Two books on Darwin

February 12, 2022 • 5:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

For Darwin’s birthday, I thought I’d mention two books about Darwin, both by the noted Darwin scholar John van Wyhe, whom Jerry and I have both had the pleasure of meeting, and who we’ve had occasion to mention here on WEIT a number of times. As anyone with more than a passing interest in Darwin should know, John is the editor of the indispensable Darwin Online.

The first is Darwin: The Man, His Great Voyage, and His Theory of Evolution (Andre Deutsch, London, 2018). Although I hadn’t planned it that way, very fittingly I finished reading it this morning. This is a reissue of a book first published in 2008 in anticipation of the Darwin bicentennial. The first issue was published in the US and the UK with different subtitles, and slightly later (2009) in the US.

I can highly recommend this as a very well-illustrated capsule summary of Darwin’s life. It begins with one of the best summaries of the state of knowledge and inquiry into natural history in the early 19th century I’ve ever read, then takes up Darwin’s life from birth, to university, to the four corners of the Earth in the Beagle, then to his return to England. Succeeding sections (there are no numbered chapters) are mostly structured around Darwin’s major works, tracing his life and contributions through a chronological sequence of those works.

The text covers at most half of the pages of this 160 page book, the rest being given over to illustrations. Almost all are contemporary, either illustrations from scientific papers and monographs, or of people and places in Darwin’s life. There are also quite a few reproductions of pages from Darwin’s published works and manuscripts. (Pages 120-123, a reproduction of several pages from the Darwin-Wallace Linnean Society paper of 1858, is labeled, incorrectly, as an extract from one of Darwin’s unpublished MS from 1857.) The illustrations are a great plus. In the original issue of 2008, the selection of illustrations was somewhat different (there were more of them), and they were larger, some being fold out; in the current issue the size may be a bit of a problem in seeing detail in some of them.

My own copy is the UK issue of 2018. A US reissue has a 2022 copyright date, but the UK one of 2018 is available in the US. (The larger format issue of 2008 [2009 in the US] can also still be found.) To learn all about Darwin’s life, read Janet Browne’s 2-volume masterpiece. But until you do, read this book, and have it alongside for the illustrations when you read Browne.

The other book, Darwin: A Companion, by Paul van Helvert and van Wyhe (World Scientific, Singapore, 2021) came out last year. I have not seen it yet, though I have seen the earlier edition (1978) by Robert Freeman on which it is based.

Unlike the previous book, which is a great entry point for the tyro, this book is for the more serious student of Darwin. The Companion is an encyclopedic collection of virtually everything known to be connected to Darwin the man. The new edition is 50% again as large as the first, and has added several dozen illustrations. This is not really a book to be read, but rather consulted or browsed (in the nutritive sense); Darwin completists will need a copy. As Janet Browne wrote in her blurb for the new edition, “There is more here than even Darwin would have known about himself.”

Darwin did not cheat Wallace out of his rightful place in history

August 15, 2013 • 4:22 am

by Greg Mayer

Before writing my notice of John van Wyhe’s new book on Wallace, Dispelling the Darkness, I hadn’t come across this piece by him on Wallace in last week’s Guardian. The piece addresses and dispels the claim, advanced a number of times over the years—especially in popular media—that Darwin stole his ideas from Wallace, and that there was an unsavory conspiracy to rob Wallace of proper credit. This is a view that has gotten some recent attention, and John deals with it head on. The short answers: he didn’t steal, and there wasn’t a conspiracy.

Do read the whole piece. Some excerpts:

Wallace deserves more attention but much of what you will have heard about him in the last few months is factually incorrect – and amounts to a misguided campaign to reinstate the reputation of a genius who (according to his fans) has been wronged by history and robbed of his rightful fame….

Darwin’s life and works have been meticulously studied by many scholars for over a century. But while some very able scholars have studied Wallace, he by contrast has remained mostly the preserve of amateurs and enthusiasts.

There has not been enough progress with our understanding of Wallace because some of the important research projects that have unveiled a treasure trove of new findings about Darwin had never been done for Wallace: his complete works had not been assembled on one scholarly website, his Malay archipelago expedition correspondence had not been collected and edited and his notebooks and journals had not been edited and their contents made intelligible.

