Alfred Russel Wallace and his inestimable contribution to the workers' movement

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

The escape from "natural selection" through the development of humanity

 The most important point first: immediately following are the words of Alfred Russel Wallace, written in 1864, very clearly explaining the power of, the escape from and the overturning of "natural selection" by the development of humanity:

"But in man, as we now behold him, this is different. He is social and sympathetic. In the rudest tribes the sick are assisted at least with food; less robust health and vigour than the average does not entail death. Neither does the want of perfect limbs or other organs produce the same effects as among animals. Some division of labour takes place; the swiftest hunt, the less active fish, or gather fruits; food is to some extent exchanged or divided. The action of natural selection is therefore checked; the weaker, the dwarfish, those of less active limbs, or less piercing eyesight, do not suffer the extreme penalty which falls upon animals so defective....

    In proportion as these physical characteristics become of less importance, mental and moral qualities will have increasing influence on the well-being of the race. Capacity for acting in concert, for protection and for the acquisition of food and shelter; sympathy, which leads all in turn to assist each other; the sense of right, which checks depredations upon our fellows; the decrease of the combative and destructive propensities; self-restraint in present appetites; and that intelligent foresight which prepares for the future, are all qualities that from their earliest appearance must have been for the benefit of each community, and would, therefore, have become the subjects of ‘natural selection'. For it is evident that such qualities would be for the well-being of man; would guard him against external enemies, against internal dissensions, and against the effects of inclement seasons and impending famine, more surely than could any merely physical modification. Tribes in which such mental and moral qualities were predominant, would therefore have an advantage in the struggle for existence over other tribes in which they were less developed, would live and maintain their numbers, while the others would decrease and finally succumb...

But while these changes had been going on, his mental development had correspondingly advanced, and had now reached that condition in which it began powerfully to influence his whole existence, and would therefore, become subject to the irresistible action of ‘natural selection'. This action would rapidly give the ascendancy to mind: speech would probably now be first developed, leading to a still further advance of the mental faculties, and from that moment man as regards his physical form would remain almost stationary. The art of making weapons, division of labour, anticipation of the future, restraint of the appetites, moral, social and sympathetic feelings, would now have a preponderating influence on his well being, and would therefore be that part of his nature on which ‘natural selection' would most powerfully act; and we should thus have explained that wonderful persistence of mere physical characteristics, which is the stumbling-block of those who advocate the unity of mankind...

    We are now, therefore, enabled to harmonise the conflicting views of anthropologists on this subject. Man may have been, indeed I believe must have been, once a homogeneous race; but it was at a period of which we have as yet discovered no remains, at a period so remote in his history, that he had not yet acquired that wonderfully developed brain, the organ of the mind, which now, even in his lowest examples, raises him far above the highest brutes;--at a period when he had the form but hardly the nature of man, when he neither possessed human speech, nor those sympathetic and moral feelings which in a greater or less degree everywhere now distinguish the race. Just in proportion as these truly human faculties became developed in him would his physical features become fixed and permanent, because the latter would be of less importance to his well being; he would be kept in harmony with the slowly changing universe around him, by an advance in mind, rather than by a change in body. If, therefore, we are of opinion that he was not really man till these higher faculties were developed, we may fairly assert that there were many originally distinct races of men; while, if we think that a being like us in form and structure, but with mental faculties scarcely raised above the brute, must still be considered to have been human, we are fully entitled to maintain the common origin of all mankind...

    Here, then, we see the true grandeur and dignity of man. On this view of his special attributes, we may admit that even those who claim for him a position as an order, a class, or a sub-kingdom by himself, have some reason on their side. He is, indeed, a being apart, since he is not influenced by the great laws which irresistibly modify all other organic beings. Nay more; this victory which he has gained for himself gives him a directing influence over other existences. Man has not only escaped ‘natural selection' himself, but he actually is able to take away some of that power from nature which, before his appearance, she universally exercised. We can anticipate the time when the earth will produce only cultivated plants and domestic animals; when man's selection shall have supplanted ‘natural selection'; and when the ocean will be the only domain in which that power can be exerted, which for countless cycles of ages ruled supreme over all the earth...

