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Uneasy Bedfellows: Alfred Russel Wallace and Nineteenth-century 'Socialist Darwinism'

by Ahren Lester[1], Department of History, University of Southampton


This paper's object is to clarify the relationship between Alfred Russel Wallace's (1823-1913) socialism and evolutionism. This paper contends that although conflicts emerge between Wallace's socialism and Darwinism through the issues of the role of Malthusianism, the perfectibility of man and the role of individualism, he remained committed to the Darwinian Theory. Indeed, it will argue that, rather than undermining his belief in Darwinism, Wallace's socialism evolved within the new intellectual conditions created by the 'Darwinian Revolution.' This paper argues that intellectual exchange between political thought and science enriched both, and concludes that to erect any barrier between the two distorts the historical and intellectual reality.

Keywords: Evolution, Darwin, Darwinism, Alfred Russel Wallace, Socialism, Malthus, Individualism


There is a rich historiography regarding the politics of evolutionary thought. For the most part the debate has been whether or not the political right should have hegemonic rights to adopt Darwinism as its scientific crutch. Figures such as Peter Singer are still trying to create a closer affinity between the left of the political spectrum and Darwinism (Singer, 1999). The claim of the left to a Darwinian pedigree therefore remains equally important. The reasoning for this search was to find a 'secular scientific sanction for left-wing politics' (Stack, 2000: 687). This secular science was intended to replace traditional authority systems. However, a Darwinian pedigree for the left was also a way of 'disarming those erecting biological barriers to socialism by lifting the Darwinian mantle for the socialist cause' (Stack, 2000: 684). Far from being exclusively a matter of historical interest this debate continues to draw intense criticism and debate.

Alfred Russel Wallace was one of a number of high-profile Victorians who helped shape the socialism versus evolutionism debate. As the largely forgotten co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection and dedicated socialist, his role in reconciling socialism[2] and evolutionism is far more salient than other prominent contemporaries such as Marx and Darwin. It has been argued that, 'for Wallace, socialism developed out of Darwinism, not in contradiction to it' (Stack, 2003: 22). By extension, therefore, science and politics are not mutually exclusive but rather ideologically symbiotic. Thus Wallace's attempt to create a 'Socialist Darwinism' is not out of place and his attempt to render 'socialism naturalistic and Darwinian' is both possible and logical (Stack, 2003: 29). However, Robert Young, one of the leading historians of evolution, disagrees (for some of his early writings see: Young, 1985: passim). He considers socialism and evolution as incompatible; they are to him 'very uneasy bedfellows' (Young, 1968: 224). He also goes further, believing that where conflict arises between socialism and evolutionism Wallace sacrifices his scientific credentials on the altar of his socio-political beliefs. However, Young does not suggest that politics and evolution are separate entities. He only informs us that socialism is intellectually uncomfortable with evolutionism.

From this we can extract some critical questions. Firstly, are socialism and evolutionism intellectually actually incompatible with one another? Secondly, to what extent did Wallace choose socialism over evolutionism when they did not support each other? And finally, there is the broader question (if largely unanswerable in such a short study): Are politics and science, as a whole, ideologically supportive?

Natural Selection and Malthusianism

The intellectual viability of a Socialist Darwinism is seemingly challenged by several aspects of Darwinian evolution. One of the most significant and well-known obstacles is the relationship between natural selection and the theory propounded by Thomas Malthus in his seminal work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798 (Malthus, 1826). Wallace himself had described it, as a young 'Utopian Socialist' Owenite in the 1840s, as 'the greatest of all delusions' (Rockell, 1912: 632). This is by no means a surprising reaction from the mind of a developing socialist. After all, Malthus's theory was in essence seen as an 'antidote' to left-wing politics (Stack, 2000: 709). Malthusianism had been born during the period immediately after the French Revolution during which the elite of Britain feared that such revolutionary ideas would migrate across the English Channel. Malthus's theory, however, was an important catalyst for Wallace's and Darwin's forging of the idea of evolution by natural selection. Consequently, how did Wallace manage to reconcile his socialist political beliefs for the future of man with this quintessentially anti-socialist theory used to explain the natural history of all existent species?

