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.