The Malay Archipelago, Alfred Russel Wallace's old hangout.
When is it time to give up? And when are you in so deep that it's too late to quit?
Those questions could be applied to almost anything (I could put them to many things in my life right now. Sigh. Disaster reigns.), but in this case I'm talking about books. I admit it, there are books that I have started but haven't finished, but I usually made those decisions immediately--maybe one or two chapters in. I actually have a book from the library right now that I had had on reserve for a while, but when I got it, I looked at the index and decided it didn't have what I wanted after all, and quit without even starting.
But what do you do when you've been plugging away for a while and all of a sudden feel like you've just had it? I was about 206 pages into The Heretic in Darwin's Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace when I suddenly felt like I couldn't go on any longer. I checked to see how many pages I had left--well, there were 490 altogether, so I was a little under halfway there. I had read through those two hundred or so already...surely I couldn't quit now. After all, I hadn't even reached the part of the book that had attracted my attention in the first place. So I steeled myself and dove back into the grey depths of biographical boredom. I made it to around page 408 when I was seized again with the overwhelming urge to quit, even though I was so close to the end. I did decide to keep going (this, of course, is where my marathon experience kicked in), but I probably couldn't tell you anything about what I read in those last eighty pages. Something had gone dreadfully wrong for me with this book.
Wallace killed as many birds of paradise as he could find--all in the name of science, of course.
I always feel so bad when I don't like a book--I know the writer has worked so hard, and anyway, who am I to criticize? But I confess, I didn't enjoy this book. I can't say I hated it, because that would imply much more feeling than I had for it. No, I was just bored. So here's the question--is that the fault of author Ross A. Slotten? Is it Wallace's life? Was I just in the wrong mood? I suppose it's a combination of all three.
I had run across Wallace's name a few years ago when reading a book about the volcano eruption in Krakoa in the 1880s and the author of that book, who wandered off on many tangents, mentioned the "Wallace Line," that is, an invisible line dividing the flora and fauna of the area now known as Indonesia. Species to the west of the line were closely related to those found in Australia, while those to the east were similar to those found in Asia. Wallace was a freelance naturalist working down in that area when he noticed that in some areas, animals and plants not far from each other had no resemblances at all, indeed were from completely different families. He wrote about this and devised his theory about how the islands had at one time been separated by each other and the continents by a land bridge that had sunk (plate tectonics hadn't even come up yet), which had separated the animals and plants from the rest in their families. I, of course, knew nothing about this and thought it was the most interesting part of the volcano book (that one gets blamed solely on an annoying author) and decided to learn more about Wallace--I thought that 19th century naturalist in the South Pacific thing sounded very romantic--then promptly forgot about him until I ran across Slotten's book. By then, I had also learned about Wallace's other claim to fame: while in Malay (sometimes you just have to love the 19th c. names of places), he had devised the theory of natural selection, and sent his paper on it to Charles Darwin, who he very much admired. Darwin had had the same idea, but had been working it out for nineteen years. Upon receiving Wallace's paper, he decided he had to get himself going and rush to put out his own claim on the topic. Darwin, aided by fellow naturalist friends Charles Lyell (who had warned him that the much younger Wallace was working on a similar idea) and Joseph Hooker, rushed to present his own abstract on the topic at a meeting of the Linnean Society, along with letters to Hooker and Lyell written years before, to prove his priority on the theory. Not wanting to leave Wallace out completely, Darwin also had Wallace's paper read at the meeting, but there was no doubt that Darwin was claiming natural selection for his own. Wallace, when all this was explained to him, didn't make any arguments, accuse Darwin of stealing his ideas, or anything of that sort; instead, he seemingly cheerfully accepted Darwin's priority, which won him Darwin's friendship for life, but put him firmly in second place in scientific history.
That wasn't all there was to Wallace's life, in fact, he had more than enough adventures to fill a biography. He grew up in a lower-class family, without the education or means of most other hobby-scientists of that time period, yet taught himself enough to be their equal. Before going to the South Pacific, he spent time collecting specimens in South America, exploring the Amazon--on his way back to England from that expedition, the ship he was on caught fire, and burned his entire collection of specimens and notebooks. He and the crew floated in lifeboats, trying to survive in the hot sun with no provisions until they were finally picked up by a passing ship, which itself didn't have enough food or water for an additional set of passengers, leaving them all to nearly starve to death before they finally made it to England. Wallace met a number of characters throughout his life, including Sir James Brooke, an Englishman who lived in an English manor house in Borneo, entertaining European visitors while ruling the natives as the "white rajah," a benevolent dictator (he was supposedly one of the models for Kipling's "The Man Who Would be King," though much nicer than the fictional version); Arabella Buckley Fisher, Lyell's secretary and an apparently quite clever woman amongst the men of nineteenth century science; and Thomas Huxley, the naturalist who was always amused by everything and had the wit to devastate anyone and any argument.