    Briefly to recapitulate the argument;--in two distinct ways has man escaped the influence of those laws which have produced unceasing change in the animal world. By his superior intellect he is enabled to provide himself with clothing and weapons, and by cultivating the soil to obtain a constant supply of congenial food. This renders it unnecessary for his body, like those of the lower animals, to be modified in accordance with changing conditions--to gain a warmer natural covering, to acquire more powerful teeth or claws, or to become adapted to obtain and digest new kinds of food, as circumstances may require. By his superior sympathetic and moral feelings, he becomes fitted for the social state; he ceases to plunder the weak and helpless of his tribe; he shares the game which he has caught with less active or less fortunate hunters, or exchanges it for weapons which even the sick or the deformed can fashion; he saves the sick and wounded from death; and thus the power which leads to the rigid destruction of all animals who cannot in every respect help themselves, is prevented from acting on him...

In concluding this brief sketch of a great subject, I would point out its bearing upon the future of the human race. If my conclusions are just, it must inevitably follow that the higher--the more intellectual and moral--must displace the lower and more degraded races; and the power of ‘natural selection', still acting on his mental organisation, must ever lead to the more perfect adaptation of man's higher faculties to the conditions of surrounding nature, and to the exigencies of the social state. While his external form will probably ever remain unchanged, except in the development of that perfect beauty which results from a healthy and well organised body, refined and ennobled by the highest intellectual faculties and sympathetic emotions, his mental constitution may continue to advance and improve till the world is again inhabited by a single homogeneous race, no individual of which will be inferior to the noblest specimens of existing humanity. Each one will then work out his own happiness in relation to that of his fellows; perfect freedom of action will be maintained, since the well balanced moral faculties will never permit any one to transgress on the equal freedom of others; restrictive laws will not be wanted, for each man will be guided by the best of laws; a thorough appreciation of the rights, and a perfect sympathy with the feelings, of all about him; compulsory government will have died away as unnecessary (for every man will know how to govern himself), and will be replaced by voluntary associations for all beneficial public purposes; the passions and animal propensities will be restrained within those limits which most conduce to happiness; and mankind will have at length discovered that it was only required of them to develop the capacities of their higher nature, in order to convert this earth, which had so long been the theatre of their unbridled passions, and the scene of unimaginable misery, into as bright a paradise as ever haunted the dreams of seer or poet."

 If one can possibly sum this up, particularly the sense of the last extract, it's in the words "Man has not only escaped ‘natural selection' himself, but he actually is able to take away some of that power from nature which, before his appearance, she universally exercised"  -and this is the contribution of Wallace to scientific materialism.

It would be wrong to see Alfred Russel Wallace as the "forgotten man" in the shadow of Charles Darwin. He was anything but. Neither is this piece a song for an unsung hero; Wallace, unlike many scientists, was rightly feted in his own time and recognised as the brilliant scientist that he was. He was naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist and biologist. He lived and worked to a ripe old age and was still buzzing when he was 90 years old. The popular scientist, David Attenborough, to his credit, has just finished a speaking tour on the works of Alfred Russel Wallace. I think the reason that so little is made of him in this year of the commemoration of Darwin's work, is how much his work was a profound development on the motor force of history and thus a direct attack on bourgeois order, and how much he pushed Darwin in this direction despite the latter's sometimes reluctance. The above quotes are extracts from his paper presented in March 1864 to the Anthropological Society of London (which went completely over their heads - see their subsequent discussion) entitled ‘The Origins of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of "Natural Selection"'. This text, which forced Darwin "out of the closet" in relation to the development of man, and provoked his work The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, very clearly expounds the analysis developed by Patrick Tort on the "reverse effect of evolution" on natural selection one hundred and nineteen years later (see the ICC's website ‘On Patrick Tort's The Darwin Effect').

