Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection Informative Summary


This volume presents a compilation of Alfred Russel Wallace’s essays on the theory of natural selection, written over a period of fifteen years. Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, independently developed the theory of natural selection and his essays provide valuable insights into the development of his thinking on this subject. The essays cover a wide range of topics, including the law of natural selection, the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type, mimicry and protective resemblances among animals, instinct in man and animals, the philosophy of birds’ nests, and the limits of natural selection as applied to man. Wallace’s observations and insights are based on his extensive travels and research in the Malay Archipelago, which was a region of incredible biodiversity.

Key findings:

  • The law of natural selection: Wallace proposed that new species arise through a process of natural selection, where individuals with advantageous traits are more likely to survive and reproduce, passing on those traits to their offspring.
  • Mimicry and protective resemblances: Wallace extensively studied mimicry, the phenomenon where one species evolves to resemble another species for protection. He observed how insects, such as butterflies, moths, and beetles, mimicked other insects or even other animal groups, such as wasps or snakes.
  • The evolution of human races: Wallace explored how natural selection shaped the development of human races, emphasizing the role of environmental factors and the importance of adaptation to different climates and geographical conditions.
  • Instinct in animals: Wallace critically examined the concept of instinct, arguing that many behaviors attributed to instinct can be explained by the combined actions of observation, memory, and imitation.


  • Natural selection is a powerful driving force in evolution: Natural selection favors individuals with advantageous traits, leading to the gradual change and diversification of species over time. This process is influenced by factors such as environmental pressure, competition for resources, and predator-prey interactions.
  • Mimicry is a remarkable adaptation for survival: Mimicry allows species to exploit the protective advantages of other species by evolving to resemble them. This deception can provide protection from predators or even aid in attracting prey.
  • Instinct is complex and often misunderstood: Many behaviors attributed to instinct can be explained by other cognitive processes, such as observation, learning, and memory. Wallace challenged the idea of innate instincts and emphasized the role of experience in shaping animal behavior.

Historical context:

  • The publication of these essays occurred during a pivotal time in the development of evolutionary theory. Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” had been published in 1859, and Wallace’s essays further contributed to the growing body of evidence supporting the theory of evolution by natural selection.


  • The life of wild animals is a struggle for existence: Wild animals must constantly exert their faculties and energies to survive and reproduce.
  • The population of a species is determined by its adaptation to the conditions of existence: Species that are better adapted to their environment are more likely to survive and thrive.
  • Variations from the typical form of a species can affect an individual’s habits and capacities: Even small variations, such as a change of color or a slight increase in limb size, can have significant consequences for survival.
  • Desert animals are typically desert-colored for concealment: The color of desert animals, such as lions and antelopes, helps them blend into their surroundings and avoid predators.
  • Arctic animals often possess white fur for camouflage in snowfields: The white fur of polar bears and arctic foxes helps them blend into the snowy landscape, making them less visible to prey and predators.
  • Many insects have protective coloration that helps them blend in with their surroundings: The coloration of insects, such as grasshoppers, moths, and beetles, often helps them avoid detection by predators.
  • The Heliconidae butterflies are protected from predation by a strong pungent odor: The unpleasant taste and odor of Heliconidae butterflies deter predators from eating them.
  • Birds have developed a variety of methods to protect their eggs and young from predators: These methods include building concealed nests, using specific materials for nest construction, and exhibiting protective coloration.
  • The Madagascar hissing cockroach is protected by its unpleasant odor: The strong odor emitted by this cockroach makes it unpalatable to many predators.
  • Certain insects, such as wasps and bees, are protected from attack by their stings: The stings of wasps and bees serve as a deterrent to potential predators.
  • Some insects, such as bombardier beetles, have the ability to emit a jet of volatile liquid, which creates a smoke-like puff and a distinct explosion: This defensive mechanism helps to ward off predators.
  • The wings of butterflies serve as a “tablet” on which nature records the story of the modifications of species: The variations in the wings of butterflies, in terms of color, patterns, and form, can provide insights into evolutionary changes.
  • The Papilionidae butterflies possess a unique Y-shaped tentacle on their neck: This organ, called a “osmeterium,” is used to deter predators by emitting a strong odor.
  • The sexes of insects often differ in their coloration and patterns: The sexual differences in color and markings can be influenced by factors such as the need for protection, mimicry, and sexual selection.
  • The female of the Diadema misippus butterfly mimics the Danais chrysippus butterfly for protection: The female Diadema misippus has evolved to resemble the Danais chrysippus, which has a protective odor, thus gaining an advantage in avoiding predators.
  • The island of Celebes has a unique and highly diverse fauna: Celebes is an isolated island with a remarkable number of species and genera that are found nowhere else.
  • The Papilionidae butterflies in Celebes often exhibit a unique form of wing with a curved costa: This wing shape may be an adaptation for better flight and maneuverability, potentially to avoid predators.


