Finally, it may be remarked that up to the present time the unique work and position of Wallace have not been fully disclosed owing to his great modesty and to the fact that he outlived all his contemporaries. “I am afraid,” wrote Sir W.T. Thiselton-Dyer to him in one of his letters (1893), “the splendid modesty of the big men will be a rarer commodity in the future. No doubt many of the younger ones know an immense deal; but I doubt if many of them will ever exhibit the grasp of great principles which we owe to you and your splendid band of contemporaries.” If this work helps to preserve the records of the influence and achievements of this illustrious and versatile genius and of the other eminent men who brought the great conception of Evolution to light, it will surely have justified its existence.
I.—Wallace and Darwin—Early Years
As springs burst forth, now here, now there, on the mountain side, and find their way together to the vast ocean, so, at certain periods of history, men destined to become great are born within a few years of each other, and in the course of life meet and mingle their varied gifts of soul and intellect for the ultimate benefit of mankind. Between the years 1807 and 1825 at least eight illustrious scientists “saw the light”—Sir Charles Lyell, Sir Joseph Hooker, T.H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, John Tyndall, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and Louis Agassiz; whilst amongst statesmen and authors we recall Bismarck, Gladstone, Lincoln, Tennyson, Longfellow, Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Ruskin, John Stuart Blackie and Oliver Wendell Holmes—a wonderful galaxy of shining names.
The first group is the one with which we are closely associated in this section, in which we have brought together the names of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace—between whose births there was a period of fourteen years, Darwin being born on the 12th of February, 1809, and Wallace on the 8th of January, 1823.
In each case we are indebted to an autobiography for an account of their early life and work, written almost entirely from memory when at an age which enabled them to take an unbiased view of the past.
The autobiography of Darwin was written for the benefit of his family only, when he was 67; while the two large volumes entitled “My Life” were written by Wallace when he was 82, for the pleasure of reviewing his long career. These records are characterised by that charming modesty and simplicity of life and manner which was so marked a feature of both men.
In the circumstances surrounding their early days there was very little to indicate the similarity in character and mental gifts which became so evident in their later years. A brief outline of the hereditary influences immediately affecting them will enable us to trace something of the essential differences as well as the similarities which marked their scientific and literary attainments.