Sage who sought more than Darwin

The Heretic in Darwin's Court - An Elusive Victorian
July 2, 2004

The Alfred Russel Wallace most people know, if at all, is the naturalist who has a walk-on part in the life story of Charles Darwin. In 1858, Darwin received an essay by Wallace from the Malay Archipelago that showed that he, too, had worked out the principle of natural selection. Wallace asked Darwin to forward his essay to Sir Charles Lyell because he thought he was on to something new.

Darwin panicked. He asked Lyell for advice, writing: "All my originality will be smashed." Lyell consulted the botanist Joseph Hooker, Darwin's other close friend, and they decided to present both Darwin's and Wallace's essays to the Linnean Society a week or so later. Darwin's essay was read first and the date of its composition noted and recorded in the society minutes as 1844; Wallace's essay was dated 1858. No one, except perhaps Lyell and Hooker, seemed to have grasped the significance of the event, but the question of priority had been "managed". Darwinism was born with the rapid publication of On the Origin of Species a year later; what might have been called "Wallaceism" was assigned to the margins of history.

Wallace did not object to this arrangement, actually expressing his gratitude later in life that Darwin had taken the controversial limelight rather than himself.

As a consequence, Wallace's life story has often been told in terms of the "also-ran" or the "might-have-been". But the life of the "co-discoverer" of natural selection is much more complicated and nuanced, of course, and has been finely told and analysed in very different ways by Ross Slotten and Martin Fichman in these two books.

Fichman argues that Wallace's "elusiveness" is in part caused by his work always being interpreted in the shadow of Darwin and in comparison to him.

He suggests that Wallace may also have been sidelined by his contemporaries and by historians of science because he was a powerful advocate of spiritualism and socialism and a theist who worked all his life to reconcile science and religion, taking a stand against the narrow materialism that Darwinism was perceived to have brought into being. As a result, Wallace moved between the centre and the margins of scientific power in the 19th century. Those who advocated an ideologically neutral vision of science - most notably Thomas Huxley, John Tyndall and their coterie - were irked, even embarrassed, by Wallace's involvement in mesmerism, spiritualism and his continuous assault on the impoverished ethics of an industrialising society.

Both Fichman and Slotten give us a finely contextualised and complex, multifaceted Wallace, though their strategies of historiography are different. Slotten's The Heretic in Darwin's Court is a historicised, beautifully written and chronologically structured biography, while Fichman's An Elusive Victorian is a sophisticated analytical study that seeks to find, map and explain the link between Wallace's diverse interests. Both books show how Wallace swam against the tide of his own time in his quest for scientific, spiritual and philosophical integration.

Slotten calls him a heretic - he unsettled his peers, he unsettles us.

Historians, in our discipline-bounded days, have favoured specialists over polymaths. The Victorians, in their move towards knowledge specialisation, were learning how to do so, too.

This recasting of Wallace's multifaceted interests as a quest for integration transforms him from a maverick or dilettante. This Wallace is unconcerned with reputation, and his search for an overarching unified truth is shown to have taken him beyond the narrower, more specialised questions of his fellow scientists. Instead, Fichman asks us to see him as a sage or even as a seer, as he was seen by many of his contemporaries. Is this new view of Wallace perhaps a reflection of a shift in our own intellectual practices that leads us to revalue the courage of interdisciplinarity and to admire attempts at integration across disciplinary boundaries?

These two books are timely in other ways, for they both draw on developments in history of science writing over the past decade, as exemplified by the recent fine-grained scientific historiography of Jim Secord, Janet Browne, James Moore, Adrian Desmond, Alison Winter and Ann Secord. Fichman argues that "the increasingly sophisticated attention to the interplay between societal context and individual thought and action has dramatically enriched the historiography of science". Greg Radick has recently argued in The Cambridge Companion to Darwin that the Wallace-Darwin co-discovery can even be used to argue that Darwin's theory is a product of social history rather than a timeless truth, for despite having different class origins and life histories, the two men read the same books, particularly Malthus on population and Lyell on geology and species origins, in the same cultural-political conditions.

Our understanding of the Victorian period - the era of so many extraordinary polymaths such as Wallace, William Whewell, John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, Harriet Martineau, George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning - has benefited more than most periods of history from these intellectual and critical developments. As a result of such contextualisation and realignments, Wallace's seeming paradoxes and unorthodoxes begin to appear as a comprehensible pattern of belief and behaviour. Wallace is presented by both authors - convincingly - as being driven, even single-minded, in his pursuit of integration and comprehensiveness across diverse disciplines.

Wallace was an intellectual explorer, but he was also an actual one. He wrote an evocative and beautiful account of his ten years in the Malay Archipelago - a book that at once shows the range of his curiosity and his quest for a single key for the natural world. This book is, like its author, multifaceted. It is at once a scientific treatise, a tract on travel and discovery and a detailed account of observations of the natural world, as well as the diary of a sage, a non-conformist and a philosopher.

It is dedicated to Darwin, written as a kind of homage to Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and it shares its range of vision.

Wallace was not a social climber or a careerist, although he perhaps needed to be more than many of his peers. He had neither the family wealth nor the social class of Darwin. The scientific books he consulted as a young man, including many of the books that Darwin read and that served as invaluable pieces of the intellectual puzzle both men were trying to solve, were borrowed from Leicester lending library. He worked as a land surveyor, a teacher and collector who sold his specimens. It was often a hand-to-mouth existence.

Both Wallace and Darwin began their quests to solve the mechanism for the evolution of species at about the same age, in their early twenties. But Darwin was 14 years older than Wallace and had a university education, the opportunity to travel without a salary and, above all, time. They did not know they were in competition, but it was one in which Wallace had his hands tied. Darwin was first exposed to transmutationism at Edinburgh University as a medical student in 1826 when he was 17; Wallace was taken out of school and apprenticed at the age of 13 as a result of various family bankruptcies but, through a course of reading in the local library and lectures in the Mechanics' Institutes, began to be interested in the species question aged about 20, in 1843, when Darwin was nearly ready to put his theories into essay form.

The gap between the timescales of the two men's mutual quest closed, however, as a result of Darwin's hesitancy and desire to map a tiny corner of the natural world in order to prove his spurs: his massive barnacle project of 1846-54. As early as 1844, Darwin had the species theory penned as an essay but was not ready to publish; Wallace grasped it fully between 1855 and 1858, the year the two men, and theories, politely collided.

Wallace was not ambitious for fame, and understanding natural selection was, for him, only a small step towards understanding the laws of nature.

Material laws were inadequate as a way of understanding the "mystery and wonder and variety of life", he said to a friend only a few months before his death, as the two gazed out of his window at his garden with woodland and sea beyond. He had dedicated his life, he said, to the discovery of "a guiding and directive force; a Divine Power or hierarchy of powers... behind and beyond all elementary processes... controlling these processes so that they are tending to more abundant and to higher types of life".

Spiritualism and theism, mesmerism and socialism all had a part in his quest to understand how those powers worked.

Rebecca Stott is head of the department of English and drama, Anglia Polytechnic University, and an affiliated scholar in the department of the history and philosophy of science, Cambridge University.

The Heretic in Darwin's Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace

Author - Ross A. Slotten
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Pages - 648
Price - £26.50
ISBN - 0 231 13010 4

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