Great Journeys allows readers to travel both around the planet and back through the centuries – but also back into ideas and worlds frightening, ruthless and cruel in different ways from our own. Few reading experiences can begin to match that of engaging with writers who saw astounding things: Great civilisations, walls of ice, violent and implacable jungles, deserts and mountains, multitudes of birds and flowers new to science. Reading these books is to see the world afresh, to rediscover a time when many cultures were quite strange to each other, where legends and stories were treated as facts and in which so much was still to be discovered.
Among the great men of the Victorian age Wallace occupied a unique position. He was the co-discoverer of the illuminating theory of Natural Selection; he watched its struggle for recognition against prejudice, ignorance, ridicule and misrepresentation; its gradual adoption by its traditional enemies; and its final supremacy. And he lived beyond the hour of its signal triumph and witnessed the further advance into the same field of research of other patient investigators who are disclosing fresh phases of the same fundamental laws of development, and are accumulating a vast array of new facts which tell of still richer light to come to enlighten every man born into the world. To have lived through that brilliant period and into the second decade of the twentieth century; to have outlived all contemporaries, having been the co-revealer of the greatest and most far-reaching generalisation in an era which abounded in fruitful discoveries and in revolutionary [pg 003]advances in the application of science to life, is verily to have been the chosen of the gods.
Who and what manner of man was Alfred Russel Wallace? Who were his forbears? How did he obtain his insight into the closest secrets of nature? What was the extent of his contributions to our stock of human knowledge? In which directions did he most influence his age? What is known of his inner life? These are some of the questions which most present-day readers and all future readers into whose hands this book may come will ask.
The relation of the stars to the sun and moon in their respective motions was one of the earliest problems for the astronomer, and it was only solved by careful and continuous observation, which showed that the invisibility of the former during the day was wholly due to the blaze of light, and this is said to have been proved at an early period by the observed fact that from the bottom of very deep wells stars can be seen while the sun is shining. During total eclipses of the sun also the brighter stars become visible, and, taken in connection with the fixity of position of the pole-star, and the course of those circumpolar stars which never set in the latitudes of Greece, Egypt, and Chaldea, it soon became possible to frame a simple hypothesis which supposed the earth to be suspended in space, while at an unknown distance from it a crystal sphere revolved upon an axis indicated by the pole-star, and carried with it the whole host of heavenly bodies. This was the theory of Anaximander (540 B.C.), and it served as the starting-point for the more complex theory which continued to be held in various forms and with endless modifications down to the end of the sixteenth century.
It is believed that the early Greeks obtained some knowledge of astronomy from the Chaldeans, who appear to have been the first systematic observers of the heavenly bodies by means of instruments, and who are said to have discovered the cycle of eighteen years and ten days after which the sun and moon return to the same relative positions as seen from the earth. The Egyptians perhaps derived their knowledge from the same source, but there is no proof that they were great observers, and the accurate orientation, proportions, and angles of the Great Pyramid and its inner passages may perhaps indicate a Chaldean architect.
The term "species" was thus defined by the celebrated botanist De Candolle: "A species is a collection of all the individuals which resemble each other more than they resemble anything else, which can by mutual fecundation produce fertile individuals, and which reproduce themselves by generation, in such a manner that we may from analogy suppose them all to have sprung from one single individual." And the zoologist Swainson gives a somewhat similar definition: "A species, in the usual acceptation of the term, is an animal which, in a state of nature, is distinguished by certain peculiarities of form, size, colour, or other circumstances, from another animal. It propagates, 'after its kind,' individuals perfectly resembling the parent; its peculiarities, therefore, are permanent."
To illustrate these definitions we will take two common English birds, the rook (Corvus frugilegus) and the crow (Corvus corone). These are distinct species, because, in the first place, they always differ from each other in certain slight peculiarities of structure, form, and habits, and, in the second place, because rooks always produce rooks, and crows produce crows, and they do not interbreed. It was therefore concluded that all the rooks in the world had descended from a single pair of rooks, and the crows in like manner from a single pair of crows, while it was considered impossible that crows could have descended from rooks or vice versâ. The "origin" of the first pair of each kind was a mystery. Similar remarks may be applied to our two common plants, the sweet violet (Viola odorata) and the dog violet (Viola canina). These also produce their like and never produce each other or intermingle, and they were therefore each supposed to have sprung from a single individual whose "origin" was unknown. But besides the crow and the rook there are about thirty other kinds of birds in various parts of the world, all so much like our species that they receive the common name of crows; and some of them differ less from each other than does our crow from our rook. These are all species of the genus Corvus, and were therefore believed to have been always as distinct as they are now, neither more nor less, and to have each descended from one pair of ancestral crows of the same identical species, which themselves had an unknown "origin." Of violets there are more than a hundred different kinds in various parts of the world, all differing very slightly from each other and forming distinct species of the genus Viola. But, as these also each produce their like and do not intermingle, it was believed that every one of them had always been as distinct from all the others as it is now, that all the individuals of each kind had descended from one ancestor, but that the "origin" of these hundred slightly differing ancestors was unknown. In the words of Sir John Herschel, quoted by Mr. Darwin, the origin of such species was "the mystery of mysteries."