Theories of Race

Alfred Russel Wallace

  • Alfred Russel Wallace's portrait

    Alfred Russel Wallace



00:00 / 10:24

One of the great naturalists and theorists of an era that included Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Thomas Henry Huxley, Alfred Russel Wallace is today remembered in large part because of his role in one of the most famous episodes in the history of science: his independent formulation of the theory of natural selection at the same time as Darwin who, on discovering Wallace’s work, rushed The Origin of Species into print 1859 in order to establish his own claim to priority.

Wallace may have placed second in this and other respects to Darwin, but he was, if not as influential or renowned, a more various figure, more responsive to the intellectual currents of his time. Less invested than Darwin in his own ideas, Wallace was highly receptive to what were considered by many to be dubious or marginal developments in a range of fields, of which the origin of species (a phrase he was using as early as 1847) was just one. A political activist, an accomplished and imaginative naturalist, and in later life a socialist and a spiritualist, Wallace saw applications, extensions, and implications of the principle of natural selection that Darwin did not, as the text represented below indicates.

While Darwin, on an inspiration from Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), understood the “struggle for existence” to take the form of a competition among individuals in which randomly occurring variations preserved through heredity would advantage some and disadvantage others, Wallace saw factors of variation, competition, and struggle applying to groups as well, especially among civilized peoples. And whereas Darwin was altogether naturalistic and materialistic in his account of the workings of nature, Wallace became persuaded that the entire vast and chaotic process of organic pullulation was guided by a higher power.

One of Wallace’s most significant deviations from Darwinian doctrine concerned the issue of race, the subject of this 1864 talk to the Anthropological Society of London. In taking up this subject, Wallace was addressing a topic left largely untouched in Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859). While asserting that all existing animals descended from four or five progenitors, and that all organic beings have descended from one primordial form, Darwin did not consider the question of man. By focusing on species in general, Darwin had therefore left unanswered two questions concerning the human species in particular: first, how could one account for the different conditions of human groups currently on earth, with some appearing closer than others to the condition of brute animality; and second, what accounted for the appearance of the higher human faculties such as altruism, sympathy, morality, and spirituality, none of which seemed to have any utility for the individual in the struggle for existence?

While Darwin read with great interest the racial theorists Prichard and William-Frédéric Edwards, he considered the entire question of race nonscientific given the common origin of all humans and the fact that groups, probably as a result of sexual selection, “graduate into each other” so that, as he wrote in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), “it is hardly possible to discover clear distinctive differences between them” (on Edwards, see Michelet.) Man, he wrote,

has been studied more carefully than any other animal, and yet there is the greatest possible diversity amongst capable judges whether he should be classed as a single species or race, or as two (Virey), as three (Jacquinot), as four (Kant), five (Blumenbach), six (Buffon), seven (Hunter), eight (Agassiz), eleven (Pickering), fifteen (Bory St. Vincent), sixteen (Desmoulins), twenty-two (Morton), sixty (Crawfurd), or as sixty-three, according to Burke. (Descent of Man, Pt. I, ch. 7)

Darwin’s understanding of the gradations observable in the human races undercut the arguments others were making about the same perceived fact. While Huxley and others interpreted gradations as degrees of animality, which were higher in the lower (darker) races, whose evolutionary process had been incomplete or arrested, Darwin felt that gradations only demonstrated the plausibility of the theory of evolution itself, and could dismiss the entire emphasis on “types” as an irrelevant distraction. The mental differences “between the highest men of the highest races and the lowest savages,” he wrote in Pt. 1, Ch. 3 of Descent, “are connected by the finest gradations. Therefore it is possible that they might pass and be developed into each other.”

Darwin did not doubt that races were ranged in a hierarchy, or that an “organic chain” connected the “savage races” with apes. In these respects he was closer to the polygenists than to the monogenists whose company he kept. But in general, Darwin’s discussions of race are so scattered and perfunctory that it is difficult to determine a position on the subject, and his private views have had to be inferred from comments in his journals, letters, and notes. Still, on this basis, some have concluded that Darwin may have been guilty of “unconscious biological racism.”* It is in any event certain that two of Darwin’s key concepts, the “struggle for existence” and the “survival of the fittest” became central to political discourse and lent themselves to many justifications for aggression.

