First encounter, December 2001: While reading an account of the White Rajahs of Sarawak, those autocratic yet benign English adventurers who were given charge over a large chunk of Borneo from the 1840’s up through the 1930’s, I came across a reference to a certain Victorian naturalist, one Alfred Wallace:"Occasionally, distinguished visitors came to stay with him [the Rajah]. Alfred Wallace, the famous naturalist, was in Borneo for more than a year, spending many months as his guest. Wallace was then elaborating the theory of evolution which was simultaneously being elaborated by Charles Darwin. He was a man of calm, brilliant temper, who patiently collected every kind of monkey and winged insect and measured the skulls or orang-utangs, happy in the company of the Dyak guides."This was the first time Wallace registered like a blip on the radar of my curiosity. While I’ve always been fascinated by Victorian explorers, at the time I merely wondered why, if Wallace had been so famous, I’d never heard of him.
A few months later, Wallace popped up again in a book I was reading on 19th century scientific travelers. This person Wallace, I reflected, sure got around, not only in Borneo but in the Amazon, where he explored areas never before seen by Europeans.
I next encountered Wallace in a short story by Andrea Barrett, "Birds with No Feet." It was as if I’d bumped into an old acquaintance. Ah, there’s that fellow Wallace again, I thought, feeling a glow of recognition.
A year later, I stood before that fellow Wallace’s grave in Broadstone cemetery, Dorset. I’d made the pilgrimage after reading any number of books on Wallace’s life and following the course of his research across an intervening century and a half. Standing there, I reflected that this was the closest I would ever come to meeting the man who, strangely enough, I felt I already knew.
But I am getting ahead of my story.
February 1858:Wallace was lying in his hut in Ternate, one of the Moluccan Islands, suffering from a bout of malaria. No stranger to the rigors and deprivations of solitary travel, Wallace was midway through a prolonged collecting expedition in the Malay Archipelago (present-day Indonesia). He was no well-heeled Victorian gentleman of the type so prevalent in scientific circles of the time. On the contrary; his expedition was undertaken to support himself as much as for scientific curiosity.
Drifting in and out of consciousness, Wallace pondered the question which plagued him as persistently as his malarial fevers: Why do some species die while others persist? He had observed, from island to island, the variations in species. And yet he could not fathom the mechanism which lay behind speciation.
Suddenly, in a flash of insight, he knew the answer: The fittest survive. In an intuitive leap, Wallace grasped what it took Charles Darwin over twenty years to painstakingly piece together.
Over the next few days, Wallace wrote an elegantly succinct paper outlining his theory. He then sent it to Darwin, with whom he had a casual correspondence.
June 1858: Charles Darwin felt as though his worst fear had been realized: twenty years of work were about to be overshadowed. It had taken months for Wallace’s letter to reach him. In it, he'd asked Darwin to help publish his theory, if he thought it had sufficient merit. Had sufficient merit? The irony was exquisite: Darwin had been asked to undertake a commission that would assure his own scientific eclipse. He wrote to his trusted friend, the geologist Charles Lyell, asking for advice. "All originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed," Darwin lamented. What should he do?
Lyell gave him Solomon-like advice: make a joint presentation to the Linnean Society (the premier society for the biological sciences) of his and Wallace’s work. This decision was made without consulting Wallace, who was still in Indonesia and did not learn about the presentation until some months later.
As it turned out, it was not Charles Darwin who was overshadowed; it was Wallace. Yet Wallace never questioned Darwin’s "right" to the theory. In fact, upon his return to England, Wallace dedicated his book, The Malay Archipelago, to Darwin. The theory that he had articulated first became known as "Darwinism."
He was, as all his biographers have been at pains to point out, a most self-effacing man.
