A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro: With an Account of the Native Tribes, and Observations of the Climate, Geography, and Natural History of the Amazon Valley

Ward, Lock

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Ward, Lock
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Published on
Dec 31, 1890
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Pages
14
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English
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Alfred Russel Wallace
 The title of Mr. Darwin's great work is—On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection and the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In order to appreciate fully the aim and object of this work, and the change which it has effected not only in natural history but in many other sciences, it is necessary to form a clear conception of the meaning of the term "species," to know what was the general belief regarding them at the time when Mr. Darwin's book first appeared, and to understand what he meant, and what was generally meant, by discovering their "origin." It is for want of this preliminary knowledge that the majority of educated persons who are not naturalists are so ready to accept the innumerable objections, criticisms, and difficulties of its opponents as proofs that the Darwinian theory is unsound, while it also renders them unable to appreciate, or even to comprehend, the vast change which that theory has effected in the whole mass of thought and opinion on the great question of evolution.

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."[1]

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."

Sir James Marchant
In Westminster Abbey there repose, almost side by side, by no conscious design yet with deep significance, the mortal remains of Isaac Newton and of Charles Darwin. "'The Origin of Species,'" said Wallace, "will live as long as the 'Principia' of Newton." Near by are the tombs of Sir John Herschel, Lord Kelvin and Sir Charles Lyell; and the medallions in memory of Joule, Darwin, Stokes and Adams have been rearranged so as to admit similar memorials of Lister, Hooker and Alfred Russel Wallace. Now that the plan is completed, Darwin and Wallace are together in this wonderful galaxy of the great men of science of the nineteenth century. Several illustrious names are missing from this eminent company; foremost amongst them being that of Herbert Spencer, the lofty master of that synthetic philosophy which seemed to his disciples to have the proportions and qualities of an enduring monument, and whose incomparable fertility of creative thought entitled him to share the throne with Darwin. It was Spencer, Darwin, Wallace, Hooker, Lyell and Huxley who led that historic movement which garnered the work of Lamarck and Buffon, and gave new direction to the ceaseless interrogation of nature to discover the "how" and the "why" of the august progression of life. [pg 002] Looking over the long list of the departed whose names are enshrined in our Minster, one has sorrowfully to observe that contemporary opinion of their place in history and abiding worth was not infrequently astray; that memory has, indeed, forgotten their works; and their memorials might be removed to some cloister without loss of respect for the dead, perhaps even with the silent approval of their own day and generation could it awake from its endless sleep and review the strange and eventful course of human life since they left "this bank and shoal of time." But may it not be safely prophesied that of all the names on the starry scroll of national fame that of Charles Darwin will, surely, remain unquestioned? And entwined with his enduring memory, by right of worth and work, and we know with Darwin's fullest approval, our successors will discover the name of Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin and Wallace were pre-eminent sons of light.

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.

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