QUOTES FROM WALLACE’S WRITINGS
COMPILED BY GEORGE BECCALONI
These are some of my favorite quotes from Wallace's published and unpublished writings. They provide an overview of his life, work and thoughts, as well as a sample of some of his best writing, and they have been arranged to roughly reflect the chronology of the events to which they refer. All have been carefully checked, but if you find any errors then please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org):
[Wallace, describing how he became interested in botany whilst living near Neath, Wales in 1842...] "But I soon found that by merely identifying the plants I found in my walks I lost much time in gathering the same species several times, and even then not being always quite sure that I had found the same plant before. I therefore began to form a herbarium, collecting good specimens and drying them carefully between drying papers and a couple of boards weighted with books or stones. My brother[who was Wallace's employer], however, did not approve of my devotion to this study, even though I had absolutely nothing else to do, nor did he suggest any way in which I could employ my leisure more profitably. He said very little to me on the subject beyond a casual remark, but a letter from my mother showed me that he thought I was wasting my time. Neither he nor I could foresee that it would have any effect on my future life, and I myself only looked upon it as an intensely interesting occupation for time that would be otherwise wasted. Even when we were busy I had Sundays perfectly free, and used then to take long walks over the mountains with my collecting box, which I brought home full of treasures. I first named the species as nearly as I could do so, and then laid them out to be pressed and dried. At such times I experienced the joy which every discovery of a new form of life gives to the lover of nature, almost equal to those raptures which I afterwards felt at every capture of new butterflies on the Amazon, or at the constant stream of new species of birds, beetles, and butterflies in Borneo, the Moluccas, and the Aru Islands...
Now, I have some reason to believe that this was the turning-point of my life, the tide that carried me on, not to fortune but to whatever reputation I have acquired, and which has certainly been to me a never-failing source of much health of body and supreme mental enjoyment."(From Wallace's 1905 book My Life).
[Wallace, writing to his friend Henry Walter Bates about evolution in the mid-1840's...] "'I have rather a more favourable opinion of the 'Vestiges' than you appear to have. I do not consider it a hasty generalization, but rather as an ingenious hypothesis strongly supported by some striking facts and analogies, but which remains to be proved by more facts and the additional light which more research may throw upon the problem. It furnishes a subject for every observer of nature to attend to; every fact he observes will make either for or against it, and it thus serves both as an incitement to the collection of facts, and an object to which they can be applied when collected...' [1845 letter]
'I begin to feel rather dissatisfied with a mere local collection; little is to be learnt by it. I should like to take some one family to study thoroughly, principally with a view to the theory of the origin of species. By that means I am strongly of opinion that some definite results might be arrived at...' [1847 letter]
These extracts from my early letters to Bates suffice to show that the great problem of the origin of species was already distinctly formulated in my mind; that I was not satisfied with the more or less vague solutions at that time offered; that I believed the conception of evolution through natural law so clearly formulated in the "Vestiges" to be, so far as it went, a true one; and that I firmly believed that a full and careful study of the facts of nature would ultimately lead to a solution of the mystery." (From Wallace's 1905 book My Life).
[on the Amazon rainforest in Brazil...] "There is, however, one natural feature of this country, the interest and grandeur of which may be fully appreciated in a single walk: it is the "virgin forest." Here no one who has any feeling of the magnificent and the sublime can be disappointed; the sombre shade, scarce illumined by a single direct ray even of the tropical sun, the enormous size and height of the trees, most of which rise like huge columns a hundred feet or more without throwing out a single branch, the strange buttresses around the base of some, the spiny or furrowed stems of others, the curious and even extraordinary creepers and climbers which wind around them, hanging in long festoons from branch to branch, sometimes curling and twisting on the ground like great serpents, then mounting to the very tops of the trees, thence throwing down roots and fibres which hang waving in the air, or twisting round each other form ropes and cables of every variety of size and often of the most perfect regularity. These, and many other novel features-the parasitic plants growing on the trunks and branches, the wonderful variety of the foliage, the strange fruits and seeds that lie rotting on the ground-taken altogether surpass description, and produce feelings in the beholder of admiration and awe. It is here, too, that the rarest birds, the most lovely insects, and the most interesting mammals and reptiles are to be found. Here lurk the jaguar and the boa-constrictor, and here amid the densest shade the bell-bird tolls his peal." (From a 1849 letter from Wallace to the members of the Mechanics' Institution in Neath, Wales published in Wallace's 1905 book My Life).
[Wallace, describing the sinking of his ship in the mid-Atlantic on the way back to England from Brazil] "On that morning, after breakfast, I was reading in the cabin, when the Captain came down and said to me, "I'm afraid the ship's on fire; come and see what you think of it,"...I went down into the cabin, now suffocatingly hot and full of smoke, to see what was worth saving. I got my watch and a small tin box containing some shirts and a couple of old note-books, with some drawings of plants and animals, and scrambled up with them on deck...The Captain at length ordered all into the [life]boats, and was himself the last to leave the vessel. I had to get down over the stern by a rope into the boat, rising and falling and swaying about with the swell of the ocean; and, being rather weak, rubbed the skin considerably off my fingers, and tumbled in among the miscellaneous articles already soaking there in the greatest confusion...