Early doors - Wallace gives the first great push to the publication of Darwin's Origins of Species

According to Wikipedia, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) was born the eighth of nine children in Wales to a middle class family whose fortunes were about to take a dive. They moved to north London where Alfred was withdrawn from grammar school aged 13 because of the family's financial difficulties. He became an apprentice surveyor, associated with many workers and travelled around England and Wales for work. He was unemployed for a while and worked as a civil engineer, teacher and lecturer. During this period he read Richard Owen and Thomas Paine as well as Malthus. His friendship with the 19 year old entomologist, Henry Bates, came at a decisive moment in his life. Wallace spent much of his working life outdoors and he loved to collect insects (hence the subtitle of a book on him: "The other insect-collector"). During this period, exchanging letters with Bates, he read the anonymous evolutionary work Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1847, Darwin's Journal and Lyell's Principles of Geology. Inspired by the chronicles of travel written by Darwin, von Humboldt and William Henry Edwards, Wallace and Bates decided to travel to the Amazon to collect insects and other species.  They were also to investigate the transmutation of species. Returning to England in 1852, the ship caught fire and Wallace and the others spent 10 days in an open boat before they were rescued. All Wallace's collection was destroyed in the fire but they were insured, which enabled him to survive back in England. Aged between 31 and 38, Wallace travelled around what is now Malaysia and Indonesia. During these times, he became convinced of the reality of evolution, and, according to his autobiography (My Life), posed the question:

"The problem then was not only how and why do species change, but how and why do they change into new and well defined species, distinguished from each other in so many ways; why and how they become so exactly adapted to distinct modes of life; and why do all the intermediate grades die out (as geology shows they have died out) and leave only clearly defined and well marked species, genera, and higher groups of animals?"

Coming out of a fever somewhere on the Malay Archipelago in Ternate (or possibly the island of Gilolo), and, strangely enough, thinking about Malthus, he came up with the answer:

"It then occurred to me that these causes or their equivalents are continually acting in the case of animals also; and as animals usually breed much more quickly than does mankind, the destruction every year from these causes must be enormous in order to keep down the numbers of each species, since evidently they do not increase regularly from year to year, as otherwise the world would long ago have been crowded with those that breed most quickly. Vaguely thinking over the enormous and constant destruction which this implied, it occurred to me to ask the question, why do some die and some live? And the answer was clearly, on the whole the best fitted live ... and considering the amount of individual variation that my experience as a collector had shown me to exist, then it followed that all the changes necessary for the adaptation of the species to the changing conditions would be brought about ... In this way every part of an animal's organization could be modified exactly as required, and in the very process of this modification the unmodified would die out, and thus the definite characters and the clear isolation of each new species would be explained."  Years earlier, Wallace had already become somewhat dissatisfied with simply collecting, describing and recording species; he writes to Bates: "My early letters (1847)... suffice to show that the great problem of the origins of the species was already distinctly formulated in my mind".  By 1853, Wallace nearly had it cracked in an essay entitled The Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of the Species' and shortly after, he wrote: "Of late years, however, a great light has been thrown upon the subject by geological investigations, which have shown that the present state of the earth, and the organisms now inhabiting it, are but the last stage of a long and uninterrupted series of changes"; and to try to explain anything current without reference to those changes could only lead to "wrongful conclusions".

That the idea of natural selection came to Wallace in a fever is not so different to how Charles Darwin developed the concept, if you describe fever as a ferment of the mind; Wallace from a malarial fever and Darwin's from a slow-burning psychological fever brought about by the contradictions of bourgeois society and the analyses that he had to confront it with. Wallace wrote: "Every species has come into existence coincident both in time and space with a pre-existing, closely allied species" (all underlinings by Wallace and all his emphases I've underlined). Using the branch, the limb, boughs, twigs and "scattered leaves" as an example, the law "not merely explains but necessitates what is". Wallace wrote to his brother-in-law: "It seems to me, however, as clear as daylight that the principle of Natural Selection must act in nature. It is almost as necessary a truth as any mathematics. Next, the effects produced by this action cannot be limited. It cannot be shown that there is any limit to them in nature" (Letters and Reminiscences, James Marchant). From the Malay Archipelago, after coming out of the fever and working on it over two evenings, Wallace sent Darwin his text: ‘On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart from the Original Type'. Darwin was amazed to see that it was almost identical to his 1842 analysis that hardly anyone knew anything of. Darwin was advised by his friends to present both papers, which he did to the Linnaean Society in London, 1858, and Darwin's extended views became The Origin of Species. Neither Wallace nor Darwin attended the meeting as Darwin's son was being buried on the day it took place.

