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Alfred Russell Wallace and the Evolution of the Human Mind


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Today the fame of Alfred Russell Wallace is as the independent codiscoverer with Charles Darwin of the origin of species by natural selection. Although they were on very amiable terms all their lives, 11 years after announcing their discovery, Wallace and Darwin had a major disagreement on the evolution of human cognition. The author considers how this divergence and other disagreements, particularly on the role of instinct, are related to the differences in their class backgrounds, education, experience with non-European cultures, and views on socialism, phrenology, mesmerism, and spiritualism.
A " spirit " photograph of Wallace and, supposedly, his deceased mother. Wallace (1875) described its circumstances and validity: " On March 14th, 1874 I went to Hudson's [a photography studio], by appointment, for the first and only time by Mrs. Guppy as medium [formerly Miss Nichols, later Mrs. Volkman, a famous medium especially for her flower and fruit apparitions]. I expected that if I got any spirit pictures it would be that of my elder brother, in whose name messages had frequently been received through Mrs. Guppy. Before going to Hudson's I sat with Mrs. G., and had commutations by taps to the effect that my mother would appear on the plate if she could. I sat three times, always choosing my own position. Each time a second figure appeared on the negative with me . . . . I recognized none of these figures in the negatives; but the moment I got the proofs, the first glance showed me that the third plate contained an unmistakable portrait of my mother—like her both in features and expression . . . a somewhat pensive, idealized likeness—yet still, to me, an unmistakable likeness . . . I see no escape from the conclusion that some spiritual being, acquainted with my mother's various aspects during life, produced these recognizable impressions on the plate. That she still lives and produced these figures may not be proved; but it is a more safe and natural explanation to think that she did so, than to suppose we are surrounded by beings who carry out an elaborate series of impostures for no other purpose that to dupe us into a belief in a continued existence after death . . . [Wallace sent a copy of the photograph to his brother and sister-in-law who exclaim] '. . . Why, it's your mother!'. . . Neither my brother nor his wife knew any thing of Spiritualism, and both are prejudiced against it. We may therefore accept their testimony as to the resemblance to my mother . . . as conclusive. "
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The Neuroscientist
The online version of this article can be found at:
DOI: 10.1177/1073858410377236
2010 16: 496Neuroscientist
Charles Gross
Alfred Russell Wallace and the Evolution of the Human Mind
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History of Neuroscience
The Neuroscientist
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DOI: 10.1177/1073858410377236
Alfred Russell Wallace and the
Evolution of the Human Mind
Charles Gross1
Today the fame of Alfred Russell Wallace is as the independent codiscoverer with Charles Darwin of the origin of
species by natural selection. Although they were on very amiable terms all their lives, 11 years after announcing their
discovery, Wallace and Darwin had a major disagreement on the evolution of human cognition. The author considers
how this divergence and other disagreements, particularly on the role of instinct, are related to the differences in their
class backgrounds, education, experience with non-European cultures, and views on socialism, phrenology, mesmerism,
and spiritualism.
Alfred Russell Wallace, Charles Darwin, evolution of human cognition, creation “science”
In February 1858, Alfred Russell Wallace, while trying
to make a living in the Malay Archipelago collecting
specimens for wealthy Englishmen, developed the idea
of the origin of species by natural selection of heritable
variations. He sent a manuscript describing these ideas
to the established biologist Charles Darwin whose travel
writing he had long admired (Wallace 1905). Darwin
was stunned to see the ideas in Wallace’s manuscript that
he had been developing for decades but had never pre-
sented publicly. On the advice of his close friends, the
geologist Sir Charles Lyell and the botanist Joseph
Hooker, back-to-back papers by Darwin and Wallace, on
their independently arrived at theory of natural selection,
were presented at a meeting of the Linnaean Society on
July 1, 1858 (e.g., Browne 1995; Desmond and Moore
1994; the papers are reprinted as Darwin and Wallace
1958). Not only is there no evidence for a priority dis-
pute between them, but for the rest of their lives they
exuded extraordinary affection for each other. For exam-
ple, Darwin writes to Wallace on May 28, 1864 “. . . but
you ought not to speak . . . of the theory as mine, it is just
as much yours as mine” (Marchant 1916) and Wallace
replies the next day:
As to the Theory of Natural Selection itself, I shall
always maintain it to be actually yours and yours
only. You had worked it out in details that I would
never have thought of, years before I had a ray of
light on the subject . . . . All the merit I claim is . . .
having been the means of inducing you to write and
publish at once (Marchant 1916).
A decade after their joint paper, Wallace radically
diverged from Darwin and claimed that natural selection
did not apply to human cognition. This article considers
how Wallace’s background and life experiences led to this
marked disagreement from Darwin.
Wallace’s Background
Education. Wallace came from an impoverished family
that could only support six years of formal schooling for
him, all in a one-room schoolhouse. As a teenager and in
his twenties he worked as a builder in London where he
often frequented working class educational institutes
such as the “Halls of Science” and Mechanics Institutes.
There he was exposed to the ideas and movements popu-
lar among fellow “plebian autodidacts” of the day par-
ticularly the interrelated currents of Owenite socialism,
phrenology, and mesmerism (Wallace 1905; Marchant
1916). Each of these movements represented working
and lower middle class revolts against the established
order in science, religion, and government (Cooter 1984;
Winter 1997; Jones 2002; Barrow 1986; Claeys 2008;
Moore 2008; Smith 2008). Each continued to exert major
influences on Wallace from his teenage years until his
death in 1913 (Wallace 1898, 1905; Marchant 1916). These
1Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey
Corresponding Author:
Charles Gross, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience Institute,
Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08540
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Gross 497
movements were scoffed at by the Victorian scientific
elite and today are largely relegated to the dustbin of
pseudoscience. In view of their importance to Wallace and
his ideas, they deserve to be seen in their nineteenth-
century historical context.
