Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Usk: birthplace of Alfred Russel Wallace

His achievement
  Alfred Russel Wallace was, for a long period, almost overlooked as a scientist discovering the Theory of Evolution at the same time as Darwin but recently he has received more recognition. He came from a humble background and did not have the prestige and social connections enjoyed by his richer contemporary and graciously accepted a minor role, allowing the hypothesis to be known as Darwinism.

How it happened
  Wallace was on a voyage in Malaysia, isolated from the scientific community and puzzling over questions of Natural History: when do variations between specimens mean that the creatures are of different species and how does a new species develop? This was prompted by a birdwing butterfly from Aru having 3 spots on its shiny green hind wings rather than the usual 2 or 4. (Earlier, in South America, he had seen a plain black Jaguar and asked himself similar questions). Lying ill with a fever, he recalled an essay by Malthus and there flashed upon him the "idea of the survival of the fittest" which would explain "how changes of species could have been brought about." By "fittest" he meant the strongest, most cunning, healthiest, the swiftest hunters or those with the toughest digestion but also the best adapted to their environment. 
   He sent a paper to Charles Darwin, encapsulating his ideas, and shocked him to the core as this thorough and hesitant man had not yet published his own theories. There is much lively debate over postal dates but it could be argued that Darwin kept quiet about it for a while, even using Wallace's ideas, and the rivalry certainly speeded the publication of On the Origin of Species ...  Two papers, one by each man though both were absent, were presented to the Linnaen Society on the hot evening of July 1st, 1858, to an audience apparently too sleepy to realise that the world had changed around them and all previous religiously held convictions were being challenged. It was a momentous and shattering event which would awaken everyone.

Other aspects of his life

 He was the eighth child of the family, born in this house, Kensington Cottage, Llanbadoc, near Usk in 1823. In his autobiography, My Life, he tells how he, a little boy in short frocks with long fair hair, played with his brother in the trees behind the house, cooking potatoes on a fire and fishing for lampreys. His first venture of discovery up the Amazon was arduous and ended in disaster when the ship carrying all his specimens caught fire and almost all of four years' work was destroyed. He was resilient and courageous and set off again to Malaysia. Over six feet tall, he was badly co-ordinated but tolerant when the people of the countries he visited found him amusing as he stumbled and tripped over things. Wallace bore illness and severe discomfort with great fortitude. In many ways he comes across as more lovable than Darwin and eventually his worth was recognised by the Order of Merit in 1908. There is a medallion bearing his name in Westminster Abbey.

Visiting his home town
   You can walk to Llanbadoc by going from the bus station through the shops in Usk and turning left after the river bridge, strolling along the ridge alongside the river and past his house until you come to his memorial near the churchyard, where there are family tombs.There is a pleasant picnic area and children's playground nearby or you could go on to visit Usk Castle and the site of the Pwll Melyn battle. The no 60 bus will take you to Raglan to visit its imposing castle or, in the other direction, to Caerleon with its Roman remains and museum.

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