(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Michael Shermer gives his book the sub-subtitle A Biographical Study on the Psychology of History, and he organizes it around these five “schemata”: Wallace the Man, including an analysis of his ideas; Wallace and Darwin, focusing on the priority of the discovery of natural selection and on Darwin’s rejection of Wallace’s conviction that some higher intelligence beyond natural selection must account for man’s intelligence; Wallace the Heretic, arguing that Wallace’s “heretic personality” and his science influenced his spiritualism; Wallace and the Psychology of Biography, drawing on the statistical studies of Frank Sulloway to explain Wallace’s intellectual development; and Wallace and the Nature of History, contending that Wallace’s life reveals “the dynamic interaction of contingencies and necessities.”

Shermer’s introductory chapter provides a skeleton for the study that he will flesh out in the following chapters. Shermer’s three-dimensional Historical Matrix Model purports to construct a psychobiography of Wallace that demonstrates the interaction among five “internal forces” (thoughts) with five “external forces” (culture) across a span of six periods in Wallace’s life. In decreasing order of influence, the internal forces are hyperselectionism, the undue emphasis on adaptation in evolution; monopolygenism, the debate over whether humans have a single origin or multiple origins; egalitarianism, Wallace’s conviction that all people are born equal; environmental determinism, the tracing of apparent differences to unlike environments; and personality, the personal qualities that influenced Wallace. The external forces (“cultural variables”) are spiritualism and phrenology, popular movements in Wallace’s day; teleological purpose, the belief that life is directed toward a goal; scientific communal support, in “both the rejection of natural selection to the human mind, as well as for spiritualism and other nonscientific claims”; anthropological experiences, Wallace’s years in Amazonia and the Malay Archipelago; and working-class associations, especially Wallace’s education in the Mechanics’ Institutes and the influence on him of Robert Owen (1771-1858) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903).

In an excursus on quantitative biography, Shermer further elaborates on the “large-scale themata” that inform his study of Wallace: theory and data, time’s arrow and time’s cycle, adaptationism and nonadaptationism, punctuationism and gradualism, and contingency and necessity, themes that he asserts “concern most synthetic thinkers” and all of which he later treats more fully. Shermer also classifies Wallace’s twenty-two books by subject (evolutionary theory, social commentary, biogeography, natural history, botany, origins of life, and spiritualism) and finds that of Wallace’s 747 papers, 29 percent treat biogeography and natural history, 27 percent evolutionary theory, 25 percent social commentary, 12 percent anthropology, and 7 percent spirituality and phrenology.

Shermer and Sulloway asked ten historians of science (most of them were skeptical of the validity and reliability of the project) to rate Wallace on the so-called Big Five personality traits identified by Sulloway in his book Born to Rebel (1996), and their combined judgments produced percentile scores of 84 on conscientiousness, 90 on agreeableness, 86 on openness to experience, 58 on extroversion, and 22 on neuroticism. Wallace was the eighth of nine children, and these figures conform closely to Sulloway’s analysis of the relationship between these traits and birth order, with both Wallace and Darwin scoring very high on openness to experience, the trait most sensitive to birth order. Shermer concludes that “Wallace was simply far too conciliatory toward almost everyone whose ideas were on the fringe. He had a difficult time discriminating between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, and he was far too eager to please, whereas his more tough-minded colleagues (Huxley especially) had no qualms about not suffering fools gladly.”

With this elaborate outline in place, Shermer turns to Wallace’s birth on January 8, 1823, in Usk, Monmouthshire, Wales, to Thomas Vere Wallace and Mary Anne Wallace (née Greenell), a Church of England family. Because of his father’s financial setbacks Wallace’s only formal schooling was seven years at the Hertford Grammar School. The dominant “research paradigm” for understanding the universe in Wallace’s...

(The entire section is 1841 words.)