It seems quite a steep task for Wallace to create a Socialist Darwinism when Darwin had supped so deeply from Malthus's cup. Malthus's influence upon the theory of natural selection can be summarised successfully from just two passages from his work. First, he states that there was a 'constant tendency in all animated life to increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it', and he goes on to conclude that 'a strong check on population, from the difficulty of acquiring food, must constantly be in operation' (Malthus, 1826 [vol. 1]: 2, 4). Thus, Malthus was seen to reason, poverty and starvation were natural and necessary in order to keep the population of a community in check. Attempts to stamp out starvation by private charity or state welfare initiatives would have the unintended consequence of deepening the chasm between the food available and the food needed. This would then increase the prevalence of poverty and starvation within the population as a whole, and correspondingly, increase crime and misery. This belief that social reform and aid would ultimately be more of an evil than merely leaving people to fend for themselves became the staple for anti-socialist rhetoric; a position making Wallace's task of creating a Socialist Darwinism appear extremely onerous.

So how did Wallace attempt to remove this antagonism between his socialism and his Darwinism? The first way can be seen from his early paper on evolution delivered, in his absence, to the Linnean Society in 1858 (Wallace, 1858). It is in here that we see him applying Malthus's theory differently from Darwin. Darwin took Malthus and applied it to his theory of adaptation by natural selection by concentrating on the idea of population multiplication, competition for food caused by this multiplication and death caused by this competition. It would be those best adapted to the environment that would survive to pass on their characteristics. In contrast, Wallace read Malthus and found the same conclusion by a different, but nonetheless Malthusian, route. He concentrated on the debate within Malthus over the aspect of resources and their exploitation (Jones, 2002: 95). Wallace believed that those individuals who were best adapted to exploit their resources would survive to pass on their adaptations (Wallace, 1858: 54). He does not ignore the role of population increase but his belief is that it plays a sub-ordinate role to the exploitation of resources (Jones, 2002: 93). This had come, in part, out of an Owenite interpretation of Malthus. Owen believed that Malthus had been misunderstood and that he was saying that crime, misery and starvation could be reduced not only by decreasing the population but by increasing the means of subsistence (Jones, 2002: 92). Whether or not Wallace explicitly derived this understanding from Owen is a matter of dispute. Nonetheless, the outcome was much the same whether it was a 'residual Owenite influence' or more direct (Claeys, 2008: 254)[3].

Wallace would argue later that man had escaped this form of natural selection through pressure for food when he developed his mental and social capacities. In 1864 he had explained how man, with mental ability, had been able to increase the means of subsistence from nature by domesticating animals and cultivating plants (Wallace, 1864: clxiii). These items he could then save for when they were needed, reducing the threat of famine during hard periods. Equally, by learning to domesticate and cultivate, mankind had managed to increase its ability to produce more than an ample amount of food for the whole population. In this way Wallace largely removed man from his anti-socialist Malthusian manacles.

In regards to Malthusianism, Wallace managed to incorporate his socialist ideology within his evolutionary theory. His conclusion was still that competition and a 'struggle for existence' was at work. Wallace managed to circumvent the Malthusian idea that socialist reforms in human society were in fact degenerative (in that they worsen the conditions for the population). However, he achieved this without denying that natural selection is occurring in nature. Wallace therefore agrees with Darwin that the outcome is permanent adaptation (evolution) (Vorzimmer, 1969: 533). He also agrees that the means of evolution is selection. However, he does not completely concur with Darwin over the initiator in regards to selection in man. Darwin has his population increase and the competition and selection thereof. Wallace has his resource exploitation and the competition and selection there. However, it is important to note that even Darwin had varying beliefs as to exactly what the initiator of selection was. Over time, Darwin 'diluted the agency of natural selection in evolution, by suggesting alternative explanations of inheritance, such as acquired characteristics [and] sexual selection' (Stack, 2003: 25). Thus to see Wallace's divergence in thought from Darwin on this matter as a betrayal of evolutionism for socialism would be to distort reality, Darwin had himself diverged from Darwinism.

