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  • An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace
  • Marsha L. Richmond (bio)
Martin Fichman . An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel WallaceUniversity of Chicago Press. x, 382. US $40.00

Alfred Russel Wallace has long posed a problem for scholars of Victorian science. Most widely known as the co-discoverer, along with Charles Darwin, of the principle of natural selection, he holds a secure place in the history of modern evolution theory. The paper he sent Darwin in June 1858, penned while he was in Malaysia collecting natural history specimens for commercial as well as scientific gain, presented a clear mechanism of species change and forced Darwin to go public with his decades-old evolutionary speculation, publishing Origin of Species the following year. However, Darwin's initial assessment that Wallace scooped him turned out to be premature. From the beginning, the two differed in their view of natural selection - Wallace demurring, for example, at the idea that selection operated on domestic as well as wild species - and these widened over time. Wallace never accepted, for example, the role Darwin envisioned for sexual selection, or that natural selection could explain the origin of human behavioural and physical traits or social and cultural advancement. Even trickier, however, has been trying to harmonize Wallace's scientific views with his avid support for spiritualism and his socialism.

It is this conundrum that Martin Fichman addresses in An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace. While not the first to attempt this, his approach - seeking to integrate Wallace's disparate scientific, social, and philosophical views into a holistic framework - is [End Page 307] arguably the most successful. Fichman claims that there 'is an underlying link - his evolutionary cosmology - that binds together Wallace's highly varied intellectual and practical pursuits,' and that a detailed examination of this link holds the key to making sense of 'how he understood the relations among science, politics, economics, and religion.' This strategy is laid out, after a brief introductory chapter, in the book's five central chapters, focused on Wallace the naturalist, evolutionary philosopher, spiritualist, socialist, and evolutionary teleologist, concluding with an epilogue that highlights the different themes and issues addressed topically.

Not surprisingly, attempting to identify unifying threads among the seemingly disparate concerns of Wallace's life is as complex as it is comprehensive. Yet this approach allows Fichman to accomplish more than simply explaining Wallace. He presents a richly textured map of the wider domain of science in Victorian culture that well complements current historiography focused on the scientific naturalists - those, like Thomas Henry Huxley, whose aims to 'professionalize' science sought to circumscribe the application of science to current social concerns, and marginalize those who transgressed these boundaries. Science, Fichman notes, had a more expansive impact on Victorian culture than we currently recognize, embracing a wide group beyond the elite, middle-class scientific community, including popularizers, women, working-class naturalists, Idealist philosophers, and religious thinkers. While Wallace's scientific work carried cachet among scientific naturalists, his lifelong, ardent defence of spiritualism did not. Yet Fichman presents a credible picture of the appeal spiritualism held among Victorian enthusiasts of science, both for the autodidact Wallace and for other, better-educated intellectuals. At a time when physicists were uncovering invisible, interacting forces like electromagnetism, it was not far fetched to suggest that similar forces might unite the psychical world of humans, even the living with the departed. Just how different, after all, might telepathy be from telegraphy? Yet theology also fuelled such convictions. As Fichman notes, Wallace increasingly developed his own brand of 'scientific theism,' one that 'completed his biological theory. It accounted for those human attributes that he considered inexplicable by natural selection. Spiritualism, he asserted, was a striking supplement to the doctrines of evolution.' This was precisely, however, what the scientific naturalists sought to avoid.

The book is long and not an easy read. While the author duly warns the reader that the non-chronological approach may result in repetition, it sometimes requires a commitment to explore all the nuances of Wallace ' s views. In the end, however, the effort pays off. Fichman's thesis - that viewing Wallace as a committed Victorian...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 307-309
Launched on MUSE
2006-02-10
Open Access
No
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