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Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life Paperback – September 1, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
Darwin's competitor for proving a theory of natural selection was stuck in the Spice Islands, malarial and enjoying a less hulking reputation than his colleague did. In Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life, Peter Raby (Samuel Butler) shows that, save for these setbacks, Wallace might have been our man on evolution. Like other biographers before him, Raby, who lectures on Drama and English at Homerton College, University of Cambridge, describes the disastrous fire that consumed four years' worth of specimens Wallace had collected in the Amazon, the essay that Wallace sent to Darwin revealing his ideas about natural selection, Darwin's rush to publish his ideas first, Wallace's ongoing but lesser achievements, his long, energetic career. Though boasting no original material (Wallace's life is an open book), Raby's accomplished study is the first in some years and adds greater insight into this likeable underdog's personality.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
*Starred Review* The fame of Charles Darwin so outshines that of any contemporary biologist that it stuns many students to learn that Darwin must share the credit for discovering natural selection--the driving force behind evolution--with a brilliant scientist now usually consigned to the footnotes. With this marvelously readable biography of Alfred Russel Wallace, Raby has rescued that forgotten pioneer from oblivion. Because of his full elaboration of evolutionary theory, Darwin did eventually earn a higher place in the scientific pantheon--Raby makes short shrift of the sensational conjecture that Darwin stole his theory from Wallace. But why has Wallace--an independent discoverer of the evolutionary secret and one of the most daring and widely traveled naturalists of all time--been relegated to obscurity? The answer lies largely in the scientific community's embarrassment at how this great thinker and explorer entangled himself during his later years in political controversy and spiritualist enthusiasm. Detailing Wallace's crusades against vaccinations and in defense of seances, Raby confronts the scientist's credulity and wrongheadedness; yet he also highlights the lifelong streak of stubborn independence that made possible the early scientific breakthroughs. In capturing the cross-grained complexities of this exceptional collector of beetles and birds, Raby gives readers a fascinating specimen of the most mysterious and unpredictable species of all. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
Comparisons to Darwin run throughout the book, quite naturally. Darwin's background was such that he never had to worry much about getting an education or earning a living. Wallace was the son of an attorney who fared poorly, and throughout his life had to fret about money. His formal schooling ended at age 14, and he eventually took up as a professional collector, selling prized specimens from the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago to museums and armchair naturalists. His explorations enabled him to view island species and boundaries, and in 1858, recovering from Malaria, he had his inspiration of survival of the fittest. He wrote from Malay to Darwin a paper about his ideas. Darwin was startled. He could not honorably publish his ideas, now that Wallace had come up with them independently, but he also did not want to lose the prize of his years of work on what turned out to be the backbone of biology. Darwin conscientiously discussed the matter with his friends, and a thoroughly decent decision was made of jointly publishing the Wallace and Darwin papers. Wallace never wavered in his admiration for the work Darwin had done, and never was jealous that even in his lifetime, Darwin got the credit for the theory.
Wallace may have undermined his fame by his insistence on spiritualism, and by deeply humane political convictions on such things as land reform, women's rights, and British imperialism. He had come up with the idea of survival of the fittest, but he championed the causes of the underprivileged in Wales as well as in Papua New Guinea. This fine biography tells a great story of a nearly-forgotten scientist and an original and caring human being.
Raby traces the development of a man who almost beggars analysis. Wallace's life was dogged by near penury due to family commitments and lack of regular employment. His decision to explore the upper Amazon basin was almost an act of desparation, but it led to a lifelong interest in nature and "primitive" people. Overcoming the loss of four years of exploration and study, he recovered deftly with a long-term examination of the East Indies archipelago. Early flirtations with socialist ideals gave him a more sympathetic view of indigenous people than the average Victorian Briton. He adopted a strong sense of independence from authoritarian measures, leading him to oppose land enclosures and vaccination, which he saw as doing more harm than good. The great issue in his later years was spiritualism. This last proved a stumbling block to his scientific ambitions. Although many authors disparage this interest as demeaning, in Raby's view it is simply another aspect of Wallace's probing intellect.
The primary concern with Wallace remains his co-authorship of evolution by natural selection. Darwin's insight occupied his thinking for two decades while he considered evidence. Wallace had been considering the issue for several years, finally synthesising his ideas during confinement from a malarial attack. Wallace never disputed Darwin's priority nor his superiority as a scientific genius, although recent historians have taken up his "cause" in an attempt to erode Darwin's reputation. Raby examines these claims in some detail, either refuting them or questioning the validity of the evidence. Wallace diverged from Darwin's version of natural selection in some details, most notably over human evolution. In line with his spiritualism, Wallace insisted the human mind could not be an adaptation and must be the result of influence by a "higher power". He wasn't alone in that view either then or now.
Raby's examination of the life of another "tormented evolutionist" is an engaging read and fluent introduction to this charismatic figure. With his long life encompassing an era of many new ideas, Wallace doesn't stand out in the history of science nearly as much as is his due. This book goes far in restoring his image. Raby's prose style is clear and expressive without descending into unnecessary adulation of his subject. The greatest lack is in his failure to place Wallace more fully in the context of his times. Since that would cover the whole of the Victorian era and beyond, we may forgive this curtailment. There are, after all, numerous works providing that overview. A valuable summary for the reader interested in exploration, natural science and Victorian personalities. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]