Socialism. Wallace wrote of Robert Owen “. . . I have
always looked upon Owen as my first teacher in the phi-
losophy of human nature and my first guide through the
labyrinth of social science” (Wallace 1905) and “I consider
Owen of the first as well as one of the greatest men of the
19th century . . . but too far in advance of his time” (March-
ant 1916). Owen was a Utopian socialist and agnostic and
taught that humans are the product of their environment
and education not of any “preexisting” condition. For Owen,
each child was a blank slate:
Human nature, save the minute differences which are
ever found in all the compounds of the creation, is
one and the same in all; it is without exception uni-
versally plastic, and by judicious training the infants
of any one class in the world may be readily formed
into men of any other class (Owen 1991[1816]).
Phrenology as developed by Franz Joseph Gall and
J. C. Spurzheim was based on several original principles: 1)
The cerebral cortex is a set of organs that underlie
different psychological faculties; 2) the development of
these faculties is a function of the activity and, therefore,
the size of the corresponding cortical organ; and 3) the
size of each cortical organ is reflected in the prominence
(bumps) of the overlying skull. At the time phrenology
was a “purveyor” of materi alism and rationalism that
helped lay the groundwork for the acceptance of evolu-
tionary ideas as well as the localization of psychological
function in different brain areas. Gall’s originality and
achievement must be seen in the context of preceding
both Broca’s demonstration of localization of language
function in the cortex and Fritch and Hitzig’s and Ferrier’s
demonstration of movement produced by electrical stimu-
lation of the brain. In the long run, phrenology was a
major stimulus to the development of modern neuroscience
by 1) directing attention to the long neglected cerebral
cortex, 2) stimulating the search for sensory pathways to
the cortex, 3) initiating the sys tematic study of cortical
cytoarchitectonics and myelo architectonics, and 4) encour-
aging the study of the effects of cortical lesions in humans
and animals. The emphasis on skull morphology was
quickly dropped in the scientific community although it
continued in popular culture; it is about all that is still
remembered of phrenology today (Gross 1998, 2009;
Cooter 1984; Young 1970).
As strange as it may seem to the modern sensibility,
phrenology, and Owenism, were very closely allied. This
was particularly true in Britain where the leading
phrenologist was George Combe. For both Combe and
Owen (and Gall), individuals were morally accountable
and, through education and environment, could improve
their mental and moral faculties (Cooter 1984). Both pro-
vided to the thinking artisan and mechanic the goal of
individual and social improvement and methods for
achieving this goal.
As a teenager Wallace had read Combe’s Constitution
of Man (1828) and was convinced of the validity of phre-
nology, even citing his own supposed “double-blind”
phreno-mesmerism experiments in its support (Wallace
1905). Later, he interpreted Ferrier’s (1876) pioneering
demonstration of complex behavior produced by electri-
cal stimulation of the brain as a direct confirmation of
phrenology (Wallace 1898), just as Broca described his
demonstration of language function in the frontal lobe as
confirming Gall (Gross 2009). In his 1898 work, The
Wonderful Century, Wallace listed the neglect of phrenol-
ogy as the leading failure of the 19th century. Wallace’s
interest in phrenology directed his measurement of brain
size in different peoples and his belief that the size of the
brains, and therefore the intellectual faculties of “savages,”
were equal to that of Englishmen, both germane to his
differences with Darwin over evolution.
Perhaps Wallace’s ready acceptance of phrenology
should not be surprising. Gall’s theory was based on a
naturalistic collection of anecdotes. Similarly, Wallace’s
theory of natural selection (and, at least initially, Darwin’s)
was based on a large number of observations and anec-
dotes. Eventually, of course, Darwin (but not Wallace)
added the results of experiments in selective breeding,
whereas Gall always rejected experimental tests of his
ideas. Punctate localization of function in the brain, first
promoted by the phrenologists, was actually delayed by
the experiments of J. P. Flourens, who concluded from
his brain lesion experiments on pigeons that the cerebral
hemispheres acted as a whole (Gross 1998).
Mesmerism was another example of “dissenting knowl-
edge” (Cooter 1984). F. A. Mesmer was an Austrian phy-
sician who thought he could treat his ailing patients by
passing a metal bar over them. He thought a magnetic
type of energy passed from the metal to the patient. Even-
tually, he realized that the metal was not necessary and he
spoke of “animal magnetism.” By the 1840s animal mag-
netism was being used by surgeons to carry out painless
major surgery and became a widespread form of what we
would now call “alternative medicine.” James Braid sub-
stituted the term hypnosis and the idea of some magnetic
fluid passing between the doctor and patient fell away
(Alexander and Selesnick 1966). After his conversion to
spiritualism, Wallace repeatedly used hypnotism as an
example of a phenomenon long ridiculed and ignored by
the highest scientific authorities that was eventually
proved valid. It was a case of “. . . facts long denied as
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498 The Neuroscientist 16(5)
delusions or exaggerations admitted to be realities”
(Wallace 1898).
Wallace’s life experiences before his speculations
on the origin of species were radically different from
Darwin’s. Leaving school as a teenager, Wallace worked
for six years as an apprentice surveyor with his older
brother, mostly in Wales (Wallace 1905). Parliament
had just passed the “Tithe Commutation Act,” which
substituted rent for traditional tithes. It was a boon to
surveyors, as it required detailed surveying of each
property field by field. It was also a disaster for the
Welsh peasantry leading to widespread rioting and
property destruction, particularly of tollgates, a symbol
of another hated tax. The peasant rebels called them-
selves “Rebeccas” after the biblical Rebecca (Genesis
24:60) whose “seed” was “to possess the gate of those
that hate them” (Moore 1997). Wallace called the new
act “legalized robbery of the poor for the aggrandize-
ment of the rich” (Wallace 1905):
The Rebecca disturbances show that [the Welsh
peasant] may be roused, and his ignorance of other
effectual measures should be his excuse for the ille-
gal and forcible means he took to obtain redress . . . .
It is to be hoped that he will not have to again to
resort to such outrages as the only way to compel
his rulers to do him justice (Wallace 1905).
