The likely truth, evidenced by the letters in this collection, is that Darwin and Wallace were not fierce competitors but ‘particularly sympathetic fellow naturalists.’ They gladly shared ideas in the realm of evolutionary theory and there was mutual admiration. It might be time to retire all talk of Darwinian skulduggery. It only distracts from the marrow of Wallace’s achievements and, as these letters reveal, he was a multifaceted and fascinating figure.His trip to the Malay archipelago between 1854 and 1862 was perhaps the crowning glory of his career. Aside from developing his own articulation of evolution theory, Wallace discovered thousands of species and made many striking ethnographical observations. When the landscape was beautiful he fell into rapture; when the going got tough he was not slow to complain.
This collection includes all surviving letters sent to and from Wallace during the period. They include a surprising number of humorous moments and offer wonderful insights into the mind of one of the Victorian era’s most accomplished scientists. He was second to no one, the mighty Darwin included.
ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE: letter from the malay archipelago; Oxford University Press; £12.99 (paperback)
This review was published in the October 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine