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A Naturalist in Paradise

James Secord

The Alfred Russel Wallace Reader: A Selection of Writings from the Field. Jane R. Camerini (ed.). xxii + 219 pp. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. $42.50 hardcover; $18.95 paper.

Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life. Peter Raby. xii + 340 pp. Princeton University Press, 2001. $26.95.

In February 1858, shivering with fever on an island in the Malay Archipelago, the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace knew he had solved the problem of the origin of species. Soon afterward an outline of his theory was on its way to England. That Wallace should send this manuscript to Charles Darwin, of all people, is characteristic of the man: He was naive, perhaps, but was also imbued with a sense of how to navigate the genteel hierarchies of mid-Victorian science. Wallace realized that the evolutionary relation between species and varieties was both the great question of the age and Darwin's special study, and that Darwin, driven by a gentlemanly sense of fair play, would give the paper the attention it deserved. By and large, Wallace was satisfied that he did.

This episode is all that most people know about Wallace. He is "Darwin's Moon," "Darwin's Shadow," fated to live forever as a Darwinian footnote. That is a shame, for he is a fascinating figure who had a huge array of interests and identities: traveler, explorer, social commentator and reformer. Wallace began his career in the 1830s as a land surveyor in Wales, during one of the most turbulent eras of British history. He traveled far up the Amazon and narrowly escaped with his life from a ship fire in the Atlantic. Wallace soon returned to the tropics, but this time to the East Indies, where for eight years he proved himself an indefatigable collector and field naturalist, fascinated by everything from the tiniest insects to the customs of the local people.

Back in England, he wrote more than 20 books, including several classics of scientific travel literature, some of which are still in print. His contributions to wider debates were not confined to his theory of evolution. A lifelong socialist, he wrote widely on land reform, politics and education. Convinced that evolutionary laws could not be applied to the human mind, he became a spiritualist. His entire life was a quiet rebuke against the narrow specialism that increasingly dominated Victorian science.

This extraordinary range of interests is explored in Jane Camerini's fine anthology, The Alfred Russel Wallace Reader. The selections, generally articles or chapters from works by Wallace reprinted without internal cuts, are divided into four sections that reflect his expanding horizons: "Wales," "The Amazon," "The Malay Archipelago" and "The World." Linked by deft introductions and prefaced by a brief biography, these give a wonderful insight into the passion for natural history that gripped Wallace throughout his life.

Among the most fascinating items in the collection is an ethnological study of the life of the Welsh hill farmer. One of the first pieces Wallace ever wrote, this originally appeared in a local newspaper and has not been reprinted since. Here we can see Wallace's talents as an observer already in place, as he provides vivid accounts of manners, customs and beliefs in rural South Wales. We learn recipes for cooking oatmeal, characteristics of local dress and stories of the supernatural. A witch curses a colliery, whose machinery grinds to a halt; another passes by a pig, who stands up on its hind legs and dies.

For those wanting a fuller account of Wallace's life, Peter Raby's is the best biography so far. Clear, unfussy and readable, it is especially effective in recreating his love for collecting birds and insects, his empathy with other cultures and his compulsive interest in home improvement. The story will be familiar to those who have read Wallace's two-volume autobiography, but there are nice touches from unpublished letters in the possession of the family. It is welcome, too, that Raby does not fall into the trap of claiming that Darwin and his friends conspired to rob Wallace of credit that was rightfully his.

Some important themes remain to be drawn out. Raby passes quickly over the formative years before Wallace left on his travels. Yet it was in London during the 1830s that his lifelong commitment to socialism emerged, and out of that came his search for a naturalistic explanation for the origin of species. Similarly, Wallace's experience of land surveying in Wales was crucial to his interests in biogeography and discovery of a major division between faunal provinces in the East Indies. In dealing with his subject's later life, Raby mentions the possibility that Wallace's refusal to apply evolution to the human mind might be related to his belief in spiritualism; but in fact this connection is direct and significant. In general, the wider setting of Victorian history is sketchy, and the discussion of the scientific work is competent but not penetrating.

Wallace's earthly life, with its wonderful intellectual and geographical range, is an attractive prospect for biography. Besides the books under review, three or four others are currently in progress, including further biographies and an additional anthology. Darwin biographer James Moore has a project under way to locate and list all the letters, and Charles H. Smith has compiled a collection of the shorter writings, together with a full bibliography.

Wallace, however, is a more intractable subject than this flurry of activity might indicate. The sources are abundant but rarely reveal inner thoughts and feelings. Take the moment when Wallace realized the importance of the Malthusian struggle for existence as a solution to the species problem. His manuscript journal is silent on the event, and the paper he sent to Darwin is calm and subdued. The path to the discovery, as described in retrospect, sounds almost inevitable. In contrast, Darwin's notebook jottings are excited, filled with capital letters and exclamation points.

Wallace had so deep a sense of privacy, in fact, that his first fiancée broke off their relationship on the grounds that her future husband must be harboring some guilty secret. As Raby suggests, this reticence is understandable in that Wallace may have felt uncomfortable about proclaiming his family's financial imprudence. More generally, though, men from the lower middle classes were not encouraged to reveal themselves in fine displays of sensibility. We thus know little about his home life, tensions in his friendships or his feelings before marriage.

Biography was for many Victorians and is in our own time the accepted way for understanding what makes a great scientist tick. We expect personal revelations from private diaries and letters to take us closer to the sources of inspiration. But the case of Wallace forces us to question this assumption. What renders Wallace so resistant to revelatory biography is, I suspect, precisely what makes him so effective as an observer of nature: Like many great naturalists, he is most engaged when describing things distant from himself, the unfamiliar and exotic.

It is thus in his writings from the field that Wallace comes across most vividly. Take his marvelous account of hunting for the king bird of paradise, named Paradisea regia by Linnaeus (who was working from badly damaged specimens). In a chapter from The Malay Archipelago quoted at length in Camerini's anthology, Wallace wakes to the sound of this remarkable creature "going to seek his breakfast": "lorries and parroquets cry shrilly, cockatoos scream, king-hunters croak and bark, and the various smaller birds chirp and whistle their morning song." Lying in bed, he contemplates his role as the first European to spend so long in the Aru Islands and thinks how many "have longed to reach these almost fairy realms, and to see with their own eyes the many wonderful and beautiful things which I am daily encountering." He then leaps up to begin the day's work of shooting, skinning and collecting "very happily."

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