Wallace’s approach to the subject of race was far more direct. In his 1864 address, he sought to fill in gaps in the theory of natural selection by applying Darwinian principles to the phases of the evolutionary process that followed the emergence of homo sapiens, when human precursors had “the form but hardly the nature of man.” Wallace argued that the first humans probably emerged in a tropical environment, but that once superior intelligence began to develop, they were able to move into other climates, with groups surviving in their particular environments through collective action. In these new and often harsher climes, the struggle for existence now depended not only on physical fitness but on the capacity to work together.

In an argument echoed in various ways by both Darwinians and anti-Darwinians, Wallace said that natural selection no longer operated once man ceased to be governed by instinct. Race formation was a distant and now closed episode in the history of the species. With physical evolution having been arrested, local variations now considered racial traits had become locked in, while man’s mental and moral evolution proceeded apace as the climate and cultural situation demanded and rewarded. Eventually, Wallace argued, an entire spectrum of higher mental and spiritual qualities appeared in some populations for which there had, in more primitive circumstances, been no need. In a gesture that alienated Wallace from Darwin and other naturalists, Wallace contended that the entire process was guided not by natural or sexual selection at all but by a “will-force” that produced traits as they were needed, or even in advance of a need.**

Wallace had a comprehensive understanding not only of the mechanisms of evolution but the end or “teleology” of the process of human development. Noting the extinction of indigenous populations wherever Europeans came into contact with them in North America, Brazil, Tasmania, and Australia, Wallace posited that the superior races would always out-compete the inferior races, and concluded that this extermination would eventually result in a single homogeneous race composed only of the highest stratum. Having studied phrenology as a young man, he accepted as given the physical and mental superiority of the European race, citing Morton among others. Darwin made similar arguments about species extinction seven years later in Descent but said that such extermination would violate “the noblest part of our nature,” a position echoed in Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics (1893) (Darwin, Descent, Pt. 1, ch. 5). Inspired, as he says in a note, by reading Herbert Spencer on “social Darwinism,” Wallace understood the elimination of the “lower and more degraded races” through combative evolution to be necessary for the gradual perfection of humankind. Where Prichard had warned in 1840 about the calamity represented by the extinction of races, Wallace celebrated the prospect.***

The Anthropological Society to which Wallace made his 1864 talk had been created the year before by James Hunt in an attempt to distinguish the field of anthropology from ethnology, which was associated with the philanthropic and theologically conservative approach of Prichard. Like most of the members of his new society, Hunt favored polygenetic accounts of human races and for that reason was resistant to anti-essentializing Darwinian explanations. Exploiting the implications of long-term evolution in varying milieus, Wallace was actually trying to reconcile monogenesis with polygenesis by insisting that man was originally one before acquiring the capabilities that enabled him to leave the primal horde in the tropics, after which he acquired the heritable and consistent traits now considered racial features. Advocates and supporters of anthropology may have been dimly aware of the fact that the evolutionary perspective represented by Wallace was shortly to become accepted as a more compelling explanation of the history of humanity than their own form of polygenism. In any event, Wallace was met with a decidedly hostile response, including one from Hunt himself, as the sharp exchanges printed in the Society’s journal later that year demonstrate.****

The text is drawn from the 1871 second edition of Wallace’s Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection, which contains a revised version of the 1864 lecture. The original conclusion is printed below.

* Nancy Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science:  Great Britain 1800-1960 (Houndsmills:  Macmillan, 1982), 67.  See 74-82 passim.

** Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man,” in Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (London:  Macmillan and Co., 1871), 332-71, 370.  

***See James Cowles Prichard, “On the Extinction of Human Races,” Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, 28 (1840): 166-70.  

****The responses are included with Wallace’s lecture in Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced From the Theory of ‘Natural Selection,’ (1864)” in Alfred Russel Wallace Classic Writings

“The Development of Human Races under the Law of Natural Selection”


AMONG the most advanced students of man, there exists a wide difference of opinion on some of the most vital questions respecting his nature and origin. Anthropologists are now, indeed, pretty well agreed that man is not a recent introduction into the earth. All who have studied the question, now admit that his antiquity is very great; and that, though we have to some extent ascertained the minimum of time during which he must have existed, we have made no approximation towards determining that far greater period during which he may have, and probably has existed. We can with tolerable certainty affirm that man must have inhabited the earth a thousand centuries ago, but we cannot assert that he positively did not exist, or that there is any good evidence against his having existed, for a period of ten thousand centuries. . . .