We now lay astern of the ship, to which we were moored, watching the progress of the fire. The flames very soon caught the shrouds and sails, making a most magnificent conflagration up to the very peak...The decks were now a mass of fire, and the bulwarks partly burnt away. Many of the parrots, monkeys, and other animals we had on board, were already burnt or suffocated; but several had retreated to the bowsprit out of reach of the flames, appearing to wonder what was going on, and quite unconscious of the fate that awaited them. We tried to get some of them into the boats, by going as near as we could venture; but they did not seem at all aware of the danger they were in, and would not make any attempt to reach us. As the flames caught the base of the bowsprit, some of them ran back and jumped into the midst of the fire. Only one parrot escaped: he was sitting on a rope hanging from the bowsprit, and this burning above him let him fall into the water, where, after floating a little way, we picked him up...
We..kept at a distance of a quarter or half a mile from the ship by rowing when requisite. We were incessantly baling the whole night. Ourselves and everything in the boats were thoroughly drenched, so we got little repose: if for an instant we dozed off into forgetfulness, we soon woke up again to the realities of our position, and to see the red glare which our burning vessel cast over us. It was now a magnificent spectacle, for the decks had completely burnt away, and as it heaved and rolled with the swell of the sea, presented its interior towards us filled with liquid flame,—a fiery furnace tossing restlessly upon the ocean...
The next day, the 8th, was fine, gulf-weed still floated plentifully by us, and there were numerous flying-fish, some of which fell into our boats, and others flew an immense distance over the waves. I now found my hands and face very much blistered by the sun, and exceedingly sore and painful. At night two boobies, large dusky sea-birds with very long wings, flew about us. During the night I saw several meteors, and in fact could not be in a better position for observing them, than lying on my back in a small boat in the middle of the Atlantic." (From Wallace's 1853 book Narrative of travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro).
[The loss of Wallace's collections...] "It was now, when the danger appeared past, that I began to feel fully the greatness of my loss. With what pleasure had I looked upon every rare and curious insect I had added to my collection! How many times, when almost overcome by the ague, had I crawled into the forest and been rewarded by some unknown and beautiful species! How many places, which no European foot but my own had trodden, would have been recalled to my memory by the rare birds and insects they had furnished to my collection! How many weary days and weeks had I passed, upheld only by the fond hope of bringing home many new and beautiful forms from those wild regions; every one of which would be endeared to me by the recollections they would call up, — which should prove that I had not wasted the advantages I had enjoyed, and would give me occupation and amusement for many years to come! And now everything was gone, and I had not one specimen to illustrate the unknown lands I had trod, or to call back the recollection of the wild scenes I had beheld! But such regrets I knew were vain, and I tried to think as little as possible about what might have been, and to occupy myself with the state of things which actually existed." (From Wallace's 1853 book Narrative of travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro).
[From a letter to his friend the botanist Richard Spruce in 1852...] "I cannot attempt to describe my feelings and thoughts during these events. I was surprised to find myself very cool and collected. I hardly thought it possible we should escape, and I remember thinking it almost foolish to save my watch and the little money I had at hand. However, after being in the boats some days I began to have more hope, and regretted not having saved some new shoes, cloth coat and trousers, hat, etc, which I might have done with a little trouble. My collections, however, were in the hold, and were irretrievably lost. And now I began to think that almost all the reward of my four years of privation and danger was lost. What I had hitherto sent home had little more than paid my expenses, and what I had with me in the Helen I estimated would have realized about £500. But even all this might have gone with little regret had not by far the richest part of my own private collection gone also. All my private collection of insects and birds since I left Para was with me, and comprised hundreds of new and beautiful species, which would have rendered (I had fondly hoped) my cabinet, as far as regards American species, one of the finest in Europe. Fancy your regrets had you lost all your Pyrenean mosses on your voyage home, or should you now lose all your South American collection, and you will have some idea of what I suffer. But besides this, I have lost a number of sketches, drawings, notes, and observations on natural history, besides the three most interesting years of my journal, the whole of which, unlike any pecuniary loss, can never be replaced; so you will see that I have some need of philosophic resignation to bear my fate with patience and equanimity." (From an 1852 letter from Wallace to Spruce published in Wallace's 1905 book My Life).
[on a typical day's fieldwork with his assistant Charles Allen in 1854...] "Singapore is rich in beetles, and before I leave I think I shall have a beautiful collection of them. I will tell you how my day is now occupied. Get up at half-past five, bath, and coffee. Sit down to arrange and put away my insects of the day before, and set them in a safe place to dry. Charles mends our insect-nets, fills our pin-cushions, and gets ready for the day. Breakfast at eight; out to the jungle at nine. We have to walk about a quarter mile up a steep hill to reach it, and arrive dripping with perspiration. Then we wander about in the delightful shade along paths made by the Chinese wood-cutters till two or three in the afternoon, generally returning with fifty or sixty beetles, some very rare or beautiful, and perhaps a few butterflies. Change clothes and sit down to kill and pin insects, Charles doing the flies, wasps, and bugs; I do not trust him yet with beetles. Dinner at four, then at work again till six: coffee. Then read or talk, or, if insects very numerous, work again till eight or nine. Then to bed." (From an 1854 letter from Wallace to his mother published in Wallace's 1905 book My Life).
