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 Wallace was confused by the new expectations of scientists and was understandably out of date from his long absences.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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.