Review: William Bryant’s The Birds of Paradise: Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 111 in 2006.

William Bryant, The Birds of Paradise: Alfred Russel Wallace: a Life
(New York: iUniverse, 2006)

Unlike William Bryant's last book, Ross, which was a playful, nearly gleeful, celebrity-laden, x-rated romp through post-World War I Europe and America, his new work is rather astringent. The Birds of Paradises is a careful, well-modulated biography of Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, best known today for coming up with the theory of evolution at about the same time Darwin did. As it happened, through Darwin's gracious intervention, an account of their simultaneous discovery of this principle was given at the Linnean Society in 1858.

Aside from their joint pioneering of this theory and each's abiding absorption in collecting and studying animals, particularly beetles, the two men (Darwin and Wallace) couldn't have been more different, a contrast which Bryant uses as one of the fruitful guiding rails of his study.

Two differences stand out. Darwin came from the moneyed upper middle class and, so, had years of leisure in which to experiment and perfect his remarkable theory once he had returned from his voyage as naturalist for the British scientific expedition on the Beagle. Wallace, on the other hand, was from the working class. Apprenticed young to be a surveyor after completing only a few years of schooling, he got a taste for tramping from going around England laying out railroad lines. At the same time, his observations of the specific animal and plant life in each geographic district, combined with a prodigious reading of zoology and botany, gave him a scientific bent. In 1849 he decided to turn all these skills and inclinations to advantage by going to South America to collect rare bugs and larger animals for which goodly sums would be paid by British collectors. During his four years in the Western Hemisphere and eight years in the Malay Archipelago, Wallace made thoughtful observations on the distinctions between animals types on different islands and land masses. This, combined with the considerable down time he had while suffering during his frequent bouts of jungle fever, made it possible for him to formulate a theory of evolution, which he put to paper before Darwin. It's a startling contrast, really. While Darwin spent years cogitating and taking notes in the well-appointed study of his country house, Wallace was slung in a hammock in, perhaps, Borneo, sweating, swatting insects and cogitating the same ideas.

Wallace had noticed that isolated islands possessed unique varieties of birds and insects, ones found nowhere else on earth. The reigning religious scientists of the time explained this as an effect of “special creation.” God, for inscrutable reasons, had miraculously created these sui generis animals to populate these out-of-the-way areas. Wallace argued, on the contrary, that once these islands had been separated from the land masses to which, according to contemporary geology, they had once been joined, animals evolved. They changed when circumstances changed according to survival of the adapted. If, for example, a new type of vegetation arose, perhaps brought to the island by wind-borne seeds, those insects say, that could profit by it would out-exist others. Let’s imagine that among a group of same-species beetles, who come in a wide spectrum of colors, a few had a shade that matched the new plants’ leaves. They were not picked off by birds as fast as their brother and sister bugs, and so would pass on their coloration to the next generation. Eventually, it might happen that no beetles of any other color survived, and so a new form of beetle would have evolved to mirror an altered environment. Wallace claimed, scandalously enough, that this happened on a wide scale all over the world so that animals were molded into their present forms by their ecosystem, not by the hand of Jehovah.

To return to our theme, the other way the two men could be differentiated -- and here Bryant admits he is taking his speculations beyond the available facts -- is in their sexual lifestyles. Where the retiring Darwin was presumably a moral, respectable heterosexual, Wallace, at least if we go by suggestive hints in his diaries, enjoyed not only the food of the tropics but the widespread, casual homosexuality available there. In fact, delving into general conditions, Bryant argues that such amiable. gay alliances between Europeans and the natives were a passing stage in colonial history. "The ruling elite of Britain after the 1860s no longer felt obliged to respect the native populations they governed. ... It was then that recreational sodomy became unthinkable, if not undoable, and concubines were treated as sex slaves, victims instead of collaborators."

This is one of the many hard truths rendered in passing in this book which paints a marvelous picture of a man who was shy in front of people but intrepid as an adventurer, a rough-and-ready, self-made scholar and thinker. Wallace was not only daring in tricking out scientific hypotheses, but in trekking to out-of-the-way enclaves and tracking down unusual fauna and (as Bryant would have it) fauns.