[on insect collecting in Simunjan Sarawak, Borneo...] "To give English entomologists some idea of the collecting here, I will give a sketch of one good day's work. Till breakfast I am occupied ticketing and noting the captures of the previous day, examining boxes for ants, putting out drying-boxes and setting the insects of any caught by lamp-light. About 10 o'clock I am ready to start. My equipment is, a rug [bag]-net, large collecting-box hung by a strap over my shoulder, a pair of pliers for Hymenoptera, two bottles with spirits, one large and wide-mouthed for average Coleoptera, &c., the other very small for minute and active insects, which are often lost by attempting to drop them into a large mouthed bottle. These bottles are carried in pockets in my hunting-shirt, and are attached by strings round my neck; the
corks are each secured to the bottle by a short string. The morning is fine, and thus equipped I first walk to some dead trees close to the house frequented by Buprestidae. As I approach I see the bright golden back of one, as he moves in sideway jerks along a prostrate trunk,--I approach with caution, but before I can reach him, whizz!--he is off, and flies humming round my head. After one or two circuits he settles again in a place rendered impassable by sticks and bushes, and when he leaves it, it is to fly off to some remote spot in the jungle. I then walk off into the swamp along the path of logs and tree-trunks, picking my way cautiously, now glancing right and left on the foliage...I now come to a bridge of logs across a little stream; this is another favourite station of the Buprestidae, particularly of the elegant Belionota sumptuosa. One of these is now on the bridge,--he rises as I approach,-- flies with the rapidity of lightning around me, and settles on the handle of my net! I watch him with quiet admiration,--to attempt to catch him then is absurd; in a moment he is off again, and then settles within a yard of me; I strike with all my
force, he rises at the same moment, and is now buzzing in my net, and in another instant is transferred in safety to my bottle...In some distance now I walk on, looking out carefully for whatever may appear; for near half-a-mile I see not an insect worth capturing; then suddenly flies across the path a fine Longicorn, new to me, and settles on a trunk a few yards off. I survey the soft brown mud between us, look anxiously for some root to set my foot on, and then cautiously advance towards him: one more step and I have him, but alas! My foot slips off the root, down I go into the bog and the treasure escapes, perhaps a species I may never obtain again." (From an 1855 letter from Wallace published in Zoologist 13: 4803-4807)
[on the difficulties of preserving bird skins in Aru] "The lean and hungry dogs before mentioned were my greatest enemies, and kept me constantly on the watch. If my boys left the bird they were skinning for an instant, it was sure to be carried off. Everything eatable had to be hung up to the roof, to be out of their reach. Ali had just finished skinning a fine King Bird of Paradise one day, when he dropped the skin. Before he could stoop to pick it up, one of this famished race had seized upon it, and he only succeeded in rescuing it from its fangs after it was torn to tatters. Two skins of the large Paradisea, which were quite dry and ready to pack away, were incautiously left on my table for the night, wrapped up in paper. The next morning they were gone, and only a few scattered feathers indicated their fate. My hanging shelf was out of their reach; but having stupidly left a box which served as a step, a full-plumaged Paradise bird was next morning missing; and a dog below the house was to be seen still mumbling over the fragments, with the fine golden plumes all trampled in the mud. Every night, as soon as I was in bed, I could hear them searching about for what they could devour, under my table, and all about my boxes and baskets, keeping me in a state of suspense till morning, lest something of value might incautiously have been left within their reach. They would drink the oil of my floating lamp and eat the wick, and upset or break my crockery if my lazy boys had neglected to wash away even the smell of anything eatable. Bad, however, as they are here, they were worse in a Dyak's house in Borneo where I was once staying, for there they gnawed off the tops of my waterproof boots, ate a large piece out of an old leather game-bag, besides devouring a portion of my mosquito curtain!" (From Wallace's 1869 book The Malay Archipelago).
