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.