What is one to make of Alfred Russel Wallace? He is most famous as Charles Darwin's doppelgänger. Coming seemingly out of nowhere, Wallace's 1858 letter to Darwin and [End Page 578] an accompanying essay outlining a theory of evolution through natural selection prompted a flurry of activity among Darwin's scientific colleagues to secure priority for their man in the most honorable way possible, by publishing Wallace's essay and some of Darwin's early writings on the species question simultaneously. Wallace's letter also prompted Darwin to begin writing the manuscript that became On the Origin of Species (1859). Wallace's most prominent place in history is thus as a man who provoked another man to write a book.
Throughout his life Wallace deferred to Darwin on the question of priority for the theory of evolution through natural selection. Yet he was by no means reclusive: he lived to ninety and published prolifically, including three books written in his eighties. How then can Wallace be called "elusive"?
Martin Fichman answers this question in his splendid new book: it is his biographers whom Wallace has eluded. The challenge of Wallace for biographers is that it remains "difficult to pigeonhole him into any neat category. Many labels have been applied to him: field naturalist, biological theorist, socialist, spiritualist, theist, land nationalizationist, philosopher and ethicist" (1). As Fichman remarks, the easiest way for authors to deal with such a man is to focus on those aspects of his identity revealed through his collaboration with his scientific peers, and to leave the rest behind. Lewis McKinney, for example, wrote an elegant book of lasting significance entitled Wallace and Natural Selection (1972) that dealt solely with biology. Of course McKinney was not attempting to write a biography. Nor, exactly, is Fichman, though his method is largely biographical. His goal is rather to explain Wallace—that is, to show how his spiritualism, his socialism, and his penchant for large schemes of social reform can be integrated with his evolutionary science.
Fichman examines in minute detail Wallace's range of social contacts, including those formed on his lecture tour to North America in 1886–87; his marginal annotations in his books (the collection at Edinburgh University Library being key); as well as his publications. After reviewing Wallace's achievements as a natural historian, Fichman treats three main subjects: Wallace's evolutionary philosophy, his exploration of spiritualism, and his sociopolitical views. Fichman deftly shows how integrated Wallace's interests were from his early career: his sympathy for the poor rose from his service as a land surveyor setting up a new system of taxation (and, for a while, collecting payments himself from poor farmers). During the same period he educated himself in botany and forsook traditional religious ties. In the 1840s, without a university education, his wide reading formed his views: Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830–33), Darwin's Journal and Remarks, 1832–1836 (1839), Thomas Robert Malthus's work on population, and Robert Chambers's anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). Drawing on Jane Camerini's work on Wallace as a field naturalist, Fichman mines Wallace's accounts of his exploring and collecting expeditions in South America (1848– 52) and in the Malaysian archipelago (1854–62) for evidence of an embracing philosophy. He suggests, for example, that Wallace's close experience with the orangutan prompted him to believe that factors other than natural selection were at work in the evolution of Homo sapiens (39). In the 1860s, Wallace began to publish on that point, making common cause with Lyell but separating himself from Darwin. In the 1860s and 1870s Wallace explored the world of spiritualism, as did other noteworthy men of science, including the psychologist William James and William Crookes, the discoverer of [End Page 579] thallium. The growing professionalism of science in the late nineteenth century did not encourage such interests, but, as Fichman shows, Wallace had good company. Responding to anti-spiritualist criticism, Crookes...