22. Wallace Returns 1862

“Paradise-bird plumes might recover their now forgotten value as ornaments for the hats of our fair countrywomen.”

th-6  (Commons Getty Collection)

It was Spring-time in 1862 and the Saturday Review was appealing to the fashion-conscious ladies of Victorian England with this welcome for Alfred Wallace (1823-1913), back home from Singapore with just two surviving Birds of Paradise that he’d carefully brought with him to England.

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The professional collector of tropical animals and plants had been away for five years and felt very uncertain about the reception he was going to receive. The Saturday Review was not interested in the real source of his reticence, that scientific presentation given in his name and Charles Darwin’s announcing their theory of natural selection. It had been given to the Linnean Society in his absence and without his knowledge four years earlier. Now that Wallace was in England he was expecting to be challenged directly and he was afraid of the peoples’ reactions. In particular, how were Darwin and his all-powerful friends going to treat him?

Like the author of the great geological map William Smith fifty years before, Wallace had come up the hard way, five years as an apprentice surveyor stimulating his interest in the environment, its geology and biodiversity. As a professional collector, Wallace was skilled at observing and distinguishing biological features in the animals and plants. He was particularly proud of his observations of the location of species and their geographical range in south-east Asia where he identified two regions separated by what became known as the Wallace Line.

th    The Wallace Line

This divided the region into two distinct parts, one in which species closely related to those of Australia are common, and one in which they are largely of Asian origin. It was an area of great diversity where so much seemed to be crammed into each zone, using all the natural resources to their limit. That knowledge gave him sufficient know-how to react to Malthus’ famous essay on how a species coped with its particular sustainable limits. It made Wallace even more confident that individuals had to compete for resources such as food, space and light, as well as mates.

In his frequent lectures about evolution Wallace used a metaphor from the industrial revolution to help describe natural selection: “The action of this principle is exactly like that of the centrifugal governor of the steam engine, which checks and corrects any irregularities almost before they become evident; and in like manner no unbalanced deficiency in the animal kingdom can ever reach any conspicuous magnitude, because it would make itself felt at the very first step, by rendering existence difficult and extinction almost sure soon to follow.” Those traits that survived different levels and kinds of catastrophe were inherited throughout the population and became adapted by his proposed mechanism of natural selection.

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From his field station in the Far East he had sent Charles Lyell the whole of his draft manuscript for that presentation, asking if he would read through it first. He had sent it to Darwin first, hoping to share these latest reactions to that great range of biodiversity in the tropical rain forests of South East Asia. He was close to the end of two long stretches in the tropics, the first from 1848 to 1852 in the Amazon with his old friend from Leicester in the English Midlands Henry Bates and then from 1854 in SE Asia. Altogether they had collected 125,000 specimens, more than a thousand of which were new species.

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The great explorer arrived back home with his colourful birds and more professional credibility than anyone could wish for. It had been a hard life in the tropics but preferable to the stresses of life in London, especially with all the public fuss that was made over his coloured birds in the zoo. The collections from explorations of tropical biodiversity like his were essential in understanding nature in all its general beauty and in its origin in particular. This provided the stimulus for many others at home, taxonomists, experimentalists and philosophers who were desperately searching for evidence of evolution by natural selection. Little did they know that it was going to take both subjective and objective scientific work over another century before the idea was gradually proven, but it was adventurous naturalists like Wallace, Huxley, Hooker and Darwin who started the work, and they had all travelled as global explorers when they were young men.

th-3   250px-Batesplate_ArM Bates collected insects

Then it was 1862 and Wallace was 39 years old and unmarried, without friends or a job. After five years living in tropical jungle he suddenly found himself in the middle of London, where he had never lived and where he was confronted with the demands of highly sophisticated social habits. He was also entering the company of a formidable group of leading scientists, all very much aware that he had made them look very foolish. They had bullied him into publishing with Darwin and that had forced him to conform to their plan and allow their friend the credit. It could have been argued they were taking from him Wallace’s own right for public acclaim and his ownership of one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time.

Wallace was surprised at his own celebrity status and at how he was so much sought after as a dinner guest, unaware that one reason may have been to quell the guilt of his hosts and to help them find out where they stood. They also wanted to get to know him and gain from his experience and scientific expertise. He certainly wanted to make good friends in this lonely city, and he needed help from them, because he had arrived without plans for his future or even much money. Within a few months he had visited Huxley, Hooker, Lyell, Spencer and Darwin, only to learn how very difficult it was for them all to understand, let alone agree, with what Wallace and Darwin thought out.

