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Book Review

The Heretic in Darwin's Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace
by Ross A. Slotten
Columbia University Press, 2004
ISBN 0231130104

Reviewed by Ian Johnston

Scientists like to claim that the story of biology begins with Darwin. But they’re wrong. That’s where the story ends.  Norm Cameron

Science is extraordinarily cruel to almost all its greatest practitioners, for it routinely consigns them to oblivion, except for the very few who are first past the post and set down in print some significantly new and lasting finding which immortalizes their names.  Such trailblazers are almost invariably drawing heavily on a complex and rich culture which includes major contributions by many others, but that matrix inevitably disappears quickly from the memory of the scientific community, which, for obvious reasons, is interested only in the usefulness of the theory and thinks of the context out of which it arose as irrelevant.

The above general remarks are particularly applicable to England’s greatest explorer-naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace (the odd spelling of the middle name arose from a clerical error at his baptism which was never changed)—in his day one of the most famous scientists in the world, but remembered now (less than a hundred years after his death in 1913), if at all, as a footnote—the man who finally forced Charles Darwin to publish the Origin of Species but who then became a crank and campaigned for spiritualism and land nationalization, against compulsory vaccination, and for other weird things, like an end to capital punishment and racial equality in South Africa.

Fortunately, the absence of a collective memory in science provides a raison d’être for the historian of science, whose job it is to retrieve the historical context out of which the great discoveries developed and to celebrate the forgotten heroes.  And historians of science have in recent decades done much to recover for us important and fascinating scientists whose accomplishments have been obscured by Darwin’s towering presence.

Ross Slotten’s biography of Wallace is a worthy addition to this modern trend, a well researched and very readable account of the long life of an extraordinary man with an astonishing range of interests and a remarkably eclectic literary output, ranging from scientific publications and reviews to travel narratives, popular accounts of science and spiritualism, an autobiography, and polemic political tracts.  It will do a great deal to remind those interested in science that Wallace should be celebrated for much more than helping launch modern biology on 1 July, 1858, when his paper on natural selection was read at the Linnean Society (along with a paper on the same subject by Darwin).

Wallace’s life is, on the surface, much more interesting that that of many of his contemporaries.  He had no scientific education (leaving school at age 13) and had to educate himself.  His lineage, though respectable enough, did not qualify him as a “gentleman,” largely because he had to work his entire life (in his youth as a land surveyor) to support his family (for twenty-seven years, even at the height of his fame, he spent a significant part of each year marking hundreds of examination papers to supplement his income, a need made all the more pressing because of a number of unfortunate financial entanglements, including a farcical but expensive legal tussle with a defender of the flat-earth theory). 

But, as Wallace himself acknowledged, these disadvantages pushed him into action.  Financial need was an important factor in his first expedition, to the Amazonian rain forest, where he spent three years collecting specimens of new species.  The trip back, however, was a disaster, for the ship caught fire and much of his work, including his note books and 10,000 bird specimens were lost.  His second major trip to the Malay Archipelago, where, by his own account, in the middle of a malarial fit he had the flash of inspiration which led him to think of natural selection, was a much greater success (scientifically and financially), and he returned home after eight years in 1862 to considerable acclaim.  Even so, for the rest of his long life financial need kept driving him to write.

Central to any account of Wallace’s life is his relationship with Darwin.  And Slotten gives us a detailed sense of just why Darwin had so many reasons to be grateful to Wallace for graciously and repeatedly conceding the high ground.  Though he contested many aspects of Darwin’s theory (especially sexual selection and the origin of consciousness), Wallace never denied Darwin’s pre-eminence and, indeed, celebrated it, comparing himself to a guerrilla leader and Darwin to the commanding general of the enterprise and suggesting that if anyone wished to divide up the credit, they should do so on the basis of the amount of time each of them had spent investigating the theory before the famous meeting—in his case a matter of days, in Darwin’s case the better part of twenty years.  He was a pall bearer at Darwin’s funeral in Westminster Abbey and the main champion of Darwinism in the closing years of the century when the theory of natural selection went into something of a decline.

