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Review: In Darwin's Shadow
Opening this book, I had a quibble about its title. Is Alfred Russel Wallace really such an unfamiliar figure today? Was he seen by his contemporaries as overshadowed by the great man? I am not sure. Indeed, Shermer’s account of his later life reveals how much Wallace stood out then — he became recognized, at least in Britain, as “the last of the Great Victorians”. In part this was a result of his remarkable longevity, for he lived on to the age of 90 (until the end of 1913). Remarkable is the right term because during his extended expeditions to the Amazon and the Malay archipelago (modern Indonesia), he was frequently brought to death’s door by malaria, yellow fever, and many other tropical plagues. He must have had the constitution of the proverbial ox!
This is a distinguished and scholarly biography with excellent coverage of the science. Shermer is concerned with the history of evolutionary ideas and uses the interaction between Wallace, Darwin, and others to great effect. He goes beyond this to examine the extraordinary range of Wallace’s interests and how they came to dominate different stages of his life. It is always clear and attractively written but is very detailed in places and probably not best suited for non-specialists wanting an introduction to Wallace’s life. They might first go to Peter Raby’s very good Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001; reviewed by John Wilkins in RNCSE 2003 Jan/Feb; 23 : 39–40), but it is to Shermer one must go to dig deeper.
Wallace had little of Darwin’s science background in his family nor the privileges of money. He was eighth-born into a family that never had much to spare. He had little formal education but considerable opportunity for reading and inquiry. He had quickly to earn a living and did a little teaching, then spent a few years as a surveyor working for the burgeoning railway companies. In view of what came later, it is interesting to note that very early on he came to abandon conventional religions as poorly equipped to explain the phenomena of nature. Also, he and a brother attended evening classes in one of the “mechanics’ institutes” where working people could learn science and some philosophy. Wallace was here introduced to the socialist ideals of Robert Owen, the founder of New Lanark. But from his earliest days he loved an outdoor life; he was captivated by the natural world and became a very acute observer. He met up with HW Bates, a young man of very similar tastes, and together they planned a major expedition to the Amazon basin, to be financed entirely from the collections they would make. This set the form of all Wallace’s early career: his fascination with the variety of life provided his delight, his intellectual challenge, and his livelihood!
He was quite early in correspondence in Darwin, who recognized that the revelation of the huge variety of species Wallace was describing from the tropics and their geographical distribution were of great significance. Indeed, they began to throw some light on “that mystery of mysteries”, as Darwin described the origin of species in the introduction to his crucial volume. It was clear that Wallace himself was musing on that mystery, and Darwin probably knew this. Then came the bombshell of a letter he received in June 1858 sent from the remote East Indies. Wallace there set out ideas on natural selection and its operation virtually identical to those which Darwin had been painstakingly developing over the 20 years since he returned from the voyage of the Beagle.
The story of how Darwin and Wallace came to publish a joint paper in that year and how Darwin subsequently accelerated into action over the Origin is now fairly familiar. It has aroused bitter accusations of plagiarism from those — and there are always iconoclasts among us — who accuse Darwin of deception at Wallace’s expense. Shermer provides here a most detailed and sensitive analysis of those crucial months and all that has been written about them. He totally acquits Darwin, clearly believing that he was basically a nice person, and I totally agree with him! Darwin often acknowledges the extent of Wallace’s contribution, particularly in relation to the geographical distribution of animals and plants, which lent powerful support to evolutionary ideas. There is certainly no sign that Wallace ever felt a trace of resentment. He obviously admired Darwin and throughout his long life continued to refer to him and promote the concept of natural selection. He remained extraordinarily modest and self-effacing about his achievements. It was quite a struggle for his colleagues to get him to accept election to the Royal Society of London, for example.
Wallace’s one departure from Darwin and from the power of natural selection concerned the human brain, which he believed forced him to accept a designing force beyond nature. Why else would “savages” be already in possession of a brain identical to that of the more civilized when only the latter uses its amazing capacities to the full extent? Alas and alas, I feel! How could Wallace, who was such an acute observer, not recognize the scope of the civilizations around him as he moved through the Malay archipelago? But then even the greatest people have blind spots. Darwin remained convinced that natural selection was behind it all, but even he found it hard to credit that he was from the same species as the natives of Tierra del Fuego!
Certainly Wallace pursued various potty ideas such as spiritualism in the latter part of his life. He clearly lacked judgment in some cases; Shermer relates the comic story of Wallace’s attempt to win 500 pounds (which he probably needed — he was never flush with funds!) from a wager offered by a lunatic who believed the earth was flat. Careful measurements were made along a 6-mile, dead-straight stretch of canal. The curvature was clear, but no money was forthcoming, nothing but a stream of insulting and threatening correspondence and bills from lawyers.
Nevertheless, Wallace was also seriously involved with the betterment of human societies and retained his youthful allegiance to socialist ideals. He was extraordinarily productive on a variety of issues. What other biologist would have contributed books on Land Nationalisation and Social Environment and Moral Progress among all the extensive biological work! Shermer provides a full bibliography of Wallace, which in itself is a remarkable record of a remarkable and admirable man. The book is well-illustrated and includes some delightful photographs of Wallace as an old man. There is one of him, near the end of his long life, resting on the ground in the sunlight of a woodland path, still delighting in the natural world. It is one of many images from this excellent biography I wish to retain.