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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Alfred Russel Wallace. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep.

Alfred Russel Wallace


Sometimes you have to think about the value of a university. Shakespeare didn’t go to university and he seems to have been stimulated rather than depressed by the goading he got from the university wits. Dickens went to no university, neither did Nelson and neither did this morning’s hero, Wallace. Perhaps there’s something in not getting your intellectual helping at the right time that powers you to a fiercer longing (if you are an exceptional person to begin with, that is) for knowledge. Certainly Wallace must have one of the most idiosyncratic routes to fame and to the intellectual heights of anyone.

I have no idea how he could have recovered from losing four years’ work in a fire in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. He almost lost his life. Ten days on an open boat, with the skin burnt off his face, before he and a few others, who had survived on a few ship’s biscuits and a little water, were picked up. He reminds me of Malcolm Lowry and the conflagration of the first draft of his novel ‘Under the Volcano’. How do they pick themselves up, dust themselves down and start all over again?

Wallace’s humanity is as striking as his scholarship. He truly did see everyone as equally valuable, and that must have been a psychological underpinning as well as an intellectual confirmation of his views on the development of the human race. As was his attachment to the orangutan, which appears to have been not sickly and not sentimental but properly affectionate. He was a socialist from quite an early age and a feminist and head of the Land Nationalisation League, thinking that property ought to be in the hands of everyone. He was also a spiritualist in his later life and was taken in by tawdry little tricks with Ouija boards and all that malarkey.

How strange it is that that can coincide with his eureka revelations about the environment.

Otherwise it’s been a strange week. I seem to have jiggered my knee and most of my thigh while in the bowels of Herodian near Bethlehem, walking up very uneven steps in the caves which were used as hideouts and storage places. Whatever it was, there are stabs of pain here and there which make it awkward to walk as much as I want to and impossible to walk as fast as I like to. Just as well that all I find in London now are dug-up streets and diversions and edging past lots of little red and white dunces caps.

An old friend of mine, whom I first met when we were eighteen on my first day at university, and his wife, who is Polish, took us to a Polish restaurant in South Kensington, once the heart of the Poles who escaped from the Nazis at the end of the Thirties. 20% of the great RAF force which fought the Battle of Britain was Polish and the Polish Club is near that restaurant. The great thing was that it is still very Polish. At the end we were given small glasses of icy Polish vodka, a drink I can’t remember having had for years and years. It was totally delicious.

The Royal Television Society had its annual prize-giving beano (28 of them). The South Bank Show got into the last three for the Arts Award and did not win, despite the film by Archie Powell on Grime, about the young black men and women in Bow in East London who had reinvented a sort of music for themselves, and after ten years in small flats and tiny studios swept to the top of the charts. It’s always annoying to get to the last three out of hundreds and to turn up under starter’s orders in a black tie and not to win.

And so it went on. Lunch with one of my daughters today. It’s great to have adult children. I know all the growing up bits can be good, but the thing about having adult children is that it can always be good.

So, hobbling back through Soho, dodgy knee and all, lucky to have such a life and looking forward to an Easter in the Northern fells – at least for two or three days.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by Charles Bellamy

    on 3 Apr 2013 17:25

    The programme's main thesis, stated by Steve Jones at the outset - that Wallace and Darwin were the first evolutionary theorists to propose a scientific mechanism for the creation of new species, namely natural selection, - is false. For both only proposed natural selection as one of several factors causing the already generally accepted evolutionary modificaion of species, rather than in itself also creating new species Neither proposed any empirically confirmed scientific mechanism for speciation itself, and nor did the programme cite any such. Ironically The Origin of Species never explained their origin, other than positing God's original creation of at most 10 initial primordial species.

    More generally Darwin’s theory of natural selection in his Lamarckian theory of evolution, namely that natural selection has been the main factor amongst others, such as habit, environmeental change, inherited characteristics etc., causing the evolutionary modification of species that has caused most of the extent of the historical variation compared with these other factors, is empirically unverifiable, as he himself admitted, at least due to the fact that we do not know the original primordial forms. And it never was nor been accepted. The standard popular view that it has seems to be based on the view that natural selection plays some causal role in evolutionary modification, a hypothesis not original to Darwin nor Wallace.

    Also Benton's claim that Wallace knew that fossil remains follow the same pattern of gradual continuous evolution as inorganic geology did according to Lyell is surely false inasmuch as the fossil record exhibited radical discontinuities. So the fossil record surely confirmed Lyell's ongoing discontinuous divine creation thesis rather than Wallace or Darwin. Darwin devoted 2 chapters of Origin unsuccessfully trying to explain this refutation away.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by John Thompson

    on 23 Mar 2013 09:55

    Wallace was a collector by hobby,he left school at 14 to work as a land surveyor. Unable to go to university he had to find a way to earn his living in the English provinces.He didn’t come from a working class background,his father was middle class.He like Darwin was a naturalist.He made extensive natural history collections in the Amazon Basin(though a large part of these were lost in the ship fire) and later in the Malay Archipelego.His travels for collections for museums were far more extensive than Darwin’s.He made a living this way.Wallace’s egalitarianism and socialism gave him a greater affinity for the primitive tribes he studied than Darwin.

    Independently of Charles Darwin(like him inspired by reading Malthus’s essay),he conceived the idea of of evolution by survival of the fittest.Though maybe seen by Darwin as a collector,not capable of original thought and theory,Wallace was an excellent naturalist and a careful original thinker.The problem was solved by the two of them in the most gentlemanly fashion by an agreed compromise that Darwin and Wallace should jointly present papers to the Linnean Society on July 1 1858. Wallace’s letter prompted Darwin into writing The Origin of the Species, finished on 18 March 1859,from the work he had been doing for 20 years,shown to Dr Hooker
    to establish priority.There was a class system in naturalism.Darwin was higher in the hierarchy.

    The long-sought for law of nature,the theory of evolution,came to both men simultaneously, Darwin having delayed publication due to the fears of its impact and amassing enoughevidence. Darwin remained a theist(not a Christian).Wallace was,as Darwin described him, ”generous and noble”.Though unfortunate in being anticipated by Darwin and overshadowed by him,he was further discredited in his own lifetime and after by his advocacy of spiritualism.His further claim to fame was his mapping of the geographical distribution of species in his search for the origins of species.

    Malcolm Lowry did go to university but between school and university he went to sea as deckhand and trimmer for 18 months.There are similarities between him and Wallace.He lost one novel through theft and another through fire.Both re-written.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by This is a colleague announcement

    on 22 Mar 2013 21:33

    Thanks Melvyn: best wishes with the knee.

    I enjoyed IOT greatly, and was left with an impression of the Victorians generally not being quite as limited in imagination as some would have us believe.

    I smiled at SJ's ribbing of physics, and as for the Newtonian stuff he perhaps has a point, but if I was him I'd leave it there...

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