Wallace: Dispelling the Darkness

August 13, 2013 • 10:02 am

by Greg Mayer

John van Wyhe of the National University of Singapore, and founder and chief editor of the essential Darwin Online and Wallace Online websites, has just published a new book on Wallace, Dispelling the Darkness: Voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the Discovery of Evolution by Wallace and Darwin (World Scientific Publishing, Singapore). It is now available in the US, and will be available in the UK next month.

van Wyhe book coverHere’s the publisher’s description:

The facts of variability, of the struggle for existence, of adaptation to conditions, were notorious enough; but none of us had suspected that the road to the heart of the species problem lay through them, until Darwin and Wallace dispelled the darkness.” (T.H. Huxley, 1887 [emphasis added]).  Charles Darwin remains one of the most famous scientists in history. His life and work have been intensively investigated by historians for decades. In comparison, the other man to conceive of evolution by natural selection is comparatively forgotten – Alfred Russel Wallace. This book is based on the most thorough research programme ever conducted on Wallace. There are many surprises. As he travelled from island to island collecting vast numbers of exotic birds and insects, his ideas about species gradually evolved. This book reveals for the first time how Wallace solved one of the greatest mysteries of life on Earth.

We’ve noted John’s work several times here at WEIT, which In addition to his invaluable work of editing and compilation at the Darwin and Wallace websites, includes writing several important historical studies of evolutionary biology, including his paper with Kees Rookmaker on the transmittal of Wallace’s “Ternate paper”, which Jerry discussed here at WEIT. This book is his most important work to date, and he says he’s “very excited about it as it radically rewrites the whole story.” I’m certainly looking forward to reading it.

It’s very appropriate that the book be published in the Wallace Centennial Year.

(For readers in the UK, you may well want to order it now, because the UK price is substantially higher than the US price, but a prepublication offer on amazon.uk makes it about the same as the US price.)

19 thoughts on “Wallace: Dispelling the Darkness

  1. My review: http://thedispersalofdarwin.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/book-review-dispelling-the-darkness-voyage-in-the-malay-archipelago-and-the-discovery-of-evolution-by-wallace-and-darwin/

    Be sure to look at the comments on the post as van Wyhe and another Wallace expert (George Beccaloni) go back and forth about details.

    As they do here, too, on this post by van Wyhe on the history of science blog Teleskopos:

  2. There’s also a new book by Ted Benton: “Alfred Russel Wallace – Explorer, Evolutionist, Public Intellectual” (Siri Scientific Press). I’ll be reviewing it here in the next week.

  3. The UK hardcover is also available for purchase now. The Kindle edition for both countries, though still high, is much less expensive than the discounted hardcover.

    1. Thanks for that – I don’t ‘blame’ people like Bill Bailey, their passion for Wallace is great – but I suspect Wallace himself would have been far less bothered.

  4. I am not scholarly enough : ( to read on Wallace — for example, John Whyte book. So I pose a few questions to those who are.

    Did Wallace read or study the available comparative neuroanatomy of his time?

    Did he not see the brains ot other “lower” primates? Non primate mammals, fish brains?

    The answer to the above questions would seem to be yes or no.

    If yes why did awareness of this sequence not affect him?

    As wareness of this comparative neuroanatomy even an introductory level of understanding even as it stood in the mid 19th c. would seem to argue against the de novo appearance of the human brain, As I understand Wallace understood the human brain to be.

    Did Darwin ever sit with Wallace or chat with him and say look!?

    Or we’re such discussions completely out of the ambit of engagement of Wallace with Darwin, or Wallace with any other scientists?

    Perhaps 19th-century comparative neuroanatomy was not a player?

    1. Wallace did not believe the human brain was not part of an evolutionary process. He certainly believed that humans evolved from non-human anthropoid apes (although he felt that may have occurred as far back as the Eocene). His concern was with the characters of human cognitive uniqueness (as well as hairlessness and the human hand) that he felt could not be explained by natural selection. He was a firm believer in the idea of “present utility” – that natural selection could not be involved in traits of future utility but must be explained by benefit in the environment that a population currently exists within.

      Thus the musical, aesthetic, mathematical or writing abilities of “savages” living no higher than “most apes” were utterly inexplicable to him. Darwin suggested that these were capabilities that previously served other functions… perhaps the skill to recognize symbols (in writing or mathematics) was a consequence of linguistic abilities which, Darwin argued, DID have adaptive value.

      But Wallace seemed fairly set in his views that if HE couldn’t explain how these were directly adaptive to ancient humans they could not have been the product of Natural Selection. Hence they had to require a supernatural force (he also rejected Darwin’s alternative explanation of sexual selection).

  5. Crap. Another book to add to my list of 80+. Maybe I should take a leave of absence and just read….what if I ended up dithering my time away doing other things….what if working is dithering my time away……

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