Wallace left the turmoil of Wales to spend a year
teaching in Leicester before going abroad with the fellow
autodictat and naturalist Henry Bates to try to earn a
living as a collector of plants and animals for wealthy
patrons. In this period he read Malthus’s 1798 Essay on
Population (Wallace 1905), which argued that the growth
of human population would outstrip the resources to feed
it. As Moore (1997) put it, on every page of Malthus
were the “paltry provisions, the filth and squalor, the
rude agriculture, the ignorance, the violence” that Wallace
had seen in Wales. Just as Malthus confirmed what Wallace
had seen in Wales, it became the way he soon would see
the natural world. In addition, the economic mapping he
did in Wales probably facilitated his subsequent major
biogeographical contributions. It also later helped turn
Wallace into an activist for land reform, indeed for land
For the rest of his life, even after his scientific recogni-
tion, Wallace had difficulty getting a decent job with
resultant chronic financial difficulties. These were finally
alleviated in 1881 by Darwin and his friends arranging
for a government pension of £200 a year. This may have
been adequate for his needs but was a very small fraction
of the size of Darwin’s income (Browne 2002; Desmond
and Moore 1994).
Charles Darwin, by contrast, came from a very wealthy
family, and he enhanced this wealth by judicious and var-
ied investments throughout his adult life (Browne 2002).
He received about the best education available in his
time, first in the politically and scientifically radical
world of medical school in Edinburgh, then among the
gentleman naturalist/professors at Cambridge and finally
in the London free-thinking bohemian world of his
brother. He literally never had to hold a paid job of any
kind (Desmond and Moore 1994; Browne 1995, 2002).
Whereas both Darwin and Wallace were very heavily
influenced and informed by their Pacific voyages, their
actual experiences on them were quite different. Darwin
was a gentleman naturalist aboard the Beagle with no
duties at all except to be a companion for his Captain
Fitzroy, which, because of strong differences over slav-
ery, politics, and religion, he eventually failed at. He
largely saw natives from the deck of the Beagle or on an
occasional overland foray. These experiences reinforced
his Victorian belief in the superiority of the white man as
well as his abhorrence of slavery.
Wallace’s experiences abroad were quite different
(Eisely 1961). He lived among various Pacific islanders,
often as the sole white man, and was carried from island
to island in their primitive praus (Wallace 1869b). Figure 1
shows Wallace at this period, and Figure 2 presents a
replica of the boat he sailed on. From these experiences,
he had no doubt that the islander’s cognitive skills were
equal to that of the average Englishman.
Many other illustrations of both intelligence and
morality are met with among savage races in all
parts of the world; and these, taken together show a
substantial identity of human character, both moral
and emotional, with no marked superiority in any
race or country. In intellect, where the greatest
advance is supposed to have occurred this may be
wholly due to the cumulative effect of successive
acquisitions of knowledge handed down from age
to age (Wallace 1913).
The differences between the background and experi-
ences of Wallace and Darwin contributed to many of
their differences on evolution. This article concentrates
on their differences on the evolution of human cognitive
functions and on the role of instinct.
The Evolution of Human
Cognitive Function
Before the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859,
Darwin had considered the evolution of the human mind
in various notebooks and letters. He came to believe that
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Gross 499
the final chapter: “In the future . . . much light will be
thrown on the origin of man and his history.” By contrast,
in 1864, Wallace charged in with a paper in the Anthro-
pological Review on “The Origin of Human Races and
the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of Natu-
ral Selection,” which provided an explanation of the
evolution of the human body and mind by natural selec-
tion. Darwin loved it, writing to Hooker on May 22, 1864,
I have now read Wallace’s paper on Man, & think it
most striking & original & forcible . . . I am not
sure that I fully agree with his views about man; but
there is no doubt, in my opinion, on the remarkable
genius shown by the paper.—I agree, however, to
the main new leading idea . . . (Darwin 1864).
The “leading idea” was that in the early stages of human
evolution, natural selection had acted on both the body
and the mind, but that later, natural selection operated on
the mind alone. Wallace thought that once natural selection
resulted in reason and moral and social sentiments;
selective pressure would no longer act on their bodies but
would increasingly make their brains/minds the basis of
At length, however, there came into existence a
being in whom that subtle force we term mind,
became of greater importance than his mere bodily
structure. Though with a naked and unprotected
body, this gave him clothing against the varying
inclemency’s of the seasons. Though unable to
compete with the deer in swiftness, or with the wild
bull in strength, this gave him weapons with which
to capture or overcome both . . . . From the moment
when the first skin was used as covering, when the
first rude spear was formed to assist in the chase,
the first seed sown or shoot planted, a grand revo-
lution was in effect in nature. . . for a being had
arisen that was no longer necessarily subject to
change with a changing universe . . . (Wallace 1864).
Then five years later, in a review of two of Lyell’s
geology books, Wallace (1869a) again took up the
problem of the evolution of the human mind. Darwin had
some advance information about the review and wrote
Wallace about it on March 27, 1869, “I hope you have
not murdered too completely your own and my child”
(Marchant 1916). In this review, Wallace completely
reversed himself and emphatically rejected the idea that
natural selection had any role at all in the origins of
human cognition and brain function. Reading it caused
Darwin to “groan” (in a letter to Wallace on January 26,
1870, in Marchant 1916).
Figure 1. Wallace at the age of 39 in 1862 in Singapore
(Marchant 1916).
Figure 2. A replica of the prau (or perahu) that Wallace
sailed around the Spice Islands in the Malay Archipelago. In it
Tom Severin retraced Wallace’s route (Severin 1999).
it could be fully accounted for by natural selection
(Richards 1987). However, he carefully avoided this
issue in the Origin except for this tease near the end of
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500 The Neuroscientist 16(5)
Curiously, a major determinant of his rejection of a
natural selection origin of human cognitive faculties
seems to have been the time he spent among natives of
the Pacific islands. He perceived their cognitive abilities
and moral status to be equal that of his fellow English-
men. As Gould (1980) put it:
Wallace advanced several arguments for the unique-
ness of human intellect, but his central claim begins
with an extremely uncommon position for his time,
one that commands our highest praise in retrospect.
