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New Book "Rescues" Alfred Russel Wallace -- by Refashioning Him in Darwin's Image

Costa.jpgKeenly aware of Alfred Russel Wallace's obscurity compared to Darwin, biologist James T. Costa seeks to "rescue" the naturalist's reputation with his book Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species (Harvard). This is a sequel to his annotation of Wallace's "Species Notebooks," On the Law of Organic Change, published just a year ago. In the present volume he seeks to place these notebooks into a larger context. He does so by offering what he calls "one biologist's apologia for Alfred Russel Wallace," but not one "built on the alleged wrongs or failings of Darwin, whose insights and accomplishments are clear" (3).

Costa does so in six chapters, the most significant of which is chapter four, "Two Indefatigable Naturalists," a very detailed -- almost line-by-line -- analysis of Wallace's 1855 Sarawak Law and 1858 Ternate papers compared with Darwin's contributions to the Linnean Society meeting of July 1, 1858, where the theory of common descent by means of natural selection was finally unveiled. In analyzing and comparing Wallace with Darwin, Costa notes the differences between the two theories, but takes pains to emphasize their commonalities. According to Costa, "The congruence in thinking of the two in terms of both approach and content is nonetheless remarkable" (229).

Costa attempts to make his case by fitting Wallace as squarely as possible into Darwin's conceptual framework. Four examples will suffice to show the folly of this effort. First, Costa admits that Wallace always rejected Darwin's domestic breeding examples as a proof, by analogy, for natural selection -- although he points out that the Species Notebooks do, in fact, contain examples of domestic dog breeding as a demonstration of transmutation. But Wallace employed it for a very different purpose than Darwin. The use of the dog example in his notebooks is merely given as a hypothetical thought experiment to counter Charles Lyell's argument against transmutation by the limitation evidenced in the varieties of dogs created through breeding efforts. Costa's attempt to minimize their differences, by concluding that after all "both Wallace and Darwin were alert to possible examples of new varieties arising" (137), is weak and unconvincing.

This whole treatment neglects deeper-rooted differences between Darwin and Wallace. Jean Gayon has observed that Darwin's domestic breeding analogy was no mere pedagogical device. It was "methodologically essential" to his demonstration of natural selection in action (59). Wallace, on the other hand, found other means of making his argument. In fact, it never seemed to dawn on Darwin that the logical conclusion of his reliance upon domestic breeding was to suggest its inherently teleological nature. After all, breeders consciously select their pairs for predetermined ends.

Wallace seemed to understand this. The irony is that Wallace, who really did see teleology in nature, would not look for it directly in natural selection, which he saw as an essentially subtractive rather than a building process, but in the complexity of the world around him and especially in the mind of man. Costa tries too hard to make Wallace and Darwin appear in sync.

A second example is Costa's admission that Wallace did not follow Darwin on sexual selection. Wallace always viewed it as an inappropriate anthropomorphism. However, in an effort to show Wallace's ultimate agreement with Darwin on the issue, Costa asserts, "Wallace did an about-face in 1890 and at last fully embraced the female-choice aspect of sexual selection, particularly for humans" (228). This is misleading. True, Wallace believed that women's absolute "free choice in marriage" would drive the evolutionary process progressively forward; he championed women's rights because it was scientifically sound and morally right. Still, he never accepted it in the animal world precisely because humans had surmounted the forces of natural selection and had been liberated from nature "red in tooth and claw." How all this worked out in his social and political philosophies cannot be addressed here, but to suggest that Wallace's position represented an "about-face" is simply inaccurate.

A third example of Costa's strained efforts to "Darwinize" Wallace is on their respective experiences with the great apes. Costa notes Darwin's fascination with Jenny, London Zoo's first orangutan, and her humanlike emotions. He then argues that Wallace's own interactions with orangutans (particularly his unsuccessful effort to raise an infant "Mia," as they were known on the island of Borneo) showed how both naturalists came "to appreciate their humanlike sensibilities" (90). Darwin's actual comments in this regard are instructive:

Let man visit Ourang-outang [sic] in domestication, hear expressive whine, see its intelligence when spoken [to]; as [if] it understood every word said -- see its affection. -- to those it knew. -- see its passion & rage, sulkiness, & very actions of despair; let him look at [the] savage, roasting his parent, naked, artless, not improving yet improvable & then let him dare to boast of his proud preeminence. -- not understanding language of Fuegian, puts on par with Monkeys. (Notebook C, 79)

Wallace never conflated great apes with human "savages" in this way. Wallace would have regarded such musings as unwarranted anthropomorphizing.

