Book Review: The Natural Selection of Scientists ; Tuesday Book Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life by Peter Raby (Chatto & Windus, Pounds 20.00)
Gribbin, John, The Independent (London, England)
PEOPLE LIKE stories about people, and most histories are full of tales of great individuals who change the world. This is as true of scientific histories as any other, and many scientists are as tempted as lay people by images of towering geniuses who revolutionise their craft.
The truth is very different. Science progresses incrementally, hand in hand with technology, with each small step building on the work of many predecessors, and discoveries often made more or less simultaneously by two (or more) independent researchers when the time is ripe. What makes scientific geniuses special is that they often make contributions in more than one area, and perceive the broad picture into which those contributions fit.
All of this is amply born out by Peter Raby's splendid biography of Alfred Russel Wallace, the man who independently hit upon the idea of natural selection, and thereby prompted Charles Darwin to go public with his own version of the theory. Wallace was never the neglected figure of the evolution story, and during his lifetime (which lasted until 1913) he received many honours and attained a high profile - which, unfortunately, resulted in no small measure from his espousal of spiritualism and other activities which, if anything, detracted from his standing as a scientist.
He also insisted, especially in later life, that humankind somehow transcended the laws of evolution. But he did have the one brilliant insight about natural selection as the mechanism of evolution. The fact of evolution was already well-established by the 1850s, for those with eyes to see; the mechanism was the puzzle solved by Darwin and Wallace.
By contrast, Darwin made important contributions to geology, the biology of molluscs and plants, put people in their proper evolutionary place, and marshalled a huge weight of evidence in support of his case. As Raby makes clear, Darwin was Wallace's superior both as a naturalist and as a thinker. He also had the benefit of birth into the privileged classes, and never had to worry about money. …