But while on this question of man’s antiquity there is a very general agreement, —and all are waiting eagerly for fresh evidence to clear up those points which all admit to be full of doubt, —on other, and not less obscure and difficult questions, a considerable amount of dogmatism is exhibited; doctrines are put forward as established truths, no doubt or hesitation is admitted, and it seems to be supposed that no further evidence is required, or that any new facts can modify our convictions. This is especially the case when we inquire, —Are the various forms under which man now exists primitive, or derived from pre-existing forms; in other words, is man of one or many species? To this question we immediately obtain distinct answers diametrically opposed to each other: the one party positively maintaining, that man is a species and is essentially one — that all differences are but local and temporary variations, produced by the different physical and moral conditions by which he is surrounded; the other party maintaining with equal confidence, that man is a genus of many species, each of which is practically unchangeable, and has ever been as distinct, or even more distinct, than we now behold them. This difference of opinion is somewhat remarkable, when we consider that both parties are well acquainted with the subject; both use the same vast accumulation of facts; both reject those early traditions of mankind which profess to give an account of his origin; and both declare that they are seeking fearlessly after truth alone; yet each will persist in looking only at the portion of truth on his own side of the question, and at the error which is mingled with his opponent’s doctrine. It is my wish to show how the two opposing views can be combined, so as to eliminate the error and retain the truth in each, and it is by means of Mr. Darwin’s celebrated theory of “Natural Selection” that I hope to do this, and thus to harmonise the conflicting theories of modern anthropologists. (303-05)

If we endeavour to decide impartially on the merits of this difficult controversy, judging solely by the evidence that each party has brought forward, it certainly seems that the best of the argument is on the side of those who maintain the primitive diversity of man. Their opponents have not been able to refute the permanence of existing races as far back as we can trace them, and have failed to show, in a single case, that at any former epoch the well marked varieties of mankind approximated more closely than they do at the present day. At the same time this is but negative evidence. A condition of immobility for four or five thousand years, does not preclude an advance at an earlier epoch, and—if we can show that there are causes in nature which would check any further physical change when certain conditions were fulfilled—does not even render such an advance improbable, if there are any general arguments to be adduced in its favour. Such a cause, I believe, does exist; and I shall now endeavour to point out its nature and its mode of operation. (306-07)

Grant, therefore, the premises: 1st. That peculiarities of every kind are more or less hereditary. 2nd. That the offspring of every animal vary more or less in all parts of their organization. 3rd. That the universe in which these animals live, is not absolutely invariable; —none of which propositions can be denied; and then consider, that the animals in any country (those at least which are not dying out) must at each successive period be brought into harmony with the surrounding conditions; and we have all the elements for a change of form and structure in the animals, keeping exact pace with changes of whatever nature in the surrounding universe. Such changes must be slow, for the changes in the universe are very slow; but just as these slow changes become important, when we look at results after long periods of action, as we do when we perceive the alterations of the earth’s surface during geological epochs; so the parallel changes in animal form become more and more striking, in proportion as the time they have been going on is great; as we see when we compare our living animals with those which we disentomb from each successively older geological formation.

This is, briefly, the theory of “natural selection,” which explains the changes in the organic world as being parallel with, and in part dependent on, those in the inorganic. What we now have to inquire is,—Can this theory be applied in any way to the question of the origin of the races of man? or is there anything in human nature that takes him out of the category of those organic existences, over whose successive mutations it has had such powerful sway?

Different effects of Natural Selection on Animals and on Man.

In order to answer these questions, we must consider why it is that “natural selection” acts so powerfully upon animals; and we shall, I believe, find, that its effect depends mainly upon their self-dependence and individual isolation. A slight injury, a temporary illness, will often end in death, because it leaves the individual powerless against its enemies. If an herbivorous animal is a little sick and has not fed well for a day or two, and the herd is then pursued by a beast of prey, our poor invalid inevitably falls a victim. So, in a carnivorous animal, the least deficiency of vigour prevents its capturing food, and it soon dies of starvation. There is, as a general rule, no mutual assistance between adults, which enables them to tide over a period of sickness. Neither is there any division of labour; each must fulfil all the conditions of its existence, and, therefore, “natural selection” keeps all up to a pretty uniform standard.

