Science and Status Tom Wolfe highlights the shabby treatment of two underappreciated intellectuals. By DANIEL J. FLYNN
Tom Wolfe wrote a book ostensibly about science that reads as one on snobbery.The Kingdom of Speech offers not one but two haughty villains in Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky. Alfred Russel Wallace and Dan Everett, unheralded but quite accomplished, play the humble heroes.
In 1858, Darwin received a manuscript from Wallace detailing the latter’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin maintained that the same idea had occurred to him more than two decades earlier. Wallace, a man who dropped out of school at 14 and sold exotic fly specimens to subsidize his scientific endeavors, lacked the prestige of his correspondent. So, when the English gentleman forwarded his own ideas on evolution, coincidentally similar to Wallace’s, along with his pen pal’s manuscript to London’s Linnean Society, the group read the papers aloud (Darwin first!) and the scientific world gave the established man of letters in London, rather than the “flycatcher” in the Malaysian Archipelago, the credit. “To put the matter in perspective,” Wolfe writes, “one has only to imagine what would have happened had the roles been reversed. Suppose Darwin is the one who has just written a formal twenty-page scientific treatise for publication … and somehow Wallace got his hands on it ahead of time … and announces that he made this same astounding epochal discovery twenty-one years ago but never got around to writing it up and claiming priority … a horse laugh?”
Darwin’s private writings predating Wallace’s papers show a similarity in thinking, so perhaps Wolfe acts somewhat uncharitably toward Darwin here. But this does not negate his larger point of history’s ingratitude toward Wallace. As it turned out, Darwin became famous and Wallace a footnote.