Some naturalists, hearing of Wallace's discovery in the Malay Archipelago, wrote to him immediately, criticising his "theorising" when what was necessary was the collection of more facts, they said. This was the only conclusion to his text that reached him as he continued working in solitude in a remote area of Sarawak, apart from one other; Charles Darwin wrote to Wallace on May 1st 1857: "... I can plainly see that we have thought much alike... and come to similar conclusions... I agree to the truth of almost every word of your paper". After Wallace's text appeared in Annals and Magazine of Natural History, Darwin agonised somewhat over publishing his views in what was to become his Origins of Species. But Wallace's work had already publicly crossed a Rubicon and it spurred Darwin on and more or less forced him to publish his own great work. Both men had hit on the same discovery almost simultaneously, though obviously not without a great deal of previous work from both themselves and many others. On his "moment of truth", ie, when the reality of "natural selection" hit him, Darwin wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker in 1885: "... and I can remember the very spot in the road, whilst in my carriage, when to my joy the solution occurred to me", it is that, "the modified offspring of all dominant and increasing forms tend to become adapted to many and diversified places in the economy of nature" (Life of Charles Darwin, one-volume edition).  Wallace hadn't any idea of the development of Darwin's work and both came up with the idea of the "survival of the fittest", the "survival of the most-suited", in relation to organic development almost as one, in a "sudden flash of insight", as Wallace put it. Simultaneous scientific discoveries are not at all unusual, dating back through written history. Indeed multiple scientific discoveries occur, particularly in epochs of social upheaval. It's not surprising given that in pre-history we see the independent discoveries giving rise to developments of pottery, agriculture, metallurgy, etc. But this particular discovery cemented these two very different but very similar men together for life and despite many, many scientific disagreements and personal agonies, they sparked off one another and it's very hard to imagine the advances of one without the other. If the Origins of Species (which Wallace said he had to read five times to understand properly) had been the only result of the two men's work, then that would have been well enough, but as the first part of this text shows, there was a lot more to come. It wasn't enough for Wallace to push Darwin forward once; he did it twice and the second time was even more profound.

The strong, positive and persisting relationship between Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin clarified the issue of the development of humanity

Wallace and Darwin were different men with different personalities, living in different circumstances, but both were humanitarians, both warriors for scientific discovery and truth and both comrades-in-arms in order to achieve that objective, and both suffered their own personal agonies. They were also friends for life. There have been more or less co-ordinated attempts to pervert the analysis of both men in the interests of capitalist exploitation; "social Darwinism" for example, or the way that Wallace's interest in spiritualism is used to try to debase or nullify his great scientific work.

In their travels and general levels of comfort during their early researches, Darwin didn't suffer from the financial constraints that Wallace experienced. Both loved and were equally astounded by the wonders of nature that they came across, but while Darwin's living conditions were that of an upper-class Englishman, Wallace was more down to earth. Not only was he bowled over by nature, but also by man, saying that his "most unexpected sensation of surprise and delight was my first meeting and living with man in a state of nature - with absolutely uncontaminated savages!... and the biggest surprise of all was that I did not expect to be surprised". Wallace goes on to talk about their dignity, their "free step and self-sustaining originality". This was far different from Darwin's attitude to "savages" which bordered on, and sometimes spilled-over, into contempt. Darwin limited (if one can use the word limit) himself to being astounded by nature, but "unaffected by the hand of man". Wallace, like Lewis Henry Morgan, lived with "savages", which though in many ways necessitated by financial constraints was also for Wallace all part of the fun and adventure. For Darwin, these savages were "men who do not possess the instincts of (domesticated) animals".

Wallace spent years building up his great collection (and sometimes losing it) in sometimes difficult and dangerous circumstances. His work was laborious and physical throughout his years in Java, Sumatra, Borneo, New Guinea, Timor, etc. About the same time, Darwin was carrying out his great work around South America, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, etc., in more comfortable circumstances - not that one should hold that against him.

