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on 18 March 2015
This book completes the quartet of famous nature/travel writings by great scientists of the nineteenth century. It follows in the footsteps of Humboldt's "Personal Narrative", Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle" and Bates's "The Naturalist on the River Amazons". All four books are thoroughly entertaining, though all are also rather long.
This new Penguin edition is an excellent one. (I am referring to the paperback edition - I cannot comment on the Kindle edition.) It is nicely produced; it includes both volumes in one book; and it contains an excellent and very full introduction by Andrew Berry.
Before he went on the expedition described in this book, Wallace had already travelled to South America (initially with Bates), and the dangers of such expeditions are shown by the fact that Wallace's younger brother died of yellow fever in South America and by the fact that, while he was returning to England, Wallace's ship sank and he lost most of the specimens he had collected, with Wallace and the crew being rescued after spending ten days in an open boat.
The travels described in this book form the background to the contribution that Wallace made to the development of the field of biogeography. Berry explains the significance of "Wallace's Line" in his introduction.
But Wallace is best known for coming up with the theory of evolution by natural selection independently from Darwin. In fact the idea occurred to him when he was laid up suffering from fever while on the expedition detailed in this book. (Though Wallace does not actually mention this in "The Malay Archipelago".)
Wallace certainly deserves credit for independently coming up with the same idea as Darwin, but nobody should take seriously the ridiculous conspiracy theory which claims that Darwin stole the theory of natural selection from Wallace.
Wallace himself was always happy to play second fiddle to Darwin. For example, in 1908 Wallace made a speech to the Linnaean Society in which he explicitly defended Darwin's priority, pointing out that "...the idea occurred to Darwin in October 1838, nearly twenty years earlier than to myself (in February 1858); and that during the whole of that twenty years he had been laboriously collecting evidence..."
Darwin's notebooks from the 1830s and his essays of 1842 and 1844 show that Darwin had developed his theory long before he published "On the Origin of Species" and long before Wallace had his brainwave.
Wallace was an admirable character. He did not have the advantages of wealth that Darwin had; he was a socialist (of sorts) who had progressive views on many issues; and his attitude towards native peoples was, as Berry says, "unusually enlightened" for an era when racism was rife.
Wallace also disagreed (later in his life, at least) with Darwin's mistaken decision to allow into his evolutionary theory a subsidiary role for the Lamarckian idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. In this, Wallace has been said to be more Darwinian than Darwin himself.
Unfortunately, on the negative side, Wallace also ended up believing in spiritualism and arguing that the human brain/mind could not have evolved. Darwin and Wallace had become good friends, but Darwin was disappointed with Wallace over this issue. Darwin and Wallace also differed over the relative importance of natural selection and sexual selection. But these differences of opinion did not stop Darwin successfully campaigning to get a state pension for Wallace.
I thoroughly recommend this book, which incidentally was a favourite of David Attenborough's when he was a boy. But if you want to know more about Wallace, I would also recommend "Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life" by Peter Raby, and "Infinite Tropics: An Alfred Russel Wallace Anthology" edited by Andrew Berry.