Fieldwork on the loose

You almost feel ashamed sitting in your cozy living room and reading Barefoot in the Amazon, while Alfred Russel Wallace embarks on one more risky expedition after another in the name of science. We are in the middle of the 19th century. Young, British Wallace makes his way, not only through the Amazon, but also to south-east Asia, to as untouched areas as possible, often in a cracked hut.

You feel the mosquitoes bite, the malarial fever ravages the body and the stomach twists, sleeping under a leaky roof – if there is even a roof out there in the jungle.

Wallace was the poor boy and the outsider who, against all odds, became one of the founders of the science of biology. Yes, at his death in 1913 he is said to have been the world’s most cited scientist and left behind an enormous source material, with field notes and letters that are gold in the hands of a biographer. The only question is whether he himself takes the upper hand in the book that Markus Lindholm, professor of science didactics at Steiner College, has written about Wallace’s life.

Markus Lindholm

Barefoot in the Amazon. The Story of Alfred Russel Wallace

Spartacus, 2022
249 sider
Recommended price: NOK 449

“Few are aware that Charles Darwin was beaten at the finish line”, says the sales text for Barbeint in Amazonas. But isn’t that story completely unknown? There have been several books in Norwegian in the last 10–15 years about Darwin and the theory of evolution, including by Erik Tunstad and Dag O. Hessen. A quick check shows that Wallace’s contribution to the development of selection theory is also told here. But it was Darwin who wrote On the Origin of Species.

There are not a few animals that are taken along the way, be it birds, beetles, butterflies and other creatures, with the British Museum as the final station – if they do not end up in Wallace’s private collection. For Wallace is a collector, of dead animals and living thoughts.

Lindholm tells effectively and pointedly about the prevailing theories about evolution in Wallace’s time, which Wallace then engages in a dialogue with and thinks about further. He sees the great variety in nature around him and ponders. In the end, he finds the missing piece in the theory of evolution, the one that explains variation by showing that the individuals who adapt best to their environment are, to a greater extent, passed on their characteristics to the next generation compared to the average individual.

Lindholm is a skilled communicator of extensive material, but I miss a clearer distance to Wallace’s self-presentation, so that Lindholm emerges more clearly as a biographer and not just a reteller.

Lindholm, for example, has chosen to simplify Wallace’s language, and it is sympathetically thought out. But when the language in the quotations from Wallace’s own texts is made so similar to Lindholm’s own language and there is a long distance between the footnotes, it simply becomes difficult to see the difference between the two. I think Lindholm is being too modest!

Surely there is a reason why one does not just make it simple and translate what Wallace wrote from travelogues, letters and autobiography? After all, more than a hundred years separate the researcher’s and the communicator’s text. In that space, there is plenty of room in which Lindholm could have expanded more, thought a little more loudly, in order to stand out more clearly as a writer. That he takes a step back towards the end and says something about Wallace as a social activist, champion of women’s causes and historian of ideas is nice, but it feels more like an appendage than the actual story of Alfred Russel Wallace.

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