Friday, March 28, 2008

Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace

A British naturalist, explorer, zoologist, botanist, geologist and anthropologist, Alfred Russel Wallace was a brilliant man in an age of brilliant men. He was the discoverer of thousands of new tropical species, the first European to study apes in the wild, a pioneer in ethnography and zoogeography (distribution of animals). He was a co-discoverer of the laws of natural selection with Charles Darwin, although it is famously known as "Darwin's theory" [1]. Wallace collected natural history specimens with an extraordinary passion; he was able to see and admire the beauty of everything that he could possibly find, an example of which we can see in one of his quotes:

I found ... a perfectly new and magnificent species [of butterfly] ... The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced ... On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt ... like fainting ... so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause [2].

Wallace was one of a kind scientist; he was noble, generous and at the same time outspoken about his religious and political beliefs. His strong advocacies of utopian socialism, pacifism, wilderness conservation, women's rights, psychic research, phrenology, Spiritualism and his campaign against vaccination, outraged colleagues [3]. Unlike Darwin, Wallace's achievements are all the more remarkable, because he had to finance his expeditions by selling thousands of natural history specimens, mainly insects. From 1848 until 1852, Wallace collected, explored and made numerous discoveries despite malaria, fatigue and the most meager supplies in the Amazon rain forests [1].

Unfortunately, all his immense collection of preserved insects, birds and reptiles, and menagerie of live parrots, monkeys and other creatures were lost as the ship, on which Wallace was returning back to England, suddenly burst into flames and sank. He was able to rescue only a few notebooks and himself. However, never giving up, Wallace set out a new expedition as he got the first chance and sailed to the Malay Archipelago in 1856, and spent there 8 years investigating, learning and mastering several Malay tribal languages [1]. Wallace was a self-taught field anthropologist, he made pioneering contributions to ethnology and linguistics by "becoming familiar with manners, customs and modest of thought of people so far removed from the European races and civilization" [2].

Wallace came to the idea of evolution through his observations of the natural distribution of plants, animals and human tribal groups and their competition for resources. In his paper "My first contribution to the great question of the origin of species" he came up with an idea "when" and "where" species originated. And in his 1855 paper "On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species" Wallace stated that: "Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing, closely-allied species" [2]. Clearly pointing out was in the idea of organic evolution, discussing the geological/geographical pattern of species divergence [4], this paper was disregarded and ignored although published in English [2]. In February 1858, while living at Ternate and suffering from a sharp attack of intermittent malarial fever, Wallace had an idea as we see in the following quote:

... [Then] there suddenly flashed upon me the idea of survival of the fittest ... that in every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain ... and considering the amount of individual variation that may experience as a collector has shown me to exist ... I became convinced that I had at length found the long sought for law of nature that solved the problem of the origin of species... [2].

Wallace wrote a letter to Darwin about his idea, knowing that Darwin is interested in the species question [5], and sent it along with his essay "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart from Indefinitely from the Original Type" where he explains his thoughts, seeking for Darwin's opinion due to his great respect and admiration of Darwin and his work, and perhaps fearing of another ignorant response, when, and if published. Whatever might be the reason, Darwin felt threatened by Wallace's essay because it described the theory that Darwin has been working on for the past twenty years himself, but never published. Along with colleagues Lyell and Sir Joseph Hooker, Darwin turned to the Linnaean Society presenting them with Wallace's paper along with his own early made notes. The announcement of "Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution by means of natural selection" was published in 1858. Although all was done without the participation or knowledge from Wallace, he did not mind of the publication as he found out; moreover, he was thankful for his acknowledgement by the society [3].

Though some may think that Wallace developed the same theory as Darwin, independently but at the same time, it is not so [4]. Wallace did not think of natural selection as Darwin did, he only completed Darwin's thoughts by introducing him with his brain-storming idea that pushed Darwin to finally reveal his own discoveries and ideas on natural selection. Wallace's natural selection-related analysis did not appear until late 1863, that is, four years after "On the Origin of Species" was published [6]. But he was still considered to be a "co-discoverer".

Furthermore, another one of his great achievements is "Wallace's Line" that he discovered during his stay at the Malay Archipelago. Wallace tried to make sense of the fact of animal geography. This line divides animals derived from Asian species (western side) from those of the Australian fauna (eastern side). Wallace's line runs along a narrow strain between the islands of Bali and Lombok, between Borneo the Celebes. In his book "The Geographical Distribution of Animals" Wallace developed a theory that became the founding book of Zoogeography, the science of animal distribution [7].

Wallace's writings on different aspects brought him to the attention of the public as well as the professional audience. He was ranked among the world's most famous naturalists, and was referred to as "The Grand Old Man of Science" [8] because he lived a long life and contributed greatly to science, nature and the humanity with his passion, interest, ambition, nobility and intelligence. "The central secret of his personal magnetism lay in his wide and unselfish sympathy ... his noble generosity which will always stand as an example before the world of something special" [9].

Wallace was recommended once by his admirers to be appointed as a director of a proposed new park at Epping Forest, but he lost the position when stated that he would keep the woodland as it was for future generations, allowing no restaurants, hotels or other concessions. His great love for nature and his attempt to preserve the environment is seen in many of his essays, in one of which Wallace is stressing the issue of the abuse of the nature [3]:

Not only have forest-growth of many hundreds of years been cleared away, often with disastrous consequences, but the whole of the mineral treasures of the earth's surface, the slow products of long-past eons of time and geological change, have been and are still being exhausted, to an extent never before approached, and probably not equaled in amount during the whole preceding period of human history [10].

Among his great written works are such books as: "Darwinism (1889)" one of the best summaries of Darwinism in nineteenth century, describing Darwin's position as well as Wallace's; "The Malay Archipelago (1876)" describes his travels in the East between the years 1854 to 1862; "The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876) provides a firm foundation for the subsequent development of the field of zoogeography; "Island life (1880)" treats two subjects: the causes and influences of glaciation processes, and the nature of insular biotas (flora and fauna).; "Tropical Nature, and Other Essays (1878)" A set of essays on leading characteristic of tropical biology.; "Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (1870)" Early essays on the subjects that made him famous.; "My Life (1905)" Wallace's lengthy and very interesting autobiography; and many more. [11].

Living a very long and full life, at the age of almost 91, Alfred Russel Wallace "passed away very peacefully without regaining consciousness" on November 8th 1913. His constant pursuit of his studies led him into almost all over the world. He was considered to be "the last of the Giants" in England being one of the greatest intellectuals "whose daring investigations revolutionized and evolutionized the thought of the century" [12].

by Anonymous Student



blogger templates 3 columns | Make Money Online