Darwin and Wallace: Books Reviewed (in part)

A few years ago one of my more accomplished students was kind enough to give me a parting gift of David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo, and even though the book is more generally about the scientific development of Island Biogeography (as the subtitle states), the authors historical accounts of the concept inspired an interest in Alfred Wallace. More recently, I have read David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin and Peter Raby’s biography Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life both of which contain information relevant to understanding the relationship between the icons of evolutionary biology, Darwin and Wallace.

In the first of Quammen’s books mentioned, he suggests a conspiracy, of sorts, that Darwin used to maintain his priority over the concept of natural selection.

“Then one day Darwin received a manuscript in the mail from a young, obscure naturalist named Wallace – and the Wallace manuscript, to Darwin’s horror, contained his own precious concept. Wallace had found his way to it independently. For a brief heartsick period, Darwin believed that the younger man had eclipsed him and preempted his life’s work by staking a just claim to priority. As things developed, however, with Joseph Hooker’s collusion, Wallace and Darwin announced the concept simultaneously. For a variety of reasons, some good and some shabby, Darwin received most of the recognition; and Wallace, in consequence, is famous for being obscured.” p 20-21 of Song of the Dodo

Quammen more fully develops this potential conspiracy in a detailed discussion of the correspondence that occurred between Darwin, Lyell, Hooker, and Wallace that informed the later of the now famous arrangement presenting an excerpt of Darwin’s 1844 essay along with Wallace’s paper to the Linnean Society of London on July 1, 1858.

“Darwin was understandably abashed and tried to portray himself as a passive party swept along by events… a claim that is weaselly at best and arguably untrue, given his strong hints and lamentations to both men (Hooker and Lyell).” p 168 of The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

Quammen does reference the known correspondence to build his case, and does concede that the actual letters to Wallace have been lost and that Darwin was dealing with the loss of one of his children during this period (which I imagine was quite important in his leaving things to Lyell and Hooker).

Obviously, Quammen’s words and evidence made me contemplate and question the motives, honor, etc… of this great man, a human all the same. But, I was happy to read Raby’s biography of Wallace where he presents another perspective on the relationship between these two great men. In contrast, some of his accounts rescued Darwin’s qualities from Quammen argument.

First, it is interesting to reflect on how anyone, who considers themselves a naturalist, becomes such a creature. In Wallace’s case, one of his inspirations was Charles Darwin. Specifically, when Wallace became interested in identifying, collecting, and preserving plant specimens for his initial herbarium, he purchased the standard Encyclopedia of Plants and transcribed on the inside the following quote.

“I am strongly induced to believe that as in music, the person who understands every note will if he also posses a proper taste more thoroughly enjoy the whole so he who examines each part of a fine view may also thoroughly comprehend the full and combined effect. Hence a traveller should be a Botanist, for in all views plants form the cheif embellishment.” – Charles Darwin from Journal of the Voyage of the Beagle

And later, after Darwin published his On the Origin of Species, in a letter to William Bates, with whom Wallace first traveled in South America, Wallace writes:

“I know not how, or to whom, to express fully my admiration of Darwin’s book. To him it would seem flattery, to others self-praise; but I do honestly believe that with however much patience I had worked and experimented on the subject, I could never have approached the completeness of his book, its vast accumulation of evidence, its overwhelming argument, and its admirable tone and spirit. I really feel thankful that it has not been left to me to give the theory to the world. Mr. Darwin has created a new science and a new philosophy; and I believe that never has such a complete illustration of a new branch of human knowledge been due to the labours and researches of a single man.”

Besides these illuminating words, Darwin used his standing and connections to acquire Wallace a government pension in his later life, and Wallace was one of the pal bearers for Darwin’s funeral at Westminster Abbey.

The book by Raby is a treat beyond the items that I have mentioned. It covers Wallace’s entire life, from his early life, his work as a surveyor, work as a collector and young naturalists in South America (most of his work was lost in the sinking of the ship he was on during its Atlantic crossing), and his work in the Malay Archipelago where he searched for butterflies and birds of paradise, and earned his fame. It also discusses his “little heresy” (his belief that the human mind was beyond the forces of natural selection) and his spiritualism (related through his participation in seances throughout most of his later life). I even learned that Wallace visited the great state of Kansas giving lectures in Lawrence and Manhattan in the spring of 1887.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that there is much to learn from each of these books, and they were all worth the read.

I must add that I began this post thinking that my comments on these books were only going to be an introduction to the activities in the following post, but it turned into a mini book review and I worried that you wouldn’t keep scrolling down to the activities at the end of the post. Thus, I regret that it didn’t begin as a book review since each are being a bit short changed by the brevity of my comments.



Author: Eric Kessler

I am a high school teacher in the Blue Valley School District who has taught a Bioscience Research course at the district's Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) since 2010. Previous to this teaching gig I was at Blue Valley North High School where I taught freshman Biology and Honors Biology, Field Biology, Zoology, and AP Biology for the past 18 years.

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