The Perfectibility of Man

Another area in which Wallace's nascent Socialist Darwinism may have suffered was over the idea of the perfectibility of man. This was an Owenite principle adopted by Wallace in his own socialist thought. Owenites had been able to easily apply Lamarckian evolution to their belief in this perfectibility. Using Lamarck they had suggested that education, when offered, would allow an individual to evolve higher moral (and thus social) and intellectual abilities through his own volition. These abilities would then be passed on to the next generation leading to the evolution of mankind as a whole (Bowler, 1989: 689). However, it appeared that this idea of perfectibility was not so easy a bedfellow with Darwinian evolution as it was with its Lamarckian cousin. Darwinism suggested that adaptations, and thus improvements, were almost entirely unguided or even arbitrary. This insinuates that an individual cannot improve his abilities purely by his own volition; that is, that there are limits to how much he can 'evolve' himself.

Wallace, however, had little trouble reconciling his socialist beliefs to his Darwinism. He did so through the idea of 'equality of opportunity'. Through this, he believed that individuals should have equal opportunity to improve themselves by education to their best ability. He did not advocate the same education but merely the highest education of our mental faculties that was possible (Clements, 1983: 96). To Wallace, 'equality of opportunity' could only be secured when the 'inequality of initial wealth' was removed (Wallace, 1908: 291). This important detail distinguished Wallace's socialist understanding of 'equality' with that of the 'liberal' (and largely idiosyncratic) understanding of Herbert Spencer (Spencer, 1868: 173). Under such conditions of equal opportunity for advancement natural selection would be unleashed and function optimally. To Wallace, 'Equality of opportunity is […] the correlative of natural selection in human society and has thus a broad foundation in the laws of nature' (Wallace, 1908: 328; emphasis my own). Thus those who could learn the higher social, moral and intellectual abilities would be most likely to survive. This would be particularly true in Wallace's eyes of those who learn the superior social, sympathetic skills.

Nevertheless, Wallace seems later to undermine this rapprochement of his socialism and evolutionism by suggesting that evolution by natural selection was insufficient to explain the development of mankind's superior moral and intellectual faculties. This he puts forward in the final essay of his Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection of 1870, elaborating on an idea formulated at least a year before (Wallace, 1870: 335-43). This hypothesis, however, does not really break either with his idea of the perfectibility of man or his belief in Darwinism. If anything it supports his belief in perfectibility by pushing man's moral and intellectual abilities beyond the influence of Darwinism. However, this is not to say that by doing so he has betrayed Darwinism for socialism. Wallace's views on mankind's mental capabilities were built, paradoxically, 'on the purely scientific grounds of a severe and consistent application of the theory of natural selection' (Stack, 2000: 692). And under this application of natural selection he could find no real evidence that it had acted to bring these mental capabilities to such an advanced level. This conclusion was founded, as he would highlight later, upon his application of 'pure Darwinism' (Wallace, 1889: viii)[4]. It is also important to note that even Darwin never satisfactorily resolved the problems raised by the fact that 'the moral qualities are advanced, either directly or indirectly, much more through the effects of habit, the reasoning powers, instruction, religion, &c. than through natural selection' (Darwin, 1875: 618). Therefore even Darwin, who was certainly no socialist, was able to see the limits of natural selection in regard to mankind's' mental capacities.

