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on May 29, 2014
Alfred Wallace was the co-discoverer of the theory of evoution, lesser known than Charles Darwin, but of the same caliber. They were both equally prolific in their scientific output and a product of their times.

Shermer has done a superb job of researching the life of Wallace. This book is very readable. It should appeal to anyone who is interested in the topic of evolution, but just as importantly (if not more so) on the topic of science itself, on scientific methods, the history of science and the philosophy f science. It also illuminates the zeitgeist during Darwin and Wallace's days.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is very good.
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on November 16, 2003
Alfred Russel Wallace seems to rate hardly more than a footnote in the history of the theory of evolution. Like most who have studied this subject, I knew of Wallace's mutual discovery of the theory and evidence in support of it. I knew too of Darwin's generous introduction of the man as a co-discoverer, and even of the theory that that introduction might have been more premeditated and less generous that it appears. In some of my reading I had even learned of Wallace's "defection" to spiritualism. However, where Darwin's life is everywhere paraphrased and his thoughts on the subject of evolution almost subject to canonization, Wallace's life and thoughts seemed just to have "fallen out" of the picture. Michael Shermer's book, In Darwin's Shadow, The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace, provides a more detailed look at Wallace the man and scientist. It also looks at the subject of how history and biography reflects the psychology of their time-in some ways, he does so unintentionally.
In many ways A. R. Wallace, though not a formally educated man, was more of a research scientist than Darwin. He apparently plunged into the pursuit of regional studies with a vengeance for most of his youth, some twelve years abroad, studying natural subjects in their native habitat. Whether it was beetles in the tropics, indigenous people in their native and in their European dominated settings, the communities of animals characteristic of different regions in Southeast Asia, or the geology of various regions, etc, his studies were extensive and detailed. According to Shermer, he logged in over 20,000 miles on various collecting trips, and just on his Malay trip collected almost 125,000 specimens, over a thousand of which were new species (p. 14).
His reputation for openness and exposure to new experiences was amazing, especially for the day, and recognized even by those who did not necessarily agree with his opinions. His written output was prolific and varied, with topics ranging from ancient history, animal behavior, botany, ethics, history of science, linguistics, plurality of worlds, phrenology, spirtualism, taxonomy, womens rights, agricultural economics, literature and poetry, poor laws, and trade regulation (p. 15). Shermer indicates that even into old age Wallace wrote on a variety of subjects and had a life-time average output that ranks high, even when compared to modern writers like Gould, Sagan, and Ernst Mayr.
While I found Shermer's historical matrix model interesting, I felt that I learned more about how history and biography are created in our own time and what it says about us than I did about Wallace or his contemporaries. The matrix model seems to smack of psychobabble and Oprah "awarenesses" and introduces a lot of introspection into the possible effects of birth order, etc. on behavior. It tries to hard to get at the "whys?" of human behavior and motivation for which there is little proof for or against. It was only once the author got into the life and times of the man himself that I could more easily settle into Wallace's world. For one thing, I understood better what the flap about the man's delving into spiritualism was all about. I also learned where Wallace and Darwin differed, even from the beginning, in their own individual approach to evolution, and why Darwinian evolution is the model that gained the greatest respect and serves as the foundation of modern theories.
I think more than anything, the book introduces the reader to the fact that science is a communal thing, a human thing, and is subject to the vicissitudes of other human endeavors: chance, political and social prejudices, personalities and egos, readiness for new ideas, plain old mistakes, etc. I learned again that scientific discoveries occur in tandem, when the world is ready to receive them, that they're sort of "in the air." I learned that more than one person can come up with the same or similar idea, putting their own personal stamp on the concept, thereby forwarding human knowledge just a little bit more. I learned that scientists can be wrong or partly wrong about their topic and can be wrong or partly wrong about topics outside their expertise, and most importantly, that reputation should not be given total credence without proper thought. Because a person is famous does not mean that their opinions are any more valid than anyone else's.
An enlightening biography of an interesting man. While I think that Darwin's is the more carefully thought out and supported theory of evolution, I think that Wallace was the more interesting and happier person. I suspect it would have been more fun to have known him than to have known Darwin.
