Cover image for The heretic in Darwin's court : the life of Alfred Russel Wallace
The heretic in Darwin's court : the life of Alfred Russel Wallace
Slotten, Ross A.
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Publication Information:
New York : Columbia University Press, 2004.
Physical Description:
vii, 602 pages ; 24 cm
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QH31.W2 S535 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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During their lifetimes, Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin shared credit and fame for the independent and near-simultaneous discovery of natural selection. Together, the two men spearheaded one of the greatest intellectual revolutions in modern history, and their rivalry, usually amicable but occasionally acrimonious, forged modern evolutionary theory. Yet today, few people today know much about Wallace.

The Heretic in Darwin's Court explores the controversial life and scientific contributions of Alfred Russel Wallace--Victorian traveler, scientist, spiritualist, and co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of natural selection. After examining his early years, the biography turns to Wallace's twelve years of often harrowing travels in the western and eastern tropics, which place him in the pantheon of the greatest explorer-naturalists of the nineteenth century. Tracing step-by-step his discovery of natural selection--a piece of scientific detective work as revolutionary in its implications as the discovery of the structure of DNA--the book then follows the remaining fifty years of Wallace's eccentric and entertaining life. In addition to his divergence from Darwin on two fundamental issues--sexual selection and the origin of the human mind--he pursued topics that most scientific figures of his day conspicuously avoided, including spiritualism, phrenology, mesmerism, environmentalism, and life on Mars.

Although there may be disagreement about his conclusions, Wallace's intellectual investigations into the origins of life, consciousness, and the universe itself remain some of the most inspired scientific accomplishments in history. This authoritative biography casts new light on the life and work of Alfred Russel Wallace and the importance of his twenty-five-year relationship with Charles Darwin.

Author Notes

Ross A. Slotten, M.D., is a family practitioner in private practice in Chicago. He is a Wallace enthusiast and has retraced a number of Wallace's travels in Indonesia.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1858, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), a self-educated British naturalist collecting specimens in the Malay Archipelago, sent a brief manuscript to Charles Darwin outlining the concept of natural selection and explaining its important role in the creation of new species. Darwin, who had been working on this topic for 20 years but had not yet published anything, feared that Wallace's paper would take precedence over all of his own earlier work. In fact, Darwin's scientific allies arranged for a joint presentation of his ideas alongside Wallace's to the Linnean Society of London while Darwin rushed to complete On the Origin of Species. Physician and amateur historian Slotten does a very good job of contextualizing this critical moment in the history of biology within the life and times of Wallace. He demonstrates that Wallace was a brilliant, complex man and argues persuasively that Wallace never resented Darwin's receiving much more credit for the theory of natural selection than he did. Wallace, perhaps more than Darwin, took on all comers and was an articulate and forceful spokesman for natural selection. But, as Slotten shows, he was very much interested in other causes as well. As a socialist, he was an ardent proponent of social justice, working for land reform (he was himself from the lower classes). He believed in spiritualism, was against smallpox vaccination and, to the chagrin of many scientists, claimed that human intelligence was divinely inspired. Slotten's enjoyable exposition provides insight into the scientific process and the role of class structure in Victorian England. Illus., maps. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

In this well-crafted biography, independent historian and physician Slotten examines Wallace's many-sided life and character. He explores, in greater depth than some recent biographers, particular aspects of Wallace's complex relationship with his older and more famous contemporary Charles Darwin. While Wallace always gave priority to Darwin on most matters relating to evolution generally, they differed on sexual selection and the role played by the human mind. Wallace, whose formal education ended at age 13, spent many years researching the natural history of the Amazon Basin and the Southwest Pacific region. Slotten has personally retraced some of Wallace's travels in Indonesia, and he brings that perspective to his discussion of Wallace's biogeographical research there. During his long life (1823-1913), Wallace fearlessly involved himself in a wide range of social and scientific controversies. A staunch supporter of socialism, spiritualism, phrenology, education for women, and land reform in England, he strongly opposed militarism, compulsory vaccination, and the concept of social Darwinism. Never a wealthy man, Wallace depended on income from his many books, book reviews, modest civil pension, lecturing, and grading examinations for higher educational institutions and government agencies. His North American lecture tour in 1886-87 was also moderately remunerative. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. Lower-level undergraduates through faculty/researchers; general readers. K. B. Sterling formerly, Pace University

Booklist Review

As a scientist, Charles Darwin will probably always tower above the man with whom he shared the honor of having discovered natural selection. But three outstanding biographies in three years evince a growing interest in Alfred Russel Wallace. Like Fichman's An Elusive Victorian (2004) and Raby's Alfred Russel Wallace (2001), Slotten's new life study illuminates an unpredictable genius who cut a wide swath in Victorian culture. Like his predecessors, Slotten examines closely the improbable chain of events that brought Darwin and Wallace to the same epoch-making discovery and probes the reasons that Darwin ascended to the scientific pantheon while Wallace descended into historians' footnotes. But Slotten surpasses earlier biographers in detailing the complex personal relationship between the two biologists, chronicling the curious way Wallace humbly deferred to Darwin in controversies over priority yet still vexed him over questions about the evolutionary process. Slotten's own jungle travels also enable him to chronicle vividly Wallace's labors as a field naturalist, labors that put him deep in dangerous wilderness long after Darwin had withdrawn to the comforts of the study. Even in Wallace's much-ridiculed forays into spiritualism, Slotten discerns the fearless curiosity of an explorer. Wallace, a man who defied even death in his investigation of earth's most peculiar species, is no longer a footnote. --Bryce Christensen Copyright 2004 Booklist

Library Journal Review

Alfred Russel Wallace is often described as the 19th century's greatest explorer-naturalist, yet few people besides scholars know about him. For 30 years, he and Charles Darwin shared a friendly acquaintance, exchanging letters and ideas. At times, they worked together at shaping evolutionary theory, but it is Darwin who received sole credit. Physician Slotten uses the themes of class relations, changing paradigms, the structure of scientific research, and religion vs. science to analyze Wallace's life. When Wallace became an avowed spiritualist after attending s?ances, his path diverged from Darwin's; he saw spiritualism as an explanation for the origins of humankind's moral and intellectual nature, a view that Darwin could not share. Because Darwin was a member of the upper class, his theories and evidence were received by his scientific peers with a measure of acceptance; Wallace was treated more skeptically because of his lower-class origins and lack of formal education. Michael Shermer's In Darwin's Shadow focuses on the heretical aspects of Wallace's personality, while Slotten's text recounts his life in great detail, giving as much emphasis to his early life and later years as to his time as a collector and naturalist. If a library can support only one book, Slotten's provides the richness of the complete life. [For an interview with Slotten, see p. 92.]-Gloria Maxwell, Penn Valley Community Coll., Kansas City, MO (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



*Read an excerpt from the chapter, "Wallace and the Descent of Man * Excerpted from The Heretic in Darwin's Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace by Ross A. Slotten All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Origins of a Heretic
The Struggle for Existence
A Daring Plan
Travels on the Amazon
And the Rio Negro
Disaster at Sea... and a Civilized Interlude
The Malay Archipelago
The Mechanism Revealed
Beautiful Dreamer
A Turn Toward the Unknowable
The Olympian Heights and the Beginnings of the Fall
Wallace and The Descent of Man
The Descent of Wallace
The War on Spiritualism
Phoenix from the Ashes
To the Land of Epidemic Delusions
The New Nemesis
Thoroughly Unpopular Causes
Satisfaction, Retrospection, and Work
A National Treasure Celebrated
Biographical Index