Some Reading for Wallace Year

by Greg Mayer

I should probably have posted something like this earlier, but here are a few recommended books about and by Wallace. It’s an idiosyncratic list, reflecting what was interesting and available to me, but might still be useful as a starting point. Wallace is of course mentioned in many books on the general history of evolution and Darwinism, but the following are works devoted primarily or exclusively to Wallace. I’ll start with a few biographies of Wallace, then a collection of essays, and finally some things written by Wallace himself.

The frontispiece of Island Life, 1880.

The frontispiece of Island Life, 1880.

Raby, P. 2001. Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J. A well-received biography by a Victorianist interested in scientific travellers, covering the whole of Wallace’s life.

Shermer, M. 2001. In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Biographical Study on the Psychology of History. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Another biography, by an author probably more familiar to WEIT readers as the editor of Skeptic magazine and for his efforts in combating pseudoscience. Shermer’s academic credentials are in the history of science, and this book is based on his doctoral dissertation. Although Shermer might not appreciate the comment, I found the book refreshingly free of the sort of semi-quantitative psycho-history that the subtitle threatens.

Wyhe, J. van. 2013. Dispelling the Darkness: Voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the Discovery of Evolution by Wallace and Darwin. World Scientific, Singapore. I’m reading this now, having recently gotten my copy, and hope to say more later. Although briefly covering the whole of Wallace’s life, it concentrates on his time in the Malay Archipelago, which was the most scientifically creative part of his life. Van Wyhe is of course the editor of both Darwin Online and Wallace Online.

Smith, C.H. and G. Beccaloni, eds. 2008. Natural Selection and Beyond: The Intellectual Legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace. Oxford University Press, New York. This is a collection of essays edited by Charles Smith, editor of the essential Alfred Russel Wallace Page, and George Beccaloni, who has led the Natural History Museum‘s celebrations of Wallace Year. The essays, by scientists and historians, cover a broad range of historical and scientific issues, everything from a tour of Wallace’s many homes, to his studies of animal coloration, to his fight against vaccination.

For the works of Wallace himself, we can always view the online versions at Wallace Online and the Alfred Russel Wallace Page, or go to a good library, but a number of Wallace’s works are still in print. Here’s a sampling of some of my favorites.

Wallace, A. R. 2002. Infinite Tropics: an Alfred Russel Wallace Anthology. A. Berry, ed. Verso, London. Edited by Wallaceophile Andrew Berry, this is a collection of excerpts from throughout Wallace’s writings on a broad range of topics. If you are going to have only one book of Wallace’s writings, and you want to see what he thought about (almost) everything, this is the one.

The new issue of Island Life by University of Chicago Press, with commentary by Larry Heaney.

The new issue of Island Life by Univ. of Chicago Press, with commentary by Larry Heaney.

Wallace, A.R. 1880. Island Life. Macmillan, London.  Just reissued by the University of Chicago Press, with commentary by my friend and colleague Larry Heaney of the Field Museum. Larry, well known for his work on Philippine Island mammal faunas, provides an extensive introduction that explicates and puts Wallace’s work in modern context. Being very interested in islands, it was the first of Wallace’s major works that I obtained a copy of for myself (I got the 1892 second edition).

Wallace, Alfred R. 1870. Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection. MacMillan, London. My second Wallace book, obtained in exchange for a six-pack of beer, this is a collection of some of Wallace’s most important papers, including both the “Sarawak paper” and the “Ternate paper“. It was reissued in 2009 by Cambridge University Press.

Wallace, A.R. 1869. The Malay Archipelago: the Land of the Orang-utan, and the Bird of Paradise. Macmillan, London. There are many reissues of this book concerning Wallace’s travel and discoveries in the East Indies. The Dover reprint was long available, but is now out of print; here’s a recent in print edition.

Wallace is just starting to have his letters and notebooks get the same detailed attention that Darwin’s have. Here’s a recent issue of his letters written during his eastern expedition.

Wyhe, J. van, and K. Rookmaaker, eds. 2013.  Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters from the Malay ArchipelagoOxford University Press, Oxford. This is either just out or will be out soon; I haven’t seen a copy yet.

And finally, one of my favorite individual papers by Wallace, which I give as an assigned reading to my evolutionary biology classes.

Wallace, A. R. 1860. On the zoological geography of the Malay Archipelago. Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society: Zoology 4: 172-184.  pdf


  1. Posted September 16, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Nice reading list! If you are interested in Wallace’s letters, then ALL of the known ones (including all those from his Amazon and Malay Archipelago expeditions) are available here: (sorry to promote my own project!).

