Victorian scientist Alfred Russel Wallace has been dubbed the ‘the forgotten naturalist’ and for over 100 years has been in the shadow of his more celebrated peer, Charles Darwin.
In recent years, however, there has been renewed interest in the work of this pioneering and exceptional figure, co-credited alongside Darwin with the theory of evolution by natural selection, and An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles
will do much to drive forward this Wallace renaissance in the public’s mind.
This fully revised and expanded edition of the book, first published in 2013, offers the reader a unique mix of meticulously-researched biography, travelogue and contemplation of contemporary conservation and human rights concerns — with a healthy dose of boy’s own adventure thrown in for good measure.
‘Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes,’ as the old proverb goes, but author Paul Spencer Sochaczewski has gone much further to get under the skin of Wallace, retracing his steps across South-East Asia in a 40-year odyssey that took him far off the beaten path in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
As such, this is far more than a dry, academic examination of his subject. Instead, the wild, often contrary and above all, extraordinary, mind of Wallace is vividly presented to the degree that you sometimes feel he is alongside Sochaczewski on his travels.
As we learn, Wallace was as much a force of nature as a devotee of the natural world. Born into financial hardship at a time when the rigid social hierarchy presented significant barriers to advancement for those without pedigree or capital, he was effectively a self-made man. His achievements are even more impressive considering Wallace left school at the age of 13.
The sheer magnitude of his intellectual curiosity and genius for new insights, combined with a staggering amount of good old-fashioned pluck, led him to venture to the Amazon at the age of 25 without any money or backing, any grasp of the native languages or, indeed, having any experience of overseas travel at all.
Wallace’s four-year Brazilian adventure was followed by his eight-year sojourn in Southeast Asia, which resulted in his classic book The Malay Archipelago
By the time of his death in 1913 he had been hailed far and wide as the UK’s greatest living naturalist, while author G.K. Chesterton went so far to describe Wallace as one of the two “most important and significant figure[s] of the nineteenth century.”
As Sochaczewski explains, at first he followed Wallace’s path more by accident rather than design, arriving in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, after joining the United States Peace Corps in 1969, before taking up an advertising job in Singapore.
Once he realised the parallels, however, he threw himself into his physical and intellectual quest with gusto, having many memorable escapades in the process such as venturing through seldom-visited rain forests on the look-out for birds of paradise, finding new species with over-excited botanists, getting acquainted with orangutans or searching for tiger magicians or mythical giant cannibal tribes, to name but a few.
He uses these experiences as a frame to introduce Wallace’s many interests and contributions to human understanding, not only in the fields of biology and evolution, but also many other disciplines such as geology, ecology, climatology, humanism and even, in his later days, spiritualism.
Each chapter of the book follows a theme. Creationism vs evolution, Why Boys Leave Home, Women’s Emancipation, Animal Intelligence, Our Need/Fear Relationship with Nature, and Environmental Challenges are all covered in thoughtful detail — and each could be read as a fascinating piece of long-form journalism in its own right.
And despite his clear admiration for Wallace, Sochaczewski is not afraid to point out the perplexing contradictions in his character, such as on matters of slavery, the Western definition of the “savage,” and colonialism, where at various points he is either staunchly of his time or far ahead of it.
The author, a noted conservationist and the former head of communications at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), also uses his (and Wallace’s) experiences to make trenchant comments on contemporary issues such as the replacement of British colonialism with ‘brown-brown colonialism,’ abuse of human rights, and the ongoing destruction of habitat.
Further depths to these musings are added by the judicious inclusion of extracts from Wallace’s own papers and journals, as well as conversations with local people. The reader is spoilt for perspective and context, coming away with a well-rounded impression of the man and his world, both then and now.
The final chapter provides the author’s take on the lingering Darwin-Wallace Controversy, which still rages to this day over which man deserves the main credit for the key concept of the ‘survival of the fittest’. Many readers may come away from this feeling that Wallace not only has the better claim, but was morally the superior as well.
Fitting for an examination of one of life’s most ardent collectors, An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles
is packed with collected anecdotes, reminiscences and fun facts. It has been widely praised by many VIPs active today in the study of nature and conservation, and it’s clear to see why.
There are two equally engrossing narratives to enjoy — Wallace’s and Sochaczewski’s — and with a shared brio for discovery that’s utterly engaging and infectious, you’ll reach closer for the passport with every page. Highly recommended.
An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles - Campfire Conversations with Alfred Russel Wallace (Didier Millet Pty) by Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is published on April 24, priced £16.95 in paperback and £7.95 as an eBook. Visit Amazon UK