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Pathfinders: Alfred the Great

“You would, if you’d had my leisure, have done the work just as well, perhaps better, than I have done it.’ The speaker, famously modest and generous in sharing credit, was Charles Darwin. The addressee was Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, described by David Attenborough as ‘the most admirable character in the history of science’, and the centenary of whose death has been the recent subject of public fanfare.

Darwinwas not exaggerating, at least on the subject of leisure, because the story of evolution, with him on one side of the world collecting specimens in the Americas, and Wallace on the other side, doing the same in Malaysia, is in part a story of Victorian class privilege. While Darwin, propertied, educated, part of the respectable scientific in-crowd, had no trouble funding his leisurely Beagle voyage, Wallace faced nothing but struggle. Lacking social status, money or a university degree, Wallace left school at 14 to become an apprentice surveyor, educated himself through local libraries, travelled the railways with his brother by third-class open cattle truck, and lodged in low-rent digs so damp and dirty that his brother died of pneumonia. It was perhaps no surprise that Wallace became interested in social reform, went to meetings organised by followers of Robert Owen, read the works of Edward Bellamy and William Morris and considered himself a socialist.

It was at one of these social reform meetings that he met a kindred spirit, a hosiery apprentice by the name of Henry Walter Bates, an equally passionate autodidact who had left school at 12. Both had developed a keen interest in naturalism and in particular entomology. Both had read Malthus on population, Hutton and Lyell on geology, and Darwin on the Voyage of the Beagle (1839). Bates at just 18 had already had a paper on beetles published in the scientific journal Zoologist. What excited them most was the pressing question of the day in naturalist circles, which was the precise mechanism behind the transmutation of species. The debate over this was fierce, and due in large part to the activities of a Scottish journalist recovering from a psychiatric illness, one Robert Chambers, who in 1844 published anonymously a book entitled Vestiges of the History of Creation. This book attempted to bring together various partial theories of evolution into an overall coherent narrative, at the same time attacking Lamarckism and outraging religious conventions by locating the agents of change in purely mechanical processes, in so doing relegating the role of God to first cause. Chambers’ fear of being ‘outed’ as an evolutionist contextualises Darwin’s own fear and hesitation in publishing his own work, but Chambers needn’t have worried. Scientifically speaking the book might have been amateurish and speculative, with a lack of any solid research data, but commercially it was a sensation, quickly becoming an international bestseller and so respectable that Prince Albert read portions of it every day for the intellectual edification of Queen Victoria.

Being both self-made men still on the make, and burning to contribute to this debate, Wallace and Bates hit upon the wheeze of borrowing money to go to the Amazon to collect specimens. The motive was, as Wallace put it in 1847, ‘to gather facts towards solving the problem of the origin of species’, but there was a hard-headed business angle too. Naturalism was not just a popular intellectual topic in drawing rooms. Victorian gentlemen with private incomes had a mania for collecting exotica of all descriptions, and would pay handsomely for novel species that would drive their peers insane with envy. To Wallace and Bates, the Amazon was if not a get-rich-quick scheme then certainly a sustainable self-funding project. They managed to wring the money out of a commercial agent and set off for Brazil, where they worked indefatigably at building up prize collections, ruining their health in the process. Wallace went home after four years with his entire collection in order to secure further finance, but lost everything when his ship caught fire. Distraught, penniless, all his labours for nothing, he swore never to go to sea again. Bates meanwhile stayed in the Amazon and later became celebrated for his pioneering work on mimicry, bringing home after 11 years (by separate ships) nearly 15,000 species of which 8,000 were new to science.

For Wallace it might have ended there, but never is a long time and just a year later curiosity got the better of caution and he once again fought to get money for another expedition. This time he went to Borneo and New Guinea, where he lived with head-hunters and suffered miserably from malaria. The motive was his reading of Vestiges, which proposed that humans were descended from an ancestor of the orang-utan found in Malaysia. His agent repeatedly told him to stop wasting time with such speculative nonsense, and keep the lucrative specimens coming. But Wallace couldn’t let it go. His conviction grew through his studies that the process of ‘transmutation’ was entirely automatic, triggered by nothing more complicated than relative fitness for survival in the face of competition of species. His agent wouldn’t listen, so Wallace decided to write to somebody who would. His letter dropped on Darwin’s doormat like an atom bomb, with results that are too famous to need repeating.

Why is this interesting for a socialist? Not especially because Wallace himself was a socialist, because he wasn’t, at least not in the sense we mean. He’d never heard of Marx or Engels, never entertained the notion of abolishing capitalism rather than palliating its effects, and in later years became closely associated with John Stuart Mill’s land nationalisation movement, a futile attempt to turn the clock back by reversing the dispossessions of the Great Enclosures Act. Nor is it especially remarkable that the story of Darwin and Wallace was a story of class differences, as the history of science is full of such tales.

What is significant about Wallace is that he was in a sense a living refutation of another popular idea that was circulating in his lifetime, and which continues to influence class ideologies into the modern day, to wit, the Great Man Theory of History. In his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Thomas Carlyle stated baldly that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’. Simply put, there was no underlying pattern to history, no progression, no process, merely a succession of influential human drivers. Had Napoleon, for example, died in infancy, there would have been no empire, no retreat from Moscow, no Waterloo. The theory played well among respectable academics like Hegel, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and anyone who wished to emphasise the primacy of human will over natural forces, an essential component in the white colonialist intellectual justification for conquest and subjugation. Against this view stood Marx who argued that humans could choose to act but not in conditions of their own making, and that these conditions were driven by material processes that it was possible to comprehend scientifically. In short, great men did not make history, history made great men.

One dazzling illustration is the story of Alfred Russel Wallace. It shows that when the world was ready for the ideas of evolution, it did not all ultimately depend on Darwin. In the same way, when the world is ready for the ideas of socialist revolution, it will not all ultimately depend on us.