In this deeply absorbing book, James T. Costa seeks to establish Alfred Russel Wallace as the fully vested co-creator of what he feels we should once again call the “Darwin-Wallace Theory” of evolution by natural selection. That Wallace had a part in the history of evolutionary theory is, of course, well known. While he was collecting in Malaysia, the basic facts of natural selection occurred to him with the kind of beautiful clarity most of us experience only in dreams (and Wallace was indeed suffering from malaria at the time). He sent his account to Charles Darwin, catapulting the more senior naturalist into a period of frenzied writing, at the end of which stood the magnificent achievement of The Origin of Species (1859), a massive tome Darwin persisted in calling an “abstract” only.
The book’s appearance was heralded, the year before, by a mix of papers presented to the Linnean Society into which Darwin’s colleagues had cleverly incorporated Wallace’s letter—a smart move that saved Darwin from looking like a jerk in the eyes of posterity but also established him as the primary agent in the evolution business. For, as Andrew Berry points out in his lucid introduction to this study, even if you’re a Victorian gentleman, you want to be first. Since he was still in Southeast Asia, Wallace didn’t even know about the Linnean Society presentation, which, tragically, happened on the very same day that Darwin’s infant son Charles was buried. In later years, as Darwin reaped both the scorn and then, increasingly, the admiration of the rest of the world, Wallace watched from the sidelines, apparently without rancor. His own big book on species he never wrote.
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