In Darwin’s Shadow by Michael Shermer

The similarities between between Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace are not hard to point out. Both men had been ardent beetle-hunters in their youth; both subsequently had become travellers, collectors, and observers in some of the most remote parts of the world; both were drawn to asking the big questions (such as why there is so much variety in nature); and both had read Lyell’s Principles of Geology and Malthus’s Essay on Population. According to Wallace, these similarities acted like ‘friction upon the specially-prepared match’, eliciting the ‘flash of insight’ that led each of them to their theory about the survival of the fittest.

The advantage of Michael Shermer’s ( biography is to see just how different these two men were. Unlike Darwin, who came from a well-to-do family, Wallace grew up in difficult circumstances and received only seven years of formal schooling (making his subsequent achievements in science all the more astonishing). For Wallace there were no well-placed mentors, like Darwin’s teacher John Stevens Henslow, who could procure for him an invitation to sail around the world on a British naval vessel. Instead, Wallace worked for a time as a surveyor, finally saving enough money to risk it all on a self-organized collecting venture to the Amazon basin from 1848 to 1852. He then embarked on another collecting expedition, from 1854 to 1862, to the Malay Archipelago. Compared with Darwin, who sailed on a ninety-foot brig in relative comfort, Wallace travelled on smaller and sometimes unsafe ships, by canoe, or on foot through 34,000 miles of dangerous jungles. En route he was afflicted with malaria, dysentery, and yellow fever. The vessel on which Wallace returned from the Amazon to England, in 1852, caught fire and sank seven hundred miles from Bermuda. Barely escaping with his life, Wallace lost most of his scientific notes, journals, and specimens.

Wallace survived great adversity owing to his astonishing physical energy, which resulted in his collecting more than 125,000 specimens in the Malay Archipelago and turning out 769 publications, including twenty-two books. Besides his many insightful contributions to evolutionary theory, he published pioneering work on the geographic distribution of species and on island bio-geography. He was, as Shermer comments at one point, ‘a veritable scientific and literary engine’, writing on boats and in primitive field camps without adequate library resources and sending manuscripts by steamship and hoping for the best.

Just as Wallace’s life differed from the gentlemanly Darwin, his theories did too. Shermer treats this matter thoroughly, and particularly Wallace’s ideas about human evolution. In the mid-1860s Wallace came to believe that natural selection could not possibly account for the evolution of the human body (for example, the trait of hairless skin, which Wallace thought to be maladaptive) or the evolution of the human mind (for instance, the ability to engage in higher mathematical reasoning). In Wallace’s view, natural selection ‘could only have endowed the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one but very little inferior to that of the average members of our learned societies.’

In the face of such seemingly inexplicable mental and physical attributes, Wallace came to the conclusion that spiritual forces, normally unseen but detectable by skilled mediums, had guided human evolution to a higher level and would continue to do so in the future. It was these heterodox views that prompted a disappointed Darwin to declare to Wallace in 1869: ‘I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child’. Because Wallace believed that virtually all traits are adaptive but that primitive humans had no need for higher mathematical and other cognitive skills, he left himself open to the allure of spiritualism. Wallace increasingly concluded that unseen cosmic forces were the next great unexplored frontier of natural science.

We now know this to be bullshit, but it in no way minimizes the real achievements of this titan of Victorian science. Plunge into this world with Michael Shermer’s great biography.

444 pages in Oxford University Press

First published 2002

ISBN  978-2702879153

Michael Shermer

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