But in man, as we now behold him, this is different. He is social and sympathetic. In the rudest tribes the sick are assisted, at least with food; less robust health and vigour than the average does not entail death. Neither does the want of perfect limbs, or other organs, produce the same effects as among animals. Some division of labour takes place; the swiftest hunt, the less active fish, or gather fruits; food is, to some extent, exchanged or divided. The action of natural selection is therefore checked; the weaker, the dwarfish, those of less active limbs, or less piercing eyesight, do not suffer the extreme penalty which falls upon animals so defective. (310-12)

When the accustomed food of some animal becomes scarce or totally fails, it can only exist by becoming adapted to a new kind of food, a food perhaps less nourishing and less digestible. “Natural selection” will now act upon the stomach and intestines, and all their individual variations will be taken advantage of, to modify the race into harmony with its new food. In many cases, however, it is probable that this cannot be done. The internal organs may not vary quick enough, and then the animal will decrease in numbers, and finally become extinct. But man guards himself from such accidents by superintending and guiding the operations of nature. He plants the seed of his most agreeable food, and thus procures a supply, independent of the accidents of varying seasons or natural extinction. He domesticates animals, which serve him either to capture food or for food itself, and thus, changes of any great extent in his teeth or digestive organs are rendered unnecessary. Man, too, has everywhere the use of fire, and by its means can render palatable a variety of animal and vegetable substances, which he could hardly otherwise make use of; and thus obtains for himself a supply of food far more varied and abundant than that which any animal can command.

Thus man, by the mere capacity of clothing himself, and making weapons and tools, has taken away from nature that power of slowly but permanently changing the external form and structure, in accordance with changes in the external world, which she exercises over all other animals. As the competing races by which they are surrounded, the climate, the vegetation, or the animals which serve them for food, are slowly changing, they must undergo a corresponding change in their structure, habits, and constitution, to keep them in harmony with the new conditions— to enable them to live and maintain their numbers. But man does this by means of his intellect alone, the variations of which enable him, with an unchanged body, still to keep in harmony with the changing universe.

There is one point, however, in which nature will still act upon him as it does on animals, and, to some extent, modify his external characters. Mr. Darwin has shown, that the colour of the skin is correlated with constitutional peculiarities both in vegetables and animals, so that liability to certain diseases or freedom from them is often accompanied by marked external characters. Now, there is every reason to believe that this has acted, and, to some extent, may still continue to act, on man. In localities where certain diseases are prevalent, those individuals of savage races which were subject to them would rapidly die off; while those who were constitutionally free from the disease would survive, and form the progenitors of a new race. These favoured individuals would probably be distinguished by peculiarities of colour, with which again peculiarities in the texture or the abundance of hair seem to be correlated, and thus may have been brought about those racial differences of colour, which seem to have no relation to mere temperature or other obvious peculiarities of climate. . . .

Influence of external Nature in the development of the Human Mind.

But from the time when this mental and moral advance commenced, and man’s physical character became fixed and almost immutable, a new series of causes would come into action, and take part in his mental growth. The diverse aspects of nature would now make themselves felt, and profoundly influence the character of the primitive man.

When the power that had hitherto modified the body had its action transferred to the mind, then races would advance and become improved, merely by the harsh discipline of a sterile soil and inclement seasons. Under their influence, a hardier, a more provident, and a more social race would be developed, than in those regions where the earth produces a perennial supply of vegetable food, and where neither foresight nor ingenuity are required to prepare for the rigours of winter. And is it not the fact that in all ages, and in every quarter of the globe, the inhabitants of temperate have been superior to those of hotter countries? All the great invasions and displacements of races have been from North to South, rather than the reverse; and we have no record of there ever having existed, any more than there exists to-day, a solitary instance of an indigenous inter-tropical civilization. The Mexican civilization and government came from the North, and, as well as the Peruvian, was established, not in the rich tropical plains, but on the lofty and sterile plateaux of the Andes. The religion and civilization of Ceylon were introduced from North India; the successive conquerors of the Indian peninsula came from the North-west; the northern Mongols conquered the more Southern Chinese; and it was the bold and adventurous tribes of the North that overran and infused new life into Southern Europe.

Extinction of Lower Races.

It is the same great law of “the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life,” which leads to the inevitable extinction of all those low and mentally undeveloped populations with which Europeans come in contact. The red Indian in America, and in Brazil; the Tasmanian, Australian, and New Zealander in the southern hemisphere, die out, not from any one special cause, but from the inevitable effects of an unequal mental and physical struggle. The intellectual and moral, as well as the physical, qualities of the European are superior; the same powers and capacities which have made him rise in a few centuries from the condition of the wandering savage with a scanty and stationary population, to his present state of culture and advancement, with a greater average longevity, a greater average strength, and a capacity of more rapid increase—enable him when in contact with the savage man, to conquer in the struggle for existence, and to increase at his expense, just as the better adapted, increase at the expense of the less adapted varieties in the animal and vegetable kingdoms,—just as the weeds of Europe overrun North America and Australia, extinguishing native productions by the inherent vigour of their organization, and by their greater capacity for existence and multiplication.