Wallace was one of the few nonracists of the nine-
teenth century. He really believed that all human
groups had innately equal capacities of intellect.
But, from Wallace’s strict adaptationist view, how
could the abilities of “natives” in, say, math or music have
arisen inasmuch as there could have been no selective
pressure for such faculties in their environment (he
In the brain of the lowest savages, and, as far as we
yet know, of the pre-historic races, we have an
organ so little inferior in size and complexity to that
of the highest types (such as the average European),
that we must believe it capable, under a similar pro-
cess of gradual development during the space of
two or three thousand years, of producing equal
average results. But the mental requirements of the
lowest savages, such as the Australians or the
Andaman islanders, are very little above those of
many animals. The higher moral faculties and those
of pure intellect and refined emotion are useless to
them, are rarely if ever manifested, and have no
relation to their wants, desires, or well-being. How,
then, was an organ developed so far beyond the
needs of its possessor? Natural selection could only
have endowed the savage with a brain a little supe-
rior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses
one but very little inferior to that of the average
members of our learned societies (Wallace 1869a).
As a believer in phrenology, Wallace stressed the
importance of brain size as reflecting the development
and power of the intellectual, emotional, and moral
faculties. The fact that the brain of the savage was about
the same size as that of an Englishman (Wallace 1869b,
1870a) was a powerful argument against its origin by
natural selection. Another phrenological contribution to
Wallace’s excluding the human brain from natural
selection was the view of the leading English phrenologist
George Combe that the human brain contained faculties
not found in the animal brain, namely, veneration firmness,
conscientiousness, hope, wonder, ideality, wit, and imitation
(Turner 1974).
In a letter to Lyell, Wallace expanded on the views he
first put forward in his review:
If in his mental faculties—calculation of numbers,
ideas of symmetry, of justice, of abstract reasoning,
of the infinite, of a future state,—and many others
can not be shown to be each and all useful to man
in the very lowest state of civilization, how are we
to explain their coexistence in him alone of the
whole series or organized beings? Years ago I saw
a Bushman boy and girl in London and the girl
played very nicely on the piano. Blind Tom the
idiot Negro had a “musical ear” or brain, superior
perhaps to that of any living man. Unless Darwin
can show me how this rudimentary or latent musi-
cal ability in the lowest races can have been devel-
oped by survival of the fittest—can have been of
use to the individual or the race so as to cause those
who possessed it in a fractional greater degree than
others to win in the struggle for life, I must believe
that some other power caused that development,—
and so on with every other especially human char-
acteristic (Richards 1987).
As he discussed in more detail in a paper the following
year Wallace was quite certain about the “some other
power.” It was “a superior intelligence [that] has guided
the development of man in definite direction, and for a
special purpose, just as man guides the development of
many animal and vegetable forms” (Wallace 1870a).
Spiritualism. Wallace’s belief that a superior intelli-
gence had guided human evolution reflected a conver-
sion to spiritualism between the 1864 paper and the 1869
one. For Wallace, spiritualism was the belief that com-
munication with the dead through mediums at séances
was possible. He believed in a full range of psychic phe-
nomenon such as levitation, clairvoyance, slate wiring,
table tapping, and Ouija boards (Fig. 3). The underlying
theory was that:
Man is a duality, consisting of an organized spiri-
tual form evolved coincidentally with and permeat-
ing the physical body . . . . Death is the separation
of this duality . . . . Spirits can communicate through
properly endowed mediums . . . . This leads to a
pure system of morality far more powerful and
effective than any which either religious systems of
philosophy have put forth (Wallace 1875).
Although Wallace attended his first séances in 1865,
he had long fully accepted two other apparently psychic
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Gross 501
phenomena, mesmerism (what we would call hypnotism)
and phreno-mesmerism. In the latter, touching the phreno-
logical location of a faculty elicited corresponding behavior
or emotion. While teaching at Leicester in 1844, Wallace
had seen a demonstration of mesmerism and then succ-
essfully tried it on some of his students. Being familiar
with Combe on phrenology, he then tried phreno-
mesmerism. Wallace randomly touched part of a subject’s
skull and elicited corresponding behavior. For example
when, without looking, he touched (by chance) the organ
of veneration, the mesmerized subject dropped to his
knees in prayer (Wallace 1905).
Wallace successfully practiced mesmerism on both his
Lancaster students and South American Indians (Wallace
1905), and both in the Amazon and in Malaysia he was inti-
mate with cultures in which psychic forces were ubiquitous.
Modern Western spiritualism began in New York
around 1848 and quickly spread to England (Barrow
1986). Wallace first heard of it when abroad:
. . . being aware, from my own knowledge of mes-
merism, that there were mysteries connected with
the human mind which modern science ignored
because it could not explain, I was determined to
seize the first opportunity to examine into these
matters (Wallace 1875).
Wallace began attending séances in 1865 and reading
the growing spiritualist literature. He was completely
convinced of the medium’s ability to communicate with
the dead. He remained convinced through many séances
for the rest of his life although virtually all the mediums
had been eventually exposed as fakes. It should be str-
essed that some other Victorian scientists and intellectuals
were equally seduced. However, Wallace made no pro-
gress in convincing his scientist friends such as Darwin,
Huxley, G. H. Lewes (George Eliot’s consort), and Lyell.
He repeatedly urged them to attend séances and circulated
hundreds of preprints of his article supporting spiritualism
titled “The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural”
(Wallace 1866). Perhaps it was this failure to convince
his scientific colleagues that led him to say so little about
spiritualism in his 1869 article (Oppenheim 1985; Kottler
1974). Later, particularly after Darwin died, Wallace was
prolific in his writing defending spiritualism (e.g., Wallace
1898; Moore 2008).