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on May 24, 2003
I bought this book rather in spite of than because of the other Amazon reviews, and lugged it with me on a flight out to the West Coast. The book lasted from Boston to Atlanta, and when it was over I closed it with a sigh of relief. While Shermer is certainly at times an engaging writer here he indulges in a rather peculiar form of quantitative psycho-history mixed in with the equally peculiar allocation of behavioural traits to birth order. There MAY be something in this somewhere, but at the same time it smacks of the 19th century Victorian fetish about cranial measurments that Shermer's evident hero-mentor Stephen Gould took to task in THE MISMEASURE OF MAN. That Shermer is so obsessed with his methodologies (he devotes a substantial portion of the book to 'how he did it") is a shame because it lessens and weakens his focus on his putative topic, the fascinating Alfred Wallace. Instead of really delving intoWallace's background and early experiences we get a few pages of quick gloss intertwined with what frankly struck me as mumbo-jumbo about what it means to be a Younger Child. This may be all very new Age & Hip right now, but I strongly doubt it will prove to have much in the way of scholarly legs. Then there is the tedious re-hashing of Gould's speculations which other reviewers have already re-hashed. Yup, they are old, they are trite, and can we please now move on? Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the discussion of Wallace's involvement with various "Spiritualist" frauds during the second half of his career. Here the writing really picks up & one has the sense that "aha, now we are going to get somewhere". Alas, the excitement soon fades & the book itself fades out to a gentle glow at the end. i really don't know how to categorize this text. It is far too incomplete for someone unfamiliar with Wallace's life & work to get a real sense of the man and it offers such an odd view on Wallace's relationships with friends, family, colleagues & rivals that one is left wondering just what was intended. A footnote to a more general study? Maybe, but i agree with the reviewer who calls for the need of a REAL biography that puts Wallace AND his science in proper context.
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on June 16, 2017
Good quality reproduction
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Others have commented on the contents, so I will comment on production values. The book is nicely produced, with a generous supply of useful illustrations. BUT! Don't pay Oxford University Press's exorbitant price ($50 list), shop for a good used copy instead. When OUP first published this in 2002 it was $35 (list), so they've increased it by $15 in just 7 years.

I always feel sad when an author like Shermer has the availability of his book limited by a rapacious (or maybe just inefficient?) publisher like OUP.
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on December 7, 2015
Thank you.
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on March 1, 2014
I cannot help but wonder what on Earth the founder of the Skeptics Society is up to in deploying utter flim-flam to dispose of the problem of Patrick Matthew's (1831) prior discovery of 'the natural process of selection'. Because, in this book, Michael Shermer presents a bogus argument against long-standing accusations that Darwin (in 1858 and 1859) plagiarized Patrick Matthew's (1831) unique and prior publication of the discovery of 'the natural process of selection'. To defend Darwin, Shermer relies upon the well known fact that in all fields of discovery a breakthrough is seldom a zero-sum game, because discoverers usually build upon the earlier work of their precursors. But this is complete flim-flam reasoning in the story of Matthew, Darwin and Wallace, simply because both Darwin and Wallace DID claim ZERO prior knowledge of Matthew's prior published discovery. In other words THEY claimed it was a zero sum game! Moreover, both Darwin and Wallace fallaciously created the self-serving myth that Matthew's ideas had been ignored until Matthew brought then to Darwin's attention in 1860.

Hi-tech research methods have newly detected the fact that seven naturalists (among many other writers) actually cited Matthew's (1831) book in the published literature. Moreover, three of those naturalists were associates of Darwin. Worse still, one of the three (Selby) actually edited and published Wallace's Sarawak paper in 1855. which famously laid his initial claim to the concept of Natural selection.

All the new evidence proves beyond reasonable doubt that both Darwin and Wallace committed the World's greatest science fraud.