[more on the problems Wallace experienced in trying to preserve his collections in Aru] "In no part of the tropics I have visited has so much care been required to preserve my collections as in the eastern portions of the Indian Archipelago. Three or four distinct species of ants are ever on the watch for soft insects, which they find out and attack with the most astonishing celerity: two of these are very minute and will not be banished. They struggle over water, drop from the roof, and lurk in cracks and crannies where it is impossible to dislodge them; and again and again have my specimens of minute Diptera and Lepidoptera been destroyed by them. The larger species are more easily kept out, but far more destructive when they do effect an entrance, and they never miss an opportunity. A hanging shelf isolated by oil had kept my drying box more than a month in safety, when one morning I found it swarming with red ants, and several fine butterflies taken the day before being carried away piecemeal. Searching for the bridge by which they had reached my fortress, I found that my Malay boy had carelessly thrown a palm-leaf mat behind the shelf, the corner of which just touched it, and now presented a double line of entering and returning ants. I called him to see the mischief he had done, and then, putting all right, went into the forest, and had a successful day, obtaining several fine and some new butterflies. At night, before going to bed, I carefully examined all round my shelf, but the next morning the enemy had again entered; again my fine insects were being carried away piecemeal, and I was only just in time to save one lovely and unique butterfly from total destruction: again I searched,—for a ladder I knew there must be,—and found my unlucky boy had again done the mischief: he had been roasting coffee for our return voyage, packed it in a jar, and tied to it a long slender rattan, by which to secure it on board; this he had placed on the floor under the shelf, with other sundries, and the rattan sticking up its extreme point just touched the shelf beneath. One would think the ants must every night explore and wander everywhere, for they never fail to discover even a hanging thread by which to ascend. In no other place have they attacked my birds as well as my insects. In all parts of South America, in Malacca, in Borneo, they at least were safe on a table or in a box; but in Macassar and at Aru they are attacked as voraciously as the insects, and even greater precautions are necessary, for the ants establish colonies inside the skins, whence they sally out to devour the eyelids, the base of the beak, &c., and completely destroy the beauty of the specimens. Here, too, it is impossible to keep the insect-boxes free from minute spiders which make webs over and under the specimens, and often gnaw them. Then there are some minute larvæ which attack large-bodied Lepidoptera, mining out their bodies, and reducing them to a mass of dust which dirties every specimen in the box; and lastly are the mites, which the damp sea air of these islands seems especially adapted to develope. Long and sad experience of this pest has convinced me that there is but one preventative, viz. to dry the specimens rapidly, which it is often impossible to do, and then neither camphor, arsenic, nor cajeput oil, have any effect whatever. Add to this that everything must be shut up at night in closely fitting boxes, or the insects will be eaten by cockroaches and the bird-skins by rats, and some little idea may be formed of a collector's troubles in the damp climate of Aru, while living in a half-open bamboo shed, surrounded by his daily increasing stores of beautiful objects, which the most incessant vigilance can hardly preserve from destruction." (From Wallace, A. R. 1858. On the entomology of the Aru Islands. Zoologist 16 (185-186): 5889-5894)
[on the delights of eating durian fruit...] "When brought into a house the smell is often so offensive that some persons can never bear to taste it. This was my own case when I first tried it in Malacca, but in Borneo I found a ripe fruit on the ground, and, eating it out-of-doors, I at once became a confirmed durion eater...
[The] pulp is the eatable part, and its consistency and flavour are indescribable. A rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it come wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown-sherry, and other incongruities. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid, nor sweet, nor juicy; yet one feels the want of none of these qualities, for it is perfect as it is. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat durions, is a new
sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience." (From Wallace's 1869 book The Malay Archipelago).
[on dangerous fruits...] "Poets and moralists, judging from our English trees and fruits, have thought that there existed an inverse proportion between the size of the one and the other, so that their fall should be harmless to man. Two of the most formidable fruits known, however, the Brazil Nut (Bertholletia) and the Durian, grow on lofty trees, from which they both fall as soon as they are ripe, and often wound or kill those who seek to obtain them. From this we may learn two things:—first, not to draw conclusions from a very partial view of Nature; and secondly, that trees and fruits and all the varied productions of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, have not been created solely for the use and convenience of man." (From Wallace's 1856 article "On the bamboo and durian of Borneo". Hooker's Journal of Botany 8(8): 225-230).
["playing at earthquakes" in northern Sulawesi] "During my stay at Rurúkan my curiosity was satisfied by experiencing a pretty sharp earthquake-shock. On the evening of June 29th, at a quarter after eight, as I was sitting reading, the house began shaking with a very gentle, but rapidly increasing motion. I sat still enjoying the novel sensation for some seconds; but in less than half a minute it became strong enough to shake me in my chair, and to make the house visibly rock about, and creak and crack as if it would fall to pieces. Then began a cry throughout the village of "Tana goyang! tana goyang!" (Earthquake! earthquake!) Everybody rushed out of their houses—women screamed and children cried—and I thought it prudent to go out too. On getting up, I found my head giddy and my steps unsteady, and could hardly walk without falling. The shock continued about a minute, during which time I felt as if I had been turned round and round, and was almost sea-sick...
At intervals of ten minutes to half an hour, slight shocks and tremors were felt, sometimes strong enough to send us all out again. There was a strange mixture of the terrible and the ludicrous in our situation. We might at any moment have a much stronger shock, which would bring down the house over us, or—what I feared more—cause a landslip, and send us down into the deep ravine on the very edge of which the village is built; yet I could not help laughing each time we ran out at a slight shock, and then in a few moments ran in again. The sublime and the ridiculous were here literally but a step apart. On the one hand, the most terrible and destructive of natural phenomena was in action around us—the rocks, the mountains, the solid earth were trembling and convulsed, and we were utterly impotent to guard against the danger that might at any moment overwhelm us. On the other hand was the spectacle of a number of men, women, and children running in and out of their houses, on what each time proved a very unnecessary alarm, as each shock ceased just as it became strong enough to frighten us. It seemed really very much like "playing at earthquakes," and made many of the people join me in a hearty laugh, even while reminding each other that it really might be no laughing matter.
...The sensation produced by an earthquake is never to be forgotten. We feel ourselves in the grasp of a power to which the wildest fury of the winds and waves are as nothing; yet the effect is more a thrill of awe than the terror which the more boisterous war of the elements produces. There is a mystery and an uncertainty as to the amount of danger we incur, which gives greater play to the imagination, and to the influences of hope and fear. These remarks apply only to a moderate earthquake. A severe one is the most destructive and the most horrible catastrophe to which human beings can be exposed." (From Wallace's 1869 book The Malay Archipelago).
