ARTICLE: The impact of A. R. Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper reassessed

A new article in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences will interest readers here. Its author, the creator of Darwin Online and Wallace Online, has devoted much time and research in reevaluating the story of Wallace and Darwin.

The impact of A. R. Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper reassessed

John van Wyhe

Abstract This article examines six main elements in the modern story of the impact of Alfred Russel Wallace’s 1855 Sarawak Law paper, particularly in the many accounts of Charles Darwin’s life and work. These elements are: 1 It was Wallace’s first avowal of evolution; 2 Wallace laid out the theory of evolution minus only a “mechanism”; 3 Darwin failed to see how close Wallace was approaching; 4 Lyell did see how close Wallace was approaching; 5 Lyell urged Darwin to publish because of Wallace; 6 Darwin wrote to Wallace to warn him off his path. Each of these are very frequently repeated as straightforward facts in the popular and scholarly literature. It is here argued that each of these is erroneous and that the role of the Sarawak Law paper in the historiography of Darwin and Wallace needs to be revised.

You can read this article online or download the PDF for free.

ARTICLE: A Historical Taxonomy of Origin of Species Problems and Its Relevance to the Historiography of Evolutionary Thought

New in Journal of the History of Biology:

A Historical Taxonomy of Origin of Species Problems and Its Relevance to the Historiography of Evolutionary Thought

Koen B. Tanghe

Abstract Historians tend to speak of the problem of the origin of species or the species question, as if it were a monolithic problem. In reality, the phrase (or similar variants) refers to a, historically, surprisingly fluid and pluriform scientific issue. It has, in the course of the past five centuries, been used in no less than ten different ways or contexts. A clear taxonomy of these separate problems is useful or relevant in two ways. It certainly helps to disentangle confusions that have inevitably emerged in the literature in its absence. It may, secondly, also help us to gain a more thorough understanding, or sharper view, of the (pre)history of evolutionary thought. A consequent problem-centric look at that (pre)history through the lens of various origin of species problems certainly yields intriguing results, including and particularly for our understanding of the genesis of the Wallace–Darwin theory of evolution through natural selection.

BOOK REVIEW: Evolution: A Visual Record

A notable feature of the November 2004 National Geographic cover story about evolution is the photographs that accompany nature writer David Quammen‘s text. I’ve had this issue since it came out and it is one of the few issues of NG that I haven’t gotten rid of (one of the others being the January 1993 issue on dinosaurs that came out six months before the release of Jurassic Park in theaters).

The photographs remind us that, at least until genetics showed the relatedness between species and provided compelling evidence for common ancestry, evolution was largely a visual science. It was the physical features of present day and prehistoric animals that were a crucial aspect of Darwin’s thinking on transmutation. And it was the variety of domesticated animals and their plasticity that gave Darwin insight into natural selection. Photographer Robert Clark‘s depictions of museum specimens, some collected by Darwin himself, acted as visceral evidence of evolution to anyone reading the article (except for biased creationists, of course). Clark went on to photograph for Quammen’s 2008 article on the co-discoverer of natural selection Alfred Russel Wallace and a variety of articles since.

Clark’s photographs for National Geographic have been compiled into a wonderful book:


Joseph Wallace (text) and Robert Clark (photographs), Evolution: A Visual Record (New York: Phaidon Press, 2016), 240 pp. 

Publisher’s description Evidence of evolution is everywhere. Through 200 revelatory images, award-winning photographer Robert Clark makes one of the most important foundations of science clear and exciting to everyone. Evolution: A Visual Record transports readers from the near-mystical (human ancestors) to the historic (the famous ‘finches’ Darwin collected on the Galápagos Islands that spurred his theory); the recently understood (the link between dinosaurs and modern birds) to the simply astonishing.

The book organizes Clark’s photos into sections on ancient history (geology and early life), birds, cold-blooded vertebrates, plants, insects, mammals, human evolution, and finally extinction and the impact that humans are having on the natural world. While Quammen provides his always-engaging insight in a foreword, and Joseph Wallace’s text (at the beginning of each section, the photo captions, and a chapter on Wallace) provides important context, it is Clark’s images that really speak to the beautiful ideas of evolution and deep time.


Pitta specimens collected by Wallace in Borneo and Sumatra in 1850s (Photo: Robert Clark)

From images of rock strata, where animal remains are preserved as fossils, and human footprints preserved in lakeside sediment in Tanzania; to images of specimens of insects and birds collected by Darwin and Wallace, and portraits of a male orangutan and the human-like hands of a gorilla, the variety of life displayed in Evolution: A Visual Record captures the beauty of Darwin’s last words in On the Origin of Species (1859): “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”


A gorilla’s hands (Photo: Robert Clark)

Endless forms most beautiful, indeed – captured in photographs most beautiful by Robert Clark. You can check out some of the images included in this collection on the National Geographic website, here. And Robert Clark posts many of his stunning images on Instagram.

Looking for a gift for a friend of family member with a love for nature and science? A budding biologist in the family? Evolution: A Visual Record would be a great gift this holiday season. You can order this attractive, hardcover book through Amazon for a little under $30 (affiliate link) or from the publisher for $39.95.


BOOK: The Annotated Malay Archipelago

Alfred Russel Wallace’s correspondence is being transcribed, and his works have been put online similar to Darwin’s. While the persons behind each of those projects – George Beccaloni and John van Wyhe – don’t agree on all aspects of Wallace’s life and work, it’s only a good thing that Darwin’s co-discoverer of natural selection is receiving renewed interest and materials in print (in paper and online).

