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The Evolution of a Naturalist

Oren Harman

An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace. Martin Fichman. x + 382 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2004.

The Heretic in Darwin's Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace. Ross A. Slotten. x + 602 pp. Columbia University Press, 2004.

In Darwin's Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace. A Biographical Study on the Psychology of History. Michael Shermer. xx + 422 pp. Oxford University Press, 2002.

When Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) published his autobiography in 1905, one reviewer pronounced him the only man who believed in spiritualism, phrenology, antivaccination and an Earth–centered universe whose life was worth writing. Nearly a half–century earlier (on March 2, 1858), Wallace had posted a package to Charles Darwin from the jungles of the Malay Archipelago containing a shockingly powerful manuscript and a solicitation for advice. Wallace's manuscript, by jolting Darwin to the realization that he was about to be scooped, served as the gadfly that finally forced him to share his long–held theory of evolution with the world.

Unlike the scientifically well–positioned and financially well–padded Darwin, Wallace came from a working–class background and was little known up to that point. He had achieved the insight that would fashion him the codiscoverer of natural selection while in a fit of delirium, in the space of a couple of hours between the onset of chills and their subsidence in a pool of sweat. Because Wallace sent the manuscript explaining his insight off to Darwin, rather than sending it directly to a journal or publisher, the question of which of the two men discovered and described natural selection first has been the subject of some confusion and controversy. Through a "gentlemanly arrangement" brokered by Darwin's powerful scientific friends Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, Wallace's offering to Darwin was presented at, and published by, the Linnean Society in July 1858 along with an abstract of an unpublished paper Darwin had written in 1844 and an abstract of an 1857 letter from Darwin to Asa Gray, an American botanist. By presenting this material chronologically, Lyell and Hooker implied that Wallace was merely supporting Darwin's earlier discoveries, and Darwin's priority was secured.

Alfred Russel WallaceClick to Enlarge Image

Wallace returned from his eight–year tropical expedition in 1862 as one of Britain's greatest–ever naturalists, having gathered 125,660 specimens: 310 mammals, 100 reptiles, 8,050 birds, 7,500 land shells, 13,100 butterflies and moths, 83,200 beetles and 13,400 "other insects." He made a prodigious number of seminal contributions to evolutionary theory, natural history, geology, archaeology, primatology, linguistics and biogeography, which earned him a place in the pantheon of the great scientific names of the Victorian era, alongside Lyell, Hooker, Francis Galton, Herbert Spencer and Thomas Henry Huxley as well as Darwin.

But Wallace took a troublesomely diverging path when it came to applying the new theory of evolution to humankind. He was not a typical man in any way, but he did suffer from the cultural chauvinism typical of his day. Accordingly, he reasoned that if savages could be trained to command the finest subtleties of European art, philosophy and morality, yet in the state of nature needed none of those abilities to achieve their impoverished languages, repugnant moralities and base cultures, then human intelligence patently arose before it was needed. It could not, therefore, be a product of natural selection, which fashions only traits that are immediately helpful in the battle for survival. "The inference I would draw from this class of phenomena," Wallace concluded, "is, that a superior intelligence has guided the development of man in a definite direction, and for a special purpose."

Darwin was dismayed. "I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child," he wrote to Wallace in 1869, deeply troubled that his partner in science seemed to have lost his nerve on man. Wallace had rejoined the camp of natural theology his and Darwin's theory so desperately sought to crush. After all, the entire point of the new law of nature was that it held for all of creation.

Troubling, too, was Wallace's turn to spiritualism, the belief that departed souls and other nonmaterial entities can communicate, through mediums, with humans still living on Earth. By attending séances in which tables were levitated and messages from dearly departed friends and relatives were miraculously scribbled on slates, by defending the cause in the popular press and even defending a skillful but unscrupulous medium in a court of law (unsuccessfully), Wallace became an embarrassment to his fellow scientific naturalists. "Better live a crossing–sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a 'medium' hired at a guinea a séance," Huxley snapped. Darwin was also appalled: "The Lord have mercy on us all, if we have to believe in such rubbish."

But Wallace remained steadfast, turning to radical politics and gradually developing a full–blown teleological evolutionary cosmology informed by spiritualism. He held optimistically that nature, and indeed the entire universe, were advancing through the guidance of Higher Intelligences toward the exalted goal of universal brotherhood and the ultimate spiritual perfection of mankind.

Whereas some studies have tended to depict two Wallaces—the one rational and heroic, the other absurd—separated by an unfathomable "lapse," three recent biographies attempt to come to a deeper understanding of the man. The titles of all three—The Heretic in Darwin's Court, An Elusive Victorian and In Darwin's Shadow—recognize the fact that, for whatever reasons, Wallace has been consigned to the dim recesses of Darwin's imposing shadow. (This is, of course, reflected in the very term "Darwinism," which Wallace himself played a major role in establishing.) All three books aim to bring their subject into the limelight.

Martin Fichman has produced the most academic account of the lot. An Elusive Victorian, a deft analytical contextualization of Wallace, delineates his place in the broader Victorian clashes over science, politics and religion. Fichman shows that the very definitions of "science" and "scientist" remained contested and far from resolved until the early decades of the 20th century. He is thus able to portray the kind of overt interaction between biology and ideology that Wallace championed as a threat to the epistemological divides between science, ethics and politics—divisions that scientific naturalists of his day sought to safeguard as a requisite to the professionalization of their trade. Invoking an "ideologically pure" science that actually concealed their own varied sociopolitical agendas, Huxley and company deliberately painted Wallace as a friend turned crank, thereby affecting his reputation in the annals of history. Wallace's unorthodoxies thus become artifacts of historiography.