The Origin of the Races of Man.

If these views are correct; if in proportion as man’s social, moral, and intellectual faculties became developed, his physical structure would cease to be affected by the operation of “natural selection,” we have a most important clue to the origin of races. For it will follow, that those great modifications of structure and of external form, which resulted in the development of man out of some lower type of animal, must have occurred before his intellect had raised him above the condition of the brutes, at a period when he was gregarious, but scarcely social, with a mind perceptive but not reflective, ere any sense of right or feelings of sympathy had been developed in him. He would be still subject, like the rest of the organic world, to the action of “natural selection,” which would retain his physical form and constitution in harmony with the surrounding universe. He was probably at a very early period a dominant race, spreading widely over the warmer regions of the earth as it then existed, and in agreement with what we see in the case of other dominant species, gradually becoming modified in accordance with local conditions. As he ranged farther from his original home, and became exposed to greater extremes of climate, to greater changes of food, and had to contend with new enemies, organic and inorganic, slight useful variations in his constitution would be selected and rendered permanent, and would, on the principle of “correlation of growth,” be accompanied by corresponding external physical changes. Thus might have arisen those striking characteristics and special modifications which still distinguish the chief races of mankind. The red, black, yellow, or blushing white skin; the straight, the curly, the woolly hair; the scanty or abundant beard; the straight or oblique eyes; the various forms of the pelvis, the cranium, and other parts of the skeleton.

But while these changes had been going on, his mental development had, from some unknown cause, greatly advanced, and had now reached that condition in which it began powerfully to influence his whole existence, and would therefore become subject to the irresistible action of “natural selection.” This action would quickly give the ascendency to mind: speech would probably now be first developed, leading to a still further advance of the mental faculties; and from that moment man, as regards the form and structure of most parts of his body, would remain almost stationary. The art of making weapons, division of labour, anticipation of the future, restraint of the appetites, moral, social, and sympathetic feelings, would now have a preponderating influence on his well being, and would therefore be that part of his nature on which “natural selection” would most powerfully act; and we should thus have explained that wonderful persistence of mere physical characteristics, which is the stumbling-block of those who advocate the unity of mankind.

We are now, therefore, enabled to harmonise the conflicting views of anthropologists on this subject. Man may have been, indeed I believe must have been, once a homogeneous race; but it was at a period of which we have as yet discovered no remains, at a period so remote in his history, that he had not yet acquired that wonderfully developed brain, the organ of the mind, which now, even in his lowest examples, raises him far above the highest brutes;—at a period when he had the form but hardly the nature of man, when he neither possessed human speech, nor those sympathetic and moral feelings which in a greater or less degree everywhere now distinguish the race. Just in proportion as these truly human faculties became developed in him, would his physical features become fixed and permanent, because the latter would be of less importance to his well being; he would be kept in harmony with the slowly changing universe around him, by an advance in mind, rather than by a change in body. If, therefore, we are of opinion that he was not really man till these higher faculties were fully developed, we may fairly assert that there were many originally distinct races of men; while, if we think that a being closely resembling us in form and structure, but with mental faculties scarcely raised above the brute, must still be considered to have been human, we are fully entitled to maintain the common origin of all mankind. (314-22)

Their Bearing on the Dignity and Supremacy of Man.

If the views I have here endeavoured to sustain have any foundation, they give us a new argument for placing man apart, as not only the head and culminating point of the grand series of organic nature, but as in some degree a new and distinct order of being. From those infinitely remote ages, when the first rudiments of organic life appeared upon the earth, every plant, and every animal has been subject to one great law of physical change. As the earth has gone through its grand cycles of geological, climatal, and organic progress, every form of life has been subject to its irresistible action, and has been continually, but imperceptibly moulded into such new shapes as would preserve their harmony with the ever-changing universe. No living thing could escape this law of its being; none (except, perhaps, the simplest and most rudimentary organisms), could remain unchanged and live, amid the universal change around it.

