The Heretic in Darwin's Court

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

Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 648
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    The Heretic in Darwin's Court
    Book Description:

    During their lifetimes, Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin shared credit and fame for the independent and near-simultaneous discovery of natural selection. Together, the two men spearheaded one of the greatest intellectual revolutions in modern history, and their rivalry, usually amicable but occasionally acrimonious, forged modern evolutionary theory. Yet today, few people today know much about Wallace.

    The Heretic in Darwin's Court explores the controversial life and scientific contributions of Alfred Russel Wallace -- Victorian traveler, scientist, spiritualist, and co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of natural selection. After examining his early years, the biography turns to Wallace's twelve years of often harrowing travels in the western and eastern tropics, which place him in the pantheon of the greatest explorer-naturalists of the nineteenth century. Tracing step-by-step his discovery of natural selection -- a piece of scientific detective work as revolutionary in its implications as the discovery of the structure of DNA -- the book then follows the remaining fifty years of Wallace's eccentric and entertaining life. In addition to his divergence from Darwin on two fundamental issues -- sexual selection and the origin of the human mind -- he pursued topics that most scientific figures of his day conspicuously avoided, including spiritualism, phrenology, mesmerism, environmentalism, and life on Mars.

    Although there may be disagreement about his conclusions, Wallace's intellectual investigations into the origins of life, consciousness, and the universe itself remain some of the most inspired scientific accomplishments in history. This authoritative biography casts new light on the life and work of Alfred Russel Wallace and the importance of his twenty-five-year relationship with Charles Darwin.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50356-3
    Subjects: History, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    The anthropologist Loren Eiseley, popularizer of the history of evolutionary thought, famously referred to the nineteenth century as “Darwin’s Century.” Although his book of that name is concerned with a good deal more than Darwin, the phrase has contributed to the myth of a lone scientist ultimately triumphing over universal opposition. Darwin was not alone, however. Another man also discovered the theory of natural selection, and he championed the theory as vigorously as did Darwin. His name was Alfred Russel Wallace. Although he was the century’s greatest explorer-naturalist, few besides scholars know very much about him. For a time, Wallace...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Origins of a Heretic
    (pp. 10-21)

    Alfred Russel Wallace was born on January 8, 1823, in Usk, Wales, the eighth child of Thomas Vere and Mary Anne Wallace.¹ By a quirk in the registry, his middle name was misspelled “Russel” and was never corrected. The Wallace side traced itself back, like all Wallaces, to Sir William Wallace, the thirteenth-century hero who had led an unsuccessful revolt against Scotland’s English overlords. His mother’s relatives, French Huguenots, had fled to England at the end of the sixteenth century, anglicizing their name from Grenaille to Greenell. The Wallaces, devout Anglicans, were of the middle class, but Thomas Wallace, a...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Struggle for Existence
    (pp. 22-31)

    In April 1843, Thomas Vere Wallace died at the age of seventy-two. The funeral and wake were held in Hoddesdon, and his body was removed to Hertford, where he was buried in the family vault at Saint Andrew’s Church cemetery. He left his dependents without financial support. William, John, and Alfred were all working, but they had little money to spare for their mother, their sister Fanny, and their youngest brother, Herbert. Mary Anne Wallace, who was fifty-five years old, was forced to find work as a housekeeper. Fanny, still unmarried at thirty-one, was put on a boat to the...

  7. CHAPTER 3 A Daring Plan
    (pp. 32-46)

    In the first half of the nineteenth century, the most famous—or infamous—exponent of evolution was not the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, but the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who died in obscurity in 1829. It has been stated that Lamarck’s “volitional” explanation of organic development has been caricatured. However, his observations on the inheritance of acquired characteristics—that is, characteristics acquired as a consequence of the use or disuse of organs and parts—left an indelible stamp on the minds of naturalists, including Wallace. Lamarck’s view of how the wading bird got its...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Travels on the Amazon . . .
    (pp. 47-62)

    On May 26, 1848, twenty-nine days after leaving England, the Mischief, with its two naturalists aboard, crossed the equator and anchored off the coast of Brazil, six miles from the small village of Salinas, the only port of entry to the vast Amazonian watershed. It had been a rough journey, at least initially. After reaching the Bay of Biscay, just off the southwestern coast of France, the Mischief encountered gale-force winds that nearly swamped it. For five days, Wallace was confined to his cabin, laid low by seasickness (a malady he shared with Darwin). Mercifully, the seas calmed and he...