In reality, a cohesive thread runs through Wallace's life's work: He was powerfully motivated to use knowledge from a wide range of sources to articulate an evolutionary cosmology aimed at bettering man's future. In Fichman's tale, Wallace's socialism, spiritualism and support for phrenology and mesmerism; his campaigns for land nationalization and against compulsive vaccination; and his advocacy of women's rights and of the central role of humans in the universe, alongside his championing of evolution by natural selection, are all facets of a logically consistent and integrated worldview aimed at a more just concept of what Wallace termed the "Life–World." Far from lapsing into the supernatural, he lived an unswerving life, consistently reconciling his humanistic beliefs with his scientific investigations.

It may be true that Wallace's spiritualism and his attempts to integrate science with culture and philosophy were not as bizarre as previously supposed. And Wallace may have gone to great pains to test supernatural phenomena as scientifically as he could. But I'm left with the feeling that Fichman's corrective may be going a bit too far. After all, as Fichman reports, even Wallace's friend Frederic Myers, a founding member of the British Society for Psychical Research who aimed to subject spiritualism to the canons of scientific empirical research, said that Wallace was one of those whose "natures . . . stand so far removed from the meaner temptations of humanity that [they] thus gifted at birth can no more enter into the true mind of a cheat than I can enter into the true mind of a chimpanzee."

And what about Wallace's belief that female choice will necessarily lead, in the words of the utopian Edward Bellamy, whom he so admired, to the sure transmission to posterity of "the gifts of person, mind, and disposition; beauty, wit, eloquence, kindness, generosity, geniality, courage"? Wallace's commitment to progress went well beyond what observation allows. After all, is it not incredibly naive to believe that young women will always select the wisest and most exalted as their mates, and even more so to hold that young men will stand idly by and let this happen? Fichman has written a solid and important book, but he could have been a bit tougher on his subject.

Not so Michael Shermer, who—unlike Fichman—is not overly concerned with making his subject look good. In Darwin's Shadow takes a "scientific approach" to psychobiography. Shermer constructs a "Historical Matrix Model" to depict "the interaction of thought and culture over time in the development of Alfred Russel Wallace's theory of the evolution of man and mind." It incorporates five "internal forces" (hyperselectionism, monopolygenism leanings, egalitarianism, environmental determinism and heretic personality) and five "external forces" (pseudoscience/spirituality/phrenology, teleological purposefulness, scientific communal support, anthropological experiences and working–class associations), thus formalizing the conviction that no single influence is sufficient to explain the result. If all this sounds a bit quirky to you—well, it does to me too. And I have yet to be convinced that using the "birth–order effect" or an "interrater reliability score" or "multivariate correlational studies" to explain Wallace's heresies affords any insight into the problem. Nor do I need to be told that multiple factors work in an "autocatalytic feedback loop" in order to understand that various facets of one's personality and environment help shape attitudes to the world. Shermer is convinced that history can be studied with what he believes are the methods of science, and that is his right.

Fortunately, when he drops the cumbersome theory and actually gets down to telling Wallace's story, Shermer does an outstanding job, painting a psychologically sensitive portrait of the heretic personality that made Wallace prone to investigate unusual claims, and to commit to and stand by them in the absence of substantial evidence in their favor. When Wallace was right, as with the discovery of natural selection, those qualities worked in his favor. When he was wrong, as with spiritualism, the same qualities rightly brought down upon him the scorn and ridicule of scientists, skeptics and more conservative personalities.

Ultimately Shermer concludes that Wallace's spiritualism did not influence his science or his teleological evolutionary worldview. Rather, the spiritualism grew out of his unshakable belief in science and its method: He simply assumed that a guiding intelligence was a more likely inference from reality than the reductionist view ascribing the mystery of mind to the properties of matter.

Alfred Russel WallaceClick to Enlarge Image

Last but not least is Ross A. Slotten's book The Heretic in Darwin's Court. Neither a professional writer nor an academic historian, Slotten is a family practitioner. He has an amateur's enthusiasm for his subject, which lends his account a kind of intimacy missing from the other two books. The result is that here Wallace is given his most complete and colorful viewing, as a leading evolutionary theorist, social philosopher, hopeless dreamer, anthropologist and spiritualist, friend, explorer, and tireless seeker of justice and of truth. This is a good, old–fashioned, beautifully written biography, devoid of pretension and with both a wonderful eye for detail and an impressive command of history and fact. Those unfamiliar with Wallace's life will greatly enjoy Slotten's fine book. When all is said and done, there's no substitute for a well–told story.

Has Wallace finally been accorded his long–deserved place alongside Darwin in the annals of history? Well, I think the answer is yes. Darwin may rest augustly beside Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey, while Wallace lies modestly in the little cemetery in Broadstone, on a hill shaded by pines and cooled by breezes from the nearby sea. But ironically, perhaps this is fitting. Darwin's last major publication was a treatise on the lowly earthworm that exemplified the meticulous scientific method that brought him to fame. Wallace, by contrast, had abandoned minutiae in favor of what seemed to him more humanly relevant problems, and no doubt paid a price. At the age of 90, Wallace left this life musing over the last two books to come from his pen, Social Environment and Moral Progress and The Revolt of Democracy, both aimed at ensuring a benevolent future for humankind.

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