Wallace, like many other working class intellectuals,
had been attracted to phrenology and mesmerism because
of their message of self-help and optimism. Spiritualism
had a similar appeal to Wallace. He believed that the
postdeath status of the surviving spirit depended on the
intellectual and moral development during the biological
lifetime, which was “a function of the degree of willful
Figure 3. A “spirit” photograph of Wallace and, supposedly, his
deceased mother. Wallace (1875) described its circumstances
and validity: “On March 14th, 1874 I went to Hudson’s [a
photography studio], by appointment, for the first and only
time by Mrs. Guppy as medium [formerly Miss Nichols, later
Mrs. Volkman, a famous medium especially for her flower and
fruit apparitions]. I expected that if I got any spirit pictures it
would be that of my elder brother, in whose name messages
had frequently been received through Mrs. Guppy. Before going
to Hudson’s I sat with Mrs. G., and had commutations by taps
to the effect that my mother would appear on the plate if she
could. I sat three times, always choosing my own position. Each
time a second figure appeared on the negative with
me . . . . I recognized none of these figures in the negatives;
but the moment I got the proofs, the first glance showed
me that the third plate contained an unmistakable portrait
of my mother—like her both in features and expression . . .
a somewhat pensive, idealized likeness—yet still, to me, an
unmistakable likeness . . . I see no escape from the conclusion
that some spiritual being, acquainted with my mother’s
various aspects during life, produced these recognizable
impressions on the plate. That she still lives and produced
these figures may not be proved; but it is a more safe and
natural explanation to think that she did so, than to suppose
we are surrounded by beings who carry out an elaborate
series of impostures for no other purpose that to dupe us into
a belief in a continued existence after death . . . [Wallace sent a
copy of the photograph to his brother and sister-in-law who
exclaim] ‘. . . Why, it’s your mother!’. . . Neither my brother nor
his wife knew any thing of Spiritualism, and both are prejudiced
against it. We may therefore accept their testimony as to the
resemblance to my mother . . . as conclusive.
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502 The Neuroscientist 16(5)
rejection of materialistic, self-centered goals and the
adoption of an explorative, non-pre-judging, and socially-
consc ious attitude” (Smith 2008).
. . . our condition and happiness in the future life
depends, by the action of strictly natural law, on our
life and conduct here. There is no reward or punish-
ment meted out to us by superior beings; but, just
as surely as cleanliness and exercise and whole-
some food produce health of body, so surely does a
moral life here produce health and happiness in the
spirit-world . . .” (Wallace 1900).
Wallace saw no conflict between spiritualism and
natural science. Spiritualism, he thought, should be inves-
tigated like any other natural phenomena. He saw them as
“mutually supportive elements in a grander scheme of
things.” Spiritualism was needed to explain natural
phenomena that natural selection could not, such as
human cognition and morality (Wallace 1875).
Darwin Answers Wallace on
the Origins of Human Cognition
Darwin’s response to Wallace was in the form of two
books, his most important after the Origin, namely, The
Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871)
and Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals
(1872). Both books stress the continuity between the
mind and behavior of animals and that of humans and the
plausibility of the evolution of human cognition from
animals. They led directly to the systematic study of ani-
mal behavior first by Romanes (1882) and C. Lloyd
Morgan (1890) and eventually to both ethology and
behaviorism (Glickman 1985; 2009; Boakes 1984).
The Role of Instinct
One subject on which Wallace and Darwin’s sociopolitical
differences seem to have strongly influenced their scientific
views was in the role of instinct in behavior. A fundamental
tenet of Owenite socialism was the educability of humans.
Human nature was believed to be largely environmentally
determined and this plasticity was viewed as underlying
social, economic, and political improvement (Jones 2002;
Owen 1816[1816]; Claeys 2008; Pollard and Salt 1971).
As Owen put it “Experience has proved that Man has
always been the creature of circumstances in which he has
been placed and that it is the character of these circum-
stances which inevitably make him ignorant or intelligent,
vicious or virtuous, wretched or happy” (Jones 2002).
These Owenite views led Wallace to a very different
view from Darwin on the role of learning and instinct in
behavior. Wallace consistently questioned and devalued
the role of instinct or inheritance in favor of learning and
experience. In his Malay Notebook (Wallace 1855–1859)
are his earliest comments on instinct:
“[Instinct is] the performance of a complicated act
absolutely without previous instruction or knowl-
edge of it. Thus it is said and repeated that birds and
insects build nests, gather & store food . . . without
any instruction . . . & without knowing that such
acts have been performed by others. This, however
is assumed. It has never been tried. Birds reared
from the egg in confinement have not been shown
to make the same nest as their fellows . . . . Can a
single case be shown of an animal performing any
complex act no part of which has ever been seen
performed? Or without having seen the result.”
Wallace then proposes to bring up a bird from the egg
in an isolated environment and predicts, “I say under
such circumstances it will not build a nest having the true
characteristics of that of its species” (Jones 2002).
Wallace writes to Nature in 1873, arguing against the
idea that dogs have a homing instinct, and suggests,
rather, that in route finding they use their senses, intelli-
gence, and memory just as humans do (Wallace 1873b,
1873c). Wallace was equally opposed to the invocation of
any homing instinct in humans. He noted that Europeans
were often astounded at the “homing instinct” of Malay
natives and then pointed out that if you placed these indi-
viduals in a new environment, they could not make their
way. “Their instinct will not act out of their own country”
(Wallace 1855–1859).
More generally, Wallace opposed almost any instincts
in humans. “Does man have instincts? No. He may per-
form some simple operations with teaching but never
compound [ones]” (Wallace 1855–1859). Even infant
sucking was rejected as an instinct:
As to the mere act of sucking, which has been said
to be instinctive—it is on the contrary involuntary
at least if breathing is so, for breathing is but suck-
ing in air (Wallace 1855–1859).
We have a few of Wallace’s direct comments on
Darwin’s views on instinct. On the way home from his
Malay trip he received a copy of the Origin of Species.