Their attitude on the missionaries they met is also interesting. For Wallace, he thought that the Catholic priests "lived for the good of the people they live among". For Darwin, the Protestants had a more civilising effect on the people! A few words on religion from Wallace because it's noteworthy that this never changed despite his later interest in spiritualism: "I think Protestants and Catholics equally wrong" and "I have since wandered among men of many races and many religions. I have studied man and nature in all its aspects, and I have sought after truth. In my solitude I have pondered much on the incomprehensible subjects of space, eternity, life and death. I think that I have fairly heard and fairly weighed the evidence on both sides and I remain an utter disbeliever". Wallace also pronounced himself thankful for seeing much to admire in many religions and the necessity of many religions. For his part, Darwin underlined the importance of religion and of the old religions. Wallace tried to interest Darwin in radical politics, but Darwin most certainly didn't want to know. I think his reaction is quite funny: on July 12th 1881, Wallace sent Darwin a book entitled An Enquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depression and of Increase in Want with Increase in Wealth, which he called "startling and original". In part, Darwin replied three days later: "I will read the order ‘Progress and Poverty' (a text Wallace had already sent him). But I read many years ago some books on the political economy (I think that this includes the copy of Capital that Marx sent him, of which he read only three pages), and they produced a disastrous effect on my mind, viz, utterly to distrust my own judgement on the subject and to doubt everyone else's judgement". I like the way that Wallace persisted in egging on his mate and I like the way that Darwin reacted - a moderately horror-struck and addled-minded friend.   

Prior to Origins coming out, Wallace wrote to Darwin asking if his book would mention man. Darwin replied "No. I think I shall avoid the whole subject." But though he had a long way to go, the general impetus from both men's work was pointing very much in that direction, driving them on into even more startling conclusions. Darwin had raised the question of man with, and galvanised a significant number of, bourgeois scientists and academics, many of whom, more or less openly, shared Darwin's trepidation for bourgeois order from such an analysis.

Their correspondence was ever fruitful and Wallace once again pushed Darwin forward with his ‘The Origins of Human Races....' mentioned above. While working on The Descent of Man (what Darwin called "a little essay on the origins of mankind") Wallace challenges and modifies Darwin's views. One clear example: Darwin was of the opinion that the constant battles between savages led to the selection of those with physical superiority. Wallace wrote back on May 29, 1864: "I think that (this) would be very imperfect, and subject to so many exceptions and irregularities that it could prove no definite result. For instance, the strongest and bravest men would lead and expose themselves most, and would be subject to wounds and death. And the physical energy which led to any one tribe delighting in war might lead to its extermination by inducing quarrels with all surrounding tribes and leading them to combine against it." Darwin dumped his ill-thought position on this and adopted Wallace's critique wholesale - and that is how it appears in Descent. Darwin also incorporated into Descent, Wallace's idea of harmony within the group in order to explain the emergence of morality and compassion, for him "the highest human attributes" and "a social value to sympathy and selflessness".

In the Penguin paperback edition of Descent, James Moore and Adrian Desmond write in the introduction: "Wallace, having pipped Darwin once, now did it again. In 1864 the tyro, home from the Far East with nothing to lose, confronted the white-supremacist Anthropological Society in person. He said the races had diverged from a common stock by natural selection. ‘Moreover, with the dawn of the human mind, bodily evolution ceased... By building shelters, making weapons, raising crops and co-operating humans had neutralised environmental pressures. The survivors were no long physically the fittest but mentally the brightest and most moral collaborators'".

Both men had studied Malthus earlier in their lives and had used his analyses of competitive individual struggle for the development of their ideas for natural selection at an organic level, i.e., "survival of the fittest", "survival of the most adapted", etc. Indeed, Wallace used the term "survival of the fittest" often, but always in relation to organic development. And Moore and Desmond above note that Malthus himself had wondered how altruism had survived, how it could survive to leave more offspring (the test of "fitness") when the weakest were by definition more vulnerable. Both Wallace and Darwin solved the contradictions that troubled Malthus by turning his concepts upside-down and inside-out.

