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Making livings: the economic worlds of Wallace and Darwin

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Personally no less than professionally, Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin were chalk and cheese. ‘I fear we shall never quite understand each other’, an exasperated Darwin wrote to Wallace in 1868, and the gulf between them was deeper and wider than scholars have yet grasped. Economically they belonged to different worlds: Darwin, Cambridge-educated, Royal Navy-salted, the scion of Whig reforming medical professionals and industrialists, withal a landlord, rich rentier and country gentleman; Wallace, of feckless stock, a school-leaver at thirteen, trainee surveyor, socialist and self-employed specimen collector who scoured the globe aboard Royal Mail ships and native boats only to land back in London and be hailed as Darwin’s alter ego. Often on hard times, short of capital and inept with cash, Wallace was credited, then as now, with devising a theory of evolution identical to Darwin’s natural selection, one embedding the same Malthusian doctrine that prompted Darwin’s original insight and that underpinned the economic liberalism from which Darwin himself prospered. In assessing this view, it will be useful to ask how far, given their different economic circumstances, Wallace and Darwin differed about the ways that all species make their livings.

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