It was soon clear to Wallace that these four men had worked out different ideas about evolution to suit their own particular needs. This was the last thing that he had expected and it took some time for him to work out the landscape of this particular London society: which of them had which outlook on the theory, and how this was determined by their different interests. Hooker was the Director of a botanical garden, Huxley a professor of zoology, Lyell of geology, all with different purposes for their observations and interpretations. At least, Wallace was relieved that none of them used the quantitative methods of experimental analysis that Francis Galton and others were beginning to think were necessary for other objective purposes.

23. Just Visiting 1862-1870

It was soon clear to Wallace that he had returned to a land of confusion about how evolution worked and that publication of his and Darwin’s explanation had not settled any of the controversies. Instead of finding good experimental evidence for their theory of evolution by natural selection what he did find was something very different and unexpected: because progress was going to be slow a deep philosophical void had emerged. This placed more hope on measuring what was thought to be evolving, and more interest in how humans themselves had evolved. Wallace was confused by the new expectations of scientists and was understandably out of date from his long absences. At the peak of Empire these difficult homecomings were common.  th-6

He also lacked the refined social graces of his new London hosts but persisted in making a mark on science and its society. Within a few months of his return, he had visited all the main players on London’s life science network. Despite their different social classes he found much in common with Sir Richard Strachey, who had just returned from plant hunting in India, and Joseph Hooker, back from Tasmania.

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It didn’t help that the leader of that group of evolutionary biologists was beginning to lose touch with these objective requirements of modern science. Thomas Huxley had only two years of schooling and became what he called “a man of science” when he was 21 and served onboard HMS Rattlesnake as a humble assistant to the ship’s surgeon. He advanced quickly and soon become a witty debater and charismatic teacher, one of the old school with fastidious attention to all details and observations. In 1862 Wallace arrived at the Huxley home in St John’s Wood and found that the whole domestic tone of the house induced a sense of awe and inferiority.

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Two pictures of T Huxley  at the Normal School of Science (now Imperial College)     and Joseph Hooker at Kew Gardens

Whenever they spoke about evolution, Huxley’s superior knowledge of anatomy and physiology only added to his stiffness. He had cheered up when he heard Huxley’s famous reaction on first reading Darwin’s ideas about adaptation by natural selection: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that”. But Huxley never did understand natural selection to have the slow and uniform adaptations changes that Darwin and Wallace intended.

Nevertheless, Huxley had become Darwin’s loudest and most loyal supporter, a kind of Victorian public relations consultant, but privately he was worried that in The Origin Darwin had argued strongly that change should be gradual. He thought it was wrong to have so little to say about any revolutionary catastrophes: “You have loaded yourself with the unnecessary difficulty in adopting Natura non facit saltum so unreservedly”. Huxley knew from Lyell’s Principles of Geology published thirty years earlier that there was a big gap in the geological record between the top of the chalk and the base of the Eocene, the very time that reptiles and mammals showed major changes. Huxley was alone in having a hunch that this was a sign of some sudden environmental change, some catastrophe. [This is now known as the Terminal Cretaceous Event that caused the dinosaurs to become extinct

220px-Impact_event     220px-KT_boundary_054 The event was between the light and dark rocks.]

One of the stories Wallace heard on these visits told of a conversation between Huxley, Hooker and Darwin in which they “ran a tilt against species farther I believe than they are deliberately prepared to go.” It put Hooker, especially, in a difficult position, wanting to faithfully support his very close friend Charles, yet having lived the life of a plant taxonomist, naming and labeling specimens, and craving stability. He told the staff at Kew that these thoughts about evolution “should not influence our treatment of species, either as subjects of descriptive science, or … their dispersal and replacement in area.” For unlike Darwin or even Huxley, the people at Kew wanted a species to be a fixed entity defined by comparison to a single type specimen, many of which were preserved in the herbarium there. That was the job of the people at Kew, and their equivalent at other botanical and zoological gardens and museums throughout the world. The last thing any of these people wanted was for any of these species to change; their rules encouraged stability.

herbarium-specimens-awaiting-collection unsorted specimens at Kew     herbarium-finshed-mounts a stable catalogue

Later in 1862 Hooker talked to Wallace about this different approach and admitted that he wanted “to write a Darwinian book on botany” setting out classification, distribution and origin. But before that he felt his priority was to “work out all the species.” He spent the first ten years after he retired from Kew revising all the species of balsams in the genus Impatiens, so unfortunately he didn’t get round to writing the Darwin book.

