Alfred Russel Wallace, Ideology, and Evolution

Excerpt from my book Epigenetics and Public Policy The Tangled Web of Science and Politics now available from my publisher here and at Amazon

One specific and particularly intriguing example of these differences in the content of the natural science of the 1800s due to social class and ideological inclination is the contrast in the description of natural selection by Alfred Russel Wallace with natural selection as described by Darwin.

Although largely unknown by most people outside of biology today, within biology Wallace is rightfully credited as both an independent co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection with Darwin and as providing the critical impetus for Darwin to finally publish his theory. That natural selection as described by Darwin has since assumed priority over that of Wallace is generally chalked up to minor but important theoretical differences and Darwin’s more complete elaboration of the concept in his book On the Origin of Species. I suggest, as do others,[1] that there are important differences between the two conceptions of natural selection. Further, I suggest that these theoretical differences are related to the social and political factors mentioned before, and that these social and political factors contributed as much to the eventual triumph of the Darwinian version as any claims of its enhanced correspondence with empirical facts.

For example, in contrast to the privileged station Darwin enjoyed in Victorian society, Wallace emerged from a working class background, was self-educated in Mechanic’s Institutes and ‘Halls of Science,’ which were set up for adult education by utopian Owenite societies,[2] and was also a committed socialist.[3] To wit, while Darwin emphasized selection at the level of individual organisms and the competitive aspect of evolution, which reflected the prevailing beliefs of his station as a proper Victorian, Wallace’s theory of natural selection emphasized environmental pressures on varieties or groups instead of just individuals, and cooperation instead of competition, both of which also reflected his strong socialist inclinations.[4] Thus, while there are striking similarities between the two versions of natural selection, there are some substantial differences as well, most of which break along the class and ideological lines described before. That the Darwinian version of selection eventually became the predominant interpretation is, according to the guiding model of this project, not merely a coincidence but also a function of its congruence with these prevailing social and political factors.

On the other hand

At the same time, though, all of this is not to say that there is always an exclusive one-to-one correspondence between an ideology and a specific understanding of biology—or that a belief in socialism necessarily requires an adherence to a Lamarckian understanding of biology, as was prevalent during the 1800s. For example, one noteworthy exception to the pattern of relationships described before—and one which merits much more scrutiny and commentary than I can give here—is that Wallace himself, contrary to expectations given his  socialist ideology, explicitly and consistently disavowed Lamarckian inheritance in his conception of natural selection to a greater degree than even Darwin.[5] Where Darwin explicitly included a role for Lamarckian use-disuse inheritance in evolution,[6] and later even proposed his hypothesis of pangenesis as a mechanism for such inheritance, Wallace was much more definitive in asserting that this kind of inheritance was unnecessary in natural selection.

Notably, as described in more detail elsewhere, the version of Darwinism which ultimately formed the foundation of modern genetics was ‘Neo-Darwinism,’ which is basically Darwinian natural selection scrubbed of any equivocation on the inheritance of acquired traits—which is actually more akin to Wallaceism. This theoretical difference suggests that relatively few modifications to Wallaceism would have been required to be congruent with genetics, as were required of Darwinism, such that the Modern Synthesis of genetics with natural selection could perhaps have emerged decades earlier if Wallace’s version of natural selection had been selected as the explanation of choice for natural selection. If Wallace’s version had been selected, though, given the differences just cited, the resulting theory of genetics would have been substantially different in many ways than the contemporary version of genetics as we now know it—including, perhaps, in the even earlier acceptance of epigenetics. This is an intriguing counterfactual which would be worth more exploration. That Wallace’s version of natural selection was not selected by the prevailing science of the time, though, also seems due at least in part to these social and political differences mentioned before, in addition to these differences in the scientific content.

Likewise, as will be shown in the next chapter, in the decades after Darwin many advocates of what would now be considered a distinctly conservative laissez faire ideology invoked a version of Lamarckism to justify economic and social policies, while progressives—particularly in America—actually turned to a reinterpreted Darwinian biology and the emerging science of genetics to explain and justify their politics and policies. This opposition between these Lamarckian ‘conservatives’ and these Darwinian ‘progressives’ constituted one of the important fundamental ideological oppositions of this era, and would shape the politics of the 20th century not only in America but on a global scale.

Per the guiding model of this project, what is consistent throughout all these examples is that in each case these interpretations of biology are made congruent with the ideology. In other words, even though these conservatives in the early 1900s were using Lamarckism while the progressives were using Darwinism—the exact opposite as in the 1800s—in each case the biology was interpreted in line with the dictates of the ideology, and vice versa. As such, these seeming counterexamples actually provide support for this notion of the necessary connection between social and political ideology and biological science. This ultimate congruence of biology with ideology is a particularly important point for the discussion of epigenetics and public policy in the final section of this book.

[1] Kutschera, U. (19 December 2003). “A comparative analysis of the Darwin–Wallace papers and the development of the concept of natural selection”. Theory in Biosciences122 (4): 343–59.

Glickman, S. E. (2009). Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and the Evolution/Creation of the Human Mind. Gayana (Concepción)73, 32-41.

Gross, C. (2010). Alfred Russell Wallace and the evolution of the human mind. The Neuroscientist,16(5), 496-507.

Ruse, M. (2013). Charles Robert Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace: their dispute over the units of selection. Theory in Biosciences132(4), 215-224.

[2] Harrison, J. (2009). Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America: the quest for the new moral world. Taylor & Francis, p. 189.

[3] Green, J. (2012). Alfred Russel Wallace: Socialist and co-founder of evolutionary theoryLondon Progressive Journal. Retrieved 15 August 2017, from

Cervantez, S. R. (2016). Facts Are Stubborn Things: The Foundation of Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theories, 1823-1848 (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from

[4] Jones, G. (2002). Alfred Russel Wallace, Robert Owen and the theory of natural selection. The British Journal for the History of Science35(01), 73-96.

[5] Wallace, A. R. (1889). Lamarck versus Weismann. Nature40(1043), 619-620.

Stack, D. (2003), The First Darwinian Left: Socialism and Darwinism, 1859-1914, London: New Clarion, p. 29.

[6] “Curiously few evolutionists have noted that, in addition to natural selection, Darwin admits use and disuse as an important evolutionary mechanism. In this he is perfectly clear. For instance,…on page 137 he says that the reduced size of the eyes in moles and other burrowing mammals is “probably due to gradual reduction from disuse, but aided perhaps by natural selection.” In the case of cave animals, when speaking of the loss of eyes he says, “I attribute their loss wholly to disuse” (p. 137). On page 455 he begins unequivocally, “At whatever period of life disuse or selection reduces an organ…” The importance he gives to use or disuse is indicated by the frequency with which he invokes this agent of evolution in the Origin. I find references on pages 11, 43, 134, 135, 136, 137, 447, 454, 455, 472, 479, and 480.” (Mayr, E. (1964/1859). “Introduction.” In Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species: a Facsimile of the First Edition. Harvard University Press.)

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