(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Peter Raby’s new biography of Alfred Russel Wallace uses the tools of modern scholarship to create a truthful yet sympathetic portrait of a paradoxical man in his folly and nobility. Raby wisely recognizes that he cannot improve on nature by overplaying his subject’s foibles and downplaying his idealism, and his biography consequently depicts neither a saint nor a sinner but a richly realized man. For Raby, Wallace is much more than the independent discoverer of natural selection and the primary stimulus for Darwin’s writing On the Origin of Species (1859): He was also a great field naturalist, biogeographer, and anthropologist. Furthermore, Wallace was a high-minded humanitarian whose passion for social justice drove him to champion the rights of the unprivileged and exploited. In fact, two seemingly contradictory tenets constitute the central meaning of Wallace’s life and work: natural selection and the spiritual nature of the human being. He understood that natural selection meant fierce competition among living things in which the unfit perished, but his belief in human morality and spirituality led to his advocacy of altruism instead of contention as the way to hasten the perfecting of humanity.

Wallace’s humanism and fascination with nature were rooted in his upbringing in southeast Wales. A slow learner, Wallace experienced humiliations at school, but these caused him to formulate deep convictions about the sanctity of self-respect. His family’s financial problems meant that the children had to leave home early to earn a living. At fourteen, Wallace began his apprenticeship as a surveyor, and for the next twelve years he worked in various parts of England and Wales, learning enough geology to become curious about the fossils he found in various sediments. His work also introduced him to the injustices by which landlords controlled the landless. Unsatisfied with the responses of organized religions to these and other problems, he constructed a set of personal religious views centered on the ideals of the equality and fellowship of all human beings.

During this time, Wallace began his self-education by reading Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833), which convinced him that the earth had an extremely long history, during which powerful erosive forces gradually shaped its surface. His desire for travel was stimulated by reading the accounts of Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, and William Edwards about their explorations in South America. While teaching in Leicester, he became friends with Henry Walter Bates, a skilled entomologist, who ignited his interest in beetles and butterflies. His reading of Robert Chambers’s anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1845 converted him to the idea that species change. To pursue his growing preoccupation with the evolution of species, he decided to become a professional naturalist, and in 1848 he left England with his friend Bates and traveled to Brazil, where they explored the environs of the Amazon River. Their first collections, sent to an agent in London, included twelve chests of plants and four hundred beetles.

In 1850 the two naturalists separated. Bates left for the Rio Negro region, and Wallace explored both sides of the Amazon. This sharpened his understanding of species distribution, since the river acted as a separator of different but related kinds of living things. As he explored, his interests expanded, encompassing birds, fish, palms, even the history and languages of aboriginal tribes. Weakened by illness and depressed by the death of his young brother, Wallace packed up his collections and departed for England in 1852. Tragically, his ship caught fire and sank, leaving Wallace and his shipmates in longboats hundreds of miles from land. After further harrowing experiences, they were rescued and returned to England, where Wallace, disheartened by his lost specimens and notebooks, vowed never to travel again.

With time, he regained his emotional equilibrium, and buoyed by his growing reputation as a naturalist, he decided to complement his earlier work in Brazil with an extensive expedition to the East Indies. For Wallace, his eight years (1854-1862) in the Malay Archipelago were the central event of his life. His thousands of miles of explorations in Malaya, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Celebes, the Moluccas, and New Guinea made him into one of the nineteenth century’s most accomplished naturalists. He collected thousands of butterflies and beetles, many of them new species. His specimens of such exotically colored birds as trogons, barbets, and birds of paradise entranced collectors in England. From his studies of birds and other creatures he concluded that a line could be drawn...

(The entire section is 1939 words.)