But Wallace didn't just settle into a life of quiet congratulations for the work he did with Darwin on natural selection (in the end, Darwin's work in his lab was complemented by Wallace's in the field, and vice versa). Instead, he set off controversy when he became a committed spiritualist, which alienated many members of the scientific community--how could a man who so elegantly devised a natural explanation for the variation of species believe in something as scientific as spirits? But he did, and as the years went by, while he continued his studies of zoogeography and still worked on trying to find solutions for the history and propagation of various species, he moved farther and farther away from pure science; indeed, today he would probably be somewhere in the intelligent design camp. However, while Wallace's beliefs horrified many of his contemporaries, as he lived on, others became willing to ignore his beliefs (which included after a while socialism and an anti-vaccination crusade) and celebrate him for his contributions to science. They had time to do this because he lived a very long time. A very, very long time, and Slotten chronicles it all.
I had been drawn to the book because I was intrigued by the the opposition of Wallace's scientific achievements to his belief in spiritualism. I'm always interested in anything about nineteenth century spiritualism because it was taken so seriously at that time, yet I find it all so remarkably sillty today and wonder how so many eminent people (William James, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) allowed themselves to be seduced by it. Descriptions of seances verge on ludicrous, with spirits playing the the guitar, giving people flowers, and lifting chairs on tables. Really, if spirits from "another world" are going to come to visit us, I'd hope they'd do more than play the accordion. Yet many people believed in it wholeheartedly, and to be honest, I suppose at that time, with scientific understanding of chemistry and physics at such a rudimentary stage and religious beliefs in flux, I shouldn't criticize people in those days for taking it seriously and trying to study the phenomena scientifically. But it was all so remarkably silly, and a number of others were able to see through the ruses of the trickster mediums (magician Sir John Maskelyne took particular delight in revealing their tricks, as would Harry Houdini in the early twentieth century).
With all the controversies he managed to get himself involved in--and there were many; Slotten says, in probably the most apt passage in the book, that Darwin ignored controversy and just believed in what his studies told him, while Wallace couldn't seem to stop himself from diving into everything--I would have thought a book about Wallace should have been more exciting. Part of the problem is that despite his seeming radicalism, Wallace himself was a shy, diffident individual who didn't exhibit a great deal of personality beyond his work and beliefs. And while he left copious notes and diaries, he rarely delved into personal feelings or thoughts; a brother dies while essentially under his watch in South America and he doesn't make much note of it. He marries yet never writes about or seemingly to his wife. A child dies and he doesn't mention him again. In the last case, it's easy to imagine that grief was the reason for his seeming to almost his son's existence, but still that's only one piece of the puzzle. Wallace got into bitter quarrels with friends several times in his life, to the point of cutting them off forever, but he left no trace of what was the root of the break. He comes across as a polite, often generous man, but that's all.
Slotten's writing style could also be described as polite. While there are all these missing pieces that makes Wallace a less than entrancing biographical subject, Slotten doesn't have any real sense of drama, nor seemingly an interest in bringing the nineteenth century scientific community to life, something that could have bolstered the lack of character from Wallace. He includes pages of detail of arguments between Wallace and other scientists about biological points that have been wiped out by the discovery of DNA, and while this may be interesting to biologists, or scientific historians, it bogged me down and didn't capture my interest. Perhaps someone else could have approached it in a way that would have been more interesting to someone like me, who so desperately lacks a solid scientific background. And while Wallace traveled and explored many exotic places and saw so many fascinating creatures (which he blithely killed, something that pained me; I understand the importance to science of collecting the animals for study, but it is hard for me--and I'm an animal softie--to read how casually Wallace hired natives with the order to kill as many orangutans or birds of paradise as possible), they never come to life either.
I don't mean to be so hard on the author, but I can't get away from the fact that I found this book tough going. I was bored and was heartily sick of Wallace and his jumping from one cause, theory or belief to another far before we reached the end of his long life; I actually made a number of notes throughout the book that I meant to refer to in this write up, but I can't bring myself to dig through them, that's how irritated I am by the whole thing. Anyway, thank you for your fine work and research Mr. Wallace--and Mr. Slotten--but I think I'll have to find another naturalist to entrance me. Surely there must be one out there...