Despite Shermer's desperate Darwinian attempts to bury Matthew in obscurity, the ghost of Matthew just bit him in the very backside out of which he wrote the flim-flam portions in this book! With no malice, I sincerely hope the wound will turn Shermer genuinely skeptic. If so, as a promoter of Skepticism I think he needs to address a most telling question - perhaps in a second edition. Namely: Can a Darwinist skeptically judge the claim to scientific priority for the discovery of natural selection by anyone not named Darwin? Surely the conflict of interest is too great? What else would explain the desperate flim flam in this book?

Dr Mike Sutton is author of
Nullius in Verba: Darwin's greatest secret
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on October 5, 2002
Michael Shermer's study of Wallace contributes to the recent rise of interest in this fascinating Victorian scientist by presenting a fair-minded biographical account, while attempting to analyze the various components of Wallace's personality through various objective methods. The results are interesting and well worth digesting, but there are still weaknesses in the treatment that have the effect of leading us down blind alleys. To begin with, Shermer has relatively little to say about Wallace's science, and how it has (and hasn't) affected more recent thought. This is a critical matter, because the most important thing about Wallace is the level of prescience he exhibited in dealing with both scientific and social subjects. A wholly successful biography of Wallace cannot be just a biography (as in the case of the recent, and very nice *written*, one by Peter Raby), it must be an analysis of his *ideas*. This Shermer does not attempt to do, partly because he is not a scientist, and partly because he has the good sense to realize that any such effort that will stand the test of time will not be possible for a good long time yet. Instead, he concentrates on establishing a psychological profile of Wallace, based largely on meta-data approaches developed by Frank Sulloway. The profile Shermer comes up with, that of the "heretic scientist," is interesting in a descriptive sort of way (assuming one believes the approach is well-advised in the case of someone as unusual as Wallace to begin with, and many knowledgeable observers, including ones interviewed by Shermer in the book, don't think it is), but in the end tells us almost nothing about the man's actual accomplishments, or why we need continue delving into them.
The danger in Shermer's approach is that it breeds preconception and red-herring...whether Wallace's ideas on dozens of different subjects might have been seriously under-examined in the context of modern times?
On the other hand, between Shermer and Raby and the numerous other studies and anthologies of the past few years we now have a solid foundation of *identity* upon which to move ahead. Shermer's work is well written and carefully constructed (though there are some typos and factual errors: for example, Wallace's visit to California included a trip to the *future* site of Stanford University, not its operating one, as Shermer implies), and covers the main biographical points more than adequately. Hopefully, this will be the last of the necessary "continuing preludes" to Wallace studies, and we can now move on to some more revealing insights.
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Restoring Albert Russell Wallace's reputation is an occasional occupation with historians. Some wish to elevate him over Darwin, usually on the question of "priority" - who first thought up evolution by natural selection? Others portray him as the victim of Britain's class structure - doomed to obscurity because of his humble background. Shermer, although the title implies otherwise, makes an attempt to reconcile Darwin and Wallace, at least over natural selection. From that point, Shermer follows Wallace through a complex life. This readable, if somewhat shallow, biography does Wallace justice, but at the cost of shedding the broader context. In support of his programme, he relies heavily on Frank Sulloway's research on "birth-order" and creativity. This innovative study has had a rocky career, but Shermer finds it useful. For him, the findings have meaning, but their validity remains unclear. Especially when comparing but two subjects.
Wallace was a complicated personality, perhaps even more so than Darwin himself. In order to build a coherent image of his subject, Shermer creates a "historical matrix model". This is a three-dimensional visual aid of the elements he's utilising in erecting Wallace's biography. Mixing time, Wallace's various excursions and interests, Shermer ties the whole structure to his subject's views on evolution of humanity and the mind. Whether this method works may depend on your attitude about applying mathematical structures to a man's life. Fortunately for readability, Shermer keeps the application of this device at a low key, saving his analytical summation to the end of the book - where it falls flat.
