A scholarly appraisal of the curious life and work of the naturalist who, some insist, was the true father of the theory of evolution.
Against them, Shermer, the founder and editor of Skeptic magazine, observes that nature does not proceed by leaps and bounds, and neither does science: “On close examination, most great scientific revolutions are more like gradual evolutions.” Thus Wallace (1823–1913), a careful reader of the literature of his day, followed Charles Darwin on a parallel course toward the conclusion that species and environments changed in time and that some force of nature somehow steered that change. Though it shocked Darwin to realize that he’d been beaten to a scientific scoop, he recognized Wallace’s great contributions to evolutionary theory, and, as did Wallace, “recognized the gain to be had through cooperative interaction.” History, of course, remembers it as Darwin’s theory, which was just fine by the self-effacing Wallace and his descendants; in this regard, Shermer quotes one of his subject’s grandsons, who wrote, “none of us desire to call it ‘Wallace’s theory of natural selection,’ but many of the Darwin people seem defensive about it.” The author enumerates some of the reasons that Wallace did not attain the same fame as Darwin, one of them being Wallace’s later devotion to a kind of spiritualism that attributed the movement of natural selection to an “Overruling Intelligence,” a quasi-scientific appeal to the divine that dismayed Darwin and his materialist-minded followers. Along with the basic facts of Wallace’s life and thought, Shermer explores the process of creative thought, the politics of science, and the sociology of scholarly communication, all of which should be of much interest to students of science, regardless of how they view Wallace’s work.
A useful companion to Wallace’s—and Darwin’s—own writings, and a fine contribution to the history of science.