BOOK REVIEW: Dispelling the Darkness: Voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the Discovery of Evolution by Wallace and Darwin

In the history of science, one of the most famous of tales told is that which explains how Charles Darwin was urged to write and publish On the Origin of Species when he received at Down House a letter from the younger naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who while a world away collecting butterflies and birds of paradise in the Malay Archipelago, developed the same theory of evolution by natural selection. The story is full of misinformation, however, and historian of science John van Wyhe seeks to provide a factual narrative in a book published during the centennial of Wallace’s death (November 7, 2013).

John van Wyhe, Dispelling the Darkness: Voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the Discovery of Evolution by Wallace and Darwin (Singapore: World Scientific, 2013).

Darwin is one of the most famous scientists in history. But he was not alone. Comparatively forgotten, Wallace independently discovered evolution by natural selection in Southeast Asia. This book is based on the most thorough research ever conducted on Wallace’s voyage. Closely connected, but worlds apart, Darwin and Wallace’s stories hold many surprises. Did Darwin really keep his theory a secret for twenty years? Did he plagiarise Wallace? Were their theories really the same? How did Wallace hit on the solution, and on which island? This book reveals for the first time the true story of Darwin, Wallace and the discovery that would change our understanding of life on Earth forever.

Van Wyhe is well equipped to tell this story. He is the force behind Darwin Online and Wallace Online, and so is very familiar with both historical figures and what has been written about them. And a good chunk of the papers he has published deal with dispelling myths about Charles Darwin (such as whether Darwin was an atheist; if he was the naturalist or gentleman companion to the captain aboard HMS Beagle; whether the death of his daughter Annie affected his acceptance of Christianity; and why Darwin “delayed” publishing his theory of natural selection). Earlier this year, he published an article with Kees Rookmaaker (“A new theory to explain the receipt of Wallace’s Ternate Essay by Darwin in 1858,” PDF) that shows that any conspiracy claim that Darwin was dishonest about when he received Wallace’s letter and essay because he stole Wallace’s ideas for his own work is complete bunk. They do this simply by using historical sources, not conjecture (like Roy Davies). This debunking is shared again in Dispelling the Darkness. Van Wyhe does not take bullshit from conspiracy theorists, and while this is a necessary part of the story to correct, having to do so unfortunately detracts from telling the story of Wallace and his achievements.

The title of Dispelling the Darkness comes from Thomas Henry Huxley; he wrote in “On the Reception of the Origin of Species” (1887): “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.” This dispelling the darkness forms one part of three narratives that van Wyhe uses: a narrative of Wallace’s travels and collecting in the Malay Archipelago, a narrative of Darwin and Wallace each developing their theories, and contextual sections on the history, economics, and culture of the places that Wallace visited.

Some important points – among many! – made in the book:

– the claim that Wallace has been overlooked in history because of his lower class status than Darwin is unsubstantiated;

– SE Asia should be considered the field site of the discovery of the theory of natural selection, because, unlike Darwin and the Galapagos, Wallace actually developed his theory while in the field. Also, several species of tiger beetle he collected were an “unsung inspiration for Wallace’s evolutionary breakthrough;”

– debunks the claim that Darwin intended his draft essay to be published after he died an old man;

– Wallace was poor on recollecting dates for when he visited places or sent letters, leading to confusion over where he was and when he sent his fateful letter and essay to Darwin in 1858, “one of the most contentious, contorted, and intractable mysteries in the history of science;”

– Wallace’s notes do not support the image of his being “on a quest for the Holy Grail of biology.” He traveled to the Malay Archipelago to collect natural history specimens, not in search of evolution;

– it is inaccurate to claim that Wallace was somehow short-shrifted, that credit was stolen from him. In fact, following the joint announcement of Darwin and Wallace’s ideas at the Linnean Society in 1858, for the rest of his life Wallace referred to Darwin’s theory, clarified that Darwin was far ahead of him and had done more with his theory, and even titled his book on evolution Darwinism (interestingly, Wallace referred to Charles Darwin’s natural selection in a letter to a journal even before On the Origin of Species);

– the claim that Darwin kept his theory absolutely secret and told no one but a select few (such as Joseph Dalton Hooker) is false;

– the image of Wallace as a superhuman collector of thousands upon thousands of specimens that he sent back to England overlooks the many assistants he hired to do collecting and preparing for him.

