on November 29, 2003
After reading a review in NY review of books of Shermer's book I snapped out of my previous opinion and decided to revise my previous review here. Distracted by the issues raised in A. Brackman's book, A Delicate Arrangement, 'rebutted' by Shermer, I wavered wrongly in my original view at what appears now as a clever whitewash of Darwin.
Putting Brackman's arguments to one side for the nonce, the plain fact of the matter is that Darwin was, and has been ever since, engineered by Big Science propaganda into the exclusive icon for the discovery of evolution. And is Shermer just the fellow for this displacement job on Wallace. Wallace confuses people because they think that Darwin on the descent of man is established science, when the reality is that an immense con job has always finessed the fact that science has no conclusive theory here, and Wallace honestly pointed it out. Period.
As to the rest of Shermer's arguments in his book, viz. on the 'science' of history, they are without merit and constitute another of the 'bilge and balderdash' necessary to cover up the fact that there is no science of history, also.
The whole Darwin field is addicted to a pack of lies and it seems all parties have lost the ability to distinguish truth from distortion. Reviewing the details of the Ternate affair, we seem to see the ambitious Darwin concerned to rescue his priority, after years of so doubting his theory he couldn't publish it, and getting his priority by rigging the priority list and rushing into print. We have spent over a century beholden to this farce. Time for a little skepticism.
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.
on June 9, 2003
A nice story of the scientist who came to a similar conclusion about natural history as his elder and more famous colleague, Darwin. I enjoyed reading about Wallace's background (quite different than Darwin's), his world travels, and the ways in which his theories differed from Darwin's. The author uses multivariate analysis on personality traits to attempt to explain some of these differences; I'm not fully convinced of the validity of that (for every statistical rule there are exceptions, and as Mark Twain colorfully observed, "there are lies ..."), but it's an interesting possibility.
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.
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]
on February 26, 2003
Interesting read of Wallace, co-founder of the theory of evolution.
This book details Wallace's relationship with Darwin, his own evolutionary theory which 'evolved' toward spirituality, and his place in the science of the Victorian age. It attempts to clear many misconceptions about Wallace and delves heavily into what he actually wrote (he was very prolific).
The book is also interesting for Shermer's 'skeptical' take on writing a biography.
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.
on August 8, 2002
This an important and readable contribution to the biographical lore of Alfred Wallace, the co-discoverer with Darwin of the selectionist theory of evolution, and later a dissenter on the question of the descent of man, both theoretically and in relation to his interest in Spiritualism. Although I differ considerably in perspective, the book is well worth reading and interesting and useful even to a critic of Darwin.
It also contains compelling 'for the defense' material (Darwin's, not Wallace's) on the controversy-debate over the priority question of Wallace and Darwin and the 'delicate arrangement' to use the phrase of Leonard Huxley and the title of A.Brackman's book by that name. Shermer's response to the charges of Brackman (and also Brooks in _Just Before the Origins_) is a needed analytical rejoinder from a Darwinist, whether successful or not remains open. The question of divergence and plagiarism seems partly settled, but still it is all fishy. And is it the real strategy of our Wallace biographer to rescue Darwin?
Even if the specific charges made by Brackman and Brooks, and it is an if, were found untrue, the fact remains that something is strange in the whole episode. As noted by Brooks, there is the more general question of Darwin's great delay in publishing his work. If we are confirmed Darwinists, this is one thing. But if we realize that the theory of selectionism, as Wallace finally realized, is not the full picture, we should wonder if Darwin was unconsciously unsure of his own theory, prodded only under duress to 'out with it'. His strategy would be obvious in that case.
Does it all matter if Darwin's theory is in fact not a true or complete theory of evolution? Surely, the theory is a strange case of 'why people believe weird things' and call their superstition about natural selection 'science',and why this snowball effect created by Darwin's book over a mechanism of evolution a host of dissenters found obviously wrong, a process continuing to this day in spite of the immense rigidity of social conditioning on the matter.
Here we have missed the point of Wallace, altogether. For he realized finally there was a problem.
In the final analysis, Darwinists have remained blind in their dogmatic mythology of Darwin's achievement, and we should be more attentive to the fact that the man in the 'shadow of Darwin', Wallace, the co-discoverer, finally shares a dialectical symmetry of dissent in the account of the descent of man. To shunt Wallace aside here is a strategy of the paradigm defenders, and it is Wallace who will be vindicated in the end. For he saw all too clearly that there was something extra required to account for man's evolution, and said so in no uncertain terms. That this must be a spiritual exception is not the issue, and Wallace's naivete does not change his important insight.
This has been confused by the issue of Spiritualism, whose silliness does not gainsay the issue that Darwin's theory is as silly in reverse on the fundamentals of man's evolutionary consciousness. But we are not required to accpet Darwinian claims as absolute. It is apt, however, for Shermer, our Mr. Skeptic, to rub his hands here and get to work, although I think the positivism of the age of Darwin requires a similar kind of analysis.In a world of millennia of Buddhists, Shermer's contempt for belief in reincarnation, for example, is simpply science provincialism. We have no means to decide these issues, using Darwin's positivist fairytale.
The book also has entwined material on the issue of the science of history, factor analysis in biography, and references to the work of Sulloway. I think Shermer's claim that we have found a science of history is open to some raised eye-brows, and the issue of Diamond's _Guns, Germs, and Steel_ taken as such simply throws the whole matter into doubt.
Wallace deserves many perspectives, this one from a severe Darwinist is both a welcome attempt to bring him back into view, and a subtle effort to keep him in his place.
There is a funny joke here, if you stand back and look at the strangeness of it all, as Darwin's endless delay and the synchronity of Wallace's extra-ordinary finish line catch up set the theory into its dialectical jitters right at the onset. Poetic justice, perhaps.