the attic. In my earliest years Wallace had been little more than a presence in the background and my father rarely mentioned him. I was unaware, for instance, that there was a plaque in Westminster Abbey with his name on it, a distinction few people can claim, or that he had been awarded the Order of Merit, the highest civil decoration, and had asked to be excused from going to London to receive the award, pleading age and infirmity. His excuse had been accepted, the King despatched an equerry to travel by train to Broadstone and the ceremony was conducted in the comfort of Old Orchard. I was in my teens when I read his books Travels on the Amazon and The Malay Archipelago. They opened my eyes to what a truly remarkable man my grandfather was. Here was adventure indeed, mixed with danger and hardship. I was collecting butterflies and moths myself at this time and could empathise with Wallace’s thrill in finding some new specimen. This in tranquil Hampshire. My relative was facing a Jaguar on a lonely path, or sleeping peacefully beneath the trophies of his head-hunting host, or avoiding pirates, or trying to preserve his specimens from ants and the effect of incessant rain. Some man!
I have often wondered what produces characters like Wallace. He had had a tough upbringing with few, if any, frills. His father was a solicitor who had never practiced since he already had a sufficient income for a bachelor. He managed by unwise investments to reduce his ever larger family to poverty, and before Alfred his eighth child was born, he had moved his family to the Usk area in the Welsh Marches where living was cheaper. In later life Wallace described these earliest years as a happy time and his father comes over as a kindly man growing vegetables in the garden of their cottage.
When the boy was five they all moved to Hertford, an inheritance having temporarily revived the family fortunes, and young Alfred was able to get a sound schooling. But the children were expected to earn their own living as soon as possible and Alfred went off to live with his brother John, before being taken under the wing of his oldest brother William, a land surveyor, a few months later. This occupation took them about the country and Wallace's interest in nature began with a desire to be able to identify the plants he saw in the countryside. A few years later when surveying work was harder to get Wallace moved to Leicester and took the post of assistant teacher at the Collegiate School there, where by chance he met Henry Walter Bates who opened his eyes to the world of beetles. This was a pivotal moment in his life. From then on his interest in the diversity and complexity of the natural world would fill his mind and set him on the path to discovering the reasons for all this variety - that great "mystery of mysteries".
So what sort of man had this produced? All his life he was possessed by great curiosity covering a wide spectrum of interests. During his travels his fellow man and the conditions under which he was living were subjected to his scrutiny, and he had the rare ability to treat all alike. No matter if you wore a good suit or an animal skin you would be treated with equal courtesy. His powerful intellect able to solve great intellectual problems, could as readily delight in Lewis Carroll. But injustice he couldn’t bear. His early experiences in Wales at the time of the infamous ‘Enclosures’, when he saw the consequences inflicted on people already poor, had a huge and permanent effect on him.
Married when he was forty-three he had a long and very happy life with Annie and was a good parent to my Aunt Violet and my father. He lived on to be ninety, genial to the last, acquiring respect and honours to the end of a very full life.
I feel so proud to be able to call him grandfather.
This article was first published in the March 2017 edition of "folio", the Folio Society's Newsleter.
For information about the Folio Society's recently published 'deluxe' edition of Wallace's classic book The Malay Archipelago CLICK HERE