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Academic & Professional Books  Evolutionary Biology  Evolution

Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species

By: James T Costa(Author), Andrew Berry(Contributor)
331 pages, 7 b/w photos, 35 b/w illustrations, 1 map, 7 tables
This detailed and even-handed analysis convincingly argues why Wallace deserves recognition as the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution.
Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species
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  • Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species ISBN: 9780674729698 Hardback Jun 2014 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1 week
Price: £42.95
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About this book

Charles Darwin is often credited with discovering evolution through natural selection, but the idea was not his alone. The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, working independently, saw the same process at work in the natural world and elaborated much the same theory. Their important scientific contributions made both men famous in their lifetimes, but Wallace slipped into obscurity after his death, while Darwin's renown grew.

Dispelling the misperceptions that continue to paint Wallace as a secondary figure, James Costa reveals the two naturalists as true equals in advancing one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. Analyzing Wallace's Species Notebook, Costa shows how Wallace's methods and thought processes paralleled Darwin's, yet inspired insights uniquely his own. Kept during his Southeast Asian expeditions of the 1850s, the notebook is a window into Wallace's early evolutionary ideas. It records his evidence-gathering, critiques of anti-evolutionary arguments, and plans for a book on "transmutation." Most important, it demonstrates conclusively that natural selection was not some idea Wallace stumbled upon, as is sometimes assumed, but was the culmination of a decade-long quest to solve the mystery of the origin of species.

Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species also reexamines the pivotal episode in 1858 when Wallace sent Darwin a manuscript announcing his discovery of natural selection, prompting a joint public reading of the two men's papers on the subject. Costa's analysis of the Species Notebook shines a new light on these readings, further illuminating the independent nature of Wallace's discoveries.


Alfred Russel Wallace: A Short Biography, by Andrew Berry

1. Granted the Law: Alfred Russel Wallace’s Evolutionary Travels
2. The Consilient Mr. Wallace: Transmutation and Related Themes of Wallace’s Species Notebook
3. Wallace and Darwin: Parallels, Intersections, and Departures on the Evolutionary Road
4. Two Indefatigable Naturalists: Wallace and Darwin’s Watershed Papers
5. A Striking Coincidence: The Wallace and Darwin Papers of 1858 Compared
6. True with a Vengeance: From Delicate Arrangement to Conspiracy: A Guide

Coda: The Force of Admiration
Notes on the Text and Illustrations

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A detailed and even-handed analysis
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 24 Nov 2023 Written for Hardback

    This is a companion book to On the Organic Law of Change, presenting an analysis of this crucial notebook that Wallace kept during his travels around the Malay archipelago. Hence, you are getting a two-for-one as this review continues the previous one. Now that you know what Wallace's Species Notebook contains and why it is interesting, Costa here steps back to look at the bigger picture. One thing that Darwin and Wallace shared was that their arguments were consilient: they were drawing together many independent lines of evidence to build a convincing argument. Appropriately, I think Costa applies the same logic in this book, looking at this historical episode from many different sides.

    After setting the scene about what Wallace was up to, Costa explores two particularly influential papers in detail, the Sarawak Law paper (1855) and Ternate essay (1858). In (very) brief, these papers respectively proposed *that* species change and *how* species change. Remember that this was when most naturalists were opposed to transmutation (as evolution was called), maintaining that species were divinely created, unchanging entities. In that sense, Wallace's Species Notebook is a goldmine of the unpublished arguments he was considering and Costa's analysis expands on the appendix in On the Organic Law of Change.

    The superficial narrative that Wallace and Darwin hit on the same idea at the same time is just that: superficial. To refine this story, Costa next compares the Species Notebook with Darwin's Origin, notebooks, and manuscripts. True, there *are* striking similarities in their conclusions and how they reached them, but there are also notable differences. Similarly, hindsight has compressed the timeline. Darwin had it figured out 21 years before Wallace but only shared his ideas with a few confidants. Thus, their discovery of natural selection was contemporaneous, but not simultaneous; and it was similar, but not the same. Costa drives home these points because they are "an important first step toward realizing the independent nature of their respective insights" (p. 107).

    Until 1857, Darwin and Wallace were unaware of each other's thoughts on evolution but that would soon change. First contact happened in April 1857 with a letter from Wallace, telling Darwin about his ideas on species change. Darwin's reply notes that they were thinking along the same lines and, "Oh, by the way", he had been working on the species question for 20 years already and was making good progress on a book. Instead of backing off, Wallace replied enthusiastically, attaching his Ternate essay with the request to forward it to Lyell if Darwin thought it had merit. When Darwin received this in June 1858 he was shocked, sending several anguished letters to Lyell. He had been scooped! He did not want to see years of hard work go to waste, but how could he possibly publish honourably at this point? In response, Lyell and botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker quickly organised that famous meeting at the Linnean Society.

    To analyse this episode, Costa switches gears again and presents annotated facsimiles of all the key papers: the Sarawak Law paper and the papers read at this meeting. This is followed by a detailed analysis where Costa goes into the weeds on what their respective understanding of evolution was at this point in time, the key point being how they envisioned that natural selection acts. Reading the original papers is surprisingly fun. Beyond the somewhat flowery language and dated terminology that Costa clarifies, the logic shines through. Especially Wallace's essays show how clued-in he was. For example, the fittest do not always survive and evolution happens "by minute steps, in various directions" (p. 212). These are the kinds of subtleties we still need to remind people of today.