In Dispelling the Darkness, van Wyhe gives the in-depth treatment to Wallace’s 1854-1862 voyage through the islands of the Malay Archipelago that has always been afforded to Darwin’s Beagle voyage, and in so doing reveals a lot of detail taken from his journals and notes, giving a clearer picture of Wallace the collector and Wallace the co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of the theory of natural selection. I highly recommend this book for not only its impressive historical detail, but for van Wyhe’s obvious enthusiasm for the subject, which comes out on the pages. This is an important contribution in the history of science, and I think, if I had to weed my collection of books on Darwin and the history of evolution to just a few titles, Dispelling the Darkness would be among them.

27 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Dispelling the Darkness: Voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the Discovery of Evolution by Wallace and Darwin

  1. Although there are a lot of new and useful facts and figures in this book and John van Wyhe should be commended for his in-depth research into the finer details of Wallace’s expedition to the Malay Archipelago, there are a number of issues which I (and others) who have also conducted considerable research into Wallace’s life and work have with John’s book. Here are some of them in no particular order:

    1) The subtitle to the book (i.e. “the Discovery of Evolution by Wallace and Darwin”) is erroneous. Evolution of living things is an ancient idea – what Darwin and Wallace independently discovered was the primary mechanism which drives evolution, not evolution itself. This confusion is carried on in the text e.g. on page 6 John says “The Galápagos Islands are famous all over the world as the site of the discovery of evolution. Yet Darwin did not discover evolution there.” On page 8 it says “There has never been a better time to reveal the true story of Wallace and his independent path to evolution.” etc

    2) The doubtful and unsubstantiated idea that cryptic colouration in tiger beetles led Wallace to natural selection. Possibly the start of a pernicious ‘myth’ about Wallace…?

    3) I don’t find the argument that Wallace was on Ternate in February very convincing. It is easy to selectively dismiss evidence in order to make the remaining facts support one’s ideas…

    4) John says (I think) that Darwin and Wallace’s theories of natural selection were different whereas they were NOT (some of their other theories about evolution were different, however).

    5) I strongly disagree that Wallace was simply collecting specimens in the Malay Archipelago. In my assessment and that of others, there is very strong evidence that one of the primary aims of Wallace’s trips to both the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago was to understand how evolution works.

    6) A minor point (which concerns me as I have been researching Wallace’s clothing and equipment in fine detail recently in order to ensure that the statue of him which the Wallace Fund has commissioned is accurate) is John’s mention that Wallace wore a Panama hat or straw hat in the Malay Archipelago. I have found no references to such a hat in Wallace’s published and unpublished writings and the black hat he is shown wearing in the only photo of him taken whilst he was there is not a straw or Panama hat, but probably felt.

    More anon!

    George Beccaloni

    (The Natural History Museum, London, UK)

  2. “interestingly, Darwin referred to Charles Darwin’s natural selection in a letter to a journal even before On the Origin of Species”

    …do you mean:

    “interestingly, Wallace referred to Charles Darwin’s natural selection in a letter to a journal even before On the Origin of Species”

  3. George, thank you for your thoughts concerning John’s new book. I will invite him to respond to your points here.

    Nick, thank you for noticing that, it’s fixed!

  4. George Beccaloni:

    “4) John says (I think) that Darwin and Wallace’s theories of natural selection were different whereas they were NOT (some of their other theories about evolution were different, however).”

