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Record number: WCP3351

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Sent by:
Alfred Russel Wallace
Sent to:
Thomas Sims
15 March 1861

Sent by Alfred Russel Wallace, Timor, Delhi to Thomas Sims 13a Westbourne Grove, Bayswater, London on 15 March 1861.

Record created:
30 November 2011 by Mayer, Anna


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LETTER (WCP3351.3319)

A typical letter handwritten by author in English and signed by author.

Held by:
British Library, The
Finding number:
BL Add. 39168 ff. 2-27
Copyright owner:
ŠA. R. Wallace Literary Estate

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Transcription information




Timor Delli,

March. 15th. 1861

My dear Thomas

I will now try and write you a few lines in reply to your last 3 letters which I have not quite before had time & inclination to do. First about your oneeyed & two eyed theory for art &c. &c. I do not altogether agree with you. We do not see all objects wider with two eyes than with one. A spherical or curved object we do see so, because our right & left eye each see a portion of the surface not seen by the other, but for that very reason the portion seen perfectly with both eyes is less than with one. Thus we only see from a.1 to a with both our eyes the two side portions a b, a b being seen each with but one eye & therefore (when we are using both eyes) being seen obscurely. But if we look at a flat object [word deleted] whether square or oblique to the line of vision we see it of exactly the same size with two eyes as with one because the [[2]] one eye can see no part of it that the other does not see also. But in painting I believe that this difference of proportion where it does exist is far too small to be given by any artist and also too small to affect the picture if given.

Again I entirely deny that by any means the exact effect of a landscape with objects of various distances from the eye can be given on a flat surface; & moreover that the monocular clear outlined view is quite as true & good on the whole as the binocular hazy outlined view, & for this reason, -- we cannot & do not see clearly a look at two objects at once, if at different distances from us. In a real view our eyes are directlyed successively at every object, which we then see clearly & with distinct outlines, every thing else [word deleted] nearer & farther being indistinct; but being able to change the focal angle of our two eyes & their angle of direction with great rapidity we are enabled [[3]] to glance rapidly at each object in succession & thus ogbtain a general & detailed view of the whole. A house, a tree, a spire, the leaves of a shrub in the foreground, are each seen (while we direct our eyes to them) with perfectly definition & sharpness of outline. Now a monocular photo. gives this clearness of outline & accuracy of definition & thus represents every individual part of a landscape just as we see it when looking at that part. Now I maintain that this is right, because no painting can represent an object both disctinct & indistinct. The only question is shall a painting shew us objects as we see them when looking at them, or as we see them when looking at something else near them. The only approach painters can make to this varying effect of binocular vision & what they often do, is to give the most important & main feature of their painting distinct as we should see it when looking at it in nature, while all around has a subdued [[4]] tone & haziness of outline like that produced by seeing the real objects when our vision is not absolutely directed to them.

But then if as in Nature you turn your gaze to one of these objects in order to see it clearly you cannot do so, & this is a defect. Again I believe that we actually see in a good photograph better than in nature, because the best camera lenses are more perfectly adjusted than our eyes & give objects at varying distances with better definition. Thus on a picture we see at the same time near & distant objects easily & clearly, which in reality we cannot do.

If we could do so every one must acknowledge that our vision could be so much the more perfect & our appreciation of the beauties of nature more intense & complete; & insofar as good landscape painting gives us this power it is better [[5]] than nature itself, -- & I think this may perhaps account for that excessive & entrancing beauty of a good landscape or of a good panorama. You will think these ideas horribly heterodox, but if we all thought alike there would be nothing to write about & nothing to learn. I quite agree with you however as to artists using both eyes to paint & to see their paintings but I think you quite mistake the do theory of looking through the "catalogue"; -- it is not because the picture can be seen better with one eye, but because its effect can be better seen when all lateral objects are hidden & the catalogue does this; -- a double take w[oul]d be better but that cannot be extemporised, so easily. Have you ever tried a stereograph taken with the cameras only the distance apart of the eyes? That must give nature. When the angle is greater the views in the steroscope show as, not nature, but a perfect reduced model of nature seen nearer the eye. It is curious [[6]] that you sh[oul]d put Turner & the Preraph[aeli]tes as opposed & representing binoc[ular] & monoc[ular] painting when Turner himself praises up the Preraph[eali]tes & calls Holman Hunt the greatest living painter!!.

