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Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace OM, FRS (8 January 1823 – 7 November 1913) was a British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist and biologist.

He did extensive fieldwork first in the Amazon River basin, and then in the Malay Archipelago, where he identified the Wallace line dividing the fauna of Australia from that of Asia. He is best known for independently proposing a theory of natural selection which prompted Charles Darwin to publish his own more developed and researched theory sooner than intended. Wallace was also one of the leading evolutionary thinkers of the 19th century who made a number of other contributions to the development of evolutionary theory, including the concept of warning colouration in animals, and the Wallace effect. He was also considered the 19th century’s leading expert on the geographical distribution of animal species and is sometimes called the "father of biogeography."

Wallace was strongly attracted to radical ideas. His advocacy of spiritualism and his belief in a non-material origin for the higher mental faculties of humans strained his relationship with the scientific establishment, especially with other early proponents of evolution. He was critical of what he considered to be an unjust social and economic system in 19th century Britain, and was one of the first prominent scientists to raise concerns over the environmental impact of human activity.

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Alfred Wallace Quotes

Truth is born into this world only with pangs and tribulations, and every fresh truth is received unwillingly. To expect the world to receive a new truth, or even an old truth, without challenging it, is to look for one of those miracles which do not occur.

Whenever we depart from the great principles of truth and honesty, of equal freedom and justice to all men whether in our relations with other states, or in our dealings with our fellow-men, the evil that we do surely comes back to us, and the suffering and poverty and crime of which we are the direct or indirect causes, help to impoverish ourselves.

[concerning the colors of rivers in the Amazon region . . .] These various-coloured waters may, we believe, readily be accounted for by the nature of the country the stream flows through. The fact that the most purely black-water rivers flow through districts of dense forest, and have granite beds, seems to show that it is the percolation of the water through decaying vegetable matter which gives it its peculiar colour. Should the stream, however, flow through any extent of alluvial country, or through any districts where it can gather much light-coloured sedimentary matter, it will change its aspect, and we shall have the phenomenon of alternating white and black water rivers. The Rio Branco and most of its tributaries rise in an open, rocky country, and the water there is pure and uncoloured; it must, therefore, be in the lower part of its course that it obtains the sediment that gives it so remarkably light a colour; and it is worthy of note, that all the other white-water tributaries of the Rio Negro run parallel to the Rio Branco, and, therefore, probably obtain their sediment from a continuation of the same deposits; only as they flow entirely through a forest district producing brown water, the result is not such a strikingly light tint as in the case of that river.

[on adaptations . . .] In all works on Natural History, we constantly find details of the marvellous adaptation of animals to their food, their habits, and the localities in which they are found. But naturalists are now beginning to look beyond this, and to see that there must be some other principle regulating the infinitely varied forms of animal life. It must strike every one, that the numbers of birds and insects of different groups, having scarcely any resemblance to each other, which yet feed on the same food and inhabit the same localities, cannot have been so differently constructed and adorned for that purpose alone. Thus the goat-suckers, the swallows, the tyrant fly-catchers, and the jacamars, all use the same kind of food, and procure it in the same manner: they all capture insects on the wing, yet how entirely different is the structure and the whole appearance of these birds!…What birds can have their bills more peculiarly formed than the ibis, the spoonbill, and the heron? Yet they may be seen side by side, picking up the same food from the shallow water on the beach; and on opening their stomachs, we find the same little crustacea and shell-fish in them all. Then among the fruit-eating birds, there are pigeons, parrots, toucans, and chatterers--families as distinct and widely separated as possible,--which yet may be often seen feeding all together on the same tree; for in the forests of South America, certain fruits are favourites with almost every kind of fruit-eating bird. It has been assumed by some writers on Natural History, that every wild fruit is the food of some bird or animal, and that the varied forms and structure of their mouths may be necessitated by the peculiar character of the fruits they are to feed on; but there is more of imagination than fact in this statement: the number of wild fruits furnishing food for birds is very limited, and birds of the most varied structure and of every size will be found visiting the same tree.