Wallace’s made other vital contributions to science in a number of areas, particularly in biogeography.  His importance here is symbolized by the Wallace Line, the zone demarcating the absolute separation of Asia and its islands from Australia and its islands.  Though modern scientists have shifted the line somewhat from Wallace’s original position, his work was the basis for establishing such a line in the first place.

Many of these details of Wallace’s life will be familiar to those who have read a good deal about Darwin. What is known in far less detail is Wallace’s exploration of other esoteric matters, especially spiritualism. Slotten makes clear that this aspect of his thinking arose from the same intellectual apparatus than enabled him to discover natural selection.  He was faced with a troubling set of facts (from phrenology, mesmerism, and séances), some of which he had been familiar with for a long time and others which he had investigated with characteristic thoroughness, and a scientific establishment which, for the most part, declared the matter closed or insoluble.  To Wallace that looked like a tempting challenge.

What strikes one in reading Slotten’s account is how Wallace’s position as a social outsider made him something of a rebel.  Though a shy man in public and an indifferent public speaker, Wallace had a gift for polemical writing, an appetite for controversy, and no sense of professional prudence.  From our perspective, the interest in and conversion to spiritualism may seem decidedly odd, but Slotten’s attention to the context (which includes other eminent scientists taking up the cause of spiritualism) makes Wallace’s actions more understandable.

Slotten also pays useful attention to Wallace’s political sympathies for the working class.  These were not the polite reformist sentiments of a gentleman but energizing feelings which prompted him to enter the fray and eventually become a socialist.  His attack on compulsory vaccination, like his demands for nationalization of land, arose from his concern for the financial hardships the procedure and the penalties for not going through with it imposed on the poor.  Given the almost complete ignorance of how vaccination worked, faulty statistics, the ambitions of the medical professionals, and urgent health priorities for the common folk, Wallace’s opposition was not unsound—and, according to Slotten, had some important beneficial effects.

Wallace’s energetic commitment to such causes produced a great deal of criticism from his scientific colleagues.  But he outlived most of them and became, in Slotten’s words, a “national treasure.”  In a fitting moment later in his life, the members of the Royal Society, gentlemen all, had to beg him to join in order to bolster the sagging scientific prestige of the group.  Characteristically, Wallace at first refused but, in answer to appeals, reversed his decision in order to act graciously. 

Slotten’s account of Wallace’s life strikes a judicious balance between contextual information and the main narrative.  He is especially good at providing interesting details (e.g., how a blowpipe works, how specimens are prepared, the financial details of collecting and selling specimens, and so on), thumbnail sketches of some intriguing characters (especially The White Rajah, Sir James Brooke), and quick and useful reviews of scientific and political arguments.  In addition, the writing style is clear and graceful throughout.  This book is thus an excellent introduction to one of the most exciting moments in the history of modern science, a fine account of a fascinating man, and a good choice for enjoyable summer reading.

In spite of its obvious and considerable merits, however, Slotten’s book leaves one curiously unsatisfied, for there is virtually no attention paid to any significant emotional complexities in Wallace’s inner life, and the impression one gets is that, for all his acute external difficulties here and there, he sailed along with a mental equilibrium as robust as the physical constitution which got him through his illnesses in the jungle and back home.  We learn nothing important about his relationship with his wife (a woman twenty-two years his junior) and children or about his deepest feelings for his closest friends (for example, the causes of the irreparable breach with Henry Bates) or any doubts he may have entertained about what he was doing or how his colleagues were treating him (other than his occasional astonishment that people considered him worthy of so much attention).  Slotten acknowledges this problem, which arises, he claims, from a lack of evidence.  Still, Wallace is obviously such a complex and engaging study, one can’t help wanting more than the surface details, fascinating as those are.


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