Science Book a Day Interviews John van Wyhe

john-van-wyheSpecial thanks to John van Wyhe for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book, which he co-authored – Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters from the Malay Archipelago

John van Wyhe is a historian of science, with a focus on Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, at the National University of Singapore. Wikipedia

#1 – What was the impetus for this book?

The last time a volume of Wallace letters was published was in 1916. A lot has been discovered since then and so it was long overdue. There had never been a scholarly edition of Wallace letters, as there are for Darwin for example.

#2 – Why has Alfred Russel Wallace not received the same attention as Charles Darwin?

Quite simply because Darwin published the Origin of Species based on 20 years of work. This book almost single handedly changed the international scientific community to accept that evolution was a fact within about 10-15 years. Darwin’s reputation comes from that.

#3 – From the letters in the book, do we get an idea of what kind of man Wallace was? What kind of man do you think he was?

Yes, many of the letters are to his family so we see an intimate, private view of this fascinating Victorian naturalist. Our volume is fully edited so all of the people and places and other things mentioned are identified and explained. There is a lot of added value beyond the letters themselves, even though we include both those to and from Wallace during his travels. For example, our research has found that many of the traditional beliefs about Wallace were wrong. We also found that he was quite bad about dates. So the itinerary of his voyage that has been constructed over the years based on his books is terribly inaccurate. We have used all the evidence that survives from the period to re-construct an accurate one and this is an appendix to the book.

#4 – How did you get access to these letters? How did you decide what to put into the book and what to leave out?

The letters are held in public institutions so as historians of science this part was easy. Our policy was to include all the letters written during his voyage and just a note after his departure. It would have been nice to include more letters that led up to the voyage, but we were afraid this would make the book too long.

#5 – Are there any future projects/books that you can tell us about?

I have recently completed an annotated edition of Wallace’s great travel book, The Malay Archipelago (1869). Although it has been a favourite book of many people for 150 years, and is still in print, it is full of surprises and indeed a lot of mistakes and unintelligable passages (for modern readers). This edition, coming out this year with NUS Press, we be the definitive edition of Wallace’s classic.


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