All of these have recently been done, the latter two not yet published. These new sources have shown us that every substantive claim in the popular narrative about Wallace turns out to be incorrect.

And the money quote:

Darwin’s fame and reputation, and Wallace’s comparative obscurity, stem from the impact of Darwin’s Origin of Species. As Wallace himself wrote: “this vast, this totally unprecedented change in public opinion has been the result of the work of one man, and was brought about in the short space of twenty years!”

For my take on the second of these questions, which very much agrees with John’s, see my post on “Why is Darwin more famous than Wallace“. In attempting to promote Wallace, these modern admirers, perhaps unwittingly, portray Wallace as a hapless chump who was unaware of his own contributions. He was neither of these things.

(I also want to take this opportunity to bring above the fold Michael Barton’s review of Dispelling the Darkness on his fine website The Dispersal of Darwin; see also an earlier piece there on the conspiracy theory.)

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 makes it about the same as the US price.)

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)

February 17, 2013 • 12:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

As ever-alert reader Dominic has reminded us, 2013 is the centenary of Alfred Russel Wallace’s death, and it is thus an appropriate time to reflect on the many contributions of this great scientist who was, along with Charles Darwin, the co-discoverer of natural selection.

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) in Singapore, 1862
Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) in Singapore, 1862.

Like Darwin, who was his older contemporary, Wallace’s views on natural history were developed and brought to a head by extended travel and collecting, in Wallace’s case first to the Amazon, and then the Malay Archipelago. It was in Sarawak that Wallace wrote his first staunchly evolutionary paper, “On the Law which has regulated the Introduction of New Species”. In this paper he noted that new species arise adjacent in time and space to those to which they bear closest affinity, similar to Darwin’s observations on the former and current organic inhabitants of South America. Three years later he wrote the “Ternate paper”, in which he introduced a concept of natural selection very close to Darwin’s, the receipt of which by Darwin led to the joint publication in 1858 of Wallace’s paper along with extracts from Darwin’s unpublished works.

Wallace went on to make important contributions in selection theory, adaptive coloration, behavior, systematics, and, especially, biogeography. He was also a devoted socialist and, later in life, a spiritulaist. One of his least known efforts is his involvement in the life on Mars debate: he was a strong opponent of Percival Lowell‘s views, and wrote a book arguing against life existing on Mars, especially that Lowell’s “canals” were evidence for it. (Wallace was right about the canals, though Lowell may turn out to be right about life.)

One of the most important events surrounding the centenary has already occurred, and Matthew noted it here on WEIT at the time: the launch of Wallace Online, a wonderful website modeled on Darwin Online, and, like the latter, directed by John van Wyhe of the National University of Singapore. We have long been fans of John and Darwin Online here at WEIT. I urge all of you to go right this minute to Wallace Online and begin exploring the many astounding and amazing resources available there. The place to start is John’s brief but pithy biography of Wallace. Among John’s chief collaborators are Kees Rookmaaker, who has also contributed much to the Darwin project, and Charles Smith of Western Kentucky University. We have had occasion a number of times to link to Smith’s very valuable website, the Alfred Russel Wallace Page, and I am very glad to see such accomplished Wallaceophiles collaborating on this new project.

The Natural History Museum in London (or, as we systematists with a memory know it, the BM(NH)) also has a fantastic website devoted to the centenary, with links to many documents and images, all superintended by George Beccaloni, another noted Wallaceophile, who is also keeping a “blog” on the subject. We hope to have a number of Wallaceocentric items here at WEIT in the coming year.


Darwin, C. R. and A. R. Wallace. 1858. On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection. Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London. Zoology 3 (20 August): 46-50. (pdf)

Wallace, A.R. 1855. On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species. Annals and Magazine of Natural History (ser. 2) 16 (93): 184-196. (pdf)

Wallace, A. R. 1907. Is Mars Habitable? A Critical Examination of Professor Percival Lowell’s Book “Mars and its Canals,” with an Aternative Explanation. London: Macmillan. (full text, including page imagespdf)

“In Praise of Darwin”

January 11, 2010 • 12:05 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry previously commented on Steven Shapin’s summary in the London Review of Books of the 2009 Darwin commemorations, finding Shapin’s piece “long and pretty lame“, and especially criticizing his swipe at adaptation. New York Times blogger Ross Douthat, however, finds Shapin’s piece “wonderful“, and evidently sympathizes with Shapin’s unease over Darwin and evolutionary biology:

But Shapin’s essay is more than just an attempt to explain last year’s Darwin-mania. It’s a clear-eyed and wide-ranging tour of what “Darwinism” means today — at once an unchallenged scientific paradigm and a wildly contentious theory of everything; a Church militant warring against creationists and fundamentalists and a debating society of squabbling professors; a touchstone for the literary intelligentsia and a source of secularist kitsch.

