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Alfred Russel Wallace
Was the eighth of nine children. His formal education was limited to six years at the one-room Hertford Grammar School. Although his education was curtailed by the family's worsening financial situation, his home was a rich source of books, maps, and gardening activities, which Wallace remembered as enduring sources of learning and pleasure.
he was exposed to secular teachings at a London mechanics' institute, the “Hall of Science” off Tottenham Court Road. Living in London he was keen on self-education, read books and attended lectures by prominent philosophers that formed the basis of his religious skepticism and his reformist and socialist political philosophy.
In 1837 Wallace became an apprentice in the surveying business of his eldest brother, William. As a surveyor, Wallace spent a great deal of time outdoors, both for work and pleasure. An enthusiastic amateur naturalist with an intellectual bent, he read widely in natural history, history, and political economy, including works by William Swainson, CharlesDarwin, Alexander von Humboldt, and Thomas Malthus. He also read works and attended lectures on phrenology and mesmerism, forming an interest in nonmaterial mental phenomena that grew increasingly prominent later in his life.
Unemployed, and ardent in his love of nature, Wallace traveled to Brazil in 1848 as self-employed specimen collector. Wallace spent a total of four years traveling, collecting, mapping, drawing, and writing in unexplored regions of the Amazon River basin. Unfortunately except for one shipment of specimens sent to his agent in London, however, most of Wallace's collections were lost on his voyage home when his ship went up in flames and sank. Nevertheless, he managed to save some of his notes before his rescue and return journey. From these he published several scientific articles, two books. These won him acclaim from the Royal Geographical Society, which helped to fund his next collecting venture, in the Malay Archipelago.
Wallace spent eight years in the Malay Archipelago, from 1854 to1862, traveling among the islands, collecting biological specimens for his own research and for sale, and writing scores of scientific articles on mostly zoological subjects. Among these were two extraordinary articles dealing with the origin of new species. Wallace proposed that new species arise by the progression and continued divergence of varieties that outlive the parent species in the struggle for existence. In early 1858 he sent a paper outlining these ideas to Darwin, who saw such a striking coincidence to his own theory that he decided to present two extracts of his previous writings, along with Wallace's paper, to the Linnean Society. The resulting set of papers, with both Darwin's and Wallace's names, was published as a single article in 1858. This compromise sought to avoid a conflict of priority interests and was reached without Wallace's knowledge. Wallace's research on the geographic distribution of animals among the islands of the Malay Archipelago provided crucial evidence for his evolutionary theories and led him to devise what soon became known as Wallace's Line, the boundary that separates the fauna of Australia from that of Asia.
Wallace returned to England in 1862 an established natural scientist and geographer, as well as a collector of more than 125,000 animal specimens. He married and raised three children. Wallace published a highly successful narrative of his journey. In several articles from this period on human evolution and spiritualism, Wallace parted from the scientific naturalism of many of his friends and colleagues in claiming that natural selection could not account for the higher faculties of human beings.
He also lectured in the British Isles and in the United States and traveled on the European continent. In addition to his major scientific works, Wallace actively pursued a variety of social and political interests. In writings and public appearances he opposed vaccination, eugenics, and vivisection while strongly supporting women's rights and land nationalization. Foremost among these commitments was an increasing engagement with spiritualism in his personal and public capacities.
Wallace published 21 books, and the list of his articles, essays, and letters in periodicals contains more than 700 items. Yet his career eludes simple description or honorifics. He was keenly intellectual but no less spiritual, a distinguished scientist and a spokesman for unpopular causes, a gifted naturalist who never lost his boyish enthusiasm for nature, a prolific and lucid writer, a committed socialist, a seeker of truth, and a domestic, modest individual. His engagement with progressive politics and spiritualism likely contributed to his lack of employment and to his somewhat peripheral status in the historical record. What touched those who knew him was his compassion, his humanness and sympathy, and his lack of pretense or acquired pride. Wallace died in his 91st year and was buried in Broadstone, to be joined there by his widow the following year. A commemorative medallion in his honour was unveiled at Westminster Abbey in 1915.
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