Alfred Russell Wallace


best excerpts from some works of the co-author of the theory of natural selection and great biogeographer

"we live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hughest, and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared."
(Alfred Russell Wallace, 1876)

"...every species comes into existence coincident in time and space with a preexisting closely allied species."
(Alfred Russell Wallace, 1855)

"Warning colours ... are exceedingly interesting, because the object and effect of these is, not to conceal the object, but to make it conspicuous. To these creatures it is useful to be seen and recognized; the reason being that they have a means of defence which, if known, will prevent their enemies from attacking them, though it is generally not sufficient to save their lives if they are actually attacked. The best examples of these specially protected creatures consist of two extensive families of butterflies, the Danaidae and Acraeidae, comprising many hundreds of species inhabiting the tropics of all parts of the world. These insects are generally large, are all conspicuously and often most gorgeously coloured, presenting almost every conceivable tint and pattern; they all fly slowly, and they never attempt to conceal themselves; yet no bird, spider, lizard, or monkey (all of which eat other butterflies) ever touches them. The reason simply is that they are not fit to eat, their juices having a powerful odour and taste that is absolutely disguising to all these animals. Now we see the reason of their showy colours and slow flight. It is good for them to be seen and recognised, for then they are never molested; but if they did not differ in form and colouring from other butterflies, or if they flew so quickly that their pecularities could not be easily noticed, they would be captured, and though not eaten would be maimed or killed.
As soon as the cause of the pecularities of these butterflies was clearly recognised, it was seen that the same explanation applied to many other groups of animals. Thus, bees and wasps and other stinging insects are showily and distinctively coloured; many soft and apparently defenceless beetles, and many gay-coloured moths, were found to be as nauseous as the above-named butterflies; other beetles, whose hard and glossy coats of mail render them unpalatable to insect-eating birds, are also sometimes showily coloured; and the same rule was found to apply to caterpillars, all the brown and green (or protectively coloured species) being greedily eaten by birds, while showy kinds which never hide themselves - like those of the magpie-, mullein-, and burnet-moths - were utterly refused by insectivorous birds, lizards, frogs, and spiders. (Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection, p. 117) Some few analogous examples are found among vertebrate animals. In his delightful book entitled, The Naturalis in Nicaragua, Mr. Belt tells us that there is in that country a frog which is very abundant; which hops about in the daytime; which never hides himself; and which is gorgeously coloured with red and blue. Now frogs are usually green, brown, or earth-coloured; feed mostly at night; and are all eaten by snakes and birds. Having full faith in the theory of protective and warning colours, to which he had himself contributed some valuable facts and observations, Mr. Belt felt convinced that this frog must be uneatable. He therefore took one home, and threw it to his ducks and fowls; but all refused to touch it except one young duck, which took the frog in its mouth, but dropped it directly, and went about jerking its head as if trying to get rid of something nasty. Here the uneatableness of the frog was predicted from its colours and habits, and we can have no more convincing proof of the truth of a theory than such previsions.
The universal avoidance by carnivorous animals of all these specially protected groups, which are thus entirely free from the constant persecution suffered by other creatures not so protected, would evidently render it advantageous for any of these latter which were subjected to extreme persecution to be mistaken for the former; and for this purpose it would be necessary that they should have the same colours, form, and habits. Now, strange to say, wherever there is a large group of directly-protected forms (division a of animals with warning colours), there are sure to be found a few otherwise defenceless creatures which resemble them externally so as to be mistaken for them, and which thus gain protection, as it were, on false pretences (division b of animals with warning colours). This is what is called "mimicry," and it has already been very fully treated of by Mr. Bates (its discoverer), by myself, by Mr. Trimen, and others. Here it is only necessary to state that uneatable Danaidae and Acraeidae are accompanied by a few species of other groups of butterflies (Leptalidae, Papilios, Diademas, and Moths) which are all really eatable, but which escape attack by their close resemblances to some species of the uneatable groups found in the same locality. In like manner there are a few eatable beetles which exactly resemble species of uneatable groups; and others, which are soft, imitate these which are uneatable through their hardness. For the same reason wasps are imitated by moths, and ants by beetles; and even poisonous snakes are mimicked by harmless snakes, and dangerous hawks by defenceless cuckoos. How these curious imitations have been brought about, and the laws which govern them, have been discussed in the work already referred to."
(Alfred Russell Wallace: "Tropical Nature and Other Essays", 1878, p. 174-177)

