Book by WCU’s Costa focuses on English naturalist Wallace

A book by Western Carolina University biology professor and Highlands Biological Station director James Costa titled “Wallace, Darwin and the Origin of Species” has been published by Harvard University Press.

The book provides an in-depth look at the work of 19th-century English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who co-discovered the principle of natural selection in 1858. Costa analyzes the development of Wallace’s thinking as seen through the lens of the naturalist’s “Species Notebook,” which is the field notebook and journal in which Wallace recorded his evolutionary ideas during his eight years of exploration in southest Asia in the 1850s. Costa also compares Wallace’s work to Darwin’s work, taking a closer look at the relationship between the two naturalists.

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James Costa

Costa said he hopes the book inspires a new level of appreciation for Wallace’s accomplishments, which have been largely overshadowed by Darwin’s, and corrects the view of Wallace as a secondary figure. The book portrays the two naturalists “as true equals in advancing one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time,” he said.

By the end of Wallace’s life in 1913, the 90-year-old was one of the most famous scientists in the world, lauded by British royalty and U.S. presidents. Yet today, Darwin’s name is universally recognized while Wallace is all but unknown, said Costa, who described Wallace as an “amazing naturalist who persevered against all odds and made great discoveries.”

“Despite his self-education and lack of wealth, Wallace managed to travel in South America and southeast Asia, conducting research to solve the mystery of species origins,” he said. “He became the pre-eminent tropical explorer of his day and is recognized today as the founder of the field of evolutionary biogeography and co-founder of evolutionary biology.”

In his book, Costa explores parallels in the thinking of Darwin and Wallace and traces Wallace’s meteoric rise to fame in the 19th century and subsequent eclipse by Darwin. He also critically evaluates the conspiracy theories that Wallace was somehow wronged by Darwin and argues that raising Wallace’s profile should not come at Darwin’s expense.

Cover of "Wallace, Darwin adn the Origin of Species"

“Wallace, Darwin and the Origin of Species” has been published by Harvard University Press.

George Beccaloni, curator and director of the A.R. Wallace Correspondence Project at the Natural History Museum in London, said Costa’s book will appeal to everyone who has interest in the history of evolutionary biology.

“This engaging and very accessible book is the most comprehensive and well-balanced account of the development of Wallace’s early evolutionary thinking ever written,” said Beccaloni in advance praise for the book.

Janet Browne, Aramont Professor of the History of Science and chair of the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University, lauded the book as “marvelously fresh and clear” and “an illuminating comparison of Wallace’s and Darwin’s theories.”

“Costa gives Wallace his biological due and more,” she said.

During scholarly leave at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, Germany, last year, Costa completed the book and its companion volume “On the Organic Law of Change,” the first-time publication and annotated transcription of Wallace’s Species Notebook, which was published by Harvard University Press in November 2013. Costa completed his books with the help of the Linnean Society of London, which owns Wallace’s Species Notebook; his wife Leslie, who worked on the notebook transcription; and a dedicated team of librarians and the intellectual community of fellows at the institute in Berlin, with whom he presented and discussed his ideas.

During his stay in Berlin, Costa also authored several papers on Wallace and published in international journals including Theory in Biosciences, Biology Letters, Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature, Current Biology and Evolve, the magazine of London’s Natural History Museum.

For more information, contact Costa at 828-526-2602 or costa@email.wcu.edu.