Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics

Wallace Gets “Darwinized”

Michael Flannery is author of the new biography, Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life.
Recently someone forwarded an article by David Quammen on Alfred Russel Wallace to my attention. Although appearing in the National Geographic back in December of 2008, the essay raises pertinent issues regarding current writing on this most interesting and important of Victorian naturalists. Quammen wrote a comparatively short journalistic account of his Down House hero titled The Reluctant Mr. Darwin in 2006. Pretty conventional in maintaining many of the standard ideas of Darwin, this account of Wallace seems to follow along similar lines. The article as far as it goes does tell Wallace’s early life of discovery pretty well; the problem is it doesn’t go far enough and leaves a very false impression. The impression left is that, aside from being a bit curmudgeonly, Darwin and Wallace seem arm-in-arm until Quammen casts Wallace into the role of a “crank.” For example, Quammen writes, “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 s�ances, 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. Which they did. The question that no scholar or biographer has adequately answered is: How to reconcile such brilliant achievements, radical convictions, and incautious zealotries within one human character–the character of a consummate empiricist and field naturalist?” Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life does precisely that. These disparate features CAN be reconciled if you quit casting Wallace’s spiritualism, socialism, belief in mesmerism, and his opposition to vaccination dismissively as “eccentricities.” Recast properly, Wallace becomes a prescient figure who called for much-needed land reform, women’s rights, a broadened view of science expanded beyond the strictures of a dogmatically held methodological naturalism, a man who refused to yield on issues of individual freedoms and public health when serious questions remained, a precursor to intelligent design, and a vocal opponent of the ethical and moral dangers of the rising tide of eugenics. Viewed in this way Wallace’s convictions seem less “radical,” his “zealotries” less “incautious,” his “lurching enthusiasms” more understandable — the very epitome of a “consummate empiricist and field naturalist” truly willing to go where the evidence would lead him.
But sadly Quammen’s approach is a familiar one. Among the reigning journalistic paradigm purveyors there seems to be a common modus operandi: Be sure to associate Wallace with as many actual or purportedly discredited scientific theories or social positions as possible (but BY ALL MEANS do so without any proper historical context). Leave out that Wallace’s belief in spiritualism was shared by some of greatest scientific minds of his generation; don’t explain that land nationalization had become an important political movement at this time in England, even marshaled forward by Americans like Henry George; ignore the fact that questions of vaccination’s safety and validity were real and in the context of Wallace’s time certainly NOT antiscientific (see Thomas P Weber, “Alfred Russel Wallace and the Antivaccination Movement in Victorian England,” Emerging Infectious Diseases, April 2010). By not properly telling the complete story, Quammen facilitates the Wallace as “crank” trope. What Quammen avoids altogether is Wallace’s break with Darwin over natural selection’s capacity to explain the origin of life, sentience in animals, and the human mind, which was NOT borne of Wallace’s spiritualism but rather based upon Wallace’s conviction that the explanatory power of Darwin’s own principle of utility (the idea that no attribute of an organism will arise and be maintained unless it affords that organism a survival advantage in nature) was inadequate to explain these key features of life. Quammen alludes to just enough of the Darwin/Wallace rift to make the “crank” trope stick. In truth these are problems that remain as intractable by Darwinian mechanisms as they were when Wallace first proposed them AND their solution can be found in Wallace’s own intelligent evolution. Quammen sidesteps all of this.
In the end, Quammen creates a fanciful and Whiggish history in which Darwin appears as the received wisdom in all things scientific with Wallace at times brilliant but always an odd and quirky footnote to biological history. In short, Wallace has been Darwinized.
For a better view of Wallace, go to