Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wallace: ‘The Man Who Wasn’t Darwin’

The latest National Geographic issue takes a look at Alfred Russel Wallace, a “the man who wasn’t Darwin.”

Aside from a nice biographical sketch of Wallace, author David Quammen poses the question that he says no scholar or biographer has answered adequately: “How to reconcile such brilliant achievements, radical convictions, and incautious zealotries within one human character — the character of a consummate empir­icist and field naturalist?”

He partly looks to Wallace’s favorite books, those that Wallace himself say influenced his thinking most. The top two are of particular relevance to our class: Charles Darwin’s Journal and, according to the article, “the other, more daring and incendiary [...] best seller titled Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.” I actually think this particular writer gets a lot wrong about Vestiges. Essentially, he is overly dismisive, but does rightly point out that “the book was a potpourri of interesting facts, absurd factoids, savvy insights, tenuous suppositions, and woozy deductive leaps, which variously satisfied or amused readers ranging from Queen Victoria to John Stuart Mill to Florence Nightingale.”

Though the author doesn’t source Janet Browne, he’s clearly referencing her when he writes that a young, impressionable Wallace found in Vestiges “an ingenious hypothesis” yet to be proved by further research.

I would have loved for the reporter to have teased about more about the notion of Wallace being dismissed as a crank. Frankly, he seems far more of crank than Robert Chambers, who wrote Vestiges:

Wallace’s story is complicated, heroic, and perplexing. Besides being one of the greatest field biologists of the 19th century, he was a man of crotchety independence and lurching enthusiasms, a restless soul never quite satisfied with the place in which he lived, a believer in spiritualism and séances, a devotee of phrenology, a dabbler in mesmerism, a later apostate from Darwinian theory when it came to the development of the human brain, an opponent of smallpox vaccination, and an advocate of nationalizing large private landholdings, who by these and other eccentricities gave his detractors some grounds for dismissing him as a crank.

Image: Wallace’s beetle collection, National Geographic

Laura Moorhead

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