"Protective Coloration and Mimicry in Plants. - In animals, as we have seen,colour is greatly influenced by the need of protection from, or of warning to, their numerous enemies, and by the necessity for identification and easy recognition. Plants rarely need to be concealed, and obtain protection either by their spines, their hardness, their lairy covering, or their poisonous secretions. A very few cases of what seem to be true protective colouring do, however, exist; the most remarkable being that of the "stone mesembryanthemum," of the Cape of Good Hope, which, in form and colour closely resembles the stones among which it grows; and Dr. Burchell, who first discovered it, believes that the juicy little plant thus generally escapes the notice of cattle and wild herbivorous animals. Mr. J. P. Mansel Weale also noticed that many plants growing in the stony Karoo have their tuberous roots above the soil; and these so perfectly resemble the stones among which they grow that, when not in leaf, it is almost impossible to distinguish them (Nature, vol. iii. p. 507). A few cases of what seems to be protective mimicry have also been noted; the most curious being that of three very rare British fungi, found by Mr. Worthington Smith, each in company with common species which they so closely resembled that only a minute examination could detect the difference. One of the common species is stated in botanical works to be "bitter and nauseous," so that it is not improbable that the rare kind may escape being eaten by being mistaken for an uneatable species, though itself palatable. Mr. Mansel Weale also mentions a labiate plant, the Ajugaophrydis, of South Africa, as strikingly resembling an orchid. This may be a means of attracting insects to fertilize the flower in the absence of sufficient nectar or other attraction in the flower itself; and the supposition is rendered more probable by this being the only species of the genus Ajuga in South Africa. Many other cases of resemblences between very distinct plants have been noticed - as that of some Euphorbias to Cacti; but these very rarely inhabit the same country or locality, and it has not been proved that there is any of these cases the amount of inter-relation between the species which is the essential feature of the protective "mimicry" that occurs in the animal world."

(Alfred Russell Wallace: "Tropical Nature and Other Essays", 1878, p. 223-224)