On Wallace's 1864 paper in May of that year, Darwin wrote: "It is really admirable, but you ought not... to speak of the theory as mine; it is just as much yours as mine". The strength of the men's feelings for each other is shown in further correspondence. Darwin wrote to Wallace: "I hope it is a satisfaction to reflect - and very few things in my life have been more satisfactory to me - that we have never felt any jealousy towards each other, though in some sense rivals. I believe I can say this of myself with truth, and I am absolutely sure that it is true of you". To Darwin from Wallace: "To have thus inspired and retained this friendly feeling, notwithstanding many differences of opinion, I feel to be one of the greatest honours of my life". I can't here go into their scientific differences, particularly on sexual selection which would take a book in itself. But Wallace attached considerable importance to it in both animals and humans and popularised Darwin's views, eventually coming to disagree with at least some elements of it (and making valid criticisms here and there, particularly of species coloration and  the role of women) , but their correspondence continues apace with respect and sincerity. On a personal level, both corresponded to each with compassion, not least on the death aged 7 of Wallace's eldest son Herbert. Darwin had suffered from the terrible blows of the loss of his children; his eldest daughter Anne aged 10 of TB (which further shook Darwin's belief in Christianity), son Charles aged 1 in 1848 and daughter Mary just a few weeks old.

Spiritualism, the supernatural and bourgeois ideology

About a year after coming up with one of the most profound materialist analyses of the epoch outside of The Communist Manifesto, Alfred Russel Wallace fell into spiritualism in a big way. How could this happen? How could a few months after publishing a text rooted in science and materialism on the whole history of mankind, could someone believe in séances? Could it be that the monumental enormity of Wallace's work provoked some sort of irrational contradiction in his mind? I don't think so, because Wallace went on to defend his and Darwin's analysis very clearly, deepening it even, as well as developing other great materialist works. Could it be personal or family tragedies? Again, that doesn't fit the man or into the timescale. Both men were individuals and like any individual, yesterday or today, would be subject to various thoughts, pressures and ideology. It would be speculative to say why Wallace developed this way of thinking. He wrote: "...I have pondered much on the incomprehensible subjects of space, eternity, life and death..." - and he seemed to enjoy his foray into the world of the supernatural and, from what I can see, it didn't affect his work in any detrimental way. If Wallace's bent was towards spiritualism, then Darwin's Achilles Heel was bourgeois ideology (see below). On natural selection on the body then the mind, adaptability to the environment, capacity for improvement and the elastic capacity for co-ordination, Wallace wrote: "... a superior intelligence had guided the development of man in a definite direction, and for a special purpose, just as man guides the development of many animal and vegetable forms". In his The World of Life, written by Wallace in 1910, this developed into the idea of an omnipotent God, the spiritual nature of man and the other world of spiritual beings, but what he originally meant by this isn't at all clear. Thomas Huxley, who remained his friend, called spiritualism "disembodied gossip" - but Huxley went on to become a proponent of "social Darwinism", something that Wallace, spiritualism or no spiritualism, always implacably opposed. He had developed these supernatural "theories" before the end of the 70s and by 1913, just before his death, wrote to James Marchant, saying: "Whether the Unknown Creator is a single Being and acts everywhere in the universe as a direct creator, organiser and director of every minutest motion... or through infinite grades of beings, as I suggest, comes to much the same thing." Faced with Wallace's clarity in his scientific analysis, this is not at all clear and must remain, for the purpose of this defence of his scientific materialism, an unanswered question for the moment.

In a paper called ‘The Quarterly', dated 1869, Wallace revived Lyell's Principles of Geology and showed for the first time publicly, much to the shock of Darwin, his turn to the other world of spirituality. Wallace tries to show in this review how a higher form than evolution and natural selection was responsible for the mind. Darwin's copy of this paper is strewn with notes, underlinings, exclamations and the word "NO". He famously wrote to Wallace in March 1969: "I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child". But their correspondence and work continued in a constructive and fraternal manner, with Darwin writing: "As you expected, I differ grievously from you, and I am very sorry for it". Wallace wrote back saying that he had tested out a series of remarkable physical and mental phenomena and felt that forces beyond science were at work. He also thanked his friend for not being unkind to him about his "heresies" and "excesses" in these fields. And Wallace also thanked Darwin for his "great tenderness" in this respect.

Wallace also got involved in the dubious "science" of phrenology and took a position against compulsory vaccinations, though to some extent this was based on his awareness of the unsanitary conditions they were carried out in and some of the dubious practices used[1]. But all this is completely insignificant compared with his work. And if we looking at this in terms of "lapses", then Darwin's were very much into the realms of bourgeois ideology. You would need to read Descent with blinkers on not to see the repetitions of some of the worse bourgeois filth and his expressed contempt for savages and barbarians and his dismissal of the working class. Similarly, Darwin supported the bloody colonial expansion of the British bourgeoisie and expressed no mercy to its victims. And Darwin could still write in Descent: "The careless, squalid, uninspiring Irishman multiplies like rabbits", along with other Malthusian garbage. Again, you would have to read Descent with your eyes closed not to see Darwin's concessions to eugenics, later praising his cousin's Francis Galton's work on the subject as an "admirable labour". As Moore and Desmond note, later editions of Descent gave more credibility to eugenics as Darwin seemed to come under Galton's influence further, even drawing back on his previous clarity regarding the negative effects of in-breeding. Wallace on the other hand was clear that "contemporary society was too rotten to decide who was fit and unfit".  One of their points of difference on sexual selection was Darwin's insistence on the evolutionary pinnacle of the British aristocracy. Writing in chapter 20 of Descent on different standards of beauty he said: "Many persons are convinced, as it appears to me with justice, that our aristocracy, including under this term all wealthy families in which primogeniture has long prevailed, from having chosen during many generations from all classes the more beautiful women as their wives, have become handsomer, according to European standards". However, these faltering steps in no way call into question his great strides. And the same is true for Alfred Russel Wallace. These were men of their time, individuals outside of a revolutionary framework (and even inside that, both Marx and Engels showed their individual prejudices), of flesh and blood and with many human frailties putting their positions forward against the tide in an epoch of social ferment.

As James Marchant writes in Reminiscences and Letters, while Wallace had his "head in the clouds" in his spiritualism, his feet stayed very firmly on the ground. "Wallace lived to see the theory of evolution applied to the life-history and the starry firmament (...) to the progress of the mind, morals and religion, even to the origins of life - a conception which had completely changed man's attitude towards himself and the world and God. Evolution became intelligible in the light of that idea that came to him in that hut in Ternate and changed the face of the universe". Wallace lived to see his and Darwin's ideas tested by time and continued to defend these ideas and produce great materialist works. On a lecturing tour in Boston, USA, 1886, a newspaper wrote of his talk: "The first Darwinian, Wallace, did not leave a leg for anti-Darwinism to stand on" (his first Lowell lecture) "It was a masterpiece of condensed statement - as clear and simple, and compact - a most beautiful specimen of scientific work" (quoted by Marchant). Wallace proudly proclaimed that some of his critics had said that he was more "Darwinian than Darwin" and admitted "they are not wrong". Wallace continued to develop and deepen the theory of natural selection: "None of my differences with Darwin imply any real divergence as to the overwhelming importance of the great principle of natural selection, while in several directions I believe I have extended and strengthened it".

Wallace's politics, and by way of a conclusion

Inspired by the ideas of Robert Owen at 14 years old, Wallace discussed at work and in village inns with labourers and farmers the existence of "the law-created pauper" resulting from the General Enclosure Act. He wrote: "But all the robbery, all the spoliation, all the legal and illegal fiddling had been on their side... They made the laws to legalise their actions, and, some day, we, the people, will make laws which will not only legalise but justify our process of restitution" (which will be) "justified alike by equity, by ethics, and by religion"

In his "Social Environment and Moral Progress", his conclusion is startling: "It's not too much to say that our whole system of Society is rotten from top to bottom, and that the social environment as a whole in relation to our possibilities and our claims is the worst the world has ever seen" (this was doubly underlined). He goes on to say that these evils are due, "broadly and generally, to our living under a system of universal competition for the means of existence, the remedy for which is equally universal co-operation", which demands, "a system of economic brotherhood, as of a great family, or of friends". For him Capital, the result of stored-up labour, was in the hands of the few. He denounced the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few, while many went without. "We have ourselves created an immoral and amoral social environment", the course of which had to be overturned by initiating a new era of "moral progress".