    I have read elsewhere (I haven’t read van Wyhe’s book yet) that Wallace focused on species selection (which, I guess, we’d call “macro evolution” now … but not in the creationist “sense”) while Darwin focused on individual selection. Is your complaint that Wallace also (especially in the “Ternate paper) focused on individual selection or that there is no difference between individual and species selection? If the latter, I know a lot of people who’d be willing to argue with you. 😉

  5. Reply to the comments by George Beccaloni by John van Wyhe.

    1) I am surprised that anyone would object to using the word evolution in this way in the title and introduction. Obviously every historian of science, and almost all of their readers, knows that evolutionary ideas of various kinds go all the way back to the ancient writers, all the more so since my book discusses some of these. The word is used in these places in my book as shorthand for “evolution by natural selection” where, I assumed, the reader would understand *in which sense* I was using the word, and for stylistic reasons spelling it out is sometimes too lengthy or clumsy. Perhaps it was not a safe assumption. George omits to mention that in a following sentence I wrote “Another region does have a bona fide claim as the field site of the discovery of the theory of evolution by natural selection, and that is Southeast Asia”. And on the back of the book blurb: “Wallace independently discovered evolution by natural selection”.

    2) I may be wrong about the inspiration of the tiger beetles – after all we have almost nothing to go on – but it is the only contemporary clue left by Wallace (in a letter) outside the Ternate essay itself. The phenomenon is clearly referred to twice in the Ternate essay. In Wallace’s later publications he several times referred to the same striking tiger beetles in words very reminiscent of his 1858 letter to F. Bates. So I argue (with more detail than I give here, see pp. 207-8) that the tiger beetles are a likely inspiration. Therefore “The final spark…*may* have been the tiger beetles”- with added emphasis.

    3) There is a fundamental flaw in the traditional argument that Wallace was really on Gilolo and not Ternate when he thought of natural selection. For those who may not know the details it worked like this.
    Wallace said in a 25 January 1858 letter that he *intended* to go to Gilolo in about a week.
    He wrote in his Journal that he returned to Ternate on 1 March.
    McKinney (1972) *assuming* Wallace did leave in about a week, concluded that Wallace was on Gilolo for all of February. But we have no evidence when Wallace actually left Ternate. It is puzzling how many writers found this argument convincing.
    I am entirely confident that my arguments that Wallace was on Ternate for the first two weeks of February can withstand any scrutiny.
    In brief: Wallace stated in two places (previously overlooked) that he was on Gilolo for two weeks in February 1858, i.e. not the whole month as everyone has assumed.
    He always signed documents from his actual location, never a postal base, as many writers have alleged to explain why the essay is signed “Ternate”. I encourage readers to have a look at pp. 202-4 for the full case.

    4) Correct. Their theories were not the same. I don’t think any historians of science dispute this. I argue for some previously overlooked differences. See pp. 204-215.

    5) My book does not claim that Wallace went out “simply collecting specimens” he went to earn a living, make a name for himself and so forth. I discuss all of this in the book.
    Wallace never stated or even suggested that he went to the Amazon or the Malay archipelago “to understand how evolution works” and I argue, based on his manuscripts, that there is no contemporary evidence to support this traditional view.

    6) What was his hat made of!? This question will of course interest no one else but I will nevertheless answer it.
    George is right that Wallace never referred to his hat as made of straw.
    However we know that Europeans in the tropics in the mid 19th century usually wore pith helmets or straw hats in the field. H.W. Bates wore a “straw hat” while collecting, for example. Wallace did refer to wearing a hat, so probably no pith helmet for him.
    There are two (admittedly post-voyage) drawings of Wallace in the field in his book Malay archipelago. Both show him wearing a white hat. See here:
    And here:
    The famous photograph of Wallace in Singapore ( shows him wearing a dark, yes probably felt hat. But Wallace is here dressed in formal attire shortly before boarding the steamer for his first-class passage back to Britain. It is not evidence of how Wallace dressed for collecting in the field.

    Best wishes,

  6. Concerning the disagreement about the “discovery of evolution by natural selection,” I don’t think that evolution or natural selection can be discovered the way tiger beetles or Galapagos turtles have been discovered.

    These are theories (not in the ‘just theories’ derogatory sense employed by creationists) – they can be proposed, conceived, invented and then tested, corroborated, refined.

    If Wallace and Darwin co-discovered a certain species of tiger beetle or its cryptic coloration, it would necessarily be the identical phenomenon discovered twice. As they invented the idea of natural selection, however, there may have been subtle differences between their concepts. It will even seem very unlikely that any two brains happen to hold the identical network of concepts. As peripheral concepts may affect the meaning of natural selection one would even expect subtle differences in their conceptions as the context of their publications is being explored.

    In conclusion, the sub-optimal usage of the term discovery may lead to part of this disagreement.

  7. I agree but a little literary license is usually allowed for book titles and for literary or more dramatic effect from time to time. Writing involves lots of little compromises- especially as in this case where I was writing for a mixed audience of historians and the general public. I can imagine that if I used “invention” of natural selection I would get a lot of flak from people who thought I was doubting evolution!

  8. It could have read: ” Voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the Theory of Evolution by Wallace and Darwin?”

    I’m not well read in the history of physics. Are they into talking about the “discovery” of gravity, relativity etc. as though they were black holes or elements, or do they have a better usage?

  9. Dear Joachim. My earlier questioning of the title was not because I objected to the word “discovery”, but because the phrase “the Discovery of Evolution by Wallace and Darwin” is erroneous. What they did was to discover one of the several mechanisms responsible for evolutionary change – they did not discover the process of evolution as a whole (which is an ancient concept). Since natural selection is a natural process – like ageing, photosynthesis, continental drift or whatever, I believe that it is accurate to say that it was “discovered” by someone. Do note that it is usual to describe concepts such as these using different language – in fact every person who writes about them will use a different combination of words to describe them (unless the description was copied verbatim from someone else of course).. So even though Darwin and Wallace used different combinations of words to describe the process of natural selection this does not mean that they were describing different processes! The fact that they and their contemporaries (plus most modern evolutionary biologists) all believed that they had discovered the same process argues that they did indeed do this. This is not to say that their many other evolutionary theories were also the same – in fact they differed on many points and some of their theories were wrong, some were correct, and some only partly correct.

  10. Of course the process of natural selection isn’t affected by the way someone conceives it. But there are nevertheless different ways of conceiving it. An argument about the question whether or not Wallace and Darwin held subtle differences about natural selection is necessarily about their conception of it and not about the process itself. To simply point to nature and claim ‘look, there’s only one process of natural selection!’ does not do here.

    P.S.: Even if we are considering the process of natural selection, I’d say it was deduced rather than discovered – like continental drift was deduced and not discovered.

  11. Thanks for the summary, and very interesting comments by the John and George! I’m unfamiliar with the Tenate-Gilolo debate, but maybe someone who has read John’s book with its previously overlooked evidence and also familiar with the Gilolo side of the argument will post all the arguments for and against each claim somewhere.

  12. This post by Whye [] in the Guardian suggests that the debate is about whether or not Wallace posted his letter two weeks earlier than he could possibly do from Ternate. This plays into the debate whether or not Darwin withheld Wallace’s letter for two weeks and this in turn pays into some conspiracy theories. Apart from such bigger issues, of course, the squabble about flying frogs or tiger beetles seems petty to lay people like us. We do not want this critters to become the analogues to Darwin finches. In fact to exorcise flying frogs with tiger beetles with no decisive evidence for either side seems like suggesting that Newton was hit by a pear rather than an apple. likewise concerning he fiber of his hat. These are petty issues unless some bigger issue is involved.

  13. If you read my post about Wallace’s tiger beetle epiphany ( you will see that there is indeed a bigger issue involved – the question as to what (if anything) led to Wallace discovering natural selection – one of “the greatest ideas ever to have occurred to a human mind” no less! Anyway as a Wallace scholar and a scientist I like to make sure all the facts are as correct as possible – it is pointless just to have some a nice sounding invented story!

  14. Thanks for the link. According to your own postscript, the big issue seems to be timing again (adaptationism by 1858 or earlier) rather than what species inspired Wallace.