[on the capture of a new birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera croesus) on Bacan Island, Indonesia...] "The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause." (From Wallace's 1869 book The Malay Archipelago)
[on caring for a baby orang-utan whilst living in Simunjan, Sarawak, Borneo...] "I must now tell you of the addition to my household of an orphan baby...which I have nursed now more than a month...I feed it four times a day, and wash it and brush its hair every day, which it likes very much, only crying when it is hungry or dirty...I am afraid you would call it an ugly baby, for it has a dark brown skin and red hair, a very large mouth, but very pretty little hands and feet...It has powerful lungs, and sometimes screams tremendously, so I hope it will live.
But I must now tell you how I came to take charge of it. Don't be alarmed; I was the cause of its mother's death. It happened as follows:-I was out shooting in the jungle and saw something up a tree which I thought was a large monkey or orang-utan, so I fired at it, and down fell this little baby-in its mother's arms...I have preserved her skin and skeleton, and am trying to bring up her only daughter, and hope some day to introduce her to fashionable society at the Zoological Gardens. When its poor mother fell mortally wounded, the baby was plunged head over ears in a swamp about the consistence of pea-soup, and when I got it out looked very pitiful. It clung to me very hard when I carried it home, and having got its little hands unawares into my beard, it clutched so tight that I had great difficulty in extricating myself...From this short account you will see that my baby is no common baby, and I can safely say, what so many have said before with much less truth, 'There never was such a baby as my baby,' and I am sure nobody ever had such a dear little duck of a darling of a little brown hairy baby before." (From an 1855 letter from Wallace to his mother published in Wallace's 1905 book My Life).
[on the writing of Wallace's famous 'Sarawak Law' paper...] "Before giving a general sketch of my life and work in less known parts of the Archipelago, I must refer to an article I wrote while in Sarawak, which formed my first contribution to the great question of the origin of species. It was written during the wet season, while I was staying in a little house at the mouth of the Sarawak river, at the foot of the Santubong mountain. I was quite alone, with one Malay boy as cook, and during the evenings and wet days I had nothing to do but to look over my books and ponder over the problem which was rarely absent from my thoughts. Having always been interested in the geographical distribution of animals and plants...and having now myself a vivid impression of the fundamental differences between the Eastern and Western tropics; and having also read through such books as Bonaparte's "Conspectus,"...giving a mass of facts as to the distribution of animals over the whole world, it occurred to me that these facts had never been properly utilized as indications of the way in which species had come into existence. The great work of Lyell had furnished me with the main features of the succession of species in time, and by combining the two I thought that some valuable conclusions might be reached. I accordingly put my facts and ideas on paper, and the result seeming to me to be of some importance, I sent it to The Annals and Magazine of Natural History, in which it appeared in the following September (1855). Its title was "On the Law which has regulated the Introduction of New Species," which law was briefly stated (at the end) as follows: "Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely-allied species." This clearly pointed to some kind of evolution. It suggested the when and the where of its occurrence, and that it could only be through natural generation, as was also suggested in the "Vestiges "; but the how was still a secret only to be penetrated some years later." (From Wallace's 1905 book My Life).
[on the invisible line which would later bear Wallace's name...] "In this Archipelago there are two distinct faunas rigidly circumscribed, which differ as much as those of South America and Africa, and more than those of Europe and North America: yet there is nothing on the map or on the face of the islands to mark their limits. The boundary line often passes between islands closer than others in the same group. I believe the western part to be a separated portion of continental Asia, the eastern the fragmentary prolongation of a former Pacific continent. In mammalia and birds the distinction is marked by genera, families, and even orders confined to one region; in insects by a number of genera and little groups of peculiar species, the families of insects having generally a universal distribution " (From an 1858 letter from Wallace to Henry Walter Bates published in James Marchant's 1916 book Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences).
[on Wallace's discovery of natural selection...] "At the time in question [February 1858, on the island of Gilolo in Indonesia] I was suffering from a sharp attack of intermittent fever, and every day during the cold and succeeding hot fits had to lie down for several hours, during which time I had nothing to do but to think over any subjects then particularly interesting me. One day something brought to my recollection Malthus's "Principles of Population," which I had read about twelve years before. I thought of his clear exposition of "the positive checks to increase" - disease, accidents, war, and famine - which keep down the population of savage races to so much lower an average than that of more civilized peoples. 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 rapidly than does mankind, the destruction every year from these causes must be enormous in order to keep down the numbers of each species, since they evidently do not increase regularly from year to year, as otherwise the world would long ago have been densely 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, that on the whole the best fitted live. From the effects of disease the most healthy escaped; from enemies, the strongest, the swiftest, or the most cunning; from famine, the best hunters or those with the best digestion; and so on. Then it suddenly flashed upon me that this self-acting process would necessarily improve the race, because in every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain-that is, the fittest would survive...