    • Jerry Drawhorn
      Posted September 17, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      Did you get my copy of the two Wallace letters sent to Charles Algernon Wallace? They don’t seem to be listed in the letters list.

      • Posted September 17, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

        Hi Jerry. If you mean the three amazing early letters that Wallace sent from the Amazon to his cousin Charles Wilson in Australia, which were printed in a south Australian newspaper, then our archivist Caroline is still working on them. If you are talking about some others then do let me know the details.

        • Jerry Drawhorn
          Posted September 18, 2013 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

          No, those were the ones…I think I also sent you paraphrased reference (by Wilson in his column) to the letter Wilson received from Gilolo. That’s quite interesting as well, although it’s clearly from Wallace’s second visit to Gilolo.

          • Jerry Drawhorn
            Posted September 18, 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

            BTW I spent a little time cleaning up the “auto-text” transcription of the letters on the site which may help Caroline, although she will obviously want to check my “back of the envelope” work against the original scans. Those are sometimes quite opaque or blurred, particularly at the creases of pages, but others are tolerably clear.

            There are also some references to Wallce collections of insects and birds sent to C.A. Wilson that were transferred in part to the Adelaide Museum (now S. Australia Museum), possibly lost to dermestid infestations in the 1870’s. Some may have been sent to Harvard.

  2. Lynn David
    Posted September 16, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Island Life is available free from Google Books;

    • Posted September 16, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      Actually ALL of Wallace’s publications, books included, are available as text and scans on John van Wyhe’s Wallace Online website –

      • Posted September 16, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

        Actually, it is worth pointing out that virtually ALL of Wallace’s published and unpublished writings are now available online: his published writings are in Wallace Online (; his correspondence, plus the notebooks in the London Natural History Museum’s collection are in Wallace Letters Online (; and the notebooks in the Linnean Society collection are in There is not much more left to digitize! This would be an ideal time for someone to write a big, detailed biography of Wallace (not me!).

      • W.Benson
        Posted September 16, 2013 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

        Pdf’s of essentially everything are available free at archive-org

        • Posted September 17, 2013 at 3:28 am | Permalink

          Not everything by any means! As far as I can see it doesn’t hold copies of Wallace’s manuscripts or even many of his published works. He wrote 22 books and over 1000 articles!!

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted September 18, 2013 at 4:00 am | Permalink

      And there are some on iBooks, such as The Malay Archipelago free from Project Gutenberg (which I’ve had on my phone for some time, now rereading), and Island Life for 99c (just got it).

  3. mikerol
    Posted September 16, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Here is something for your followers, a column written by God, in Seattle’s very own The Sranger!

    • W.Benson
      Posted September 16, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      Not funny.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 17, 2013 at 3:27 am | Permalink

        Well I got a laugh out of it.

        (Yeah, I know it’s probably blasphemy against cats, but if I can’t appreciate a good bit o’ blasphemy there’s no point in being a atheist, is there?)

  4. Dominic
    Posted September 17, 2013 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the additional suggestions. If you keep a weather eye out you can find old editions in places like or, or abebooks.
    If I ever get made homeless I will be able to build a house out of the piles of my books, then bring it down when I pull one out to read!
    I read & enjoyed Where Worlds Collide- the Wallace Line by Penny van Oosterzee.

    In fact there is more than one faunal line – Lydekker & Weber lines –

    • Dominic
      Posted September 17, 2013 at 3:08 am | Permalink

      I meant to add, search kindle for some FREE Wallace books like Island Life.

  5. Dominic
    Posted September 17, 2013 at 3:14 am | Permalink

    WARNING – the ‘Discovery Institute’ (oxymoron) has already set out to hijack Wallace –
    Avoid books by that fellow.

    • Posted September 17, 2013 at 3:23 am | Permalink


    • Jerry Drawhorn
      Posted September 17, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      That said, Wallace did open himself up to co-option by both the Intelligent Design and Spiritualist communities. Both are utilizing some of Wallace’s ideas as “authority” to support their movements. In the former case it should be noted that Wallace never surrender his view of “Common Descent” and s his placement on an Intelligent Design website entitled “Uncommon Descent” is particularly irksome.

      Another questionable Wallace expert is Michael Cremo. He’s what a I call a Krishna-Kreationist…and really believes that all the spiritual phenomenon that Wallace experienced were real.

  6. Ted Benton
    Posted September 17, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Maybe Greg Mayer hasn’t yet read T. Benton 2013 Alfred Russel Wallace: Expolorer, Evolutionist and Public Intellectual. A thinker for our own times? Siri Scientific press?

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