A.R. Wallace: Naturalist, Collector and Co-Founder of Evolution Theory

Ever heard of Charles Darwin? What about A.R. Wallace? Although he is the lesser-known of the two, A.R. Wallace made significant contributions to the field of natural science and the theory of evolution. Volunteer blogger, Vanessa Silvera, writes about his life and work, and where you can find his personal collection of taxidermy birds of paradise.

The Bell Pettigrew, St Andrews’ natural history museum, is home to several splendid specimens including, but not limited to, fossil fish, glass sponges, Narwhal tusks, and a plethora of extinct species. Visitors may also notice a handful of exquisitely colourful birds on display, acquired by the museum in the late nineteenth century. Unbeknownst to many, these ‘birds of paradise’ originally belonged to scientist Alfred Russel Wallace whose contributions to evolutionary biology remain largely overlooked.

A.R. Wallace was an extraordinary individual, a man of great talent and strong convictions. He is best remembered as an influential naturalist, explorer, collector, and most significantly as the co-founder of the theory of evolution along with Charles Darwin.

A.R. Wallace

Born in 1823 in the Welsh countryside, A.R. Wallace was one of nine children, and his appetite for learning began at a young age. As a boy his family moved to Hertfordshire, England where he attended school until he had to leave at the age of fourteen. Despite this setback, Wallace was determined to continue his education. He read treatises, studied maps and attended lectures by social reformer Robert Owen, all of which played a role in shaping his beliefs. In the meantime he worked at his eldest brother’s surveying business for a few years until 1844 when he accepted a teaching position in Leicester. He quickly befriended fellow amateur naturalist Henry Walter Bates who introduced Wallace to entomology, the study of insects.

In 1848, the two men decided to venture overseas to the Amazon to observe and collect the region’s flora and fauna. Wallace studied and gathered an impressive collection, primarily beetles, butterflies and birds. Tragically, on his return home, his ship sank and nearly all his research was lost. Undeterred, however, Wallace embarked on another voyage, but this time to the Malay Archipelago (present-day Malaysia and Indonesia).

From 1854 to 1862, he collected more than 125,000 specimens, over 5,000 of which were previously unknown to the western world. One night in 1858, while ill, Wallace had an epiphany: that natural selection is the driver of evolution. Within populations, variations are found among individuals. Individuals with traits better suited to their environment survive, reproduce and pass those traits to their offspring. This was a highly controversial theory because it was at odds with the Bible, which states that the Earth and its species remain unchanged since creation. Shortly thereafter, Wallace wrote to his hero Charles Darwin about his discovery. Darwin, impressed with Wallace’s work and similar to his own, included his paper in his publication On the Origin of Species (1859).

Following his departure from the Far East, Wallace went back to England as an esteemed member of the scientific community. He continued to devote himself to his scientific and social pursuits. Over the span of his lifetime, he published 21 books as well as over 1,000 articles and letters. What set him apart from his contemporaries was that he was a spiritualist and social critic. He disagreed with the notion that natural selection accounted for human intellect and supported unpopular causes including women’s rights and land nationalization. Though he was outshone by Darwin, Wallace did receive recognition for his work. He was granted a number of awards and honorary doctorates from the Universities of Dublin and Oxford in 1882 and 1889 respectively.

Around 1885, some of Wallace’s most prized taxidermy treasures made their way to St Andrews. Dr. Albert Günther, Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum, presented samples from Wallace’s private collection to William McIntosh, the Director of the Museum. McIntosh acquired 46 ‘birds of paradise’, including the stunning Quetzal, multiple bright-feathered Pittas, parrots, hummingbirds, and many others, which are accessible for public view.

Welcome to the Bell Pettigrew Museum

The Bell Pettigrew Museum is part of the Museums of the University of St Andrews and it is located in the Bute Building in St Mary’s Quadrangle on South Street.

At the Bell Pettigrew we have a number of rare and extinct animals. It is crucial that we safeguard these specimens for any potential research opportunities. Respecting the museum by only consuming water and monitoring the environmental conditions, means that the specimens stand a better chance of maintaining their good condition. We wanted to share a few of the interesting oddities in the collection with you.

St Kilda House Mouse (Mus musculus muralis). Photograph © Sean Dooley. All rights reserved. Image courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library, [2014-2-33].
Starting small, we have the St Kilda House Mouse (Mus musculus muralis). This specimen was found on the remote St Kilda archipelago off northwest Scotland, 41 miles west of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. It is thought that St Kilda was first inhabited about 4000-5000 years ago due to the presence of stone tools and the common house mouse was most likely established in human spaces at that time. The St Kilda Mouse, now extinct, evolved from these introduced mice. It was larger than the common house mouse and is an example of the phenomenon of island gigantism. The human population of St Kilda fell to 36 individuals in 1930 and they requested to be evacuated. After 8 years of survival the St Kilda Mouse became extinct because of their reliance on human habitation for food.

Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno)

The Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) is found at high altitudes in Central American cloud forests and is extremely rare. The great taxonomist Albert Günther , who was Keeper of Zoology at the Natural History Museum in Kensington, presented the striking specimen to the Bell Pettigrew Museum.

