Prof. Dr. James T. Costa
Photo: Leslie Costa
James T. Costa is Executive Director of the Highlands Biological Station and Professor of Biology at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, USA, where he teaches biogeography, Darwin's On the Origin of Species, and a comparative temperate-tropical ecology field course split between Highlands Biological Station and Wildsumaco Biological Station in Ecuador. He studied entomology and evolutionary genetics at the University of Georgia, and since 1992 has been Research Associate in Entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. James T. Costa taught in Harvard's Darwin summer program at the University of Oxford for 15 years, and is a regular study leader/lecturer for the Harvard Alumni Association Travel Program. His scientific research has most recently focused on invasive insects and conservation, while his interests in the history of evolutionary thinking have led him to publish extensively on Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. A recipient of the Alfred Russel Wallace Medal, James T. Costa is a Trustee of the Charles Darwin Trust (London) and has held fellowships at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, and the Humanities Institute of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, New York Botanical Garden.
- Radical by Nature: The Revolutionary Life of Alfred Russel Wallace, Princeton, forthcoming March 2023.
- Darwin and the Art of Botany (with Bobbi Angell), Timber, forthcoming November 2023.
- An Alfred Russel Wallace Companion (co-edited with Charles Smith & David Collard), Chicago, 2019.
- Darwin's Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory, W. W. Norton, 2017.
- Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species, Harvard, 2014.
- On the Organic Law of Change: A Facsimile Edition and Annotated Transcription of Alfred Russel Wallace's Species Notebook of 1855-1859, Harvard, 2013.
- The Annotated Origin: A Facsimile of the First Edition of On the Origin of Species, Harvard, 2009.
Papers and chapters:
- Warren, R. J., J. T. Costa, and M. Bradford. 2022. Seeing shapes in clouds: The fallacy of deriving ecological hypotheses from statistical distributions. Oikos 2022: e09315.
- Schultz, M., R. J. Warren, J. T. Costa, B. Collins, and M. Bradford. 2022. Myrmecochorous plants and their ant seed dispersers through successional stages in temperate cove forests. Ecological Entomology 47(5): 749–757.
- Costa, J. T. 2021. "There is hardly any question in biology of more importance" – Charles Darwin and the nature of variation. pp. 25–54 In: D. Pfennig (ed.), Phenotypic Plasticity and Evolution: Causes, Consequences, Controversies. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Research project: The first Utopian evolutionist: Selection in the service of Utopia in the scientific and social thought of Alfred Russel Wallace
The most jarring and transformative aspect of the Darwin-Wallace theory of common descent by natural selection was the theory's implications for humanity. While Darwin initially side-stepped the issue, the primate origins of humans and society quickly took center stage with debates in the sciences that refracted through society in art, literature, and socio-political thought. In his distinctive contribution to this debate, Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the principle of natural selection, devised an ingenious hypothesis in 1864 that profoundly influenced Darwin's thinking, but also revealed Wallace as the first "Utopian evolutionist." Wallace then debated with Darwin over sexual selection, famously rejecting the hypothesis of sexual selection by female choice only to reverse himself later in life as he embraced a new evolutionary pathway to Utopia. My project is aimed at examining the impact and implications of Wallace's evolutionary Utopianism. In merging his science with commitments to spiritualism and Owenite socialism, Wallace was both inspiration to and inspired by the nascent women's rights movement in Britain and the US, and supported (and planned for his own) Utopian cooperative communities. This investigation is part of a larger project examining Wallace's outline for his final, unpublished, book, "Darwin and Wallace," where Wallace underscores his claim to be "more Darwinian than Darwin" in his commitment to selection as he fended off challenges from the neo-Lamarckian, Mutationist, and Mendelian schools of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Research results: The first Utopian evolutionist: Selection in the service of Utopia in the scientific and social thought of Alfred Russel Wallace
My stay at the CAS »Imaginarien der Kraft« was immensely rewarding and productive despite its brevity. In my 2-month stay I pursued two complementary lines of research relating to the life and thought of noted 19th century explorer-naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. In the first, and the subject of my presentation to CAS Fellows, I explored Wallace as the first evolutionary utopian, showing how he merged his scientific and idealistic commitments in invoking natural and sexual selection in the pursuit of his vision for an enlightened future for humanity. This work built on research conducted for my book Radical by Nature, and is now in preparation for publication in Undark Magazine. In the second I completed an analysis of Wallace's previously unpublished hand-written notes from early 1913 outlining what would have been his final, unrealized, book, Darwin and Wallace. Wallace's outline, written in his 90th year, reveals him as still very much the "First Darwinian" and fierce defender of evolution by natural selection in the face of challenges from the emerging neo-Lamarckian, Mutationist, and Mendelian schools of the early 20th century. I greatly benefitted from conversations on these and related subjects with Senior and Junior Fellows of the CAS, and also appreciated the opportunities I was given to present my research and interact with faculty, researchers, and students at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and the Leibniz Institute for the Analysis of Biodiversity Change in Hamburg.