I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Thursday, June 29, 2006

I Read About A. R. Wallace and It Was OK

So I finished the first of my required summer reading books. By way of accountability, I wrote up a short reflection on a very long book: The Heretic in Darwin's Court: The life of Alfred Russel Wallace by Ross Slotten...

If Alfred Russel Wallace is Famous for anything today, it is because of his role in the publication of the Origin of Species. The story, as it is popularly known and, for that matter, as it actually happened, has Poor Alfred sick in the Malay Archipelago and writing to his prospective mentor Charles Darwin with a new theory that he had developed while out in the field. Charles, frightened out of his wits rushed to complete his book so as to maintain the claim of priority on what became the theory of Natural Selection.

I first read this book to see what became of Wallace and Darwin’s relationship. Wallace, as it turns out, was more than happy to play second fiddle and they maintained a sometimes close and sometimes strained professional relationship for the rest of Darwin’s life. However, there is much more to this book (and Wallace) than that one magic scientific moment.

First, I should note that the book is well-written but really long. Much of it is spent describing the details of various 19th century scientific debates which I fear that I only managed to follow in the most basic of ways. Here, however, are some items that I found interesting:

1) Wallace, unlike most scientists of his day, came from a working class family. This fact continued to impact his career throughout his life. For example, Wallace was partly well-traveled because of his passion for the natural world and partly because it was his job, first as a surveyor and then as a paid collector of specimens. His own theories were developed, for the most part, in the field, whatever that field may have been...

2) If people know more than the one incident from his life mentioned earlier, they also know that Wallace had a reputation for being somewhat goofy. Wallace was a spiritualist. He was also a proponent of land reform, a socialist, and an opponent of vaccinations. While these positions were somewhat unusual for a scientist, for a member of the middle class they were less so.

3) If you have the time (I don’t) you might want to pick up a copy of his “Tropical Nature” and other Essays (I’m sure there must be a copy somewhere). In the words of Slotten “It anticipates a concern for the environment that would not fully emerge until the twentieth century.” In light of this it is worth noting that he had a brief opportunity to hang out with John Muir in California during his American tour.

He also spent time with William James, whom he liked and with James Russell Lowell whom he disliked. Sadly, he was not impressed with many of James’ friends. “I was not much impressed,” he wrote, “by the Boston celebrities as I ought to have been.” Alas for us!

4) Wallace has also at various times been accused of abandoning his theory of natural selection later in life. This, however, appears to be untrue. What is true, is that, in Slotten’s words he “refused to believe that humanity, with its faculties, aspirations, and powers for good and evil, was a simple by-product of random forces—that human beings were merely animals of no importance to the universe and requiring no great preparation for their advent." That is, his deeply held non-scientific beliefs led him to conclude that (at least in the case of humanity) there was some controlling order to the universe. This, of course, has been the position of many thoughtful people over the years and one that many still hold today.

According to Slotten (and I have no reason to disagree with him), Wallace was a brilliant man who was often difficult to get along with. He was someone who constantly struggled to earn enough money to maintain himself and his family but, thanks to his relationship with many of the great scientists of his era (he lived for a very long time) he existed to some extent in an upper-class world that tolerated, celebrated, and sometime vilified yet did not understand him. He is worth getting to know, I think, not only for his contributions to science, but for what his life tells us about the class system of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

PS, Remember you lazy High Schoolers!!

This is a very long book and your teacher expects you to read it, not copy from the dubious reflections of some random clergyman!