Overall, there were significant conflicts between socialism and Darwinism over the matter of the perfectibility of man. However, the conflicts were once again largely over natural selection rather than evolution per se and even this Wallace managed to reconcile in his conception of a Socialist Darwinism. Even when he seemed to affiliate his views more with a socialist approach, by attempting to dissociate the evolution of man and animals through the development of moral characteristics, he did so without betraying Darwinism. In fact, far from betraying Darwinism he remained more faithful to it than Darwin who had diluted natural selection by introducing sexual selection and other theories. If he had betrayed material evolutionism for anything by his treatment of man it would be with his spiritualism. This is because the 'spirit' (roughly, our mental faculties and consciousness) can be seen as beyond the natural laws as we understand them. Thus our minds must be independent of natural selection. Indeed, it is only after he publishes his first public work on spiritualism (Wallace, 1866) that he changes his tune, publicly at least, over the evolution of mans moral faculties[5]. It is important to note, however, that Wallace maintained that the 'Darwinian Theory […] when carried out to its extreme logical conclusion, not only does not oppose, but lends a decided support to, a belief in the spiritual nature of man' (Wallace, 1889: 478).

Communalism Versus Individualism

Wallace appears again to be faced with a herculean task to overcome the disparity between 'Socialist Communalism' and 'Darwinist Individualism'. This is because the idea of individual competition between organisms within a species advocated in Origin of Species seems to be anti-socialist in two ways. Firstly, Socialism is a 'body of thought opposing individualism' (Giddens, 2001: 3; emphasis my own). Secondly, Socialism is based on the idea, also propounded by Owen, that 'no one could be good, happy and useful in a society of poverty, competition and inequality' (Jones, 2002: 80; emphasis my own). Thus socialism both opposed individualism and competition separately as well as when combined in Origin. Therefore socialism appears to be anti-Darwinian in its application.

Wallace, however, managed to reconcile the idea of both to his Socialist Darwinian doctrine. This emerged through his belief in 'equality of opportunity'. He stated that 'equality of opportunity is absolute fair play […] between man and man in the struggle for existence' (Wallace, 1900 [vol. 2]: 516). He therefore concludes that 'there can be no true individualism, no fair competition, without equality of opportunity for all' (Wallace, 1900 [vol. 2]: 513; emphasis my own). Equality of opportunity therefore did not mean equality of outcome. This was echoed by Huxley who believed man should ensure 'that not a grain is piled upon that load beyond what nature imposes; that injustice is not added to inequality' (Huxley, 1865: 562). It is interesting that the need for a genuine 'fair equality of opportunity' rather than an equality amongst inequality was followed up in John Rawls's seminal political-theory work, A Theory of Justice (Rawls, 1973: 65-75). It would be from the outcome of equal opportunity that evolution by natural selection would function most effectively for the successful progression of mankind.

However, although Wallace may have reconciled his socialism with the idea of individual competition, he still faced the problem of placing his belief in communalism within the theory of evolution (thus development) by natural selection. Communalism seemed to discard natural selection by viewing socialism, as Wallace termed it, as 'the voluntary organisation of labour for the good of all' (Wallace, 1908: 268). Thus through their mutual support to one another even those who would normally, under natural selection, suffer the 'extreme penalty' of death (due to being outcompeted) will survive (Wallace, 1864: clxii). This idea seems anti-evolutionary in its scope. It turns Wallace's ultimate evolutionary goal for human development (socialism) into something that is evolutionarily static at its attainment. Furthermore, it renders the role of natural selection on human evolution impotent.

Owenism had already created the conditions by which evolution (even if Lamarckian in details) could be applied to socialism. The Owenite inspired attempts at creating socialist communes, such as Ralahine in County Clare (Geoghegan, 1991: 377-411), were imbued with the hope that others, on seeing the prosperity within these communities, would adopt these socialist ideas into the society already present. The development of a socialist society was to be 'a peaceful and gradual process of displacement' (Jones, 2002: 80). However, this idea of the integration of socialist principles into the wider, currently predominant, society of the period is unquestionably evolutionary in its picture. It is almost the crowning example of evolution at work. However, instead of functioning on the individual, physical organism, it does so upon the collective, moral society. Thus an adaptation has occurred in terms of how these people in the Owenite community lived. This adaptation has given them an advantage over those around them. Thus this new socialist, quasi-'species' of social man ultimately, through a Lamarckian view of evolution, begins to replace the former 'species' of social man. This places socialism within the boundaries of evolution but not by means of Darwinism. This is because it is no longer dependent upon natural selection.

