THE HERETIC IN DARWIN'S COURT: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace

Ross A. Slotten, Author
Ross A. Slotten, Author . Columbia Univ. $39.50 (602p) ISBN 978-0-231-13010-3
Reviewed on: 04/26/2004
Release date: 07/01/2004
Paperback - 602 pages - 978-0-231-13011-0
Open Ebook - 640 pages - 978-1-282-87189-2
Show other formats

In 1858, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), a self-educated British naturalist collecting specimens in the Malay Archipelago, sent a brief manuscript to Charles Darwin outlining the concept of natural selection and explaining its important role in the creation of new species. Darwin, who had been working on this topic for 20 years but had not yet published anything, feared that Wallace's paper would take precedence over all of his own earlier work. In fact, Darwin's scientific allies arranged for a joint presentation of his ideas alongside Wallace's to the Linnean Society of London while Darwin rushed to complete On the Origin of Species . Physician and amateur historian Slotten does a very good job of contextualizing this critical moment in the history of biology within the life and times of Wallace. He demonstrates that Wallace was a brilliant, complex man and argues persuasively that Wallace never resented Darwin's receiving much more credit for the theory of natural selection than he did. Wallace, perhaps more than Darwin, took on all comers and was an articulate and forceful spokesman for natural selection. But, as Slotten shows, he was very much interested in other causes as well. As a socialist, he was an ardent proponent of social justice, working for land reform (he was himself from the lower classes). He believed in spiritualism, was against smallpox vaccination and, to the chagrin of many scientists, claimed that human intelligence was divinely inspired. Slotten's enjoyable exposition provides insight into the scientific process and the role of class structure in Victorian England. Illus., maps. (July)