Wallace and the World of Life

In 1909 Alfred Russel Wallace, the lesser-known co-founder of the theory of evolution by natural selection, gave his final public lecture - a Friday Evening Discourse at the Ri.

From the tiniest beetle to the majestic jaguar, bizarre sea creatures to brightly-coloured birds – the origins of such extraordinary diversity of life is a question that has fascinated scientists for centuries.

The theory of evolution via natural selection revolutionised our understanding of where we, and the multitude of other creatures on Earth came from. Most people will have heard of Charles Darwin, but recently the naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace(1823–1913) has also emerged from the historical shadows to receive some much-deserved recognition for this theory.

Thanks to a wealth of tributes following the centenary of his death last year, Alfred Russel Wallace is arguably now better known for co-conceptualizing the theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace lead a remarkable life, making the leap from collecting beetles in the English countryside to scouring the vast jungles of Brazil and Indonesia for spectacular and sought-after-species and fuelling his scientific endeavours by trading in wildlife specimens and skins. Spending his travels surrounded by such diverse and alien creatures Wallace was driven to figure out how on Earth such a great variety of life came to exist.

Wallace arrived at the idea of evolution by natural selection entirely independently of Darwin. His "eureka-moment" came when, whilst suffering from malaria, he was left to reflect on his remarkably insightful hypotheses. Knowing of Darwin's interest in this field, Wallace wrote to him immediately with his thoughts. The two of them shared recognition for the theory in a co-credited presentation of their ideas at the Linnean Society of London in 1858.

When Darwin later published his seminal tome On the Origin of Species, far from resenting it, Wallace was all the more in awe of Darwin’s work. He continued to contribute to and promote Darwinism for the rest of his career.

In fact, the subject of his last ever public lecture – given here at the Ri in 1909 – was part of the jubilee of the Origin of Species, in which Wallace set out to not only discuss but defend Darwinism against other opposing theories. Having received an invitation to speak from William Crookes (then Secretary of the Ri), Wallace wrote to his son, William Greenell Wallace, describing his initial reluctance:

Of course I decided at once to decline as impossible &c. having nothing now to say &c. &c. But a few hours afterwards an idea suddenly came to me -- for a very fine lecture -- if I can work it out as I hope -- and the more I thought [about] it the better it seemed... there is plenty of time if I get quite well; and I am now feeling much better, & getting in my feed again -- only still very weak.

Wallace was 85 years old at the time of being invited, and speaks in his letters of being quite frail and unwell. However, as someone who survived several bouts of malaria and other tropical disease throughout his lifetime, Wallace was not about to be defeated. He was driven by his desire to put right some misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Darwin’s theory, which he describes when writing to another eminent British evolutionary biologist, Edward Bagnall Poulton:

I think I can give a broad and general view of Darwinism, that will finally squash up the Mutationists and Mendelians, and be both generally intelligible & interesting. So far as I know this has never yet been done, and the R[oyal] Institution audience is just the intelligent but non-specialist one I shall be glad to give it to -- if I can.

Thanks to his characteristic determination, Wallace did deliver his Friday Evening Discourse at the Ri on 22 January 1909 entitled 'The World of Life: as visualised and interpreted by Darwinism', and attended by 800 people. The proceedings (downloadable on the right) give a glimpse of the topics covered, including his closing remarks, delivered with his renowned, poetically lucid style:

  • Passage from proceedings of AR Wallace's Ri lecture

    Wallace's concluding remarks from his Ri Friday Evening Discourse "World of Life" (available to download on the right).

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • Alfred Russel Wallace

    Alfred Russel Wallace, 1848 (age 24). Source: Wikimedia commons

Wallace and Darwin’s ground-breaking theory changed the way we understand the natural world, and ourselves. Wallace’s inquisitive mind and unwaivering dedication to his work lead him to make several other important contributions to science, being known, in particular, as the “father” of evolutionary biogeography. But as we see from many of his posthumous tributes he is remembered equally well for his lyrical prose, humility, and admirable character.

Wallace animation

Sweet Fern Productions have produced a wonderful animation celebrating the life and works of Alfred Russel Wallace. The video tells the story of Wallace’s “unimaginably bold” career using striking paper-puppetry and thoughtful insights and narration from George Beccaloni of the Natural History Museum, London, and Andrew Berry of Harvard University.


Quotations from Wallace's letters are taken from the Wallace Letters Online database, a digital archive brought together by the Wallace Correspondence Project.

The copyright of literary works by Alfred Russel Wallace which were unpublished at the time of his death and which are published in this blog post belongs to the A. R. Wallace Literary Estate. These works are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported. To view a copy of this visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/legalcode".

The image on the main blog page for this post is Wallace's Fruit Dove (Ptilinopus wallacii) by Joseph Wolf (1820-1899) from Wikimedia Commons.

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