Ian Burnet, with his thirty years’ personal experience in the culture and history of the area, gives competent, intelligent and entertaining accounts of the voyages of the three main protagonists whose discoveries transformed our understanding of the processes of evolution and species formation. Specifically, he discusses Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, after whom the Wallace Line is named. The book is superbly illustrated with eighteenth and nineteenth century paintings, etchings, drawings and maps, some of which hail from the diaries of the explorers. It also features modern photographs of animals, birds and locations. Extracts from Banks’, Darwin’s and Wallace’s diaries and books also form a substantial part of the narrative and are used to great effect by Burnet to enhance and illustrate his story.
The books style is somewhat journalistic, giving us ‘just the facts’. Considering his knowledge of this part of the world, it is a shame that the author did not enlist his own experiences to influence the narrative, by allowing the reader to see the area through an explorer’s or scientist’s eyes. While he does a very good job of telling the reader what happened, showing us a little more would, perhaps, have enhanced the tale.
However, this remains a very good book. It has been thoroughly researched and contains a useful bibliography enticing readers to pursue the subject further. It is well written, informative and engaging, all of which are essential in a work aimed at a general audience. I found much to admire and to keep reading without effort. The quotations have been well chosen and enhance the narrative. The characters of Darwin, Wallace and Banks are fleshed out nicely and their stories are presented in a sensible chronological order. I can see how Burnet’s account could encourage anyone interested in evolution, exploration or natural history to read Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and the two volumes of Wallace’s Malay Archipelago for themselves. In this sense, Burnet has done a very good job indeed.
CSIRO PUBLISHING, Book Reviews.
Susan Double, Paleontology Department, Flinders University, South Australia.