Special issue on Alfred Russel Wallace

The September issue of Natural History magazine is devoted almost entirely to essays concerning Alfred Russel Wallace. I usually turn the pages of NH, look at the pictures, and read many of the captions – but I read this issue almost in its entirety (and therefore cannot resist writing about it). Unfortunately, it looks as though none of the articles is available on the Web, but you can get your own copy for $3.95 (US), presumably on the newsstand.

The issue was edited by Richard Milner, head of the Wallace Centenary Celebration. According to the second comment below, he also edited a special issue of Skeptic magazine, and you may request a free copy of either or both magazines by writing Mr. Milner an e-mail.

The first article, by the distinguished naturalist David Attenborough, outlines Wallace’s career. I did not know that, as Wallace returned from South America, his ship caught fire, and he lost all his notes and his specimens; I think I learned that fact 2 more times in subsequent articles. Attenborough outlines how Wallace got the idea of natural selection while studying birds of paradise. As is widely known, he sent an essay to Darwin. Lyell and Hooker arranged to have Wallace’s paper presented alongside a paper by Darwin, who then rushed his own book, On the Origin of Species, into print. Attenborough remarks, “You might have thought there was an embarrassment or perhaps hostility or resentment” between Darwin and Wallace. “Not at all. The two men had great respect for each other, untinged by any sign of jealousy.”

An article by geneticist Andrew Berry goes over some of the same material, though in more detail and more biographically. Berry observes that Wallace’s 1865 definition of “species” is identical to the “biological species concept” that is usually attributed to Ernst Mayr 80 or so years later. There is a certain amount of redundancy in these articles, each of which was written as if the authors thought they would have to stand alone: Berry introduces us to Wallace’s Line, apparently unaware that Attenborough has already done so in the preceding article and Gary Noel Ross will do so later. Wallace originally went abroad, says naturalist Errol Fuller, to earn money by supplying stuffed animals to middle- and upper-class England; evidently such products were in considerable demand at the time, and Attenborough estimates that Wallace collected 110,000 insects, 7500 shells, 8050 bird skins, and over 400 mammals and reptiles. Fuller shows us some stuffed specimens that remain in remarkably good condition today.

But for someone who just wants to look at the pictures, the high point of the issue might be a series of photographs of birds of paradise by Tim Laman with a narrative by Edwin Scholes. An article by Ross describes (sort of) following in Wallace’s footsteps and searching for the golden birdwing butterfly; this article likewise displays excellent photographs, some by the author and including what seems to be a selfie taken from a distance of several meters.

The final article is a reprint of a 1980 article by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould discusses the fact, noted in an earlier article as well, that Wallace and Darwin disagreed on sexual selection, and also on the origin of the human brain. Wallace, according to Gould, took the “hyperselectionist” position that everything that evolved is an adaptation. The brain, however, can do much that it is not adapted to do, like write symphonies. Such reasoning, says Gould, leads Wallace “right back to the basic belief of an earlier creationism that it [Wallace’s hyperselectionism] meant to replace—a faith in the rightness of things, a definite place for each object in an integrated whole.”

If you want to know more, I am afraid that you will have to buy the magazine. And cheer up! The pictures are better in print than on your monitor.