4 May, 2018

Author: George Beccaloni


In my estimation, he was a very, very great man.
Sir David Attenborough 

Alfred Russel Wallace was undoubtedly one of the greatest naturalists of all time. Not only did he jointly publish the theory of evolution by natural selection with Charles Darwin in 1858, but he made very many other major contributions to biology and to subjects as diverse as glaciology, astrobiology, anthropology, and epidemiology.

Wallace spent eight years (1854 – 1862) travelling in the region he called the Malay Archipelago (Indonesia and neighbouring countries), studying its natural history and human inhabitants. He discovered natural selection half way through his trip and also documented what became known as the Wallace Line: an invisible boundary between the fauna of Asia and Australasia, which runs between Bali and Lombok and northward between Borneo and Sulawesi. The book he wrote about his journey, The Malay Archipelago; The Land of the Orang-utan and the Bird of Paradise, is one of the most highly regarded scientific travelogues of the nineteenth century. It sparked David Attenborough’s love of Birds of Paradise when he was nine years old and was Joseph Conrad’s “favourite bed-side book”, serving as a source of information for several of his novels, especially Lord Jim.

During his expedition Wallace collected nearly 126,000 natural history specimens, ranging from Birds of Paradise to dung beetles, from land snails to cockroaches, from huge Birdwing butterflies to tiny parasitic wasps. These included about 5000 new species, including 212 new birds, which considering that around 10,000 bird species known worldwide, means that he was responsible for discovering 2% of the entire world bird fauna!

Wallace was especially fond of Birds of Paradise, and not only was he the first naturalist to observe and document their spectacular courtship displays, but he was lucky enough to discover a new one, Wallace’s Standard-wing on Bacan island. He once wrote that “…the Bird of Paradise really deserves its name, and must be ranked as one of the most beautiful and most wonderful of living things.”

Wallace can be regarded as Asia’s Darwin, and the islands of the Malay Archipelago as his Galapagos.



David Attenborough on Wallace’s life and work

For more information about Wallace visit The Alfred Russel Wallace Correspondence Project