The more I thought over it the more I became convinced that I had at length found the long-sought-for law of nature that solved the problem of the origin of species. For the next hour I thought over the deficiencies in the theories of Lamarck and of the author of the "Vestiges," and I saw that my new theory supplemented these views and obviated every important difficulty. I waited anxiously for the termination of my fit so that I might at once make notes for a paper on the subject. The same evening I did this pretty fully, and on the two succeeding evenings wrote it out carefully in order to send it to Darwin by the next post, which would leave in a day or two." (From Wallace's 1905 book My Life).
[on the factors which led both Wallace and Darwin to independently discover natural selection...] "Why did so many of the greatest intellects fail, while Darwin and myself hit upon the solution of this problem-a solution which...proves to have been (and still to be) a satisfying one to a large number of those best able to form a judgment on its merits?...
On a careful consideration, we find a curious series of correspondences, both in mind and in environment, which led Darwin and myself, alone among our contemporaries, to reach identically the same theory.
First (and most important, as I believe), in early life both Darwin and myself became ardent beetle-hunters. Now there is certainly no group of organisms that so impresses the collector by the almost infinite number of its specific forms, the endless modifications of structure, shape, colour, and surface-markings that distinguish them from each other, and their innumerable adaptations to diverse environments...
Again, both Darwin and myself had, what he terms "the mere passion of collecting,"-not that of studying the minutiæ of structure, either internal or external. I should describe it rather as an intense interest in the mere variety of living things-the variety that catches the eye of the observer even among those which are very much alike, but which are soon found to differ in several distinct characters...
[W]hen, as in the case of Darwin and myself, the collectors were of a speculative turn of mind, they were constantly led to think upon the "why" and the "how" of all this wonderful variety in nature-this overwhelming, and, at first sight, purposeless wealth of specific forms among the very humblest forms of life.
Then, a little later (and with both of us almost accidentally) we became travellers, collectors, and observers, in some of the richest and most interesting portions of the earth; and we thus had forced upon our attention all the strange phenomena of local and geographical distribution, with the numerous problems to which they give rise. Thenceforward our interest in the great mystery of how species came into existence was intensified, and-again to use Darwin's expression-"haunted" us.
Finally, both Darwin and myself, at the critical period when our minds were freshly stored with a considerable body of personal observation and reflection bearing upon the problem to be solved, had our attention directed to the system of positive checks as expounded by Malthus in his 'Principles of Population.' The effect of this was analogous to that of friction upon the specially-prepared match, producing that flash of insight which led us immediately to the simple but universal law of the "survival of the fittest," as the long-sought effective cause of the continuous modification and adaptation of living things " (From Wallace's acceptance speech on receiving the Darwin-Wallace Medal in 1908, in The Darwin-Wallace Celebration Held on Thursday, 1st July 1908, by the Linnean Society of London. 1909)
[on the beauty of a bird of paradise...] "Thus one of my objects in coming to the far East was accomplished. I had obtained a specimen of the King Bird of Paradise...The remote island in which I found myself situated, in an almost unvisited sea, far from the tracks of merchant-fleets and navies; the wild luxuriant tropical forest, which stretched far away on every side; the rude uncultured savages who gathered round me-all had their influence in determining the emotions with which I gazed upon this "thing of beauty." I thought of the long ages of the past, during which the successive generations of this little creature had run their course-year by year of being born, and living and dying amid these dark and gloomy woods, with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness-to all appearance such a wanton waste of beauty. Such ideas excite a feeling of melancholy. It seems sad that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturbed the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man. Many of them have no relation to him. The cycle of their existence has gone on independently of his, and is disturbed or broken by every advance in man's intellectual development; and their happiness and enjoyment, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would seem to be immediately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone, limited only by the equal well-being and perpetuation of the numberless other organisms with which each is more or less intimately connected." (From Wallace's 1869 book The Malay Archipelago).
[on the importance of collecting natural history specimens...] "It is for such inquiries that the modern naturalist collects his materials; it is for this that he still wants to add to the apparently boundless treasures of our national museums, and will never rest satisfied as long as the native country, the geographical distribution, and the amount of variation of any living thing remains imperfectly known. He looks upon every species of animal and plant now living as the individual letters which go to make up one of the volumes of our earth's history; and, as a few lost letters may make a sentence unintelligible, so the extinction of numerous forms of life which the progress of cultivation invariably entails will necessarily obscure this invaluable record of the past. It is, therefore, an important object, which governments and scientific institutions should immediately take steps to secure, that in all tropical countries colonised by Europeans the most perfect collections possible in every branch of natural history should be made and deposited in national museums, where they may be available for study and interpretation.
If this is not done, future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations. They will charge us with having culpably allowed the destruction of some of those records of Creation which we had it in our power to preserve; and while professing to regard every living thing as the direct handiwork and best evidence of a Creator, yet, with a strange inconsistency, seeing many of them perish irrecoverably from the face of the earth, uncared for and unknown." (From Wallace's 1863 article On the physical geography of the Malay Archipelago. Journal of the Royal Geographical Society 33: 217-234).
