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Wallace, Dr. Alfred Russel (Usk, Wales, Jan. 8, 1823 - Nov. 7, 1913): Evolutionist & Spiritualist
Institution / Country:England

A British naturalist and explorer, Alfred Russel Wallace (January 8, 1823 to November 7, 1913) is best known as co-originator with Charles Darwin of the natural selection theory of evolution. While history has given Darwin most of the credit, it is well documented that Wallace had developed a parallel theory at the same time Darwin was working on his. The concept was made public when the Darwin-Wallace paper was read to the members of the The Linnean Society of London on July 1, 1858.

Perhaps the reason that Darwin is much more remembered than Wallace is that the whole concept was brought to the general public’s attention the following year, 1859, by a book, On the Origin of Species, authored solely by Darwin. But a contributing factor may be that Wallace became a convert to spiritualism, a quasi-religious movement, during the latter half of the 1860s.

Spiritualism was a philosophy that clearly seemed to conflict with that of materialism, the emerging “enlightened” philosophy of the scientists and scholars of the day. Materialism holds that matter is the ultimate reality in the universe. It is a philosophy that leans toward atheism and extinction, denying the existence of a soul and the survival of consciousness after death. The move toward materialism began to take shape during the 17th Century, the so-called “Age of Reason.” What later came to be known as “Darwinism” provided the rationalists with their knockout punch against the superstitions of religions. While Wallace was able to reconcile his views on spiritualism with his views of evolution, most of the “enlightened” of the day saw it as totally incompatible and scoffed at such beliefs.

Wallace was by no means the first scientist or scholar to take an interest in spiritualism, although he may have been the first prominent person in Great Britain to fully express his views. It is known that Professor Augustus DeMorgan, a pioneering English mathematician and logician, wrote favorably of Spiritualism during the 1850s, but his contributions to the subject were limited. Mainstream science called it all humbug, the result of either fraud or delusion. Wallace was certainly aware of the fact that some charlatans were deceiving gullible people, but he concluded that there were genuine mediums.

“I am well aware that my scientific friends are somewhat puzzled to account for what they consider to be my delusion, and believe that it has injuriously affected whatever power I may have once possessed of dealing with the philosophy of Natural History,” Wallace wrote in the preface of his 1875 book, Miracles and Modern Spiritualism. He went on to say that his views on spiritualism were in no way inconsistent with “a thorough acceptance of the grand doctrine of Evolution, through natural selection…”

Born in Usk, Wales on January 8, 1823, the eighth of nine children of Thomas Vere Wallace and Mary Anne Greenell, young Alfred was forced to end his formal education at age 14 due to financial setbacks suffered by his parents. Around Christmas 1836, he was sent to live with his older brother, John, in London, and then, the following year, he moved to Bedfordshire, to work for his eldest brother, William, in William’s surveying business. In that trade, he learned geometry, trigonometry, drafting, map making, building design and construction, mechanics, and agricultural chemistry. He also began taking an interest the natural history of the area, especially botany, geology, and astronomy. In late 1843, he accepted a position at the Collegiate School in Leicester, teaching drafting, surveying, English, and mathematics and took advantage of the library there to read more about natural history. He was later awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Dublin and Oxford University.

When his brother William died in 1845, Wallace quit his teaching position to run his brother’s surveying business. However, he continued in his spare time to pursue his interest in natural history and was even made curator of a museum. Inspired by a book entitled Voyage Up the River Amazon by William H. Edwards and frustrated by some of the administrative aspects of the surveying business, especially collections, Wallace decided, at age 25, to become a professional naturalist, collecting animal and plant specimens. He enlisted the help of Henry Walter Bates, an amateur naturalist whom he had met while teaching in Leicester, and the two set sail for the Amazon during April 1848.

Wallace spent four years exploring and collecting specimens, while also studying the people, the languages, and the geography. On the return trip to England, Wallace was forced to abandon ship with the rest of the crew when the cargo caught fire. His entire collection was lost as well as many of his notes and sketches. Nevertheless, he wrote six academic articles, including Travels on the Amazon, On the Monkeys of the Amazon, and Palm Trees of the Amazon and Their Uses.