At length, however, there came into existence a being in whom that subtle force we term mind, became of greater importance than his mere bodily structure. Though with a naked and unprotected body, this gave him clothing against the varying inclemencies of the seasons. Though unable to compete with the deer in swiftness, or with the wild bull in strength, this gave him weapons with which to capture or overcome both. Though less capable than most other animals of living on the herbs and the fruits that unaided nature supplies, this wonderful faculty taught him to govern and direct nature to his own benefit, and make her produce food for him, when and where he pleased. From the moment when the first skin was used as a covering, when the first rude spear was formed to assist in the chase, when fire was first used to cook his food, when the first seed was sown or shoot planted, a grand revolution was effected in nature, a revolution which in all the previous ages of the earth’s history had had no parallel, for a being had arisen who was no longer necessarily subject to change with the changing universe— a being who was in some degree superior to nature, inasmuch as he knew how to control and regulate her action, and could keep himself in harmony with her, not by a change in body, but by an advance of mind.

Here, then, we see the true grandeur and dignity of man. On this view of his special attributes, we may admit, that even those who claim for him a position as an order, a class, or a sub-kingdom by himself, have some show of reason on their side. He is, indeed, a being apart, since he is not influenced by the great laws which irresistibly modify all other organic beings. Nay more; this victory which he has gained for himself, gives him a directing influence over other existences. Man has not only escaped “natural selection” himself, but he is actually able to take away some of that power from nature which before his appearance she universally exercised. We can anticipate the time when the earth will produce only cultivated plants and domestic animals; when man’s selection shall have supplanted “natural selection;" and when the ocean will be the only domain in which that power can be exerted, which for countless cycles of ages ruled supreme over all the earth.

Their Bearing on the future Development of Man.

We now find ourselves enabled to answer those who maintain, that if Mr. Darwin’s theory of the Origin of Species is true, man too must change in form, and become developed into some other animal as different from his present self as he is from the Gorilla or the Chimpanzee; and who speculate on what this form is likely to be. But it is evident that such will not be the case; for no change of conditions is conceivable, which will render any important alteration of his form and organization so universally useful and necessary to him, as to give those possessing it always the best chance of surviving, and thus lead to the development of a new species, genus, or higher group of man. On the other hand, we know that far greater changes of conditions and of his entire environment have been undergone by man, than any other highly organized animal could survive unchanged, and have been met by mental, not corporeal adaptation. The difference of habits, of food, clothing, weapons, and enemies, between savage and civilized man is enormous. Difference in bodily form and structure there is practically none, except a slightly increased size of brain, corresponding to his higher mental development.

We have every reason to believe, then, that man may have existed and may continue to exist, through a series of geological periods which shall see all other forms of animal life again and again changed; while he himself remains unchanged, except in the two particulars already specified—the head and face, as immediately connected with the organ of the mind and as being the medium of expressing the most refined emotions of his nature,—and to a slight extent in colour, hair, and proportions, so far as they are correlated with constitutional resistance to disease.


Briefly to recapitulate the argument;—in two distinct ways has man escaped the influence of those laws which have produced unceasing change in the animal world. 1. By his superior intellect he is enabled to provide himself with clothing and weapons, and by cultivating the soil to obtain a constant supply of congenial food. This renders it unnecessary for his body, like those of the lower animals, to be modified in accordance with changing conditions—to gain a warmer natural covering, to acquire more powerful teeth or claws, or to become adapted to obtain and digest new kinds of food, as circumstances may require. 2. By his superior sympathetic and moral feelings, he becomes fitted for the social state; he ceases to plunder the weak and helpless of his tribe; he shares the game which he has caught with less active or less fortunate hunters, or exchanges it for weapons which even the weak or the deformed can fashion; he saves the sick and wounded from death; and thus the power which leads to the rigid destruction of all animals who cannot in every respect help themselves, is prevented from acting on him.

This power is “natural selection;” and, as by no other means can it be shown, that individual variations can ever become accumulated and rendered permanent so as to form well-marked races, it follows that the differences which now separate mankind from other animals, must have been produced before he became possessed of a human intellect or human sympathies. This view also renders possible, or even requires, the existence of man at a comparatively remote geological epoch. For, during the long periods in which other animals have been undergoing modification in their whole structure, to such an amount as to constitute distinct genera and families, man’s body will have remained generically, or even specifically, the same, while his head and brain alone will have undergone modification equal to theirs. We can thus understand how it is that, judging from the head and brain, Professor Owen places man in a distinct sub-class of mammalia, while as regards the bony structure of his body, there is the closest anatomical resemblance to the anthropoid apes, “every tooth, every bone, strictly homologous—which makes the determination of the difference between Homo and Pithecus the anatomist’s difficulty.” The present theory fully recognises and accounts for these facts; and we may perhaps claim as corroborative of its truth, that it neither requires us to depreciate the intellectual chasm which separates man from the apes, nor refuses full recognition of the striking resemblances to them, which exist in other parts of his structure.


