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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Persistence, Thy Name is Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace at age 24 in 1848.

The late 1700s and early 1800s saw a huge explosion of discovery in the study of flora and fauna,  perhaps thanks to botanist Joseph Banks (who was with Captain James Cook from 1768 to 1771 when Cook went to the South Seas).  Banks collected 30,000 plant specimens, including 1,400 never before documented. Lured by both scientific interests and salability, plant hunters searched the world over for new species.  Along with them were the scientists interested in animal and insect species.

Batocera wallacei (female) a longhorn beetle discovered by
Wallace on the Aru Islands in Indonesia.

Alfred Russel Wallace started out as an apprentice surveyor for his older brother. He then served as a schoolmaster teaching drawing, mapmaking and surveying. He met entomologist Henry Bates which changed his life.  He started collecting insects himself, and became inspired by reading the writings of traveling naturalists, including Charles Darwin.  He decided he wanted to travel abroad as a naturalist, and with Henry Bates went to Brazil to collect insects.  He spent four years there, taking notes on the flora, fauna, geography, and the peoples and their languages that he encountered.

Photograph by an unknown photographer of Wallace in Singapore, 1862.

This was not an easy trip.  They were not at all prepared for the tropical rainforest. Tormented by his subject insects, thought to be crazy by his native guides when he preserved his samples in their homemade alcohol instead of drinking it, he even broke his glasses which were crucial for his work.  He finally boarded a ship for home with all of his specimens.  Twenty-eight days out to sea and the ship caught fire, burning everything he had spent the time collecting, save for part of his diary and some sketches.  He was saved by a lifeboat.  Fortunately he was insured.

Undaunted, he later sailed to the Malay Archipelago, which is now Malaysia and Indonesia, where he spent eight years racking up about 14,000 miles of travel and visiting every important island in the region at least once.  There he collected 110,000 insects, 8050 birds, and 410 mammal and reptile specimens, thousands of which had never been documented.

Drawing of a Flying Frog from Wallace's book The Malay Archipelago on wood
by Dutch illustrator John Gerrard Keulemans.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

During his explorations he expanded and established his thoughts on evolution and came up with an insight on natural selection.  He sent an article he wrote on his theory to Darwin, and it was published along with a description of Darwin's theory that year.  He published his studies and experiences in 1869 in The Malay Archipelago.  Dedicated to Charles Darwin, the book enjoyed great popularity and was continously in print until the early 20th century.  The novelist Joseph Conrad was a big fan and used it as a source of information for his writings, particularly for his novel Lord Jim.

Image courtesy of www.age-of-the-sage.com

Although Darwin seems to steal all the credit for the theory of evolution, both men came upon similar ideas simultaneously.  Darwin coined the term natural selection.  He had been working on his theory for some time when Wallace began sharing his own thoughts.  To Darwin's surprise, Wallace's thoughts on evolution mirrored his own.  Wallace had been supplying Darwin with bird specimens for his studies when he decided to seek Darwin's help in publishing his theories.  Charles Lyell, the foremost geologist of the time, arranged for both men to present their theories to a meeting of the Linnean Society in 1858.  Darwin developed his work into his famous book On the Origin of Species, which was published in 1859. Wallace chose to continue his travels and study.  Some historians and scholars construct a rivalry between the two men, but they continued to correspond and support each other's work.  Darwin was instrumental in helping Wallace secure a pension when he fell on hard times financially.

Wallace went on to do a great many things, becoming what some historians call the father of biogeography for his work on the geographical distribution of animal species.  But what impresses me is that from what I would call a harsh start collecting insects and plants, he endured and went on to pursuits that changed the course of science.   The Victorian era was a golden era for animal, insect, and plant collecting, and these hunters were courageous adventurers, some of whom risked their lives.  Sheesh!  I get upset when I get a hangnail!


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