"The Great Pyramid. - There is one other striking example of a higher being succeeded by a lower degree of knowledge, which is in danger of being forgotten because it has been made the foundation of theories which seem wild and fantastic, and are probably in great part erroneous. I allude to the Great Pyramid of Egypt, whose form, dimensions, structure, and uses have recently been the subject of elaborate works by Prof. Piazzi Smyth. Now the admitted facts about the pyramid are so interesting and so apposite to the subject we are considering, that I beg to recall them to your attention. Most of you are aware that this pyramid has been carefully explored and measured by successive Egyptologists, and that the dimensions have lately become capable of more accurate determination, owing to the discovery of some of the original casing-stones, and the clearing away of the earth from the corners of the foundation showing the sockets in which the corner-stones fitted. Prof. Smyth devoted many months of work with the best instruments, in order to fix the dimensions and angles of all accessible parts of the structure; and he has carefully determined these by a comparison of his own and all previous measures, the best of which agree pretty closely with each other. The results arrived at are:
1. That the pyramid is truly square, the sides being equal and the angles right angles.
2. That the four sockets on which the four first stones of the corners rested, are truly on the same level.
3. That the directions of the sides are accurately to the four cardinal points.
4. That the vertical height of the pyramid bears the same proportion to its circumference at the base, as the radius of a circle does to its circumference.
Now all these measures, angles, and levels are accurate, not as an ordinary surveyor or builder could make them, but to such a degree as requires the very best modern instruments and all the refinements of geodetical science to discover any error at all. In addition to this we have the wonderful perfection of the workmanship in the interior of the pyramid, the passages and chambers being lined with huge blocks of stones fitted with the utmost accuracy, while every part of the building exhibits the highest structural science.
In all these respects this largest pyramid surpasses every other in Egypt. Yet it is universally admitted to be the oldest, and also the oldest historical building in the world.
Now these admitted facts about the Great Pyramid are surely remarkable, and worthy of the deepest consideration. They are facts which, in the pregnant words of the late Sir John Herschel, "according to received theories ought not to happen," and which, he tells us, should therefore be kept ever present to our minds, since "they belong to the class of facts which serve as the clue to new discoveries." According to modern theories, the higher civilisation is ever a growth and an outcome from a preceding lower state; and it is inferred that this progress is visible to us throughout all history and in all material records of human intellect. But here we have a building which marks the very dawn of history, which is the oldest authentic monument of man's genius and skill, and which, instead of being far inferior, is very much superior to all which followed it. Great men are the products of their age and country, and the designer and constructors of this wonderful monument could never have arisen among an unintellectual and half-barbarous people. So perfect a work implies many preceding less perfect works which have disappeared. It marks the culminating point of an ancient civilisation, of the early stages of which we have no trace or record whatever.
The three cases to which I have now adverted (and there are many others) seem to require for their satisfactory interpretation a somewhat different view of human progress from that which is now generally accepted. Taken in connection with the great intellectual power of the ancient Greeks - which Mr. Galton believes to have been far above that of the average of any modern nation - and the elevation, at once intellectual and moral, displayed in the writings of Confucius, Zoroaster, and the Vedas, they point to the conclusion that, while in material progress there has been a tolerably steady advance, man's intellectual and moral development reached almost its highest level in a very remote past. The lower, the more animal, but often the more energetic types have, however, always been far the more numerous; hence such established societies as have here and there arisen under the guidance of higher minds have always been liable to be swept away by the incursions of barbarians. Thus in almost every part of the globe there may have been a long succession of partial civilisations, each in turn succeeded by a period of barbarism; and this view seems supported by the occurrence of degraded types of skull along with such ":as might have belonged to a philosopher," at a time when the mammoth and the reindeer inhabited southern France.
Nor need we fear that there is not time enough for the rise and decay of so many successive civilisations as this view would imply; for the opinion is now gaining ground among geologists that palaeolithic man was really preglacial, and that the great gap (marked alike by a change of physical conditions and of animal life) which in Europe always separates him from his neolithic successor, was caused by the coming on and passing away of the great ice age.
If the view now advanced are correct, many, perhaps most, of our existing savages are the successors of higher races; and their arts, often showing a wonderful similarity in distant continents, may have been derived from a common source among more civilised peoples."

(Alfred Russell Wallace: "Tropical Nature and Other Essays", 1878, p. 298-302)

"If, therefore, we have traced one force, however minute, to an origin in our own will, while we have no knowledge of any other primary cause of force, it does not seem an improbable conclusion that all force may be will-force; and thus, that the whole universe is not merely dependent on, but actually is, the will of higher intelligences or of one Supreme Intelligence... These speculations are usually held to be far beyond the bounds of science; but they appear to me to be more legitimate deductions from the facts of science than those which consist in reducing the whole universe, not merely to matter, but to matter conceived and defined so as to be philosophically inconsievable. It is surely a great step in advance, to get rid of the notion that matter is a thing of itself, which can exist per se, and must have been eternal, since it is supposed to be indestructible and uncreated, - that force, or the forces of nature, are another thing, given or added to matter, or else its necessary properties, - and that mind is yet another thing, either a product of this matter and its supposed inherent forces, or distinct from and co-existent with it; - and to be able to substitute for this complicated theory, which leads to endless dilemmas and contradictions, the far simpler and more consistent belief, that matter, as an entity distinct from force, does not exist; and that force is a product of mind. Philosophy had long demonstrated our incapacity to prove the existence of matter, as usually conceived; while it admitted the demonstration to each of us of our own self-conscious, spiritual existence. Science has now worked its way up to the same result, and this agreement between them should give us some confidence in their combined teaching.
(Alfred Russell Wallace: Essays on Natural Selection, IX: Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man. see Wallace 1895, p. 212-213)

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