Here are some of the comments on instinct that he wrote
in the margins (Beddall 1988):
On instinctive changes of habit or Instinct in
domesticated animals: Darwin: “. . . It cannot be
doubted that young pointers (I have myself seen a
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Gross 503
striking instance) will sometimes point and even
back other dogs the very first time that they are
taken out. . . .”
Wallace: “Have they not learnt at home?”
Darwin: “Domestic instincts are sometimes spoken
of as actions which have become inherited solely
from long-continued and compulsory habit, but this,
I think, is not true. No one would ever have thought
of teaching, or probably could have taught, the
tumbler-pigeon to tumble,—an action, which, as I
have witnessed, is performed by young birds, that
have never seen a pigeon tumble.”
Wallace: “Is not this & all other such habits the
result of some slight peculiarity of organization
which makes ‘tumbling’ agreeable to the animals.”
On cell making instinct of the hive bee:
Darwin: “We hear from mathematicians that bees
have practically solved a recondite problem, and
have made their cells of the proper shape to hold
the greatest possible amount of honey, with the
least possible consumption of precious wax in their
Wallace: “What is this but rational building?”
In 1873, Wallace gave Darwin’s The Expression of the
Emotions in Man and Animals a generally favorable
review but objected to his explanation of his six-month-
old child being distressed by seeing his nurse cry. Darwin
suggested that the child’s upset was because “an innate
feeling must have told him that the pretended crying of
his nurse expressed grief; and this through the instinct of
sympathy, excited grief in him.” Wallace opined instead
that “the nurse’s attitude and expression were strange to
the child; they made her look unlike herself, and the child
got afraid and was about to cry . . . . A child at the age
often cries at anything strange . . . . That seemed to me a
better explanation than that the child had an innate
knowledge that the nurse was grieved” (Wallace 1873a).
Wallace (1897) discussed instinct in some detail in his
essay-review of C. Lloyd Morgan’s Habit and Instinct,
1896. Darwin had charged George Romanes to collect
data in support of Darwin’s belief in the mental continu-
ity of humans and other animals. In turn, this mantle was
handed to Morgan. Morgan was rather more critical of
anecdotal evidence for complex cognitive function in
animals than Romanes (or Darwin) and proclaimed what
became known as Morgan’s canon: “In no case may we
interpret the outcome of the exercise of a higher psychi-
cal faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the
exercise of one which stands lower in the psychological
scale.” He was also more interested in the role of learning
in animal behavior than Romanes had been.
Wallace is enthusiastic about Morgan’s book because
it agrees with his overall view that ideas, knowledge, and
understanding are not inherited. For example, Douglas
Spalding had claimed that chicks showed instinctive fear
of stinging insects implying intuitive knowledge of dan-
ger. But Morgan shows that they have no fear of bees as
bees but only of large moving insects. Likewise they
don’t recognize water until they happened to drink it and
they don’t specifically fear hawks flying overhead but
rather any strange sight or sound. He suggests they learn
what is really dangerous either through the action of their
parents or their own experiences. Wallace (1897) sum-
marizes these observations and experiments as follows:
“But though young birds and mammals do not pos-
sess instincts which enable them to discriminate
between objects that may be useful and those that
may be hurtful to them, they often posses [sic] the
most wonderful acuteness of the senses and powers
of co-coordinated muscular action, which enable
them rapidly to acquire the knowledge that is essen-
tial to them.”
In his essay “On instinct in man and animals” in
Natural Selection and Tropical Nature (1891), Wallace
discusses examples of human behavior often termed
instinctive and offers an alternative explanation to instinct
for them. One example is suckling. He rejects the saying
that the infant “seeks the breast” noting that every nurse
and medical man agree with him. Although the infant
sucks without teaching it is a simple act depending on
what Wallace calls “organization.” Any object of suitable
size in the mouth of an infant excites the nerves and
muscles so as to produce the act of sucking and when at
a little time later the will comes into play, the pleasurable
sensations consequent in the act lead to its continuance.
Similarly, walking is evidently dependent on the arrange-
ment of the bones and joints, their organization, and the
pleasurable exertion of the muscles, which leads to the
vertical position becoming gradually the most agreeable
Wallace’s most detailed discussion of specific behav-
iors, usually termed instinctive, is in his essay “The phi-
losophy of birds nests” in Natural Selection and Tropical
Nature (1891). In this essay he challenges the claims that
birds built nests by instinct, whereas humans build houses
by reason. He explains the fact that different species of
birds build very different nests by the facts that they live
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504 The Neuroscientist 16(5)
in different environments, have access to different build-
ing materials, eat different food, are equipped with dif-
ferent motor apparatus and abilities, are of different sizes
and structures, use different tools (beak and legs), have
different habits and different predators. Wallace then claims
that the species-specific nests that birds make are because
they learn to make them from their parents not by instinct:
“Birds brought up from the egg in cages do not
make the characteristic nest of their species, even
though the proper materials are supplied them, and
often make not nests at all, but crudely heap together
a quantity of materials . . .” Further support for the
role of learning is that “the less perfect nests are
built by the younger, the more perfect by the elder,
In this essay, Wallace cites a number of studies that
concluded that bird song is due to learning not instinct.
For example, Barrington in 1773, on the basis of a variety
of rearing and cross rearing experiments, concluded that
“notes [songs] of birds are no more innate than language
in man and depend entirely on the master under which
they are bred as far as their organs will enable them to
imitate the sounds which they have frequent opportunities
of hearing.”
When faced with good evidence that swallows fly
well and avoid obstacles on the first attempt, that new
born pigs ran to the sound of their mother, and that most
young animals show fear at the voice or presence of their
enemies, Wallace says:
“In all these cases we have comparatively simple
motions or acts induced by feelings of liking or dis-
liking; and we can see that they may be due to defi-
nite nervous and muscular co-ordinations which
are essential to the species” (Wallace 1891).
But not instincts.