Wallace fans should know that van Wyhe has recently published the following:


John van Wyhe, ed., The Annotated Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace (Singapore: NUS Press, 2015, 836 pp.)

Publisher’s description The Malay Archipelago, the classic account of Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace’s travels through Southeast Asia, first appeared in 1869 and has been much loved by generations of readers ever since. Despite numerous modern reprints with appreciative introductions, this edition is the first — long overdue — fully annotated version to appear in English. The treasure trove of new information it contains illuminates The Malay Archipelago like never before. Through an examination of the historical context, the editor reveals new aspects of Wallace’s life, his sources and the original meanings of this famous book. Following conventions of the time, Wallace often left people, places and publications unidentified, and he referred to most species only by the scientific names current in the 19th century, terms that are unintelligible to most readers today. John van Wyhe’s explanatory notes, running into the hundreds, provide the common names for species and update their scientific names. People, places and other details that Wallace mentions have been tracked down and identified. The book famously raises provocative questions, but did tigers actually “kill on an average a Chinaman every day” in Singapore during the 1850s? Did a Dutch Governor General really commit suicide by leaping from a waterfall in Celebes? John van Wyhe deals with these and many other matters by comparing the text of The Malay Archipelago with Wallace’s letters, notebooks and a wealth of other contemporary sources. Greatly enriched by an extensive introduction, explanations that make the book accessible to modern readers, a detailed itinerary of Wallace’s voyage, a lavish selection of additional colour illustrations and a full bibliography of related materials, this is the definitive edition of Wallace’s great work.

ARTICLE: Going the whole orang: Darwin, Wallace and the natural history of orangutans

A new article in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (in press and free to download):

Going the whole orang: Darwin, Wallace and the natural history of orangutans

John van Wyhe and Peter C. Kjærgaard

Abstract This article surveys the European discovery and early ideas about orangutans followed by the contrasting experiences with these animals of the co-founders of evolution by natural selection, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. The first non-human great ape that both of them interacted with was the orangutan. They were both profoundly influenced by what they saw, but the contexts of their observations could hardly be more different. Darwin met orangutans in the Zoological Gardens in London while Wallace saw them in the wild in Borneo. In different ways these observations helped shape their views of human evolution and humanity’s place in nature. Their findings played a major role in shaping some of the key questions that were pursued in human evolutionary studies during the rest of the nineteenth century.

BOOK: Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon

Some of my readers may be interested in this new book:

Book Cover

John Hemming, Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2014), 368 pp.

Its author John Hemming, a former Director of the Royal Geographical Society in London, sent along this description:

It was an extraordinary coincidence that three young naturalists, who were destined to be the foremost British scientists in South America throughout the nineteenth century, went to Brazil together in 1848/49. Alfred Russel Wallace, Henry Bates and Richard Spruce had much in common. Each came from a modest provincial English family, each left school at thirteen or fourteen, each was self-taught to a remarkable standard, and each became a passionate and skilled naturalist. Although they decided to collect in different parts of the vast Amazon basin, they each spent many years there: Wallace four years followed by eight in South-east Asia; Bates eleven years; Spruce fifteen years (half of them in the western Amazon and Andes). They had many adventures; each explored and mapped a river; they did pioneering ethnographic work on rarely visited indigenous peoples and their rock art; they were in the forests and rivers every day; but they never hyped up dangers of the tropical forests which they described as a naturalist’s paradise. These were true explorers, too modest to realize how tough they were, and largely disinterested in their prodigious scientific research.

Wallace lost many of his collections on the shipwreck during his return voyage. But his years in Brazil taught him the skills and passions of collecting, preparing specimens, taxonomy, rainforest ecology, and how to operate in tropical rivers and forests. He started to develop theories of animal behaviour, species distribution, biogeography and evolution that led to his later successes in the Wallace Line and the paper on evolution by natural selection that he sent to Darwin in 1858 – although he never claimed primacy for the momentous theory. Bates collected almost 15,000 species, of which some 8,000 were new to science. He discovered Batesian Mimicry whereby innocuous creatures survive predation by mimicking inedible ones. Darwin was delighted that Bates – whose eleven years of fieldwork were unrivalled – immediately espoused his views on evolution. Darwin became a mentor to the young scientist, encouraging him to write his highly successful The Naturalist on the River Amazons, recommending him as the first paid chief executive of the Royal Geographical Society – a job that Bates did brilliantly for three decades – and maintaining a lifelong correspondence and friendship. Spruce, a consummate botanist, identified scores of genera and species, ranging from rainforest giants to tiny mosses and liverworts, and did pioneering work on hallucinogenic plants. Spruce’s herbarium collections are venerated in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and some of his botanical publications are still valid to this day. He was asked to try to get seeds and saplings of the species of Cinchona whose bark has the malaria-palliative quinine from the Andes for replanting in India. After two years of meticulous work, Spruce succeeded in this difficult and delicate task that would have defeated any other botanist. Richard Evans Schultes of Harvard, the finest Amazonian botanist of the twentieth century, wrote that Spruce was ‘undoubtedly one of the greatest explorers of all times’. The three subjects of this book Naturalists in Paradise each earned accolades, medals, and fame that dramatically belied their primary-school education and humble origins.

My first perusal of Hemming’s book shows a detailed narrative, handy reference maps of areas of the Amazon the naturalists worked in, and quality color photos throughout.