February 2003: After my initial bookish encounters with Wallace, I was eager to learn more about him. Oddly, each book I read left me even more curious. Wallace had an innate appreciation for nature that is evident in his almost lyrical descriptions, but he was no sentimentalist. He wielded his pen skillfully, constructing arguments with a precision that bespoke a razor-sharp mind. He is best known today as the founder of biogeography and the discoverer of "the Wallace Line" dividing Asian and Australian faunas.
I was struck by the central injustice of his life, the scant credit he’d received for formulating the theory of natural selection. And yet it was abundantly clear, as I read his biographies and Wallace’s own books, that he had been more interested in pursuing ideas than in being credited for them. He was, I realized, someone I could wholeheartedly admire: a man who hared enthusiastically after ideas, with little regard for what others thought or what he might gain or lose by pursuing them.
And he was undaunted, this man. Nothing discouraged him. Having spent four arduous years collecting specimens in the Amazon, Wallace was severely tested when his entire collection was destroyed. The ship bringing him home caught fire, and Wallace drifted in a leaky lifeboat with the ship’s crew for ten days before being rescued. Yet even this setback didn’t diminish his unsinkable optimism or curb his natural enthusiasm. He lay in the lifeboat, looking up at the stars, noting that, "During the night I saw several meteors, and in fact could not be in a better position for observing them, than lying on my back in a small boat in the middle of the Atlantic." It’s a line that’s pure Wallace; he presents being shipwrecked as a kind of an opportunity rather than a disaster.
I began to realize that I was half in love with this Alfred Russel Wallace character.
"We should now clearly recognize the fact that the wealth and
knowledge of the few do not constitute civilization."
- Alfred Russel Wallace
After returning to England and publishing a celebrated account of his travels, The Malay Archipelago, Wallace set out on an even more daring course: social reform. He became passionately embroiled in the social questions of his time: land reform, distribution of wealth, women’s suffrage, and other issues. It was a bold leap from the back burner of the natural sciences into the cauldron of social reform. Wallace, characteristically, fired off opinions without considering the effect they would have on his career. He did little to advance his scientific reputation, though his output was truly prolific. He remained friends with Charles Darwin, who was never fully at ease with him, perhaps partially from a guilty conscience but also because the unpredictable, protean Wallace discomfited him.
Wallace ultimately became one of the best-known scientific figures of his day. Yet in the years following his death in 1913, he fell into obscurity. Meantime, Darwin’s star grew ever brighter. Soon all but a few had forgotten that at one time there had been a man named Wallace who had very similar ideas.
March 2003: I’d made a detour on my way to Heathrow Airport. I had, I reckoned, just enough time to visit Wallace’s grave in Broadstone Cemetery before catching my flight home. The little cemetery is wedged between sprawling housing developments and took me some time to find. . The Linnean Society had just restored his grave and, in a pomp-filled ceremony, dedicated a plaque and monument to him there. His reputation is again on the rise, as several recent biographies testify.
And there he was, beneath a pillar of fossilized wood and a bronze plaque. I suddenly felt an immense frustration at the passage of time. Most of the people I longed to meet were now dust.
I paid my respects, feeling somewhat diffident, then walked slowly back to my car, leaving a small bouquet on his gravestone, a trifling token of my esteem.
Recommended Books and Websites
- Barrett, Andrea. Ship Fever
- Berry, Andrew, ed. Infinite Tropics: An Alfred Russel Wallace Anthology
- Daws, Gavan and Fujita, Marty. Archipelago: The Islands of Indonesia
- Quammen, David. The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions
- Raby, Peter. Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life
- Raby, Peter. Bright Paradise: Victorian Scientific Travellers
- Rice, Tony. Voyages of Discovery: Three Centuries of Natural History Discovery
- Severin, Tim. The Spice Islands Voyage: The Quest for Alfred Russel Wallace, the Man Who Shared Darwin’s Discovery of Evolution
- Wallace, Alfred Russel. The Malay Archipelago
- van Oosterzee, Penny. Where Worlds Collide: The Wallace Line
- Alfred Russel Wallace (short bio).
- The Alfred Russel Wallace page.