[on the subject of religious belief...] "In my early youth I heard, as ninety-nine-hundredths of the world do, only the evidence on one side, and became impressed with a veneration for religion which has left some traces even to this day. I have since heard and read much on both sides, and pondered much upon the matter in all its bearings...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 I have fairly heard and fairly weighed the evidence on both sides, and I remain an utter disbeliever in almost all that you consider the most sacred truths. I will pass over as utterly contemptible the oft-repeated accusation that sceptics shut out evidence because they will not be governed by the morality of Christianity. You I know will not believe that in my case, and I know its falsehood as a general rule...To the mass of mankind religion of some kind is a necessity. But whether there be a God and whatever be His nature; whether we have an immortal soul or not, or whatever may be our state after death, I can have no fear of having to suffer for the study of nature and the search for truth, or believe that those will be better off in a future state who have lived in the belief of doctrines inculcated from childhood, and which are to them rather a matter of blind faith than intelligent conviction." (From an 1861 letter from Wallace to his brother-in-law Thomas Sims published in James Marchant's 1916 book Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences).
[on the 'barbarism' of Victorian English society...] "We most of us believe that we, the higher races, have progressed and are progressing. If so, there must be some state of perfection, some ultimate goal, which we may never reach, but to which all true progress must bring us nearer. What is this ideally perfect social state towards which mankind ever has been, and still is tending? Our best thinkers maintain, that it is a state of individual freedom and self-government, rendered possible by the equal development and just balance of the intellectual, moral, and physical parts of our nature,—a state in which we shall each be so perfectly fitted for a social existence, by knowing what is right, and at the same time feeling an irresistible impulse to do what we know to be right, that all laws and all punishments shall be unnecessary. In such a state every man would have a sufficiently well-balanced intellectual organization, to understand the moral law in all its details, and would require no other motive but the free impulses of his own nature to obey that law.
Now it is very remarkable, that among people in a very low stage of civilization, we find some approach to such a perfect social state. I have lived with communities of savages in South America and in the East, who have no laws or law courts but the public opinion of the village freely expressed. Each man scrupulously respects the rights of his fellow, and any infraction of those rights rarely or never takes place. In such a community, all are nearly equal. There are none of those wide distinctions, of education and ignorance, wealth and poverty, master and servant, which are the product of our civilization; there is none of that wide-spread division of labour, which, while it increases wealth, produces also conflicting interests; there is not that severe competition and struggle for existence, or for wealth, which the dense population of civilized countries inevitably creates. All incitements to great crimes are thus wanting, and petty ones are repressed, partly by the influence of public opinion, but chiefly by that natural sense of justice and of his neighbour's right, which seems to be, in some degree, inherent in every race of man.
Now, although we have progressed vastly beyond the savage state in intellectual achievements, we have not advanced equally in morals. It is true that among those classes who have no wants that cannot be easily supplied, and among whom public opinion has great influence, the rights of others are fully respected. It is true, also, that we have vastly extended the sphere of those rights, and include within them all the brotherhood of man. But it is not too much to say, that the mass of our populations have not at all advanced beyond the savage code of morals, and have in many cases sunk below it. A deficient morality is the great blot of modern civilization, and the greatest hindrance to true progress.
During the last century, and especially in the last thirty years, our intellectual and material advancement has been too quickly achieved for us to reap the full benefit of it. Our mastery over the forces of nature has led to a rapid growth of population, and a vast accumulation of wealth; but these have brought with them such an amount of poverty and crime, and have fostered the growth of so much sordid feeling and so many fierce passions, that it may well be questioned, whether the mental and moral status of our population has not on the average been lowered, and whether the evil has not overbalanced the good. Compared with our wondrous progress in physical science and its practical applications, our system of government, of administering justice, of national education, and our whole social and moral organization, remains in a state of barbarism. And if we continue to devote our chief energies to the utilizing of our knowledge of the laws of nature with the view of still further extending our commerce and our wealth, the evils which necessarily accompany these when too eagerly pursued, may increase to such gigantic dimensions as to be beyond our power to alleviate." (From Chapter 11 of Wallace's 1869 book The Malay Archipelago)
[on the rights of women...] "As long as I have thought or written at all on politics, I have been in favour of woman suffrage. None of the arguments for or against have any weight with me, except the broad one, which may be thus stated:-- All the human inhabitants of any one country should have equal rights and liberties before the law; women are human beings; therefore they should have votes as well as men. It matters not to me whether ten millions or only ten claim it--the right and the liberty should exist, even if they do not use it. The term 'Liberal' does not apply to those who refuse this natural and indefeasible right. Fiat justitia, ruat cœlum." (A short article printed on page 10 of The Times (London) issue of 11 February 1909)
[on eugenics...] "Why, never by word or deed have I given the slightest countenance to eugenics. Segregation of the unfit, indeed! It is a mere excuse for establishing a medical tyranny. And we have enough of this kind of tyranny already. Even now, the lunacy laws give dangerous powers to the medical fraternity. At the present moment, there are some perfectly sane people incarcerated in lunatic asylums simply for believing in spiritualism. The world does not want the eugenist to set it straight. Give the people good conditions, improve their environment, and all will tend
towards the highest type. Eugenics is simply the meddlesome interference of an arrogant, scientific priestcraft." (From an interview with Wallace in 1912 - see http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S750.htm).