  9. CHAPTER 5 . . . And the Rio Negro
    (pp. 63-83)

    The rains came early to the Amazon in 1849, roughly two months ahead of schedule. It was therefore with much anxiety that the Wallace brothers pushed off in late November for Barra. On the final leg of their journey, the winds mysteriously vanished and they made slow progress, while they suffered day and night from either drenching rain or swarming mosquitoes. Christmas was dismal, celebrated aboard their canoe with a farinha pudding, fish, and coffee. Wallace records the following in A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro: “[While] eating . . . our thoughts turned to our...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Disaster at Sea . . . and a Civilized Interlude
    (pp. 84-104)

    Aboard the Helen, Wallace’s menagerie and specimen cases were stowed in the hold, sharing space with other cargo, including 120 tons of India rubber, twenty small casks of balsam and rice chaff, and a large quantity of palm oil. After a week at sea, Wallace had a recurrence of fever—slighter this time—that soon abated. For the next few weeks, he suffered from seasickness and stayed in his cabin, which he shared with the ship’s captain, John Turner.¹

    On Friday, August 6, Captain Turner entered their quarters shortly after breakfast and said calmly, “I’m afraid the ship’s on fire....

  11. CHAPTER 7 The Malay Archipelago
    (pp. 105-140)

    When Wallace disembarked with his “chattels” in Singapore in April 1854, he found himself in an exotic world. Singapore was like few other cities on earth and certainly like no other city he had ever seen. The harbor was crowded with massive war and merchant vessels from Europe, dwarfing the hundreds of colorful praus and junks of the Malays and Chinese moored nearby. Throngs of people pushed past him on the street, including the Portuguese of Malacca, East Indians of various sects, native Malays, Javanese and other peoples from the outer islands, the occasional Englishman, and the ubiquitous Chinese. The...

  12. CHAPTER 8 The Mechanism Revealed
    (pp. 141-185)

    In late September 1857, Wallace sent a rambling letter to Darwin that has not survived intact. He must have reported the difficulties of life as a traveling naturalist, because in his reply Darwin offers sympathy and encouragement for his “laborious undertaking.” Wallace also seems to have alluded to his two-year-old paper, “On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species,” in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History and asked for feedback, providing additional data that he had gathered to support his hypothesis. From Darwin’s answers to this and other concerns, it is clear that Wallace elaborated on...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Beautiful Dreamer
    (pp. 186-224)

    As soon as Wallace stepped off the train in London, he took a cab to 5 Westbourne Grove Terrace, in Notting Hill, the home of Fanny and Thomas Sims, where Mary Anne Wallace also now lived. Eight years had passed since he had last seen his mother and sister. During those eight years, he had traveled more than 14,000 miles either on foot or by boat, amassing 125,660 specimens consisting of 310 mammals, 100 reptiles, 8,050 birds, 7,500 land shells, 13,100 butterflies and moths, 83,200 beetles, and 13,400 insects belonging to other orders—a quantity that promised to keep taxonomists...

  14. CHAPTER 10 A Turn Toward the Unknowable
    (pp. 225-248)

    Ishmael, Melville’s narrator in Moby-Dick, wryly observes that just because a man has seen the world does not mean that he will move with ease in the company of other people. Some of the greatest travelers, he says, possess the least assurance in the parlor. And twelve years of solo travel in the western and eastern tropics had not given Wallace a high social polish. He spoke plainly and expressed himself frankly, a trait that offended some of his peers, who preferred to navigate the thickets of Victorian etiquette with greater finesse.

    In his interpersonal relationships, Wallace was equally heavy-handed....

  15. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  16. CHAPTER 11 The Olympian Heights and the Beginnings of the Fall
    (pp. 249-279)

    Wallace’s investigations of the spirit world did not interfere with his promotion of the principle of natural selection, which in the 1860s required an energetic defense against fierce detractors. His marriage to Annie brought him a good measure of personal satisfaction, and he resumed his biological work with renewed vigor. An article in the June 1866 issue of the Reader entitled “Materialism of the Present Day,” by Paul Janet, particularly disturbed Wallace. Janet considered Darwin’s weak point to be that Darwin did not see that “thought” and “direction” were essential to the action of natural selection.

    “I have been so...

  17. CHAPTER 12 Wallace and The Descent of Man
    (pp. 280-297)

    In March 1870, before the outcome of the bet with John Hampden and the Flat Earthists, Wallace and his family moved to the town of Barking, on the eastern outskirts of London, in part to reduce expenses but also to prepare for his directorship of the nearby Bethnal Green Museum. The move proved to be the first in a series that would gradually cut him off from many of his scientific friends and associates. Darwin regretted Wallace’s departure from central London. “I heartily congratulate you on your removal being over,” he wrote after the Wallaces had settled into an old,...