In concluding this brief sketch of a great subject, I would point out its bearing upon the future of the human race. If my conclusions are just, it must inevitably follow that the higher—the more intellectual and moral—must displace the lower and more de graded races; and the power of “natural selection,” still acting on his mental organization, must ever lead to the more perfect adaptation of man’s higher faculties to the conditions of surrounding nature, and to the exigencies of the social state. While his external form will probably ever remain unchanged, except in the development of that perfect beauty which results from a healthy and well organized body, refined and ennobled by the highest intellectual faculties and sympathetic emotions, his mental constitution may continue to advance and improve, till the world is again inhabited by a single nearly homogeneous race, no individual of which will be inferior to the noblest specimens of existing humanity.

Our progress towards such a result is very slow, but it still seems to be a progress. We are just now living at an abnormal period of the world’s history, owing to the marvellous developments and vast practical results of science, having been given to societies too low morally and intellectually, to know how to make the best use of them, and to whom they have consequently been curses as well as blessings. Among civilized nations at the present day, it does not seem possible for natural selection to act in any way, so as to secure the permanent advancement of morality and intelligence; for it is indisputably the mediocre, if not the low, both as regards morality and intelligence, who succeed best in life and multiply fastest. Yet there is undoubtedly an advance—on the whole a steady and a permanent one—both in the influence on public opinion of a high morality, and in the general desire for intellectual elevation; and as I cannot impute this in any way to “survival of the fittest,” I am forced to conclude that it is due, to the inherent progressive power of those glorious qualities which raise us so immeasurably above our fellow animals, and at the same time afford us the surest proof that there are other and higher existences than ourselves, from whom these qualities may have been derived, and towards whom we may be ever tending. (324-31)

From the concluding paragraph of the 1864 address:

If my conclusions are just, it must inevitably follow that the higher—the more intellectual and moral—must displace the lower and more degraded races; and the power of “natural selection”, still acting on his mental organisation, must ever lead to the more perfect adaptation of man’s higher faculties to the conditions of surrounding nature, and to the exigencies of the social state. While his external form will probably ever remain unchanged, except in the development of that perfect beauty which results from a healthy and well organised body, refined and ennobled by the highest intellectual faculties and sympathetic emotions, his mental constitution may continue to advance and improve till the world is again inhabited by a single homogeneous race, no individual of which will be inferior to the noblest specimens of existing humanity. Each one will then work out his own happiness in relation to that of his fellows; perfect freedom of action will be maintained, since the well balanced moral faculties will never permit any one to transgress on the equal freedom of others; restrictive laws will not be wanted, for each man will be guided by the best of laws; a thorough appreciation of the rights, and a perfect sympathy with the feelings, of all about him; compulsory government will have died away as unnecessary (for every man will know how to govern himself), and will be replaced by voluntary associations for all beneficial public purposes; the passions and animal propensities will be restrained within those limits which most conduce to happiness; and mankind will have at length discovered that it was only required of them to develope the capacities of their higher nature, in order to convert this earth, which had so long been the theatre of their unbridled passions, and the scene of unimaginable misery, into as bright a paradise as ever haunted the dreams of seer or poet.*

*Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced From the Theory of ‘Natural Selection’” (1864)” (2010). Alfred Russel Wallace Classic Writings. Paper 6.

Stephen Alter, “Separated at Birth:  The Interlinked Origins of Darwin’s Unconscious Selection Concept and the Application of Sexual Selection to Race,” Journal of the History of Biology 40 (Summer 2007):  231-58.  

Michael D. Biddiss, “Introduction,” Images of Race (New York:  Holmes & Meier, 1979), 11-36. 

Nancy Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science:  Great Britain 1800-1960 (Houndsmills:  Macmillan, 1982), 83-110.

George W. Stocking, Jr. Race, Culture, & Evolution:  Essays in the History of Anthropology (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1982), 42-68.