An Elusive Victorian and the theory of evolution

A new book by York humanities Professor Martin Fichman adds a fresh perspective to the history of the theory of evolution by natural selection. The book, An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace (University of Chicago Press, 2004), is the fourth offering by Fichman, who is also the author of Evolutionary Theory and Victorian Culture (2002); Science, Technology, and Society: A Historical Perspective (1993); and an earlier biography of Wallace.

Left: Martin Fichman

In An Elusive Victorian, Fichman provides the first contextualized study of Alfred Russel Wallace, a giant of Victorian science and the co-discoverer, with Charles Darwin, of the theory of evolution by natural selection. The book is not a conventional biography. Instead, Fichman, one of the world’s leading experts on Wallace, examines the breadth of Wallace’s contribution to science and Victorian culture generally. 

Wallace seemed an enigma to contemporaries, and most later historians, precisely because he made significant contributions to the scientific and non-scientific communities in Victorian England. Many scholars have relegated Wallace’s scientific contributions to secondary status compared to Darwin’s, and have often misunderstood or even mocked Wallace’s more controversial contributions to Victorian culture. Fichman examines not only Wallace’s scientific work but also his philosophical concerns, his involvement with theism and his commitment to land naturalization and other social and political reforms such as women’s rights.

Right: Cover of the book An Elusive Victorian

“I wanted to show that Wallace was not only a titan of scientific thought but also a titan of the Victorian period,” said Fichman. “My book is a major reassessment of Wallace’s contributions to science and the broader culture.”

Throughout the pages of his book, Fichman illustrates that Wallace worked throughout his life to integrate his humanistic and scientific interests. His ultimate goal was the development of an evolutionary cosmology, a unified vision of humanity’s place in nature, and a society that he hoped would ensure the dignity of all individuals.

Fichman’s account is an effort to place Wallace’s work and contribution to evolutionary theory into context, encompassing historical, scientific and religious perspectives. It provides a compelling account of Victorian culture.

“What initially got me interested in Wallace was the disparity between the enormous literature on Darwin and the comparitive scarcity of work devoted to Wallace, especially since both were co-discoverers of one of the most famous theories in science,” said Fichman. “To be sure, there were differences between the two men. Darwin was over a decade older than Wallace, his wife was a Wedgwood [china] heiress and he was well-known in the upper class Victorian society, he was socially, politically and scientifically very well connected.

Left: Charles Darwin

Wallace in contrast, was from a modest background and had none of the connections Darwin possessed.” Fichman added, “Did this fully account for the very different reputations the two men have had?

My book is not a chronological biography; instead, I wanted to write a book that focused on the relationship between Wallace’s scientific and social interests,” said Fichman. “In Wallace’s mind, the link between these different interests was crucial. He was not simply a scientist, nor was he a politician, I called him ‘elusive’ because people of that time and many later historians did not know what to do with him because he was larger than life.”

Right: Alfred Russel Wallace

Fichman feels that Wallace had a significant impact on the cultural framework of modern science. “Wallace is significant because he was ahead of his time. Science affects general culture and nothing exists in a vacuum. Wallace examined not only science but he also looked at other areas of society. He was important because of what he represented for the Victorian era and for our own age as a synthetic thinker.”

As Fichman shows, Wallace worked throughout his life to integrate these humanistic and scientific interests. Fichman’s account will interest historians of science, religion, and Victorian culture as well as biologists.

A graduate of Harvard University, Fichman has wide-ranging research interests, including the history of evolutionary thought, European cultural and intellectual history from 1700-1900, science and religion, and the social context of contemporary science and technology.