Wallace certainly had illusions in parliament, reforms, nationalisation, even supporting the Lloyd George government at one stage. But in his ‘Revolt of Democracy', addressed to the Labour Party, he denounced the clergy and science for upholding "the competitive and capitalistic system of society as the only possible and rational one". He was affected by the great strikes of 1908, which showed how the whole of capitalism was dependent on the "working classes". He advocated equal opportunities, the overcoming of restrictions to one kind of labour for "the greatest possible diversity of character", the economic independence of women, sex-love (against the in-bred marriages of the bourgeoisie) and the special role of women in natural selection. He wrote about: "... the suffering of so many infants needlessly sacrificed through the terrible defects of our vicious social system". He supported a higher form of sexual selection underlying the role of women and seeing woman's future role as "far higher and more important than any which has been claimed in the past". He clearly and constantly denounced eugenics as it was developing from a scientific and political standpoint, seeing it as the "meddlesome interference of an arrogant scientific priestcraft".

An acquaintance, a Mr. D.A. Wilson who visited Wallace in 1912 when he was ninety, wrote: "He surprised me by saying he was a Socialist. It appeared to be an unconscious modesty, like a schoolboy's... There was no sign of age but physical weakness and you had to make an effort to remember even that. His eyes kindled when he spoke, and more than once he walked about and chuckled... he reprobated the selfish wild-cut competition which made life harder and more horrible for a well-doing poor man in England than among the Malay or Burmese before they had any modern inventions. Co-operation was the upward road for humanity". Man had grown out of beasthood by co-operation, and by it civilisation began. Wallace was reading Confucius and Kropotkin and supported strikes by railworkers, the 8-hour day and double time for all overtime, seeing these as international concerns. James Marchant reports that apart from eminent scientists across the world, many workers wrote directly to Wallace and, according to him, he answered every letter.

So, in this year of the anniversary and celebration of Darwin's work and life, a failure to mention the contribution of Alfred Russel Wallace would be severely remiss. These two great scientists and thinkers sparked off of one another, and both "changed the face of the universe" - there's not one without the other. And in the scheme of things (and "schemes of things" don't come much greater than Wallace and Darwin's scheme of things) any faltering steps or possibly strange diversions are absolutely insignificant and entirely understandable. In fact, if these faltering steps, the foibles weaknesses of both men, were a necessity for their enormous strides, then so much the better for them.

Wallace's work reinforced the materialist conception of history and in so doing reinforced the perspective for any future society. The existing society for Wallace, a society where competition is king, where the weak go to the wall, and one which is basically immoral, is one that can be scientifically determined to go the way of the dodo given the right conditions.

Baboon, 24/1/10

see also these articles

The persistence of religious obscurantism

On Patrick Tort's The Darwin Effect

Darwin and the workers movement

TV review: Charles Darwin and the tree of life

Social Darwinism: a reactionary ideology of capitalism

Review of Chris Knight's "Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture

[1] The conditions and practices sometimes used by the bourgeoisie surrounding vaccinations are shown in the Milwaukee smallpox outbreak of 1894. The attitude of the authorities was clearly class-based, with the wealthy allowed to quarantine themselves and the poor and immigrants forcibly removed to isolation hospitals and forcibly vaccinated. The latter responded by not reporting incidents of smallpox, hiding its victims and eventually rioting against forced removals and vaccinations. The authorities had once against shown what some disaster specialists call "elite panic". It's the ruling class's expression of "social Darwinism" in opposition to the altruism, solidarity and mutual aid shown by the "lower orders" in times of disaster. The positive self-organisation of the latter is shown in such fairly recent disasters as Mumbai, Hillsborough and New Orleans, as is the social Darwinist response of the bourgeoisie that people in trouble will turn into animals so we must repress them from the beginning. This whole question is fully explored by Rebecca Solnit in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell.