by Matthew Cobb
As readers of this site will know, this year is the centenary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), the co-discoverer of the principle of evolution by natural selection. Wallace’s contribution to our understanding of the natural world differed from that of Darwin on a number of accounts, which have intrigued people for over a century, and which may account in part for the fact that Wallace’s contribution to what is now called ‘Darwinism’ was occluded for decades.
Wallace focused on the role of natural selection, and eventually openly disagreed with Darwin’s view that sexual selection played an important role in evolution. Wallace argued that humans were in some way separate from the rest of the natural world, and that some of our particular features – in particular, intelligence – could not be explained by natural selection. This non-materialist view of evolution was paralleled by his adoption of spiritualism in the 1860s. Finally, Wallace was a radical socialist, profoundly opposed to landed property.
This complex interaction of ideas are explored in an excellent new book, Alfred Russel Wallace: Explorer, Evolutionist, Public Intellectual. A Thinker for Our Own Times? The author is Professor Ted Benton of the University of Essex, and he is uniquely positioned to to understand the richness of Wallace’s ideas.
Benton is a natural historian – he has written books on bumblebees and on grasshoppers and crickets for the New Naturalist series, and in 2007 won the Stamford Raffles prize from the Zoological Society of London. But although he trained as a scientist, his day job is Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex, and he has made important contributions to the ‘critical realism’ strand of sociological theory, focusing on the importance of humanity’s interactions with the natural world.
Benton’s book opens with a brief summary of Wallace’s early life as an explorer, with dramatic descriptions of his voyages to South America and the far East, including the distressing story of hunting for orang utans and then trying to save the infant of a mother orang he had shot. But Benton’s aim is to explore Wallace’s ideas and to try and understand why he had such complex and seemingly contradictory views.
The respectful and warm interplay of ideas between Darwin and Wallace are well drawn out in the chapter on sexual selection, and the links between their disagreement on this point and the larger issue of human evolution are outlined very clearly. These chapters will be extremely useful as a guide to the contrasts and convergences in the ideas of these two thinkers, as well as revealing the depth of their mutual respect.
Benton deliberately avoids too great an exploration of Wallace’s views about spiritualism, or his hostility to vaccination, because, he argues, those features of Wallace’s ideas are less relevant to today. But given the existence of a strong anti-vaccination trend in the west, and the fears exploited by fundamentalists in some countries, I would have applauded a more detailed exploration of these issues. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Benton is ‘simply mystified’ by Wallace’s adoption of these views. People can hold contradictory views, and sometimes it is not possible to find a rational explanation, or even to reconstruct the stories an individual might tell themselves to reconcile the irreconcilable.
This is a fascinating account of Wallace’s ideas that enriches our understanding of Wallace’s ideas, and the limits of the convergence of their ideas. Benton is very much of the view that Wallace deserves equal credit with Darwin for the discovery of the principle of evolution by natural selection. That is true, but as the subsequent chapters demonstrate, Wallace’s ideas were more rigid and more limited than those of Darwin, who was able to further develop his basic idea by integrating sexual selection and fully applying his theory to the whole of the natural world, including human beings. Above all, Benton shows both Wallace and Darwin as fully rounded men living in their time, affected by the social issues of the day. Highly recommended!
You can get copy of the book direct from the publishers, Siri Scientific Press.