“If instincts mean anything. It means the capacity
to perform some complex act without teaching or
experience. It implies not only innate ideas but
innate knowledge of very definite kind. And, if
established would overthrow Mr. Mill’s sensation-
alism and all the modern philosophy of experience.
That the existence of true instinct may be estab-
lished in other cases is not impossible; but in the
particular instance of bird’s nests which is usually
considered its stronghold, I cannot find a particle of
evidence of anything beyond those lower reasons
in and imitative powers which animals are univer-
sally admitted to possess” (Wallace 1891).
In general, in rejecting instinct as an explanation of
behavior, Wallace was rejecting innate ideas and knowl-
edge. But he was often willing to accept what he termed
“organization” of the nervous system and musculature to
explain complex behavior arising without obvious
Darwin’s treatment of instinct was quite different. He
shows no skepticism of accounts of the most elaborate
instincts, such as the ones Wallace dismissed, for exam-
ple, route finding by birds and humans, innate fear, and
complex nest building. Rather, Darwin was solely con-
cerned in arguing how they could be accounted for by
natural selection as in this conclusion from his chapter
on instinct originally intended for his abandoned “Big
Book” on the origin of species and then posthumously
published as an appendix to Romanes’s Mental Evolu-
tion in Animals (1883):
“We have in this chapter chiefly considered the
instincts of animals under the point of view
whether it is possible that they could have been
acquired through the means indicated on our the-
ory, or whether, even if the simpler ones could
have been thus acquired, others are so complex
and wonderful that they must have been specially
endowed, and thus overthrow the theory.”
After considering variation in instinctive behavior, its
acquisition in successive steps, and the appearance of
similar instinctive patterns in allied groups, Darwin suggests
that a common ancestor is the most likely explanation.
Even the occasional imperfections of instinctive behavior
are found to fit the theory of natural selection. His final
sentences illustrate the essential Darwinian position on
instinctive behavior:
“. . . . it is far more satisfactory to look at the young
cuckoo ejecting its foster-brothers, ants making
slaves, the larvæ of the Ichneumidæ feeding within
the live bodies of their prey, cats playing with mice,
otters and cormorants with living fish, not as instincts
specially given by the Creator, but as very small
parts of one general law leading to the advancement
of all organic bodies—Multiply, Vary, let the stron-
gest Live and the weakest Die” (Darwin 1883).
Other Differences between
Wallace and Darwin
In addition to the evolution of human cognition and the
role of instinct, there were a number of other significant
differences between Wallace and Darwin on evolution.
One was the role of sexual selection, which Wallace was
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Gross 505
opposed to, reflecting his much stricter emphasis on the
role of adaptation than Darwin (Kottler 1985). An excep-
tion was for human females. Wallace (e.g., 1900, 1913)
thought that after women had obtained their deserved
educational, economic, and social equality, the human
race would improve because now women could and
would choose superior mates. A second was the explana-
tion for hybrid sterility (Kottler 1985). A third, related
difference was the greater emphasis on group selection
than individual by Wallace (Kottler 1985).
In addition to these differences on evolution, the two
Victorian savants had fundamental differences on many
social and political issues. Very much unlike Darwin,
Wallace was an anti-imperialist and ardent socialist,
indeed an activist on land nationalization (e.g., Wallace
1892, 1898, 1900). Wallace had significantly fewer racist
and sexist views than Darwin (e.g., Wallace 1900) and
Darwin was a complete skeptic about psychic phenom-
ena whereas, as detailed above, Wallace was extraordi-
narily gullible about mediums and their claims. Wallace
had other iconoclastic views that separated him not only
from Darwin but also from most Victorian scientists such
as an opposition to government support of scientific
research (but not public museums and public education)
and to smallpox vaccination (because it was “absolutely
useless” and a “delusion”) (Wallace 1870b, 1898).
Similarities Between
Wallace and Darwin
This article has stressed differences between Alfred
Wallace and Charles Darwin in their views of evolution
and behavior and has suggested some extra-scientific fac-
tors that may have contributed to these differences. In
closing, we note the amazing phenomenon that, in the
most important development in the history of biology and
one of the most important in the history of ideas, they
came to an essentially identical view of the origin of spe-
cies by natural selection of inherited variations. I now
briefly consider what may have been so similar in their
backgrounds that led them to this convergence.
From their youths, they were both driven natural his-
tory collectors and, thus, continually exposed to the vari-
ation between and within species. Second, although from
such different class backgrounds, they were both exposed
from an early age to materialist and anticonventional
Christian views of the universe. Wallace lost any conven-
tional faith through exposure to the ideas of Robert Owen
and his son Robert Dale Owen and Thomas Paine and to
phrenology and mesmerism and later spiritualism. Darwin’s
grandfather and father were both agnostics. In medical
school in Edinburgh, he hung out with young radicals and
atheists such as William Browne; a major senior influence
was the very free-thinking invertebrate zoologist Robert
Edmond Grant (Desmond and Moore 1994). When he
returned from the Beagle voyage he not only mixed with
the scientific elite of London but also with the bohemian
world of his brother Erasmus and his current girlfriend
the feminist, abolitionist, free thinker, and prolific author
Harriet Martineau (Browne 1995; Desmond and Moore
1994). Third, and perhaps most important, they had both
read Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population
as they began to think about the origin of species (Young
1981). They both saw Malthus all around them in the
natural world and Wallace had also seen Malthus’s ideas
demonstrated in the conditions of the benighted Welsh
peasants. Finally, they were both extraordinary in their
independence of thought, although Darwin tended to
keep his more subversive thoughts to himself and a few
friends whereas Wallace was never shy broadcasting his
unconventional ideas.
From 1858 until he died in 1913, Wallace saw himself
as a strong advocate for natural selection and a devoted
follower of Darwin and what he called “Darwinism.” Yet
he never seemed to realize, as did Darwin immediately,
that his belief that a supernatural power was responsible
for human cognition totally undercut the entire theory of
the origin of species by natural selection. After all, if this
power was responsible for the evolution of human cogni-
tion, it could be equally responsible for the rest of evolu-
tion. Ironically, the Intelligent Design movement can and
does claim Alfred Russel Wallace as their predecessor
(e.g., Flannery 2008).
