This year marks the centennial of the passing of Alfred Russel Wallace, who at the time of his death in 1913 was the most famous naturalist in the world. We’re quite pleased to be publishing a beautifully produced facsimile edition of Wallace’s “Species Notebook” of 1855-1859, a never-before-published document that helps to reestablish Wallace as Darwin’s equal among the pioneers of evolution. In the brief excerpt below, James T. Costa gives a hint of why he undertook the project of annotating Wallace’s notebook; and below that, watch a lovely little paper-puppet animation of Wallace’s life and work.
Wallace’s Species Notebook was well named: it is a window into Wallace’s early evolutionary thinking, encompassing the period in which his fertile mind was churning out paper after insightful paper as he searched for clues to the origin of species. The period of the notebook is, notably, punctuated by the publication of two watershed papers in the history of the field—Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper (1855) and Ternate essay (1858)—among others. In its notes, sketches, and narratives we see Wallace the philosopher and Wallace the collector: the arguments for his planned book on transmutation are found side by side with specimen label designs; his discussions of the nature of species and varieties, the meaning of fossils, struggle in nature, or the branching history of life all share space with notes on the cost of rice, lists of books to read, a proposed remedy for the proliferation of taxonomic synonyms, and a practical scheme for a library of natural history. Then there are the myriad collection notes, from the hunting of orangutans and birds of paradise to his catches of curious beetles and beautiful butterflies.
Wallace is decidedly underappreciated relative to his illustrious colleague Charles Darwin, all but unknown outside of scholarly circles and even little known within, and this despite his being not only the co-discoverer of one of humanity’s greatest insights into the workings of nature—evolution by natural selection—but also the founder of the modern discipline of zoogeography. He made fundamental contributions in evolutionary biology, biogeography, ornithology, and entomology, and weighed in on a host of social issues of his day in a continuous stream of scientific papers, essays, interviews, and books. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to appreciate that history, in some respects, has not been just to Wallace.
That his gifts and contributions are not more widely appreciated today is our loss, for Wallace’s story is nothing short of epic, his achievements all the more poignant for their realization against all odds. Wallace’s unique blend of pluck, perseverance, and creativity were combined with the temperament of a philosopher, the sense of wonder of a child, and more than a dash of genius. This centennial year marking the naturalist’s death in 1913 offers an opportunity for both celebration and reflection on the man and his accomplishments, and there is so much to celebrate and reflect upon. In this regard Wallace’s Species Notebook is an unparalleled lens through which the scope of his early evolutionary thought is seen to advantage, in the context of life in the field where the ideas were conceived. It is in the spirit of enabling the reader to accompany Wallace on his journeys both physical and intellectual that my annotations are offered.