[on human avarice...] "The struggle for wealth...ha[s] been accompanied by a reckless destruction of the stored-up products of nature, which is even more deplorable because more irretrievable. Not only have forest-growths of many hundreds of years been cleared away, often with disastrous consequences, but the whole of the mineral treasures of the earth's surface, the slow products of long-past eons of time and geological change, have been and are still being exhausted, to an extent never before approached, and probably not equalled in amount during the whole preceding period of human history." (From Wallace's 1898 book The Wonderful Century; Its Successes and Its Failures).
[on the evils of capitalism...] "This variety and beauty, even the strangeness, the ugliness, and the unexpectedness we find everywhere in nature, are, and therefore were intended to be, an important factor in our mental development; for they excite in us admiration wonder, and curiosity—the three emotions which stimulate first our attention, then our determination to learn the how and the why, which are the basis of observation and experiment and therefore of all science and all philosophy. These considerations should lead us to look upon all the works of nature, animate or inanimate, as invested with a certain sanctity, to be used by us but not abused, and never to be recklessly destroyed or defaced. To pollute a spring or a river, to exterminate a bird or beast, should be treated as moral offences and as social crimes; while all who profess religion or sincerely believe in the Deity—the designer and maker of this world and of every living thing—should, one would have thought, have placed this among the first of their forbidden sins, since to deface or destroy that which has been brought into existence for the use and enjoyment, the education and elevation of the human race, is a direct denial of the wisdom and goodness of the Creator, about which they so loudly and persistently prate and preach.
Yet during the past century, which has seen those great advances in the knowledge of Nature of which we are so proud, there has been no corresponding development of a love or reverence for her works; so that never before has there been such widespread ravage of the earth's surface by destruction of native vegetation and with it of much animal life, and such wholesale defacement of the earth by mineral workings and by pouring into our streams and rivers the refuse of manufactories and of cities; and this has been done by all the greatest nations claiming the first place for civilisation and religion! And what is worse, the greater part of this waste and devastation has been and is being carried on, not for any good or worthy purpose, but in the interest of personal greed and avarice; so that in every case, while wealth has increased in the hands of the few, millions are still living without the bare necessaries for a healthy or a decent life, thousands dying yearly of actual starvation, and other thousands being slowly or suddenly destroyed by hideous diseases or accidents, directly caused in this cruel race for wealth, and in almost every case easily preventable. Yet they are not prevented, solely because to do so would somewhat diminish the profits of the capitalists and legislators who are directly responsible for this almost world-wide defacement and destruction, and virtual massacre of the ignorant and defenceless workers.
The nineteenth century saw the rise, the development, and the culmination of these crimes against God and man. Let us hope that the twentieth century will see the rise of a truer religion, a purer Christianity; that the conscience of our rulers will no longer permit a single man, woman, or child to have its life shortened or destroyed by any preventable cause, however profitable the present system may be to their employers; that no one shall be allowed to accumulate wealth by the labour of others unless and until every labourer shall have received sufficient, not only for a bare subsistence, but for all the reasonable comforts and enjoyments of life, including ample recreation and provision for a restful and happy old age. Briefly, the support of the labourers without any injury to health or shortening of life should be a first charge upon the products of labour. Every kind of labour that will not bear this charge is immoral and is unworthy of a civilised community." (From Wallace's 1910 book The World of Life).
[Wallace on the Aru Islands..] "Two or three of them got round me and begged me for the twentieth time to tell them the name of my country. Then, as they could not pronounce it satisfactorily, they insisted that I was deceiving them, and that it was a name of my own invention. One funny old man, who bore a ludicrous resemblance to a friend of mine at home, was almost indignant. "Ung-lung!" said he, "who ever heard of such a name?—ang-lang—anger-lang—that can't be the name of your country; you are playing with us." Then he tried to give a convincing illustration. "My country is Wanumbai—anybody can say Wanumbai. I'm an 'orang-Wanumbai;' but, N-glung! who ever heard of such a name? Do tell us the real name of your country, and then when you are gone we shall know how to talk about you." To this luminous argument and remonstrance I could oppose nothing but assertion, and the whole party remained firmly convinced that I was for some reason or other deceiving them. They then attacked me on another point—what all the animals and birds and insects and shells were preserved so carefully for. They had often asked me this before, and I had tried to explain to them that they would be stuffed, and made to look as if alive, and people in my country would go to look at them. But this was not satisfying; in my country there must be many better things to look at, and they could not believe I would take so much trouble with their birds and beasts just for people to look at. They did not want to look at them; and we, who made calico and glass and knives, and all sorts of wonderful things, could not want things from Aru to look at. They had evidently been thinking about it, and had at length got what seemed a very satisfactory theory; for the same old man said to me, in a low mysterious voice, "What becomes of them when you go on to the sea?" "Why, they are all packed up in boxes," said I. "What did you think became of them?" "They all come to life again, don't they?" said he; and though I tried to joke it off, and said if they did we should have plenty to eat at sea, he stuck to his opinion, and kept repeating, with an air of deep conviction, "Yes, they all come to life again, that's what they do—they all come to life again."" (From Wallace's 1869 book The Malay Archipelago).
For more quotes see http //www.iol.ie/~spice/quotes.htm and http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/quotes.htm