    Costa's analysis next turns to the conspiracies and claims of misconduct. Darwin has been accused of receiving Wallace's Ternate essay earlier than mid-June, filching details from it, hastily rewriting sections of his manuscript and then using his influence to suppress Wallace's claim to fame. Well now. Costa instead patiently dismantles these claims, showing there is little more to them than the seductive scent of scandal. He delivers, I think, an even-handed and fair discussion that earnestly explores suspicious-seeming details. The problem is that several key letters are missing, and despite creative sleuthing by historians, Costa concedes that it is possible that Darwin received the Ternate essay earlier than he said. But what of it? He did not destroy the evidence, forwarding it to Lyell as requested. More importantly, Costa's preceding analysis has highlighted all the ideas Darwin proposed that are absent from Wallace's essay and the Species Notebook. Thanks to plenty of documentary evidence, historians have reconstructed how Darwin developed his ideas over the preceding years. Costa admits that Darwin might have been impressed, even influenced by the Ternate essay, but that "is not tantamount to intellectual theft" (p. 254). Furthermore, he thinks that Lyell and Hooker's move is unethical by both contemporary and modern standards; they should have asked for permission before presenting these papers.

    A final, interesting strand of the analysis considers some counterfactuals. What if Wallace had sent his essay straight to an editor for publication? Would Darwin still have published his book? Though we cannot know, Costa offers insightful speculation here. This all leads to the question of why we have forgotten Wallace but remember Darwin. There are several likely factors. The Darwin family was already famous thanks to grandfather Erasmus, and Darwin was admittedly poor at acknowledging others. Simultaneously, Wallace's generosity was near-pathological and he never stopped deferring to Darwin. He also championed questionable and controversial causes that raised eyebrows in scientific circles. Costa feels it is high time to right this wrong: "the scientific and broader intellectual community needs to do better by Wallace" (p. 262) though we can honour him without diminishing Darwin's achievements.

    Can you read On the Organic Law of Change by itself? You could, but then it is more of a historical curio. To get the most out of it you need this book. So, could you read Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species by itself? Though it is mostly self-contained, note that the online version of the Species Notebook on the website of the Linnean Society has no transcription or annotations. So, to fully immerse yourself in this fascinating chapter of science history I would recommend you read them both. Costa has done a tremendous job and I commend the publisher for seeing the value in it and not forcing this into an abridged format.
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James T. Costa is Executive Director of Highlands Biological Station and Professor of Biology at Western Carolina University.

By: James T Costa(Author), Andrew Berry(Contributor)
331 pages, 7 b/w photos, 35 b/w illustrations, 1 map, 7 tables
This detailed and even-handed analysis convincingly argues why Wallace deserves recognition as the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution.
Media reviews

"[Costa] convincingly navigates potentially treacherous terrain, setting the record straight on Wallace's great achievement, which independently foreshadowed Darwin's On the Origin of Species without in any way diminishing Darwin's 'insights and accomplishments.' [...] An illuminating, nuanced account of the parallel discovery of a theory still deemed controversial by some."
Kirkus Reviews

"Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace independently discovered natural selection, a mechanism explaining the diversity of life on Earth, and Costa, professor of biology at Western Carolina University, explores how such a momentous discovery could have arisen from two people at roughly the same time as well as what we can learn from those similarities [...] He lays to rest the conspiracy theories promoting the belief that Darwin stole Wallace's idea and took it as his own. Costa also counters those who have claimed that Wallace was a scientific lightweight who stumbled onto one important concept. Indeed, he details the evolutionary thinking and writing of both Wallace and Darwin during the critical period leading up to the joint publication of their theory of natural selection by the Linnean Society of London in 1858 [...] Costa impressively demonstrates the inductive process both scientists utilized and how each made major and lasting contributions to modern science."
Publishers Weekly

"Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) and Charles Darwin (1809–82) arrived at many of the same ideas about natural selection at almost precisely the same time while in correspondence with each other. Darwin's publication of his theories made him a legend, but Wallace has been mostly relegated to a footnote in the history books. Here Costa hopes to remedy that imbalance, recounting and analyzing Wallace's life and work with the ease and familiarity befitting one who edited and prepared the naturalist's previously unpublished Species Notebook. The author attempts to pin down Wallace's inner life and thought processes through painstaking textual analysis of his subject's reading material, correspondence, notebooks, and publications, as well as some of Darwin's."
– Kate Horowitz, Library Journal

"This engaging and very accessible book is the most comprehensive, insightful and well-balanced account of the development of Wallace's early evolutionary thinking ever written. Everyone with an interest in the history of evolutionary biology should read it. Although it does much to raise Wallace's profile, it does nothing to diminish Darwin's reputation or achievements."
– George Beccaloni, Curator of Orthopteroid Insects and Director of the A.R. Wallace Correspondence Project, Natural History Museum, London

"A marvelously fresh and clear explanation of the joint announcement of evolution by natural selection and an illuminating comparison of Wallace's and Darwin's theories. Throughout, Costa gives Wallace his biological due and more."
– Janet Browne, Aramont Professor of the History of Science and Chair of the Department of the History of Science, Harvard University

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