This article was inspired by Steve Glickman (1985, 2009), who
commented on earlier drafts and provided a copy of Wallace’s
Malay notebooks. Robert M. Young made helpful comments.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with
respect to the authorship and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research
and/or authorship of this article.
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... Most unequivocally, the candidate for uniqueness has been some variation of the concept of "human intelligence" (for discussions on technical and social intelligence see Byrne, 2002; for neuroanatomical uniqueness of humans see Gazzaniga, 2009; for discussion on cognitive skills see Penn and Povinelli, 2007a;Vonk and Povinelli, 2012; for ecological cognitive adaptations see Pinker, 2010;Sapolsky, 2011). The question of why human intelligence is so distinct from that of other species was the one that bifurcated Darwin's and Wallace's understanding of the limits of natural selection (Gross, 2010). Darwin claimed that the manner in which human intelligence was unique was by degree and not any specific type (Darwin, 1871), whereas Wallace famously proposed that human intelligence could not have been a product of sheer natural selection at all, by which he implied that a force other than natural selection was responsible for human intelligence (Wallace, 1864), an idea quite contradictory to Darwin's understanding of the history and development of life. ...
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SYNOPSIS Researchers have rigorously investigated the cognitive capacities of various nonhuman primate species in an attempt to elucidate the factors that define human uniqueness and that are responsible for the emergence of these traits. It is proposed that humans can be distinguished from other primates by their heightened capacity for abstraction, which permits reasoning about unobservable social and physical forces and prompts the capacity to seek causal explanations for events. It is suggested that these capacities arose as a result of the distinctly cooperative and communicative societies that humans occupy as well as the need to outcompete more physically formidable species.
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Blind’s autonomous cosmopolitanism is in four distinct layers. The first layer is her unusual everyday family background in the transition from Jewish tradition to the life of European revolutionaries in the 1840s and exile in Britain. The second layer is Blind’s mental and moral development under Friederike’s care and educational guidance according to the German concept of Bildung. The third layer comes from Mazzini’s challenge for Blind to critically evaluate her German cultural heritage and the moral danger in the well-intended German concept of self-cultivation. Blind derives the fourth layer of her autonomous cosmopolitanism from Darwin’s theory of evolution and Buckle’s argument for a scientific approach to history. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection postulates sexual autonomy of the individual organism as a pre-condition for evolution by natural selection. Buckle’s argument for a scientific approach to the study of history extends this concept by observing that the variety of geographical conditions around the globe gives rise to a diversity of cultures. The concept of social evolution is then anchored in the nature of interdependence between the individual and her society as it changes over time. Overall, my argument is that Blind’s contribution to Victorian cosmopolitanism is to write about controversial subjects and to transcend ideological polarizations. She does this by transferring socio-political topics from the public domain into the intimacy of making “an immediate sensuous contact” with the individual reader. Her aim is to touch her reader’s heart and to trust in her reader’s ability and social will to care rather than to teach her about the individual poet’s particular ideas of what should be done to solve problems.
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Alfred Russel Wallace’s conception of evolution and its relation to natural theology is examined. That conception is described as intelligent evolution—directed, detectably designed, and purposeful common descent. This essay extends discussion of the forces and influences behind Wallace’s journey from the acknowledged co-discoverer of natural selection, to include his much lesser known position within the larger history of natural theology. It will do so by contextualizing it with an analysis of Darwin’s metaphysical commitments identified as undogmatic atheism. In this sense, David Kohn’s thesis that Darwin was the “last of the natural theologians” is revised to suggest that Wallace deserves to be included within the larger context of the British natural theologians in a surprisingly Paleyan tradition. As such, an important object of this essay is to clear away the historical fog that has surrounded this aspect of Wallace. That “fog” is composed of various formal historical fallacies that will be outlined in the penultimate section. Once described, explained, and corrected, Wallace becomes an enduring figure in carrying the British tradition of natural theology into the twentieth century and beyond.
Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace independently discovered natural selection, and a set of corm non experiences surely contributed to that event. But, there were also major differences ill their life-experience as collectors and travelers, their socio-political commitments, and their personal styles. The present paper is focused on, what is, perhaps, the most fundamental area of disagreement between Darwin and Wallace: the evolution of humanity. Darwin argued that human evolution could be explained by natural selection, with sexual selection as a significant supplementary principle. Wallace always had doubts about sexual selection, and ultimately concluded that natural selection alone was insufficient to account for a set of uniquely human characteristics. Among these characteristics, the size and complexity of the human brain, found in all extant human races, Occupied a central position. Wallace proposed that some new agent had to be invoked, in order to explain the existence of a brain, that Could support the common intellectual activities of European Culture, but was not (in his view) required to support survival and reproduction in the people that he lived with in the tropics. Wallace's interest in the human brain, and in a materialistic view of brain function, was a natural outcome of an early and enduring belief in Phrenology. Once he had identified the "paradoxical" cerebral hypertrophy of non-European racial groups, Wallace's commitment to "adaptationism," meant that a supplementary principle had to be invoked ill order to account for that hypertrophy. The invocation of a higher power, and/or Supreme intelligence, that intervened to create modern humanity, was undoubtedly facilitated by his interest in, and conversion to, spiritualism. Wallace's abandonment of natural selection and sexual selection, as the sole agents of human evolution, set him apart from Darwin - and that, inevitably raises questions about the reasons for Wallace's defection. Among Wallace's personal traits was a consistent attraction to unpopular causes, including phrenology and spiritualism. Just as lie had been attracted to evolutionary ideas, against the prevailing views of his time, so lie diverged, from his fellow "Darwinists," by invoking the action of a "Higher Intelligence" to account for the nature of our species.