Perhaps Costa's most egregious misstatement comes when -- contrary to all evidence -- he avers, "Wallace never denied the fundamental kinship between human and other species." Wallace devoted an entire chapter in Darwinism (1889) to outlining the unique attributes of human beings and their distinctiveness from the animal kingdom. In an interview with Harold Begbie in 1910 Wallace stated bluntly, "The difference between man and the other animals is unbridgeable" ("New Thoughts on Evolution").

This was not just a position Wallace assumed as a result of his excursion into spiritualism; Wallace was not witness to what he considered "spirit" phenomena until the summer of 1865. Nor was it a result of his dramatic break with Darwin in 1869, in which he called upon an "Overruling Intelligence" to account for the mind of man. Much earlier, on March 1, 1864, to be exact, he declared before the Anthropological Society of London: "Here, then, we see the true grandeur and dignity of man. On this view of his special attributes, we may admit that even those who claim for him a position as an order, a class, or a sub-kingdom by himself, have some reason on their side. He is, indeed, a being apart . . ." (Anthropological Review).

Why accounts for all this effort to make Wallace agree with Darwin? Probably it's because from the outset Wallace makes Costa uncomfortable. Wallace's interest in spiritualism and his insistence that natural selection was inadequate to account for human cognition are supposed to be "science stoppers." Considering Wallace's many contributions to evolutionary biology, biogeography, ecology, and anthropology, Costa confesses, "these coexisted uncomfortably in my mind" (1). Costa is willing to tout part of Wallace's career, but not his interest in spiritualism (on this issue see FAQ #27 at AlfredWallace.org) or his embrace of intelligent evolution.

Despite this half-a-loaf coverage, Costa's book is not without merit. While I do not concur in all of his assessments, his comparative analysis in chapter four (described above) is worthwhile and interesting. His handling of the question of when the Ternate letter was mailed and when it was received by Darwin is thorough and should help to quiet obsessions with Darwin's supposed "theft" and "plagiarism." Costa's point that Darwin was a bit too possessive of "his" theory is readily substantiated in an appendix showing the phrase "my theory" appearing 57 times in the Origin. This echoes Benjamin Wiker's observation that Darwin's reference to "my doctrines" seems even today "very curious" and "revealing" (The Darwin Myth [81]).

My appreciation, however, ends there. Costa bemoans "those [who] seem only to see the possibility of Wallace's star shining if Darwin's could be dimmed" (276). But can it really be otherwise? Darwin's theory was cast from the worldview of materialism; Wallace's theory confirms a worldview imbued with teleology and meaning. How can Wallace's "star" be seen at all amidst a Darwinian glare that blinds rather than illuminates? It's not a "good" man versus "bad" man question; it's a question of ideas. Costa is uncomfortable with Wallace because, apparently, he doesn't know what to do with a picture of reality unconstrained by methodological naturalism and materialism. As such, Costa's well-intentioned effort results in a rather tepid enthusiasm for the whole Wallace and a refashioning of the naturalist in Darwin's image. Costa fails even to reference Wallace's two great works related to man's special place in the cosmos, Man's Place in the Universe (1903), and teleology in the biological world, The World of Life (1910). That is both remarkable and telling.

Meanwhile the very issue that divided the two founders of modern evolutionary theory -- the cognitive capacities of Homo sapiens -- remains unresolved by Darwinian mechanisms. Chris Smith has rightly called it "Darwin's Unsolved Problem." If there are any current vindications of Alfred Russel Wallace they are to be found not in Costa's book but in The Privileged Planet (2004) by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards and in James Le Fanu's Why Us? (2009).