Evolutionary Biology Alfred Russel Wallace
Martin Fichman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0026


Alfred Russel Wallace (b. 1823–d. 1913) was one of the most brilliant theoretical and field biologists of the 19th century. He was a meticulous field observer, a prolific generator of ideas on a broad spectrum of issues ranging from evolutionary biology to social and political concerns, and a theoretician whose work laid some of the main foundations for the scientific study of biogeography and evolution. Wallace undertook two tropical journeys that were to transform his life and the emerging science of evolutionary biology: a four-year exploration of the Amazon basin of South America (1848–1852) and an eight-year exploration of the Malay Archipelago (1854–1862), including the islands of Java, Borneo, Celebes, New Guinea, and Bali. Wallace later generalized his findings from Southeast Asia to elaborate a global paradigm for identifying the earth’s fundamental biogeographical regions in his magisterial Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876). It was, of course, Wallace’s elucidation of the mechanism of evolution—in his 1858 “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type”—that constitutes his greatest scientific legacy from his Malay travels. A copy of Wallace’s essay, along with extracts from an unpublished manuscript on natural selection written by Darwin in 1844, were presented together at the historic meeting of the Linnean Society (London) on 1 July 1858. This meeting—a year prior to the publication of Darwin’s On the origin of species (1859)—ensured that both Wallace and Darwin received recognition and joint priority for their momentous discovery of natural selection. Wallace spent the remainder of his long life in elucidating the implications of evolutionary theory for biogeography, sexual selection, the phenomenon of organic mimicry taxonomy, physical geography and geology, and anthropology. Although he remained an ardent selectionist in his overall analysis of evolutionary processes, Wallace considered natural selection inadequate to account completely for the origin and development of certain human characteristics, notably, consciousness and the moral sense. He insisted that certain aspects of theism and of political and social ideologies, including socialism, spiritualism, and anti-vaccinationism, were not merely compatible with the evolutionary process but essential for comprehending the full significance of human evolution. The issues Wallace confronted continue to resonate in contemporary debates on the scope, mechanism, and, ultimately, significance of evolution in both scientific and cultural domains. In the past two decades there has been a resurgence of interest in Wallace, and this article provides a scholarly guide through the thicket of materials now emerging on his life and achievements.

General Overviews

Because Wallace wrote on an extremely broad range of topics, any overview tends to deal with one or several themes only. Smith and Beccaloni 2008 provides the best contemporary overview, with individual contributions focusing on specific Wallace interests. Dick 2008 is useful for integrating astronomy and biology within Wallace’s broader evolutionary cosmology. O’Hara 1991 is good on Wallace’s relation to 19th-century (and modern) debates on the most appropriate models for organizing the diversity of organic forms. Tinkler 2008 fits Wallace’s interest in glaciation within his broader naturalist framework. Bowler 2009 argues for more emphasis on the role that non-Darwinian models have played in the actual development of evolutionism and thus welcomes Wallace studies. Desmond 2001 is useful for understanding Wallace’s place in the Victorian debates on the changing role of amateurs and professionals in science.

  • Bowler, Peter J. 2009. Do we need a non-Darwinian industry? Notes & Records of the Royal Society 63.4: 393–398.

    DOI: 10.1098/rsnr.2009.0008

    Argues that that the heavy emphasis on Darwin by historians has distorted/minimized the role that non-Darwinian models of evolution played in the actual development of evolutionism. The author suggests rightly that scholarly and public understanding of the wider implications of evolutionism—both cultural and scientific—can only benefit by a vigorous “non-Darwinian” (but certainly not anti-Darwinian!) industry.

  • Desmond, Adrian. 2001. Redefining the X Axis: “Professionals,” “amateurs” and the making of mid-Victorian biology; A progress report. Journal of the History of Biology 34.1: 3–50.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1010346828270

    Lively analysis of current revisionist accounts of the notions of “professional” and “amateur” as they relate to professional and political goals in mid-Victorian biology. Contends that the professional ideology of the X-Club, a private scientific dining club of Victorian London, was different, in significant ways, from the professional norms of contemporary scientists. Useful for situating Wallace within the context of these debates. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Dick, Steven J. 2008. The universe and Alfred Russel Wallace. In Natural selection and beyond: The intellectual legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace. Edited by Charles H. Smith and George Beccaloni, 320–340. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The author demonstrates that for Wallace, both biology and astronomy were part of the same anthropocentric and teleological world view. Useful as one of the very few recent scholarly assessments of Wallace’s late astronomical works (1903, 1907, and 1910).

  • O’Hara, Robert J. 1991. Representations of the natural system in the nineteenth century. Biology and Philosophy 6.2: 255–274.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF02426840

    Situates Wallace’s representation of a natural system of birds (1856) within the context of the diversity of representations drawn and interpreted by ornithologists in the 19th century. Argues that many contemporary controversies in systematics have their roots in the unresolved conceptual problems that surrounded late-19th-century debates on the abstract notion of order in living diversity. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Smith, Charles H., and George Beccaloni, eds. 2008. Natural selection and beyond: The intellectual legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An indispensable collection of essays, most of them specifically commissioned, which covers a full range of Wallace’s interests, including biogeography, protective coloration of animals, conservation, speciation, eugenics, spiritualism, socialism, and anti-vaccinationism. Critically synthesizes the latest scholarship in Wallace studies.

  • Tinkler, Keith. 2008. Wallace and the Great Ice Age. In Natural selection and beyond: The intellectual legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace. Edited by Charles H. Smith and George Beccaloni, 186–200. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Explains why Wallace turned to a study of glaciation in his later career, a subject he had largely ignored prior to the 1858 Linnean papers. Shows that Wallace “mastered the glacial literature to pursue his naturalist’s agenda” (p. 200), i.e., his lifelong efforts to explain organic change. Fine essay in a relatively untouched area of Wallace scholarship.

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