Fellow conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan is disappointed by Douthat’s “sneering tone” and “smears”, and praises Darwin as

one of the most revolutionary and influential thinkers of the past two hundred years

Commenter Ajay at the Times replies a bit more concretely, and poses an apt question for Douthat:

If by “an unchallenged scientific paradigm” you mean that Darwinism has been widely challenged historically, continually falsified and continually triumphant – then yes, you’re absolutely right. What planet do you live on?

[It’s clear that Ajay meant “tested”, rather than “falsified”.]

If you want to know what sort of Darwin commemorations were held around the world during the past year, sans Shapin’s commentary, the most extensive list, which includes talks, symposia, books, articles, exhibitions, films, etc., is that compiled by John van Wyhe of Christ’s College, Cambridge, and posted at the marvelous Darwin Online, which I’ve had occasion to note before. Some Darwin commemorations, included in the list, are continuing into 2010. John also includes a summary of some of the 1909 centennial events and publications.

Darwin in Cambridge (and Richard Dawkins too!)

May 14, 2009 • 1:04 pm

by Greg Mayer

John van Wyhe, of Christ’s College, Cambridge, director of the absolutely fabulous website The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online (which I have had occasion to notice previously), has recently published a terrific short book entitled Darwin in Cambridge (Christ’s College, Cambridge).  Darwin in Cambridge, by John van Wyhe It’s not available yet on Amazon UK or Amazon, but you can order it direct from Christ’s. It provides a wealth of detail on Darwin’s life and studies in Cambridge, and is especially useful to someone (like me) less familiar with the organization of English universities. It is also beautifully illustrated, and my one complaint would be that the small octavo size does not do full justice to some of the illustrations.

Included in the book are several photographs of university and college ledgers which record Darwin’s various activities at Cambridge (see John’s analysis of Darwin’s student bills here, which have been widely misinterpreted by the media to say that Darwin spent more on shoes than books!). What struck me immediately was the figure on page 22, showing part of the ‘Books of subscriptions for degrees’ recording Darwin’s formal matriculation on February 20, 1828. It wasn’t just that the name of Adam Sedgwick, Darwin’s geological mentor, appears in the registry as having presided over the ceremony.  It was the name of the student who signed the book just below Darwin: Richard Dawkins!

Five students from Christ’s College have signed the register, Darwin being the last, having signed “Charles Robert Darwin”.  Below the Christ’s students, two students from Catharine Hall (now St. Catharine’s College) have signed the register, and immediately below Darwin’s signature appears the signature of the second Catharine’s student, “Richard Dawkins”.

The 20th and 21st centuries’ Richard Dawkins is, of course, an Oxonian; I don’t know if he’s any relation to the 19th century Cantabrigian who, for at least a little while on the afternoon of 20 February 1828, stood next to Charles Darwin.

The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online

April 7, 2009 • 8:40 pm

by Greg Mayer

I’m slipping in to make a quick plug here for one my favorite websites, The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online, and its founder and director, John van Wyhe of Christ’s College, Cambridge. The website contains text and image copies of at least one edition of all Darwin’s works (and often of many other editions as well), an updated version of Freeman’s bibliographical handlist, and many, many other useful things; check it out yourself. It is undoubtedly the best scholarly website ever.  John is the rising star of the new generation of Darwin scholars.

Dr. John van Wyhe
Dr. John van Wyhe

For those of you in or near southeastern Wisconsin, he will be speaking on Wednesday, April 8 at 7 PM at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, on Darwin: the True Story.  The talk is part of UWP’s Darwin 1809-1859-2009 commemoration of the  Darwin bi- and sesquicentennials, and is free and open to the public. Details here.