If Hooker was more attracted to the idea of permanent species moving up the ladder without changing, one of Darwin’s first letters must have haunted him: “I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable. Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a ‘tendency to progressions,’ ‘adaptations from the slow willing of animals’ etc.! But the conclusions I am led to are not wholly different from his; though the means of change are wholly so. I think I have found out (here’s presumption) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends.” Both Wallace and Darwin expected natural selection at the level of the organism: Lamarck’s system of inheritance was at the level of a species or even higher. It was a view for which Hooker had some sympathy, for his life-long task had been to put plants into taxonomic categories and the more clearly defined the group the more complete was his work. Unfortunately for these taxonomists this kind of order was not necessarily what evolution provided.

Wallace was more comfortable with the senior member of Darwin’s circle though it was Lyell to whom Wallace had sent the manuscript in the Spring of 1858 setting out his own argument for natural selection. If there were still any hard feelings left from the presentation to the Linnean Society they were soon forgiven and apparently forgotten. Wallace’s visit was a great success and though Lady Lyell was patronizing, thinking that his manners were of an unacceptable standard.

Henry Bates, who had explored South America with Wallace had a less successful reunion with Lyell, despite their having met regularly at the Geological Society, and having once been Lyell’s guest at its Dining Club. Later, he bumped into Lyell beside the seal pond at London Zoo: “He was wriggling about in his usual way, with spy-glass raised by fits and starts to the eye” and began: “Mr Wallace. I believe – ah”. “My name’s Bates.” “Oh, I beg pardon. I always confound you two.” Once he had recognized who he was talking to Lyell was able to congratulate Bates about the value of his collections. But it was a frosty relationship and their joint interests in evolution could never bridge their different social classes: Lyell was from the Scottish aristocracy, Bates from a family of Leicester hosiery factory workers.

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Henry Bates                                                  Charles Lyell                                                    Joseph Hooker

Through all this time Lyell kept his belief in God, pleased to let in the advances of science, while still feeling some faith. His subtle argument in Principles was based on his acceptance of Lamarck’s theory of evolution and that in turn presented Darwin with the need to argue his alternative and for it to be listened to. It was only possible because Lyell persuaded his peers, men like Lubbock and Argyle, that their shift of emphasis away from Lamarck was possible, however slow and reluctant some of them were to make it.

Then there was another important man whom Wallace visited, the Derby railway engineer turned philosopher, Herbert Spencer, who made him realize for the first time that his ideas about natural selection had a wide and frightening political importance.

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Spencer was a man of many words, pleased to tell his visitor why he was so excited about individual organisms presenting different features to some new conditions in the environment. “Each individual shall be left to experience the effects of his own nature and consequent conduct. This would quickly clear away the degraded”. There was no opportunity for Wallace to intervene and point to the difficulties in this outlook.  It soon became clear that Spencer had his own programme of interests and wanted to use his own concept of natural selection to further those ends. He was to become a champion of capitalism and he made a lot of money himself by writing about his “scientific” justification of economics. Spencer went on to interpret Wallace and Darwin’s theory in his own way, no matter how much he failed properly to understand it. For Spencer had already embarked on a campaign of political philosophy and the slogan “survival of the fittest” was going to serve that very well, whatever Wallace might have said.

Wallace was particularly confused by the visit which he made with Bates whose social origins were very similar to those of Spencer: “Our thoughts were full of the great unsolved problem of the origin of life, and we looked to Spencer as the one man living who could give us some clue to it.” Instead, Spencer told them how he thought that humans would eventually breed a less aggressive and increasingly altruistic species. This was part of his own version of the Atlantis myth, his perfect society where no-one would give pain to another.

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[Atlantis Zuccarello.deviantart.com]

His long-winded System of Synthetic Philosophy written from 1862 to 1897, extended to ten volumes and was very successful in its time, especially in the United States. It sold more than a million copies, more than any other philosopher has ever achieved before or since, and was a reaction against the progressive scientists whom Wallace was meeting. The book was also suggesting a return to Lamarck’s escalating hierarchy, with its unscientific values that were too soft for Wallace to take seriously.

Spencer had taken his canon of philosophy to apply to economics after reading Adam Smith, one of the stars of the Scottish enlightenment for whom individual, not group, competition gave the best social order. Spencer reasoned that what held for human societies could also be good for natural selection among organisms, leading in both to the maximum division of labour and therefore to more sophisticated adaptation. Just as individuals strove against one another, so groups struggled against other groups. The products came from the struggles between each individual. Spencer believed in Smith’s saying that “the happiness of a people is made up of the happiness of single persons.”

Later, Spencer turned into a grumpy old man and became well-known for the devious ways he used to avoid talking. He had a pair of ivory ear-plugs, carved specially to fit his own ears as though he had planned to be isolated even though he sought the company of others. It became a way of keeping control on his own world, and often when he dined at his club, or read in the library there, he would put the plugs in his ears rather than listen to the conversation or be put off his concentration by the laughter.