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The Alfred Russel Wallace Reader: A Selection of Writings from the Field. Jane R. Camerini, ed. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2001. 304 pp., illus. $19.95 (ISBN 0801867894 paper).

Jane R. Camerini is a faculty associate in the History of Science Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she received her PhD in biocartography. She is probably best known for her informative papers on “Wallace's Line,” the boundary between the Asian and Australian faunal regions that Alfred Russel Wallace discovered in the East Indies (which, interestingly enough, is only briefly mentioned in her book). These papers, and others on Wallace and 19th-century biogeography, well qualify her to edit this eclectic collection of Wallace's very readable prose.

Wallace wrote not only about many aspects of biology, including evolution, but also about education, religion, morality, spiritualism, vaccination, eugenics, social values, political systems, and even Mars. Most of these subjects are covered in The Alfred Russel Wallace Reader, but not all. Also, because Wallace was reticent about revealing much about his personal life, there are few details about his family relationships. The volume is written “for general readers, not for historians,” so endnotes and references are kept to a minimum.

The book begins with a foreword by the well-known nature writer David Quammen, who claims that Wallace was “the greatest field biologist of the nineteenth century.” Some Darwin scholars might not agree with this, but Quammen qualifies his assertion by admitting that Darwin was “the greatest conceptual biologist of his era, yes, and maybe the greatest of all eras.” Although it is no surprise that Quammen's short discussion of the two 19th-century biologists is biased toward Wallace (who is, after all, the subject of the book), his points about Wallace's importance are well taken.

Camerini's introductory biographical sketch of Wallace gives a short but informative overview of his life. From Wallace's birth on 8 January 1823 into a lower-middle-class family in rural Wales to his death on 7 November 1913 at the age of 90, all the high points are touched on here and in the introductions to the other four sections of the book. It is true that you will learn more about Wallace from Peter Raby's Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life (Princeton University Press, 2001), and that Charles Smith's Alfred Russel Wallace: An Anthology of His Shorter Writings (Oxford University Press, 1991) discusses more of his publications, but Camerini reveals his essence in a nutshell.

The excerpts from Wallace's writings are organized into four sections. The first section, “Wales,” includes excerpts from Wallace's autobiography (My Life, A Record of Events and Opinions; Chapman and Hall, 1905). Wallace describes parish, enclosure, and railway surveying with his elder brother William in England and Wales, during which “I first began to feel the influence of nature and to wish to know more of the various flowers, shrubs, and trees I daily met with, but of which for the most part I did not even know the English names” (pp. 27–28). Thus began the training of a naturalist who had to leave school at age 14 to earn his own way through life. “The South-Wales Farmer” gives a penetrating picture of rural life in South Wales at the time, including the wonders of Welsh superstition, religion, virtues, and education. Another excerpt, “At Neath,” describes Wallace's time in the Welsh town where he and his younger brother John wound up the affairs of the deceased William, continued the surveying, and undertook building and architectural work, including the local Mechanic's Institute, where Wallace later gave lectures on mechanics and physics.

The next section, “The Amazon,” relates the story of Wallace's four years (1848–1852) in South America. The chapter is based on his Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro, with an Account of the Native Tribes, and Observations on the Climate, Geology, and Natural History of the Amazon Valley (Reeve and Company, 1853). This is my favorite Wallace book because of the amount of time I've spent collecting in Latin America, and because I've been to several of the places he describes on the Rio Negro in Venezuela. Wallace went to South America with his friend Henry Walter Bates to collect natural-history specimens and to study the origin of species. The excerpts include a chapter describing Wallace's problems with mostly unreliable local assistance and yellow fever while ascending the Rio Uaupés in Brazil. “Sinking of the Helen” is a letter to Wallace's friend Richard Spruce, a botanist with whom he collected in South America, describing in vivid detail the burning and sinking of the ship that was taking Spruce and his collections back to England. “On the Monkeys of the Amazon” reprints a paper from the 1852 Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, revealing its importance both to Wallace's later ideas about geographical distribution and to the study of systematics.

“The Malay Archipelago” covers Wallace's second great field experience, his eight years (1854–1862) in modern-day Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. It includes “Collecting Birds of Paradise,” a chapter reprinted from perhaps his most well-known book, The Malay Archipelago: The Land of the Orang-Utan and the Bird of Paradise, a Narrative of Travel with Studies of Man and Nature (Harper and Brothers, 1869). This chapter relates the story of the first of three expeditions that Wallace undertook to obtain specimens of these magnificent (and, for the collector, remunerative) birds of paradise. One must remember that Wallace was there to make a living, something he had been unable to accomplish in Britain. I must admit that as a graduate student, when I read Wallace avidly, I was unable to finish The Malay Archipelago. What put me off was Wallace's vivid description of shooting orangutans in order to collect them and send them back to Samuel Stevens, his specimen dealer in London, for sale to rich collectors.

The other selection from Wallace's Malaysian travels, “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type,” reprints the paper that Wallace sent to Darwin in February 1858 from the East Indies. This paper forced Darwin to publish On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (J. Murray, 1859) and was part of their “joint paper” in Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London (1858), which announced natural selection to the world at large (although several of Darwin's confidants had known of his evolutionary views before this). It is interesting to note that Wallace did not think artificial selection was analogous to natural selection, as Darwin claimed in his half of the paper. Wallace later (in 1866) came to feel that Herbert Spencer's term “survival of the fittest” was preferable to “natural selection,” but Darwin didn't agree. I have seen Wallace's copy of the joint paper in which he has drawn a line through every mention of natural selection by Darwin and written “survival of the fittest” in the margin. He is reported to have done the same in his copy of the Origin.

The last section, “The World,” spans 1862 to 1913, more than 50 years of Wallace's life. “Limits of Natural Selection in Human Evolution,” published in the Quarterly Review (1869), reprints his first mention of human evolution being guided by “a Higher Intelligence.” “Spiritualism and Human Evolution,” which first appeared in the Fortnightly Review (1908), reveals Wallace's social conscience. Mental divergence in human races, he argues, exceeds physical divergence; there are no differences, physically, intellectually, or morally, between civilized and “savage” humans; and there is no evidence that “stone age” humans “were mentally or morally inferior to ourselves.” In “Impressions of the United States,” a short selection from My Life that summarizes his US visit of more than 10 months in 1886 and 1887, Wallace's anticapitalism and hope for socialism show forth. I only wish that Camarini had included Wallace's humorous description of oversleeping and missing a train in Virginia. Finally, “Remembrances of Alfred W. Wallace by His Children William G. and Violet Wallace” describes growing up with a loving father, giving a better glimpse of his personality than any of his own writings.

Wallace's prose is a pleasure to read. Even today, one can see how he was able to make his living primarily by writing. Alfred Russel Wallace is finally receiving the recognition denied him by many biologists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. After reading these excerpts from his books and articles, you will want to go to your library and read the originals in full.

Published: 1 June 2004

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