Commentary, History and Philosophy of Science

An Elusive Victorian’s Birthday

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Today marks the 186th anniversary of the birth of British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. Best known for independently proposing the theory of evolution by natural selection, Wallace today remains less well-known than his more celebrated counterpart, Charles Darwin. Nevertheless, Wallace’s contributions continue to loom large over modern natural science, and his legacy is celebrated in many books published by the University of Chicago Press. For a reader looking to celebrate Wallace’s birthday by learning more about this unjustly over-shadowed scientist, the best place to start would be our own An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace by Martin Fichman.
The first comprehensive analytical study of Wallace’s life and controversial intellectual career, An Elusive Victorian examines not only his scientific work as an evolutionary theorist and field naturalist but also his philosophical concerns, his involvement with theism, and his commitment to land nationalization and other sociopolitical reforms such as women’s rights. As Fichman shows, Wallace worked throughout his life to integrate these humanistic and scientific interests. His goal: the development of an evolutionary cosmology, a unified vision of humanity’s place in nature and society that he hoped would ensure the dignity of all individuals.
To reveal the many aspects of this compelling figure, Fichman not only reexamines Wallace’s published works, but also probes the contents of his lesser known writings, unpublished correspondence, and copious annotations in books from his personal library. Rather than consider Wallace’s science as distinct from his sociopolitical commitments, An Elusive Victorian assumes a mutually beneficial relationship between the two, one which shaped Wallace into one of the most memorable characters of his time.
Happy reading, and happy birthday ARW!