Now for your next letter wh[ich] relates to your Engraving processes. I have been too long out of the way of civilization to be able to judge of your probable success, but I cannot understand from your descript[io]n how you are to get any detail in the dark part of a picture, when the adhesion of powdered gum to a partially dried photo. is the method employed unless you hit the moment when only the absolute black parts are dry & so retain no gum, -- & this I sh[oul]d think must be very difficult. However the great point is does it bring out the details & does it give the whole range of tone from high lights to deep shadows? The points on which I long ago asked information you say nothing about, -- viz. [[7]] Are there any good lithographs or engravings yet published produced direct from photographs. Such are advertised by a German Company & are alluded to in the Athenean as very successful. Now if yours are not likely to be better, it is not much use going on. You hint that Talbots & all other processes yet known give very poor results or are altogether impracticable. If such is the case & you believe you can do better I hope you will be able to get up a few good specimens against the next "Great Exhib[itio]n". Surely in the slack season in Sept[embe]r you will have both light & time.

Now for your last letter of June. I am glad to find you are going on fairly in business. I met the other day a photographer who has been 8 years out in Australia & here. There was too much competition in Australia & he came to Batavia & has travelled all through Java & a good part of Sumatra. -- 3 months at [[8]] Macassar & is now going round the Moluccas staying 2 months at each place. He says it pays very well. The wealthy natives & Chinese give a good price for Portraits of themselves & their wives & children & he takes great numbers of views for the stereoscope all of wh[ich] are sent home & readily sold.

As to the British Museum I am most strongly in favour of removing the Natural History collections simply because the Building in great Russel[sic] Street is totally unadapted for a museum of Nat[ural] Hist[ory]. I made a sketch for a National Museum with a plan for its management some time ago. It was shown to Prof[essor] Owen & he said it was very good but for a National institution there was no occasion for the economy which I had insisted on among the other advantages of my plan. If you like to see [[9]] the paper ask Mr Stevens to lend it you. It is not therefore a question of what parts can be most easily moved. The building is well fitted for antiquities & Books but quite unfitted for Zoological specimens.

Now for Mr Darwins book. You quite misunderstand both Mr Ds statement in the preface & his sentiments. I have of course been in correspondence with him since I first sent him my little essay. His conduct has been most liberal & disnterested. I think any one who reads the Linn[ean] Soc[iety] papers & his book will see it. I do back him up in his whole round of conclusions & look upon him as the Newton of Natural History.

You begin by criticizing the title. [[10]] Now though I consider the title admirable I believe it is not Mr Darwins but the Publishers, as you are no doubt aware that publishers will have a taking title & authors must & do give way to them. Mr D[arwin] gave me a different title before the book came out.

Again you misquote & misunderstand Huxley who is a complete convert. Prof[essor] Asa Gray & Dr. Hooker the two first botanists of Europe & America are converts. And Lyell, the first Geologist living, who has all his life written against such conclusions as Darwins arrives at, is a convert & is about to declare or already has declared his [word deleted] conversion: A noble & almost unique example of a man yielding to conviction in a subject which he has taught as a master all his life, & confessing that he has all his life been wrong.

[[11]] I see clearly that you have not yet sufficiently read the book to enable you to criticise it. It is a book in which every page & almost every line has a bearing on the main argument, & it is very difficult to bear in mind such a variety of facts arguments and indications as are brought forward. It was only on the 5th. perusal that I fully appreciated the whole strength of the work, & as I had been long before familiar with the same subjects I cannot but think that persons less familiar with them, cannot have any clear idea of the accummulated arguments by a single perusal.

Your objections as far as I see any thing definite in them are so fully and clearly anticipated & answered in the book itself [[12]] that it is perfectly useless my saying any thing about them.

It seems to me however as clear as daylight that the principle of Natural Selection must act in nature. It is almost as necessary a truth as any of mathematics. Next -- the effects produced by this action cannot be limited. It cannot be shewn that there is any limit to them in nature. Again the millions of facts in the numerical relations of organic beings, -- their geographic distribution, -- their relations of affinity, the modifications of their parts & again, -- the phenomena of intercrossing, -- embryology & morphology, -- all are in accordance with his theory & almost all are necessary results from [[13]] it, -- while in the other theory, they are all isolated facts having no connection with each other & as utterly unexplicable & confusing as fossils are in the theory that they are special creations and are not the remains of animals that have once lived. It is the vast chaos of facts, which are explicable & fall into beautiful order on the one theory, -- which are inexplicable & remain in Chaos in the other, which I think must absolutely force Darwins views on any & every reflecting mind.

[[14]] Isolated difficulties & objections are nothing against this vast cumulative argument. The human mind cannot go on for ever accumulating facts which remain unconnected & without any mutual bearing & bound together by no law. The evidence for the production of the organic world by the simple laws of inheritance is exactly of the same nature as that for the production of the present surface of the earth, hills[,] valleys[,] planes[,] rocks[,] strata[,] volcanoes, & all their fossil remains, by the slow and gradual action of natural [word deleted] causes now in operation. The mind that will ultimately reject Darwin must [word deleted], (to be consistent) reject [[15]] Lyell also. The same arguments of apparent stability which are thought [word deleted] believe to disprove that organic species can change will also disprove any change in the inorganic world, & you must believe with the your forefathers that each hill & each river, each island[,] lake & continent, were created as they stand, with the various strata & their various fossils, -- all appearances and arguments to the contrary notwithstanding.

I can only recommend you to read again Darwins account of the Horse family & its comparison with Pigeons, -- & if that does not convince or stagger you, then you are unconvertible. [[16]] I do not expect Mr. Darwins longer work will add any thing to the general strength of his argument. It will consist chiefly of the details (often numerical) of experiments & calculations of which he has already given the summaries & results.

It will therefore be more confusing & less interesting to the general reader. It will prove to scientific men the accuracy of his details & point out the sources of his information but as not one in a thousand readers will ever test these details & references the smaller work will remain for general purposes the best.

[[17]] I am obliged to you & Mrs Sims[?]2 for your advice & fears about Mr. Stevens, & beg to assure you that Mr. S[tevens] has my perfect confidence. He is a thorough business man, & sends me frequently full & detailed accounts, with balance sheets when the collections are finally disposed of. I have every reason to be well satisfied with all he has done for me. As he gets in the money, what can be spared is invested in the purchase of E[ast] India Railway shares guaranteed at 5 per cent. These were recommended by Mr. W. W. Saunders of "Lloyds" as the best & safest investment & they are entered in the joint names of Stevens & Saunders. Mr. S[tevens] also sends me the Brokers accounts of the purchases. So I think this is all right & better without the interference of lawyers.

[[18]] I see that the Great Exhibition for 1862 seems determined on. If so it will be a great inducement to me to cut short the period of my banishment & get home in time to see it. I assure you I now feel at times very great longings for the peace & quiet of home, -- very much weariness of this troublesome wearisome wandering life. I have lost some of that elasticity & freshness which made the overcoming of difficulties a pleasure, & the country & people are now too familiar to me to retain any of the charms of novelty, which gild over so much that is really monotonous & disagreeable. My health too gives way & I [[19]] cannot now put up so well with fatigue & privations as at first. All these causes will induce me to come home as soon as possible & I think I may promise if no accidents happen to come back to dear & beautiful England in the summer of next year.

C[harles] Allen will stay a year longer & complete the work which I shall not be able to do.

I have been pretty comfortable here having for two months had the society of Mr. Geach a cornish mining Engineer who has been looking for Copper here. He is a very intelligent & pleasant fellow but has now left.. Another [[20]] Englishman Capt[ain] Hart is a resident here. He has a little house in the foot of the hills 2 miles out of Town & I have a cottage (which was Mr Geachs) a 1/3 mile further. He is what you may call a speculative man, has read a good deal, knows a little & wants to know more & is fond of speculating on the most abstruse & unattainable points of science & philosophy. You would be astonished at the number of men among the Captains and traders of these parts who have more than an average amount of literary & scientific taste, whereas among the naval & military officers & the various Government officials very few have any such tastes, -- but find their only amusements in card playing & dissipation. Some of the most intelligent & best informed Dutchmen I have met with are trading Captains or Merchants.

This country much resembles [[21]] Australia in its physical features & is very barren compared with most of the other islands of the Archipelago. It is very rugged & mountainous having no true forests, but a scanty vegetation of Gum trees with a few thickets in places. It is consequently very poor in insects & in fact will hardly pay my expenses, but having once come here I may as well give it a fair trial. Birds are tolerably abundant but with few exceptions very dull coloured. I really believe the whole series of Birds of the tropical island of Timor are less beautiful & bright coloured than those of Great Britain. In the mountains potatoes[,] cabbages & wheat are grown in abundance & we get excellent pure[?] [[22]] bread made by Chinamen in Delli. Fowls[,] sheep[,] pigs & onions are also always to be had so that it is the easiest country to live in I have yet met with, as in most other places one is always doubtful whether a dinner can be obtained.

I have been a trip to the hills & staid[sic] ten days in the clouds, but it was very wet being the wrong season. In about a month I leave here for Bouru when I spend 2 months to complete my Zoological Survey of the Moluccas.

Having now paid you off my literary debts I trust you wil give me credit again for some long letters on things in general. Address now to care of Hamilton Gray & Co. Singapore. & with love & remembrances to all friends

I remain My dear Thomas Yours very faithfully Alfred R. Wallace [signature]

Mr. T. Sims.

[[23]] P.S. I see in a vol[ume] of the Fam.[?] Herald a statement that at the B[ritish] Ass[ociation] at Glasgow 1855 Photo-lithographs were exhibited obtained by a coating of bitumen dissolved in Sulp[huric] ether applied to the stone. This is said to be sensitive to light & receives a picture from a negative. Sulp[huric] ether dissolves away the bitumen when not acted on. Stone then washed and ready for the printer. They say the lithographs were beautiful. The same process on copper or steel produced etchings by coating the plate with gold which adheres only to the bare places. Here is a process quite diff[erent] from the Bich[romate][?] of potassium & gum that you mention, so that it seems you do not know all that has been done in England even as long ago as 1855.

I have been much interested by Claudets description (at the last B[ritish] Ass[ociation] at Oxford) of the Solar Camera for enlarging photographs & his account of its theory. It is admirable & as he says will certainly produce [[24]] great results. The only difficulty is the necessity of some equatorial motion to keep the sun[]s image exactly on the centre of the lens. It will enable photographers to use the shortest focus in the field thus getting instantaneous pictures & then to enlarge them to any size preserving full strength & bringing out all detail. By such an arrangement there seems nothing that photography will not do.

Will you, next time you visit my mother, make me a little plan of her cottage showing the rooms & their dimensions, so that I may see if there will be room enough for me on my return. I shall want a good large room for my collections, & [letters crossed out] when I can decide exactly on my return it would be as well to get a little larger house beforehand if necessary. Please do not forget this.

Yours etc A.R.W. [signature]

P.S. Write by next mail, as circumstances have occurred which make it possible I may return home this year. ARW.3

[[25]] P.S. You allude in your last letter to a subject I never touch upon because I know we can not agree upon it. However I will now say a few words that you may know my opinions & if you wish to convert me to your way of thinking take more vigorous measures to effect it.