Spotting the difference between male and female quetzals is simple because during breeding season the males grow a pair of tail feathers that can be 1 metre in length. Sadly, due to their beautifully coloured feathers, quetzals are hunted resulting in a severe decline in numbers and this is not helped by a continued loss of their cloud forest habitat. It is almost impossible to keep a quetzal in captivity as they tend to die quite quickly upon capture and for this reason, quetzals are used as a symbol of liberty in the Americas.

Thylacine or Tasmanian wolf/tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus)

Moving to the other side of the world across Australia and New Guinea is where one would have found the Thylacine or Tasmanian wolf/tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus). Thylacines were the world’s largest marsupial predator, but their numbers went into decline with the arrival of humans 40,000 years ago. By the time Europeans arrived the Thylacine was extinct in New Guinea, almost entirely eradicated from Australia and was largely confined to the island of Tasmania.

Due to issues with sheep farming, the Tasmanian government introduced a bounty of £1 for every Thylacine killed with the last recorded wild Thylacine being shot in 1930. The last captive Thylacine died in 1936 in Hobart Zoo and despite being quite a common animal at one time, little is known about the biology of this fascinating animal. Despite almost certainly being extinct, there have been numerous reported sightings of ‘dog-like creatures’ in Australia and in September 2016 a team of British investigators from the Centre for Fortean Zoology released a video of a potential Thylacine sighting in Adelaide.

The Bell Pettigrew Museum is a fantastic place where you can learn about a variety of wildlife both great and small – and everything in between. But we don’t need to tell you how great it is; Sir David Attenborough visited in 2011 and commented: Packed full of treasures and wonders, the Bell Pettigrew is a spectacular reminder of how important a museum can be in the study of the natural sciences”. 

“And yet, and yet, I want to be acknowledged.”

Willa Muir, International Women’s Day

Dr Helena Goodwyn, Lecturer in English Literature, School of English, University of St Andrews

This International Women’s Day I’m thinking about what it means to try to write about, and on behalf of a group, a form of feminist practice that historically, was received, if not without criticism, at least with a sense that to do so was to try to improve things or prevent them from getting worse. To intervene, in other words: to become involved intentionally in a difficult situation or debate to try to make it better or prevent it from worsening.

Once upon a moment in history, it seems to me anyway, we accepted more readily that a voice, attempting to speak on behalf of many other voices–some silenced, some less inclined to noise, some unable or even unwilling to articulate the problem–was a positive intervention. Now, with the immediacy of social media, even a voice mediated by an awareness of intersectionality is often savaged by anonymous trolls, and left as so much carrion, to be picked over by journalists, who wonder out loud what it is about the internet that so provokes a dark desire to hurl abuse at strangers.

Women: An Inquiry (1925)

I was asked if I would write a blog post about Willa Muir’s Women: An Inquiry for International Women’s Day, as the University holds a first edition copy which will feature in the new thematic galleries of the Wardlaw Museum when it opens in April. Willa Muir (1890-1970) studied Classics at the University of St Andrews, and Educational Psychology at Bedford College, before becoming a teacher, translator, novelist, cultural commentator, and latterly memoirist. She (with her husband Edwin Muir) would become the first translator of the fiction of Franz Kafka into English.

Muir is sometimes remembered as the wife and literary help-mate of the aforementioned poet Edwin Muir, a designation she struggled with, as recorded in her journal, letters, and memoir, Belonging (1968). An oft-quoted passage of her journal reads:

I am a better translator than [Edwin] is. The whole current of patriarchal society is set against this fact however and sweeps it into oblivion, simply because I did not insist on shouting aloud: ‘Most of the translation, especially Kafka, has been done by ME. Edwin only helped.’ And every time Edwin was referred to as THE translator, I was too proud to say anything; […] I am left without a shred of literary reputation. And I am ashamed of the fact that I feel it as a grievance. […] I seem to have nothing to build on, except that I am Edwin’s wife and he still loves me. That is much. It is more in a sense than I deserve. And I know, too, how destructive ambition is, and how it deforms what one might create. And yet, and yet, I want to be acknowledged.

Here is a familiar voice: a woman writer who worked hard her whole life to support herself and her husband, and who sacrificed much of her personal presence to that project. A woman whose commitment to the feminist cause was repeatedly circumscribed by the circumstances she found herself in, professionally and personally.

Her publication, in 1925, of Women: An Inquiry, with Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, met with almost no critical response, and very little press attention. Since then it hasn’t gained much by way of a recuperation either, and there is good reason for this. Kirsty A. Allen begins her introduction to Imagined Selves (1996), an edited collection of Muir’s two novels and three cultural essays, by explaining that Women: An Inquiry is ‘entertaining’ if ‘unconvincing’, and that, in light of modern feminist thinking, it ‘seems sadly dated and misguided’.

I am inclined to agree with Allen that Women: An Inquiry is not Muir’s finest work. If published today it might slot neatly into what has been dubbed the ‘tradwife’ movement, a social-media-driven trend whose hashtags include: #tradwife, #tradfem and #vintagehousewife. Allen elaborates: ‘ the work is an unconscious endorsement of the patriarchal system which had kept women in the home–and in the submissive position against which Muir constantly rebelled’.