So how does Wallace bring his Socialist Darwinism back into line in regards to natural selection and communalism? He hints at his method in an earlier citation. His socialism is the 'voluntary organisation of labour.' This idea he developed further after the Utopian thought of Henry Olerich and his idea of 'Cooperative Individualism' (Clements, 1983: 93). This is the idea that man chooses, as an individual, whether or not he becomes part of the cooperative. Olerich, in his most famous novel, termed this as 'voluntary co-operative individualism' (Olerich, 1893: 56). Wallace had seen 'compulsory socialism' as semantically equal to 'compulsory friendship' and thus could not see that functioning. The decision as to whether to join the cooperative made by the individual allows Wallace to reintroduce a degree of selection, and a 'struggle for existence'. This is created between those in the cooperative society and those outside of it. Essentially, he rejects 'Internal Social Darwinism' but leaves intact the idea of 'External Social Darwinism' (Durant, 1979: 42). In other words, he rejects the idea of competition within a community but maintains the opportunity of competition between communities (Wallace, 1864: clxiv).

This is, however, selection but not natural selection. This may well be perceived by some historians as symbolic of Wallace's tendency to choose socialism over his evolutionism when these two aspects of his thought came to blows. However, it is important to remember, as stated earlier, that Darwin did not himself leave natural selection as the sole mechanism for evolution in his theory. Darwin had in fact stated in his introduction to the Origin that he was 'convinced' that natural selection had been 'the main but not exclusive means of modification' (Darwin, 1996: 7). Indeed, Darwin even later on began to embrace the Lamarckian idea of use and disuse (Bowler, 1989: 190).


The emergence of Wallace's Socialist Darwinism was undoubtedly a difficult task. In many respects the seam between his socialism and his evolutionism can appear strained. However, his socialism itself was not in conflict to the idea of evolution per se. The antagonism between socialism and Darwinism with regard to Wallace was over the future of man and the role of natural selection within it. Natural selection had seemed inherently anti-socialist in its scope. For example, its basis upon the 'Malthusian' competition between population growth and resource availability. Darwinism's general interpretation that it was individual inter-species competition rather than communal intra-species competition also seemed to strike at the root of socialism. However, the above study shows that Wallace's attempt to cleanly weld socialism to Darwinism was ultimately doomed to failure.

To suggest, however, that Wallace chose socialism over evolutionism seems unsound. Wallace always believed that the 'course of evolution was towards socialism and the point of socialism was to allow further incremental evolution' (Stack, 2003: 29). Thus the major point of contention was over what would be the mechanism that would allow the 'incremental evolution' of humanity. Some might argue that the fact that Wallace did not feel that natural selection would be the mechanism shows his tendency to privilege his socialism over his Darwinism. However, Darwin himself increasingly believed that natural selection was not the sole mechanism for evolution; however 'the Origin remained basically a description of the selection theory' (Bowler, 1989: 190). The same applies to Wallace and his lifetime of deliberation surrounding evolution and socialism. He did not myopically follow the guidelines of the theory of natural selection. Neither did he cast aside the aspects of the theory that complicated or undermined his socialist beliefs. In fact he was more loyal towards his application of the theory of natural selection than others. Indeed, it was this analysis that caused him to believe that natural selection was not in itself enough to be the only explanation. It was the primary, not the sole mechanism. Darwin had been willing to yield some ground to the Lamarckian mechanism of use and disuse. Therefore if Desmond is correct in believing that Lamarckian and Darwinian evolution were in fact 'rival social products' then Darwin had adopted a more radical position than Wallace's attempt to reconcile human evolution to an unadulterated Darwinian evolution (Desmond, 1987: 79). Indeed, Wallace had always been unwilling to countenance Lamarckian thoughts on evolution (Stack, 2003: 29).