You intimate that the happiness to be enjoyed in a future state will depend upon, & be a reward for, our belief in certain doctrines which you conceive to constitute the essence of true religion. You must think therefore that belief is voluntary & also that it is meritorious.

But I think a little consideration will show you that belief is quite independent of our will, & our common expressions shew it. We say "I wish I could believe him innocent but the evidence is too clear". Or, -- "Whatever people may say I can never believe he would do such a mean action". Now suppose in any similar case the evidence on both sides leads you to a certain belief or disbelief, -- & [word deleted] then a reward is offered you for changing your opinion. Can you really change your opinion or belief for the hopes of reward or the fear of [illeg].

I am thankful that I can see much to admire in all religions. To the mass of mankind religion of some kind is a necessity. But whether there be a God & whatever4 be his nature. Whether we have an immortal soul or not, & whatever may be our state after death, I can have no fear of having to suffer for the5 better off in a future state, who have lived in the belief of doctrines inculcated6 from childhood & which are to them rather a matter of blind faith than intelligent conviction. ARW. This for yourself. Show the letter only to my mother.7

[[26]] Will you not say "As the matter stands I cant change my belief. You must give me proofs that I am wrong or show that the evidence I have heard is false & then I may change my belief." It may be that you do get more evidence & do change your belief, but this change is not voluntary on your part. It depends upon the force of evidence upon your individual mind, & the evidence remaining the same & your mental faculties remaining unimpaired, you cannot believe otherwise any more than you can fly.

Belief then is not voluntary, -- how then can it be meritorious? When a jury try a case, all hear the same evidence but 9 say guilty & 3 not guilty, according to the honest belief of each. Are either of these more worthy of reward on that account than the others? Certainly you will say, no! But suppose [[27]] beforehand they all know or suspect that those who say not guilty will be punished & the rest rewarded, what is likley to be the result? Why perhaps 6 will say guilty, honestly believing it, & glad they can with a clear conscience escape punishment, -- 3 will say not-guilty boldly, & rather bear the punishment than be false or dishonest, -- & the other 3 fearful of being convinced against their will, will carefully stop their ears while the witnesses for the defence are being examined & [illeg] delude themselves with the idea they gain an honest verdict, because they have heard only one side of the evidence. If any out of the dozen deserve punishment you will surely agree with me it is these. Belief or disbelief is therefore not meritorious, & where founded on an unfair balance of evidence is blameable.

[[28]] Now to apply these principles to my own case. In my early youth, I heard as 99 hundredths of the world do, only the evidence on one side & became impressed with a veneration[?] for religion which has left some traces even to this day. I have since heard & read much on both sides, & pondered much upon the matter in all its bearings. I spent as you know a year and a half in a clergymans family & heard almost every Sunday the very best most earnest & most impressive preachers it has ever been my fortune to meet with, -- but it produced no effect whatever on my mind. I have since wandered among men of many races & many religions. I have studied man & nature in all its aspects & I have sought after truth. In my solitude I have pondered much on the incomprehensible subjects of space[,] eternity[,] life & death! I think I have fairly heard & fairly weighed the evidence on both sides, & I remain an utter disbeliever in almost all that you consider [word deleted] the most sacred truths.

I will pass over as utterly contemptible the oft-repeated accusation that sceptics shut out evidence because they will not be governed by the morality of Christianity. You I know will not believe that in my case, & I know its falsehood as a general rule. I only ask do you think I can changed the self-formed convictions of 25 years? And can you think such a change would have any thing in it to merit reward from justice.


1. This and the following symbols a and b relate to a diagram on this page.

2. Mrs Sims, wife of Thomas, and Alfred Russel Wallaces sister Frances (Fanny).

3. Written sideways in the margin of p.24.

4. Written sideways in the margin of p.25.

5. Written sideways in the margin of p.26.

6. Written sideways in the margin of p.27.

7. Written sideways in the margin of p.28.

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