  18. CHAPTER 13 The Descent of Wallace
    (pp. 298-325)

    In February 1871, Wallace acquired four acres of land near the village of Grays, twenty miles south of London and perfectly suited for gardening and a little farming. He had fallen in love with the commanding view of rolling hills stretching to the Thames and the picturesque old chalk quarry surrounded by majestic elms and other grand trees. For almost a year, he had been negotiating for the property. “I am . . . being dreadfully ridden upon by a horrid old-man-of-the-sea,” he complained to Darwin, “who has agreed to let me have a piece of land I have set...

  19. CHAPTER 14 The War on Spiritualism
    (pp. 326-351)

    By June 1876, even the indefatigable Wallace felt beaten down. The Dell had lost its magic. He told friends that he was sick of the climate, which destroyed the delicate plants in his garden, and frustrated by his isolation from London, which prevented him from attending evening scientific meetings and social gatherings with friends.¹ But there were other concerns, both financial and personal. He was most alarmed by the health of five-year-old Will, who was wasting away from an unexplained illness, a frightening replay of Bertie’s fatal condition. And he had received a communication from his dead brother William—in...

  20. CHAPTER 15 Phoenix from the Ashes
    (pp. 352-378)

    In 1878 Wallace published with Macmillan a scientific ode to the living world: “Tropical Nature” and Other Essays. It anticipates a concern for the environment that would not fully emerge until the twentieth century. No one in English science at the time—and certainly no one of Wallace’s stature—showed much interest in the ecological consequences of human encroachment on the natural world. Tropical Nature is the spiritual forerunner of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which was written some eighty years later, long after Tropical Nature had vanished into obscurity and a prophet from an earlier generation had been forgotten. Its...

  21. CHAPTER 16 To the Land of Epidemic Delusions
    (pp. 379-400)

    In his autobiography, Wallace states that he was invited to Boston to give a series of lectures in the autumn of 1886.¹ But this was a half-truth. The trip to the United States was his own doing. He had received an invitation to lecture in Sydney, and friends advised him to go by way of America and perhaps give some lectures there as well. In January 1886, he sought advice about the prospects of making such a tour “a financial success” from Othniel Charles (O. C.) Marsh of Yale University, the most famous paleontologist in the United States, whom he...

  22. CHAPTER 17 The New Nemesis
    (pp. 401-421)

    Wallace’s celebrated opponent William Benjamin Carpenter died in March 1885 after suffering severe burns from an explosion in his laboratory, but his place as major adversary was soon taken by George John Romanes. The battle between Wallace and Romanes arose on a different front. Romanes aspired to inherit Darwin’s crown, a position that Wallace had all but abandoned but clung to with surprising tenacity when he felt it was threatened. Since Darwin’s death in 1882, the theory of natural selection had once again come under assault, this time by evolutionists themselves, many of whom remained unconvinced that it was the...

  23. CHAPTER 18 Thoroughly Unpopular Causes
    (pp. 422-455)

    Sometime in 1884, a fellow spiritualist named William Tebb asked Wallace to write a pamphlet condemning smallpox vaccination. An ardent anti-vaccinationist and a participant at the annual meetings of the International Congress of Anti-Vaccinators, which had been founded in 1880, Tebb needed someone more eminent to legitimize the anti-vaccination campaign. He knew that he had come to the right man, for Wallace was instinctively attracted to a cause or an idea by its novelty and the degree of opposition to it. “The whole history of science shows us that, whenever the educated and scientific men of any age have denied...

  24. CHAPTER 19 Satisfaction, Retrospection, and Work
    (pp. 456-476)

    By the turn of the century, Wallace felt the itch to move again. Parkstone had lost its rustic appeal, with villas being erected on all available land in his vicinity; now he had to walk almost two miles to reach open country. In 1901 he had hoped to put together a group of investors to buy an estate of from one hundred to three hundred acres and build a small number of houses for people who shared his environmental concerns. The idea was to secure a healthy and picturesque tract only one or two hours from London, with part of...

  25. CHAPTER 20 A National Treasure Celebrated
    (pp. 477-493)

    When asked why he was chosen by the president of the United States, William Jefferson (Bill) Clinton, as a recipient of the 1997 National Humanities Medal, Studs Terkel, historian of the American common man and woman, replied, “If you hang around long enough, anything is possible.”¹ Wallace would no doubt have agreed with Terkel’s sentiments. By 1908, when he was eighty-five years old, he had hung around long enough to become a national treasure. He had outlived most of his peers and critics. His heresies were now viewed as eccentricities, and his countrymen hailed him as a great man, awarding...

    (pp. 494-496)
  27. Notes
    (pp. 497-548)
  28. Biographical Index
    (pp. 549-558)
  29. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 559-576)
  30. Index
    (pp. 577-602)