In fact, if anything Wallace adapted his socialism so as to bring it into line with his evolutionism. When the constituent parts of his Socialist Darwinism came to bicker he often allowed the former rather than the latter to give way. His treatment of Malthus, the perfectibility of man and the individual competition versus communalism controversy all yielded to his evolutionary mindset. The fact that the basic doctrine of socialism was to be opposed to individualism and that Wallace brought about a fusing of his socialism and individual competition is testament to this fact. Overall, Wallace's own socialism had adapted itself to the new conditions. The general current of socialist thought during Wallace's lifetime was based upon 'once-and-for-all millennial upheaval' such as the political revolution of Marxism or the social revolution of Owenism (Stack, 2003: 29). These revolutions also ultimately led to a static state. In contrast, Wallace's socialism was to allow 'further incremental evolution' allowing a seemingly infinite evolution of humanity.

If Wallace was right, the debate as to whether science and politics are ideologically compatible is academic when applied to socialism and evolution. After all, if socialism was a product of nature itself then it no longer becomes a political ideology, but a law. Thus ultimately, it could be argued, nature will prevail and the ideal world of socialism be reached without the high-minded intellectual arguing amongst men. However, if James Ramsay MacDonald, Britain's first Labour Party Prime Minister, is right in stating that the 'Socialist method is the Darwinian method' (MacDonald, 1911: 115) and thus that the 'political insights of socialism were possible only after Darwin's biological advances' (Stack, 2000: 706), it was the need to reconcile socialism with thought on the evolution of man that necessitated changes in the socialist movement. Socialism sought to realise itself through evolutionary progress rather than by revolutionary change. For example, it also acknowledged a certain degree of individual competition rather than insisting on unadulterated mutual assistance. These changes have reconciled socialistic progress to the essentially anti-socialist institutions of government. This in turn has allowed socialists to enter the decision-making institutions and ultimately govern the nation on several occasions. This has allowed the evolution of socialist principles, if not socialism itself. This was pre-empted by Wallace. He foresaw a system 'which, while securing many of the beneficial results of Socialism, will preserve all the advantages of individual self-dependence and healthy rivalry' and would make it easier, if required, to adopt a higher form of Socialism (Wallace, 1894: 185). It is undoubtedly true that the interactions between science and politics are significant. However, this interaction is not direct. Both science and politics influence the cultural and social world of a community. It is here that the two become intermingled. Politics and science are never working in tandem or going head-to-head. Rather, in the matrix of society they find themselves occasionally overlapping allowing them to either mesh or rub with one another. Certainly, Wallace recognised this mutuality and had the foresight to understand man's excessive consumption and 'reckless destruction' of the earth's resources (Wallace, 1898: 369). This is something that has more recently been recognised both by the scientific and political communities through events such as the Copenhagen Climate Change Talks in 2009. No doubt a similar rereading of Wallace's writings regarding this topic would also yield interesting insights for our contemporary generation.


I would like to thank Dr Jonathan Conlin of the University of Southampton for his help both in formulating the question and providing guidance along the way for the production of this as it emerged out of a second-year undergraduate project. Furthermore, I would like to thank the peer reviewers of this work. They offered important, insightful and intriguing comments and criticisms.


[1] Ahren Lester is a final year History student at the University of Southampton and is currently in the process of finalising details for postgraduate study.

[2] Wallace's 'Socialism' here is understood as his later adoption of realpolitik, 'evolutionary' socialism rather than his earlier 'Utopian communalist' Owenite phase.

[3] For a wider analysis of the influence of Owenism upon Wallace's intellectual thought see: Claeys, 2008: passim.

[4] George Romanes would later argue that rather than being a case of 'pure Darwinism' such thinking was an example of 'pure Wallaceism' which was to him the 'pure theory of natural selection to the exclusion of any supplementary theory' (Romanes, 1895 [vol. 2]: 12: original emphasis).

[5] His first suggestion of the insufficiency of natural selection for the development of mans moral capacities was in 1869 with his review of the new edition of Charles Lyell's, Principles of Geology, see Wallace, 1869: 359-94. This is only three years after the publication of his 'The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural' (Wallace, 1866) and contrasted sharply. Wallace's 1866 work had continued to argue the relationship between natural selection and the evolution of consciousness existed. This conviction was not repeated in the 1869 review.


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