  • In fifteen years, a single pair of birds could theoretically increase to nearly ten million individuals if unchecked: This calculation highlights the potential for rapid population growth in animals.
  • About twice the number of birds born each year perish: This statistic demonstrates the significant mortality rates that occur in wild populations.
  • The passenger pigeon of the United States lays only one or two eggs: Despite their low fecundity, passenger pigeons were once incredibly abundant due to their ability to find abundant food and their rapid flight capabilities.
  • Mr. Bates found a number of species or varieties of Leptalis, each of which was a more or less exact copy of one of the Heliconidae of the district: This statistic highlights the prevalence of mimicry among Leptalis butterflies in South America.
  • Mr. Trimen identified sixteen species and varieties of Diadema and its allies, and ten of Papilio, that mimic species or varieties of Danais or Acraea: This statistic showcases the diverse range of mimicry among butterflies in tropical Africa.
  • There are 130 species of Papilionidae butterflies known to inhabit the Malay archipelago: This statistic underscores the incredible biodiversity of this region.
  • Celebes possesses three genera of mammals that are of singular and isolated forms: This statistic illustrates the unique and distinctive fauna of the island of Celebes.
  • Out of 301 species of Hymenoptera collected in Celebes, nearly two-thirds are absolutely restricted to it: This statistic emphasizes the high degree of endemism among the insect fauna of Celebes.


  • Natural selection: The process by which organisms with traits better suited to their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce, passing on those traits to their offspring.
  • Mimicry: The phenomenon where one species evolves to resemble another species for protection.
  • Protective resemblance: The coloration or form of an animal that helps it blend in with its surroundings for concealment from predators.
  • Polymorphism: The existence of multiple distinct forms within a single species.
  • Dimorphism: The existence of two distinct forms within a single species, often referring to sexual dimorphism, where males and females have different appearances.
  • Local form: A variation within a species that is specific to a particular location.
  • Race: A geographically distinct population within a species that has unique characteristics.
  • Species: A group of organisms that can interbreed and produce fertile offspring.
  • Instinct: The performance of complex acts by an animal without any instruction or previous experience.
  • Hereditary habit: A behavior pattern that is passed down from generation to generation.


  • The lion’s sandy color helps it to blend into the desert environment, making it difficult for prey to detect.
  • The arctic fox changes to white fur in winter, providing camouflage in snowfields.
  • The walking leaf insect (Phyllium) has evolved to closely resemble a leaf, both in color and shape.
  • The Kallima inachis butterfly imitates a dead leaf, with markings on its wings that resemble veins and spots.
  • The Viceroy butterfly mimics the Monarch butterfly, which is distasteful to predators.
  • The cuckoo bee (Nomada) mimics wasps or Andrena bees for protection.
  • The Cladobates genus of insectivorous mammals in the Malay countries mimics squirrels, allowing them to approach their prey undetected.
  • The harmless snake Pliocerus elapoides mimics the deadly Elaps lemniscatus snake, with similar red, yellow, and black rings.
  • The Mimeta genus of orioles in Australia mimics the Tropidorhynchus genus of honeysuckers, which are aggressive and strong birds.
  • The Magpie moth caterpillar (Abraxas grossulariata) is conspicuously colored white and black with spots, which is thought to signal its distastefulness to predators.
  • The orchard oriole builds a deeper nest when it is suspended from slender willow branches, ensuring the safety of its young during strong winds.


Wallace’s essays provide a comprehensive exploration of the theory of natural selection, drawing upon his own observations and insights. His work highlights the remarkable adaptations that have evolved in animals, including mimicry, protective resemblances, and sexual differences in coloration. He challenges the traditional notion of instinct, suggesting that many behaviors attributed to it can be explained by other cognitive processes. His observations on the diverse fauna of the Malay archipelago, especially the island of Celebes, demonstrate the power of natural selection to shape the unique features of different ecosystems. Wallace’s essays remain a valuable contribution to the understanding of evolution, offering a compelling case for the explanatory power of natural selection in shaping the diversity of life on Earth.

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