Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Infinite Tropics

Infinite Tropics: An Alfred Russel Wallace Anthology
edited by Andrew Berry
London: Verso, 2002. 320 pages.
Reviewed by
Charles H Smith
Some of the earliest surviving thoughts committed to paper by the English naturalist and social critic Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) were in a lecture he entitled "The Advantages of Varied Knowledge". Composed around 1843, it advocates a broad-based approach to the individual's education, one that recognizes the assimilation of a wide range of facts — and their logical integration — as the foundation for a dependably evolving belief system. He argues: "... here we see the advantage possessed by him whose studies have been in various directions, and who at different times has had many different pursuits, for whatever may happen, he will always find something in his surroundings to interest and instruct him ... ". He concludes the essay with the following vivid imagery:
Is it not fitting that, as intellectual beings with such high powers, we should each of us acquire a knowledge of what past generations have taught us, so that, should the opportunity occur, we may be able to add somewhat, however small, to the fund of instruction for posterity? Shall we not then feel the satisfaction of having done all in our power to improve by culture those higher faculties that distinguish us from the brutes, that none of the talents with which we may have been gifted have been suffered to lie altogether idle? And, lastly, can any reflecting mind have a doubt that, by improving to the utmost the nobler faculties of our nature in this world, we shall be the better fitted to enter upon and enjoy whatever new state of being the future may have in store for us?
No one has ever heeded his own good advice better than Wallace did. Born poor but with an intense native curiosity, he worked as a surveyor to his mid-20s before abandoning that occupation to turn professional natural history collector. He spent the years 1848-1852 in the Amazon Valley, then the even longer period 1854-1862 in the Indonesian archipelago (then known as the "Malay Archipelago"), collecting up a storm. His 12-year stint in the tropics would eventually make him famous — not only for his formulation of the theory of natural selection, but as the father of the modern approach to biogeography, and arguably as history's foremost field biologist and tropical naturalist.

Wallace's success was due in large part to his perseverance: both in amassing facts of significance to the naturalist and in tying these facts to logical explanatory structures. He gave his attention to just about anything that was deserving of interest: the manner of construction of native huts; the economic uses of plants; the colors of animals; trade between cultures; the geology, climatology, and physical geography of the lands he visited; native languages and vocabularies; special biological adaptations; the presence or absence of species from location to location; ethnological similarities and differences; the relative sizes of insects; and so on. His 1869 book The Malay Archipelago in particular is a gold mine of such information, woven together with a compelling narrative that still never fails to amaze — especially when one considers how he accomplished all of it by himself, as a solo, unsupported naturalist/explorer.

Thankfully, all this determination and insight as an investigator of nature and humanity was wed to an easy and lucid — yet forceful — writing style. In 1855 Wallace published his first essay on evolutionary biogeography; this was followed in 1858 by the famous elaboration of natural selection sent to Charles Darwin. From then on, it was off to the races: he averaged over a dozen published works per year for the next 55 years, right up through the year of his death. Neither was there even any falling off in production as he aged; in the last (ninth) decade of his life he edited or wrote eight books, plus a hundred or so shorter items.

Which brings us to Andrew Berry's splendid anthology. This is the fourth print anthology of Wallace writings; earlier collections were edited by Barbara Beddall (1969), Charles H Smith (1991), and, just this year, Jane Camerini (2002). Beddall's and Camerini's studies are relatively short works that focus on Wallace's work from his period in the field. Smith attempted to survey the full range of Wallace's interests, relying primarily on the entire texts of about a hundred key works. Berry has taken a new track, sampling, again, from the entire range of Wallace's oeuvre, but usually showcasing short excerpts of a couple of pages or less in length. This tactic allows Berry a flexibility lending itself to a more biographically contextual approach, and he has used this strategy to produce a study combining writings and editorial narrative that does a very good job indeed of delivering the man and his ideas to the reader.

The selections themselves are very well chosen — and in the case of Wallace, a man who published nearly eight hundred works, most of which almost no one has cast eyes on for upwards of a hundred years, this is by no means an insignificant accomplishment. Further, Berry, who unlike the individuals mentioned earlier has never done any other serious research on Wallace, has managed to produce an editorial commentary which is just about free of error, and which avoids overgeneralizing about a man regarding whom overgeneralization runs rampant in the literature. I do find Berry's fascination with the possibility that Darwin stole material from Wallace somewhat ill-advised, and to that extent agree with the late Stephen Jay Gould's reservations on this matter as stated in his Foreword. On the other hand, I take issue with the accuracy and/or advisability of some of Gould's other remarks — here, as in his many other writings on Wallace, his comments seem more relatable to prior agendas than to a dispassionate view of Wallace's ideas and achievements.

The summary outcome of Berry's collection is that it succeeds admirably as a tease inviting further exploration. In a 430-page project, it is hardly possible to review a man's work thoroughly when that man himself published well over 10 000 pages of material; in the case of Wallace, the goal of review is especially difficult, as he was anything but a conventional thinker and often projected neatly logical trains of thought that led to wholly unanticipated conclusions. As a result, scholarship (not to mention public opinion) has made the mistake of paying too much attention to the sensational in Wallace's world view, and overlooking the elemental.

As a good example, it is well known that Wallace was a prominent anti-vaccinationist — a fact that might lend itself to a variety of premature conjectures as to the quality of his judgment. Actually, however, Wallace did not deny that smallpox vaccination had been a useful means of dealing with the problem in its early years of application. But, he argued, ambient improvements in public health, unsanitary vaccine preparation standards, and conflicts of interest within the medical community by the later part of the 19th century had possibly led to a situation wherein the vaccination procedure was causing more mischief than the disease itself. And he backed this up with a never-refuted statistical analysis of the best available smallpox incidence data: among the first epidemiological studies of its kind.

A second example lies in Wallace's beliefs as to the possibility of life on other worlds. It is often stated, incorrectly (and in the Foreword Gould contributes to the misunderstanding), that Wallace believed life existed only on earth. Actually, his view was that only earth harbors conditions promoting higher (consciously self-aware) life-forms. Of greater interest, one might argue, was the methodology he used to come to such conclusions. In the case of his famous criticism of astronomer Percival Lowell's belief that humanoid-constructed canals existed on the surface of Mars, this method invoked a close analysis of the probable climate of Mars and the likely condition of its surface. Many of his conclusions in this regard have turned out to be quite close to modern knowledge of the situation, and for his efforts he is slowly gaining recognition as a founder of the science of exobiology.

There is hardly a historical individual whose world-view touched on a wider range of subjects still relevant to present-day concerns than Alfred Russel Wallace. Berry has performed a great service by producing this collection, which manages to avoid hero-worship or uncritical review, yet offers up a thoroughly sympathetic portrait of a truly exemplary human being.
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