Wallace’s First Voyage

The Collection of Books used for Research.

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) was a British naturalist who, like Charles Darwin, identified a system of survival of the fittest causing the evolution of organisms. In 1848 he travelled to the Amazon with fellow naturalist Henry Walter Bates, hoping to investigate the origin of species. He stayed in the Amazon for the subsequent 4 years, financially supported by the collecting and selling of specimens, investigating mostly beetles, butterflies and birds. However, on his return voyage, disaster struck as Wallace’s ship, containing thousands of specimens and notes collected over the previous 4 years, caught fire and sank. Fortunately, a passing ship rescued Wallace and his crew who arrived back to England in 1852. Wallace published his findings the following year in his book “Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro” [1].

Wallace’s Second Voyage

Alfred Russel Wallace. The Wonderful Century : its successes and its failures. London : Swan Sonnenschen & Co. 1898.

Soon after his return, Wallace began to plan a second voyage, this time to the Malay Archipelago (now Indonesia and Malaysia); here he continued to collect and investigate specimens for over 8 years, accumulating over 125,000 specimens, including 5,000 species previously unknown to the west [1]. This prompted him to publish “The Malay Archipelago” in 1869 after his return to England in 1862. When living in Ternate, in the Moluccas, and ‘suffering from a rather severe attack of intermittent fever’, Wallace again considered the origin of species ([2], p. 138). Remembering Malthus’ essay on population that he had read ten years prior, Wallace contemplated the idea that “positive checks” (e.g. war, disease, famine, accidents, etc..) – as Malthus devised, could act upon animal populations akin to how they affect human populations. While ‘vaguely’ considering the effect of said checks upon any given species, an idea ‘flashed upon’ Wallace – the idea of survival of the fittest ([2], p. 139).

A New Theory

Wallace’s new theory of survival of the fittest was based upon the idea that if variation causes a trait beneficial to survival in the progressing environment that aids the individual in surviving the “positive checks”, individuals possessing this trait will be superior to those that do not possess the trait. In the same way an individual removed by these “positive checks” is inferior to those that survived.

That same evening, after thinking out the main points of the theory, Wallace sketched a draft of a paper. In the succeeding evenings, he proceeded to write out the paper and then sent it to fellow naturalist Charles Darwin, expecting the theory to be as new to Darwin as it was to himself. However, Wallace was surprised to hear that Darwin had reached the same conclusion long before he had (in 1844).  That same year, Wallace and Darwin agreed to make the theory of Natural selection by survival of the fittest known to the world by having their theories read, one after the other, at a meeting of the Linnean Society in London. The theory received little attention until the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” the subsequent year. Following the publication of said book, both support and fierce opposition to the theory was established ([2], p. 140).

The Previous Worldview

In the late 17th Century, long before the evolutionary theory was established, the common worldview of the west was built upon the doctrine of the church based upon the scriptures. As W. Whiston explained in his 1696 work “A New Theory of the Earth”:

 ‘Our understandings are finite, our capacities small, our sphere of knowledge not great. We depend upon God Almighty as to what we know, as well as what we have, or what we are. ‘Tis possible it may not yet be the proper season for unravelling the mystery’ ([3],p. 73).

W. Whiston. A New Theory of Earth. London: R. Roberts. 1696.

This encapsulates the strong religious foundation of all aspects of academia at the time. Obvious boundaries were placed upon the human capacity for knowledge as the divine was posited as the explanation for what was not yet know or discovered through scientific research. This presupposition of a divine explanation provoked fierce opposition to any challenges towards the common worldview, leading to the ‘condemnation’ of those neglecting ‘the undoubted evidence for the Divine Authority of the scriptures’ ([3],p. 79).

The Worldview Continues

This 17th Century view of the world seemingly continued into the early 19th Century. As William Kirby wrote in 1835:

‘In no part of creation are the power, wisdom and goodness of its beneficent and almighty Author more signally conspicuous than in the various animals that inhabit and enliven our globe.’ ([4], vol. 1,p. 1)

and in his second volume:

‘All these, in their several stations, and by their several operations, glorify their Almighty Author by fulfilling his will.’ ([4], vol. 2,p. 408).

William Kirby. On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation of Animals and in Their History, Habits and Instincts. W. Pickering, 1835. Volumes 1,2.

The strong religious basis for academia persisted throughout the early modern period and the presupposition of a divine creator remained. The primary goal of scientific study was still to glorify God, not to expand our understanding of the universe as it is today. Science as a field has undergone a fundamental shift in its purpose and aims but can that be put down to the works of Wallace concerning evolutionary theory?

Wallace’s contribution

The birth of evolutionary theory is often considered a turning-point for the common worldview of the west transforming from a creationist to a materialist standpoint, but did Wallace play a part in provoking this change? In some of his final works, Wallace advocates the ‘absolute necessity of a creative and directive power and mind’ in the creation of the universe ([5],p. 399). He sympathises with Herbert Spencer’s conclusion ‘that the universe could not have existed without an intelligent cause’ and goes on to explain his views on how much can be known about said ‘absolute creator’ ([5],p. 392). If Wallace agreed with the need to posit a ‘creator’ to explain the origin of life, did he play any part in prompting changes to scientific study?

Wallace recognised that by the early modern worldview ‘it is impious to seek any other reason [than] “it was Gods will”’ ([5],p. 391) and, due to his theory, there were ‘vast changes in educated public opinion which it rapidly and permanently effected’ ([2], p. 140). This illustrates how, although the need for a creating entity remained, the evolutionary mechanism used for the differentiation and speciation of living organisms could now be freely investigated without ‘condemnation’ ([3],p. 79). ‘What was a “great heresy” is now common knowledge’ as Wallace put it ([2], p. 140).

What Caused the Shift?

So, if the work of Wallace and his fellow naturalists didn’t cause the fundamental shift in worldview, what did? There are many possible answers to this question however, the main causes were likely the gradual separation of society from the church, along with further scientific research such as Watson and Crick’s discovery of the DNA structure in 1953, diminishing the desire for a creative entity to be posited into scientific theory of the origin of life. This transformation was strengthened by the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins etc…, releasing works such as “The Blind Watchmaker”, suggesting that the belief in a creator not only goes against common scientific understanding but is also ‘delusional’. [6] Due to the myriad of new scientific discoveries and research, a divine entity is no longer seen as necessary for the origin of life, contrary to the viewpoints of Wallace and other scientists throughout the early modern period into the early 20th century.

W. Whiston. A New Theory of Earth. London: R. Roberts. 1696.


[1] Natural History Museum: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/who-was-alfred-russel-wallace.html

[2] Alfred Russel Wallace. The Wonderful Century : its successes and its failures. London : Swan Sonnenschen & Co. 1898.

[3] W. Whiston. A New Theory of Earth. London: R. Roberts. 1696.

[4] William Kirby. On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation of Animals and in Their History, Habits and Instincts. W. Pickering, 1835.

[5] Alfred Russel Wallace. The World of Life : A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind, and Ultimate Purpose. London: Chapman and Hall, 1910. 

[6] Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion / Richard Dawkins. London: Black Swan, 2007.