Local community site for Broadstone, Dorset, since 1999

Who was Alfred Russel Wallace ?


Broadstone is fast changing from the day in 1952 when I first came to live in what was a delightful village where the community was organised around the school and church. There were gas street lights in Clarendon Road and the Broadway still possessed the Co-op and the ironmongers shop of Miss Brown. Each morning in school time the family would hasten across the Railway Bridge as the school bell would begin to chime.

Over the years new families arrived, houses were being built and the old village began to change but the changes were slow and some of the old village still maintained parts of the character of the Victorian age.

The new Consultation Plan for changes to Broadstone, at present in progress in 2015, seeks to accommodate the increasing population of the village with new housing and all that entails. It is good to see the arrival of young families and progress in the development of the facilities of the village but it is also important to retain and be aware of the past cultural heritage of the village.

Some famous residents once lived here, not least of which was Alfred Russel Wallace who was the co-author of the Theory of Natural Selection with Charles Darwin.(1858). This was a theory that provided a basis for the explanation of process in natural systems whereby new species would gradually evolve with the elimination of those that were less suited to survive. It was a theory that revolutionised thinking in biological disciplines as well as those of the other sciences.

Alfred Russel Wallace plaque

Alfred Russel Wallace memorial plaque

Indeed this theory, originally based on process in the natural world, is rapidly being applied to other modern day systems such as those in the financial sector, computer modelling, epidemiology etc. It is fast becoming known as a Theory of Everything.

Wallace spent the last eleven years of his life in Broadstone from 1902 to 1913 in a house which he built for himself and his family on the brow of Broadstone Hill. When this task was completed in 1902 and the family was safely ensconced in their new home, he set himself a rigid discipline of work and leisure. He would work in the morning, rest in the afternoon and perhaps return to his study in the evening.

In the first year Wallace began to work on his autobiography which was eventually published as two volumes in 1905 and entitled My Life. A Record of Events and Opinions. These record his early life, his friends and acquaintances, a sketch of his life’s work and his tour in America. Also included are accounts of his other interests he had but these are not included in these notes. This report deals only with those on ecology and astronomy as his thinking on these topics have particular relevance to the development of these early disciplines.

Alfred Russel Wallace had been a prolific writer throughout his life and by the time he had arrived in Broadstone he had written a number of books on natural history which had received wide acclaim in the scientific community. Among these were his classical accounts of his Travels on the River Negro and the Amazon Rain Forest (1853) and his voyages among the Islands of the Malay Archipelago (1869). The descriptive language that he employs in these books reveals the possession of an innate sense of beauty as well as the ability to discover patterns within it.

These were followed by the monumental task of a description of the Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876) from which flowed the book on Island Life (1880). Contained within these books are ideas that are relevant to present day ecology namely the importance of geology and climate as crucial to an understanding of the natural world.

Yet further development of the ecological theme appears in Natural Selection and Tropical Nature (1891) where nature is seen as a system whose adaptability and complexity is brought about by flexible connectivity between species and results in the production of order out of disorder.

It was in Broadstone that these ideas were distilled in the publication of The World of Life in 1910. Wallace was in fact the first person to discover that if scientific disciplines were integrated then new knowledge would arise. He was way ahead of his time in an understanding of the processes that underpin modern day ecology.

Two other scientific books were written in Broadstone which were entitled Man in the Universe (1903) and Is Mars Habitable? (1907). They reflect a lifelong interest in Astronomy which began in his very early days when he made his own telescope. He was just as far thinking in this field as he was in ecology. His was the first attempt to define where human beings fitted into the scheme of things and his description of the conditions for life on Mars is a foretaste of that which appears in the present day literature with regard to life on Mars.


About Author

Dr Mathers is a local historian with extensive knowledge of Alfred Russell Wallace

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