Wallace’s conclusions concerning natural selection were arrived at after years of travel in wilderness areas, including the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago. He shared his ideas with Darwin, another naturalist. As the story goes, Darwin saw Wallace as a threat to his preeminence in the field and immediately discussed the dilemma with two close friends, both of whom encouraged the presentation of Wallace’s essay along with some of Darwin’s writings at the July 1, 1858 meeting of the Linnean Society. Wallace did not learn of the presentation until after the fact.

Wallace became interested in spiritualism in 1865, some 17 years after the “craze” began in a small village outside Rochester, New York and quickly spread to Europe. Sitting with various mediums, especially a Mrs. Marshall of London, Wallace observed various paranormal phenomena, including table levitations and messages spelled out by tiltings of a levitating table (the table would tilt as the sitters recited the alphabet). In his first sitting with Mrs. Marshall, Wallace’s brother Herbert communicated. As a test, Wallace asked for the name of the place where he died and the response was properly given as Para. He also asked for the name of the mutual friend who last him and the correct name, Henry Walter Bates, was also communicated.

“Perhaps the most important characteristic of these phenomena [is that] they are from beginning to end essentially human,” Wallace wrote. “They come to us with human ideas; they make use of human speech, of writing and drawing; they manifest wit and logic, humor, and pathos, that we can all appreciate and enjoy; the communications vary in character as those of human beings; some rank with lowest, some with the highest, but all are essentially human.”

Wallace invited many of his scientific colleagues to observe mediumistic phenomena with him, informing them that they might have to sit three or four times before any phenomena developed. Two of them sat once, observed some minor phenomena, were apparently not impressed and declined further sittings. As would become evident to other researchers in later years, negativity on the part of the sitters defeats the phenomena. Harmony is required. Thus, it may have been that those friends brought too much negativity to the sittings. Most of Wallace’s friends declined the invitation, however. Professor Thomas Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” was one who declined, telling Wallace that he had absolutely no interest in the subject, while also informing him that he was not disposed to issue a commission of lunacy against him.

“The antagonism which it excites seems to be mainly due to the fact that [a spirit world] is, and has long been in some form or other, the belief of the religious world and of the ignorant and superstitious of all ages, while a total disbelief in spiritual existence has been the distinctive badge of modern scientific skepticism,” Wallace opined.

In 1869, the Dialectical Society of London appointed a committee, including Wallace, to investigate mediumship. The committee returned a report that genuine phenomena exist, a decision not well received by the society. It is believed to have been this report that prompted Professor William Crookes (Chapter IV) to begin his investigation of mediums. In 1876, Professor William Barrett (Chapter V) submitted a paper to the British Association for the Advancement of Science on the subject of mental telepathy and mediumship. The Association rejected it until Wallace protested the rejection. Barrett was then allowed to deliver the paper but not publish it.

Wallace admitted to being a materialist before discovering spiritualism. “I was a confirmed philosophical skeptic, rejoicing in the works of Voltaire, Strauss, and Carl Vogt, and an ardent admirer (as I still am) of Herbert Spencer,” he explained. “I was so thorough and confirmed a materialist that I could not at that time find a place in my mind for the conception of spiritual existence, or for any other agencies in the universe than matter and force.”

But, unlike most of his scientific colleagues, Wallace was apparently an open-minded skeptic and not as locked into materialism as his statement suggests. Indeed, even Darwin called himself an agnostic rather than atheist. Wallace apparently saw how humanity, moved by gross egoism, had accepted laws and morals contrary to Nature’s teachings, and he was able to perceive that man was working against Nature. Moreover, he no doubt sensed that while science had brought “enlightenment,” it also brought darkness and despair. Instead of pursuing the eternal bliss offered by religion, humankind was suddenly on a march toward nothingness.

As Wallace saw it, the future welfare or misery of mankind depended on the answer to the question of whether man’s consciousness survives death, a question which science had ignored. “If the question should be finally decided in the negative, if all men without exception ever come to believe that there is no life beyond this life, if children were all brought up to believe that the only happiness they can ever enjoy will be upon earth, then it seems to me that the condition of man would be altogether hopeless,” Wallace offered on this subject, “because there would cease to be any adequate motive for justice, for truth, for unselfishness, and no sufficient reason could be given to the poor man, to the bad man, or the selfish man, why he should not systematically seek his own personal welfare to the cost of others.”

Text and photo of Dr. Wallace courtesy of Michael Tymn, author of The Articulate Dead where Michael examines several of the best mediums of yesteryear and the scientific research surrounding them.