The first cardinal point in the biography of Alfred Wallace is that for him, as for Will Shakespeare but not for Charles Darwin, impecuniousness was the mother of invention. He was a curious lad from a family with no money. At age 14, in 1837, having left school, he went to work. Darwin, at that time a young gentleman of 28 with a wealthy father who subsidized his adventures, had just arrived home aboard the Beagle.
Wallace was largely self-taught, frequenting town libraries and workingmen's institutes during the decade he labored as a land surveyor, a builder, and a schoolteacher in the city of Leicester. Early on he discovered the life and writings of Robert Owen, the founder of British socialism, who became his "first teacher in the philosophy of human nature," as Wallace later recalled, and an influence toward his own socialist convictions. During his surveying period, spent largely in rural Wales, he got interested in nature by way of botany, taking long walks across the moors and mountains, training himself to identify plant families with help from a cheap paperback guide. His teaching job left him time for an eclectic syllabus of personal reading that included Humboldt's Personal Narrative of Travels, and, most consequentially, Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population, which had catalyzed Charles Darwin's thinking about the struggle for survival and would catalyze Wallace's too. Although Wallace found himself unsuited to teaching, the year at Leicester yielded one memorable event: He became friends with a young man named Henry Walter Bates, a former hosier's apprentice, who introduced him to the joys of beetle collecting.
Books were always important to Wallace, and he testified that two others helped set his course. One was Charles Darwin's Journal from the voyage of the Beagle, a lively travel narrative that gave almost no hint of evolutionary ideas. The other, more daring and incendiary, was an anonymously authored best seller titled Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published in 1844, which did offer an evolutionary vision of life on Earth, though not in a form that most discerning readers found persuasive. The prevailing orthodoxy in Western culture was that God had shaped all species through special acts of creation, and that every species was essentially fixed, incapable of varying much from an ideal type. Such fixity was not just a religious dogma but a scientific one; the science philosopher William Whewell, for instance, had recently written: "Species have a real existence in nature, and a transmutation from one to another does not exist." In opposition to that view Vestiges hypothesized a "law of development" in living creatures, whereby one species is transformed into another by external circumstances, in incremental stages, from simple life-forms to complex ones, up to and including man. The result was adaptation. God still played a role, according to Vestiges, but more distantly—as ultimate designer of the process.