Shermer traces the voyages Wallace was virtually forced to undertake. Financial woes dogged the naturalist throughout his life, although it's hard to see that from Shermer's portrayal. Although Shermer puts Wallace "in Darwin's shadow" he was easily as fluent a correspondent as his more famous counterpart. Yet few of the cited letters contain appeals for employment. Instead, Shermer takes us through Wallace's views on social questions, spiritualism and variations on natural selection. He also shows how Wallace traveled and dealt with a broad spectrum of issues and the people associated with them. Darwin, of course, maintained almost a hermit's life at Down. It's strange that Shermer makes little note of the contrast of the two since much of Darwin's information leading to natural selection came from a global correspondence. Wallace, ever the field researcher, relied more on his own collections for evidence.
Although providing us with a highly readable biography of the man, Shermer is virtually silent on the general social scene of Victorian Britain. In pursuing his subject's life, we are given quirky events and some questionable people. There's an excuse for avoiding the tumultuous politics of the era, but Shermer follows Wallace in his admiration for socialist Robert Owen and the role of Mechanics' Institutes to educate the workers. Both schemes were designed to generate worker contentment at minimal cost - Britain retained a horror of worker rebellion after the Napoleonic era. No mention is made of the Luddite or Chartist movements, which should have elicited comments from socialist Wallace.
A more bizarre oversight is Shermer's failure to impart Wallace's feeling on some of natural selection's sharper criticisms. One in particular, Lord Kelvin's assessment that the age of the solar system was too short to allow the needed time frame for evolution. Fleeming Jenkin's point that changes in organisms would be blended back, a point that Darwin, ignorant of Mendelian genetics, agonised over, is also overlooked by Shermer. Since any biography of Darwin will deal with these issues at length, it's only logical that Shermer should have addressed them. Either that or Wallace ignored them - we remain in the dark either way.
Shermer's sins of omission may be forgiven as retaining clarity and brevity. His committed sins, however, cannot be condoned. His long career as an acolyte of the Pope of Paleontology leads Shermer to peck at Darwin's image. The worst examples are intrusions of "punctuated speciation" in a variety of disguises. Shermer's attempt to promote his mentor's outdated thesis borders on the pathetic. He aggravates it later in the book with other Gouldian pronouncements. Gould makes the index six times, with "punk eek" scoring another ten. In a biography of Wallace, this ploy is simply an outrageous non sequitor. He puts Wallace in "Darwin's dark shadow" [what other kind is there?], implying some sinister agenda. Wallace is "eclipsed" by Darwin - as if Darwin so intended. Darwin's opposition to spiritualism is a "secret war". The position is misleading. The shadow is cast by the long-lived eminence of Darwin's contributions, but Shermer makes no mention of that. It's history's verdict, not Darwin's.
Shermer's use of Sulloway is bewildering. Parallels between Darwin and Wallace are inevitable, but the author's are flimsy. "Birth order" as an issue with these two men is misleading. If he wanted to compare the two as personalities, why does Shermer ignore the similarity of Wallace's losing his first love, Marion Leslie and Darwin's loss of Fanny Owen? That Wallace delved into a wider list of topics than Darwin keeps the former's public life more interesting, but doesn't move the latter into a "shadow." Wallace wasn't dogged by illness throughout his life - his long life certainly suggests good health. He shed whatever Christianity he had at an early age, while Darwin was driven to abandon it from his studies and the loss of children. Shermer doesn't need to shatter Darwin's image to restore Wallace's, but that intent is broadcast in his title. It was a mistake. If Shermer is intent on restoring Wallace's reputation, he should have hired somebody to do it for him. Janet Browne would be a good first choice. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on February 15, 2008
I felt I got a well-rounded view of Wallace as a person from this book. And I felt the treatment was fair, fairer than I expected from an arch-skeptic of and enemy of anything spiritual, Wallace's "weakness." Omitted, though, was adequate coverage of some of Wallace's strongest arguments against natural selection. As I understand it, Wallace said that the talents induced in us by civilization must have been built into our species at inception, but through not being useful prior to civilization should have been lost through disuse, here following Darwin's terminology. A good argument. Just as the author gets here the discussion shifts onto sexual selection and "the problem of incipient stages," as if the author's nerve failed. Otherwise I thought this a good "life."
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