It could, therefore, appear to be an odd choice of text to highlight on International Women’s Day, except that Muir’s essay, like her commitment to feminism, is a sum of contradictory parts, some progressive, some remarkably not. And so it seems like enough of an intervention, to me, on International Women’s Day 2020, for us to listen to a little heard voice; to remember a ‘forgotten’ piece of feminist writing; and to acknowledge the literary work of Willa Muir.

Excerpts from Women: An Inquiry:

“Men and women share jointly in what is called human nature, and are alike capable of courage, fear, cruelty, tenderness, intelligence, and stupidity. When exhilarated by power and responsibility they display the more dominating qualities, and in subordinate positions they manifest a ‘slave psychology’”.

“In a masculine civilisation the creative work of women may be belittled, misinterpreted, or denied: but if it is a reality, its existence will be proved at least by the emotional colour of the denial”.

“Every great man has been inspired by some woman. The hand that rocks the cradle indisputably rules the world. A woman was the first cause of original sin, but a woman was the Mother of God. What does this mean? Half of the picture is tinged with vague contempt, and the other half with vague reverence. Apparently the average man sees woman alternately as an inferior being and as an angel”.

“One must conclude that he is looking at her through a distorting medium. His conception of her as an inferior being is natural, in a man-made State, and were she really inferior it would stop there. His vague reverence for her remains to prevent this conclusion: it is certainly a compensation for something, a distorted recognition of some half-guessed-at power in women. It looks as if man knows that the inferiority of woman is a fiction, that his domination of her and his refusal to admit her to his own level are not justified. In the background there lurks a fear of reprisals. The distorting medium contains fear as one of its elements”.

“It can be inferred that a fearless attitude towards human life is the first essential quality of a free woman, and that conventional morality is imposed with such emphasis upon women because the creation of moral values is their own peculiar vocation. Men are more concerned to prevent women from having untrammelled judgment and action in affairs of morality than from having access to the possession of wealth. In other words, women are hindered not only from external power, but from the inward power of creating independent moral and religious values. It is precisely this power which is exercised by creative women in their treatment of others, and the conventionalised ideal of the ignorant good woman is the deepest disability laid upon women in a men’s State”.

“The first condition that is required from women is that they shall know themselves. A woman who is ignorant of her own weaknesses cannot help others, for she is incapable of correcting distortions caused by her own fear or anger. The conventional woman hangs conventional ideas between herself and her own nature, thus negating her deepest instincts. She despises and represses part of her own humanity; consequently she has a repressive instead of a fostering effect on other people. Women must therefore be frankly sincere with themselves if they are to be creative, and must make allowances for their own faults in dealing with others”.

“The whole world needs creative women, and seems to be unaware of its need. Women themselves do not know how necessary they are. The result is that many waste themselves in trying to be men, and many are content to justify their existence by simple drudgery”.

“It looks as if during the next few generations the really creative New Woman will emerge, for conventional morality is no longer so powerful among women, and they are gradually deserting the blind alleys into which they rushed in their first efforts at self-assertion”.

“Even to-day, especially in politics, men find it difficult to rid themselves of the uneasy suspicion that women are dangerous”.

Dr Helena Goodwyn
Lecturer in English Literature
School of English, University of St Andrews

Welcome to the Wardlaw Museum

Dr Katie Eagleton, Director of Museums

A new University Museum
St Andrews was Scotland’s first University and there have long been artworks and collections displayed in spaces across the campus. A dedicated University Museum was set up in 1838 in Upper College Hall, but by 1912 it had outgrown that space and the collections and displays were moved to the newly-built Bell Pettigrew Museum. Almost 100 years later, the Museum of the University of St Andrews (MUSA) opened on the Scores, but within a decade it, too, had reached capacity and needed to be expanded and extended.

Since 2018, the Museums team have been working on a major project that builds on 10 years of success as MUSA, but also takes the opportunity to reimagine our work and our approach to it. When it reopens in spring 2020, the Museum will have four new thematic galleries, a temporary exhibitions gallery, and new and renewed spaces to welcome visitors and expand our events and programmes.


Why Wardlaw?
Marking this transformation, we decided to change the name from MUSA to the Wardlaw Museum, after Bishop Henry Wardlaw, who played a critical role in founding the University of St Andrews. In 1413, Wardlaw secured a document from the Pope that officially marked the foundation of the this as a university – this Papal Bull, which arrived in St Andrews to much celebration in 1414, will be one of the star objects when the Wardlaw Museum opens. It reflects the 600-year history of the University, but will be displayed alongside contemporary objects and artworks that remind us that this is an ancient university that has always looked to the future, and always been groundbreaking.

Statue of Bishop Henry Wardlaw, St Mary’s College Quadrangle

We’ll share more details of our upcoming exhibitions and events programmes on our blog and website, as well as stories and features about objects in our collection that will be on display.

Join us from Spring 2020 to celebrate the opening of the Wardlaw Museum!