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.
A 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. 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 3 March 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. Another (Loudon) edited and published Blyth's most influential papers on organic evolution and a third (Chambers) wrote the highly influential Vestiges of Creation. Knowledge contamination is proven. Darwin and Wallace are proven not to have "independently discovered" natural selection. Contrary to what all the "Darwin industry" textbooks say, Patrick Matthew is the only independent discoverer of his own prior-discovery!
Moreover, a wealth of 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?
Skepticism is a way of thinking, not a camouflage club for credulous toadies.