  15. No, that’s in fact a slightly different issue. Whether Wallace was on Ternate or Gilolo does not actually affect van Wyhe’s story of the tiger beetles being the source of Wallace’s inspiration. But if he only went to Gilolo AFTER his had had his epiphany it conveniently rules out any rival theory. To me the question of what might of inspired Wallace to ‘suddenly’ discover natural selection is very interesting indeed. Wallace in fact says several times when recounting his discovery in his later writings, that Mathus was his inspiration – but John dismisses this. I guess John thinks that two epiphanies are required – one to explain Wallace’s sudden ‘change of mind’ about adaptation, and another to account for “Wallace’s ideas that the struggle for existence could turn races or varieties into new species.” (as van Wyhe puts it).

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  22. What will be the finalized truth, to one side, characterizing the tiny minority of people that regard Wallace as the discover and Darwin as a man that ‘all but’ stated the principle countless times, and whose work surely implies directly ubiquitously throughout the principle of natural selection. But then again a number of others ‘all but’ defined the principle and seemed to step right on the principle again and again. Yet they did not see it. They who say Darwin did not either to that morning of Wallace’s letter. Whatever is true or not, calling them ‘conspiracy theorists’ is a SMEAR for sure.
    There is a case for inadequate academic treatment of this matter. It is irrelevant or should be, which one of them, or both, was to be the true genius to actually see it. Darwin has been celebrated and credited intensely since Origins. Why do some of some of you exhibit such blatent bias that this is state of affairs is perfectly natural and acceptable, inclusive of that almost no really serious attention has been given to, even, establishing the case that Darwin succumbed to what we all feel when we first hear it – that we already knew it, that we maybe even discovered ourselves. it’s just that intuitive and profound to anyone who has thought about the questions.
    Why hasn’t the ‘intuition’ dimension been examined? That being, the inverse intuition that Natural Selection is so ‘intuitive’ that it was ‘easy to discover’. Most of you and myself would reject that it was easy. And yet, the fact Darwin ‘all but’ but bar one entry that he could easily have fabricated, and would have had he already locked into that course, that he ”all but”, but never actually precisely captured it. Why are we invoking that same inverse intuition, by allowing that to pass as good enough to attach primacy to Darwin? If it’s good enough to come real close but not say it, then Natural Selection is indeed easy to discover. Because that means many variants pre-discovery. Which is a exactly the way natural selection is derided. Which we would all probably totally reject. Yet many of us invoke it by writing Darwin a pass this way. Lots of people ‘all but’ said it, but didn’t, and never saw it.
    Another matter is the presentation of Darwin’s co-paper presented by him for Wallace also. That format and presentation could not have been better done, were that the explicit goal was that the presentation would involve ‘all but’ but not quite giving over the principle, that everyone would see it and not see it.
    Now look – that intentionality implies knowledge…knowledge that is very counter intuitive. It is the knowledge that natural selection is immensely hard to see unless it is said right. Why would Darwin have that knowledge, that almost no one ever does have, the next day? Why? Why was that knowledge in Darwin’s front of mind? Was he kicking himself all night?
    The final thing is this: Wallace defined selective force at the level of species, and on the matter of was it a gradualism of small mutations or large or both, Wallace left it open. Darwin defined individual selection which is very different and occurs within-species. And Gradualism.
    And that is still the prevailking view among darwinists. BUT, those two stipulations happen to be the two that have proven most problematic in the light of developments that have come out of the 25 year empirical revolution in Life Science. Those two stipulations have failed to stand up to evidence. Those two are the primary drivers behind what has now become a disaster of Life scientists turning their backs on Darwin.
    Those are examples, of reasonable grounds that the Wallace as discoverer deserves serious attention, beginning with the establishment of his strongest case.

  23. my follow up thought amounts to the only datum that has ever really stuck for me about Wallace. It wasn’t Natural Selection. It was something else he says in his letter. He talks about how he has seen species at the coast of the mainland, and seen same hundreds of miles out to sea. He then fairly clearly as an after thought says something like “I think the continents must somehow be moving”
    I mean, wow. That’s a genius.

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