24 February, 2023

Once in a generation, a Wallace may be found physically, mentally, and morally qualified to wander unscathed through the tropical wilds of America and of Asia; to form magnificent collections as he wanders; and withal to think out sagaciously the conclusions suggested by his collections… Thomas Henry Huxley, 1863 

By George Beccaloni 

The Malay Archipelago is one of the most highly regarded scientific travelogues of the nineteenth century, revered by generations of biologists and armchair travelers.

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. It was undoubtedly Wallace’s most successful book, translated into many languages from Swedish to Japanese, and never out of print since its first publication in 1869. 

Not only is Wallace’s book beautifully written, but it is packed with original and interesting observations of the natural history and human inhabitants of this region, now divided into the countries of Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and East Timor. Wallace described the eight years he spent there as “…the central and controlling incident of my life.”, with good reason. 

Alfred Russel Wallace was born in a small cottage near Usk, Monmouthshire, England (now part of Wales) on the 8th of January 1823 to Thomas Vere and Mary Ann Wallace, a downwardly mobile middle-class English couple, who had moved there from London a few years earlier in order to reduce their living costs. He was the eighth of nine children, three of whom did not survive to adulthood.

In 1828 when he was five, the family moved to Hertford and it was there, at Hale’s Grammar School, that he received his only formal education. Due to his father’s deteriorating financial situation, he was forced to leave school aged 14 and work for his brother William doing land surveying. This involved roaming all over the English and Welsh countryside and it was during this time that he became interested in natural history. 

Wallace became an evolutionist in 1845 whilst living in Neath in Wales, after reading Robert Chambers anonymously published and widely criticised book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. In late 1847/early 1848, inspired by the book A Voyage Up the River Amazon by William Henry Edwards, Wallace suggested to his friend Henry Walter Bates that they travel to the Amazon to collect specimens of insects, birds and other animals for their private collections, selling the duplicates to collectors and museums in order to fund the trip.

One of the main aims of the expedition, at least as far as Wallace was concerned, was to try to solve the great “mystery of mysteries” of how evolutionary change has taken place. Bates liked the idea and the two young men (at the time Wallace was 25 and Bates 23) set off by ship from Liverpool to Pará (Belém) on the 26th of April 1848. 

At first, they worked as a team, but after a few months they had a disagreement, and split up to collect in different areas. Wallace centred his activities in the middle Amazon and Rio Negro, drafting a map of the latter mighty river using the skills he had learnt as a land surveyor. Some years later this was published by the Royal Geographical Society, London and it proved accurate enough to become the standard map of the river for many years. 

In 1852 Wallace was in poor health and decided to return to England. However, twenty-six days into the voyage disaster struck: the ship he was on caught fire and sank in the mid-Atlantic, taking with it his irreplaceable notes and all the specimens he had collected during the last two years of his trip. He and the crew struggled to survive in a pair of leaking lifeboats, and fortunately after 10 days on the open sea they were picked up by a passing cargo ship making its way back to England. Luckily, Wallace’s agent in London had had the good sense to ensure his collection, but unfortunately for less than it was worth. 

Wallace was not put off by this unpleasant experience for long, and in 1854 he left Britain again on a collecting expedition to the Malay Archipelago. He arrived in Singapore on the 19th of April together with a young assistant, Charles Allen. Wallace would spend nearly eight years in the region, undertaking sixty or seventy separate journeys resulting in a combined total of around 14,000 miles of travel.  

He visited every large island in the archipelago at least once and collected almost 110,000 insects, 7500 shells, 8050 bird skins, and 410 mammal and reptile specimens, including probably more than 5000 species new to science. About 70% of these specimens are now in the Natural History Museum’s collection. His best-known zoological discoveries were Wallace’s Golden Birdwing Butterfly (Ornithoptera croesus), Wallace’s Standard-Wing Bird of Paradise (Semioptera wallacii) and Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing Butterfly (Trogonoptera brookiana). 

In February 1855, while in Sarawak, Borneo, Wallace wrote what was probably the most important article on evolution prior to the discovery of natural selection. Wallace’s “Sarawak Law” paper made such an impression on the famous geologist Charles Lyell that in November 1855, soon after reading it, he started a “species notebook” in which he began to seriously contemplate the implications of evolutionary change for the first time (he was a creationist).  

In April 1856 Lyell paid a visit to Charles Darwin at Down House, and Darwin explained his hypothesis of natural selection to him for the first time: a subject which Darwin had been working on, more or less in secret, for about 20 years. Soon afterwards Lyell sent a letter to Darwin urging him to publish his idea, lest someone beat him to it (he probably had Wallace in mind), so in May 1856 Darwin heeding this advice, began to write a “sketch” for publication. Unable to condense what he wanted to say into a brief article, he abandoned in about October 1856 and instead began to write an extensive book on the subject. 

In February 1858 Wallace was suffering from an attack of fever (probably malaria) in the village of Dodinga on the remote Indonesian island of Halmahera when suddenly the idea of natural selection as the mechanism driving evolutionary change occurred to him. As soon as he had enough strength, he wrote a detailed essay explaining his idea and sent it together with a covering letter to Charles Darwin, who he knew from correspondence was interested in the subject of evolution. He asked Darwin to pass the essay on to Lyell if Darwin thought it was sufficiently interesting. Lyell (who Wallace had never corresponded with) was one of the most respected scientists of the day and Wallace must have thought that he would be interested in reading his new theory because it explained the “law” which Wallace had proposed in his “Sarawak Law” paper. Darwin had mentioned in a letter to Wallace that Lyell had found Wallace’s 1855 paper noteworthy. Another probable reason why Wallace wanted Lyell to read his essay was because it argued against the anti-evolutionary views in Lyell’s book, Principles of Geology. 

Great Minds Think Alike 

Unbeknownst to Wallace, Darwin had (of course) discovered natural selection many years earlier. He was therefore horrified when he received Wallace’s essay and immediately appealed to his influential friends Lyell and Joseph Hooker for advice on what to do. Lyell and Hooker decided to present the essay (without first asking Wallace’s permission), along with two excerpts from Darwin’s unpublished writings on the subject, to a meeting of the Linnean Society of London on 1 July 1858.  

These documents were published together in the Society’s journal on 20 August of that year as the paper “On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection”. Darwin’s contributions were placed before Wallace’s essay, thus emphasising his priority to the idea. Wallace later remarked that the paper “…was printed without my knowledge, and of course without any correction of proofs.”, contradicting Lyell and Hooker’s statement in their introduction to it that “…both authors having now unreservedly placed their papers in our hands…”  

This unfortunate episode prompted Darwin to abandon writing his ‘big book’ on evolution and instead produce an “abstract” of what he had written up to that point. This was published fifteen months later in November 1859 as On the Origin of Species: a book which Wallace once generously remarked would “…live as long as the ‘Principia’ of Newton.” [The Principia being one of the most important works in the history of science] 

Wallace’s discovery of natural selection occurred almost at the midpoint of his stay in the Malay Archipelago. He was to remain there four more years, and by the end of his trip (and for the rest of his life) he was known as the greatest living authority on the region. He was especially known for his studies of its zoogeography, including his discovery and description of the faunal discontinuity that now bears his name. The “Wallace Line,” extends between the islands of Bali and Lombok and Borneo and Sulawesi and marks the limits of eastern extent of many Asian animal species and, conversely, the limits of western extent of many Australasian animals. 

Wallace returned to England in 1862 and in 1866 he married Annie, the twenty-year-old daughter of his friend, botanist William Mitten. Two of their children, Violet and William, survived to adulthood, while a third (Herbert Spencer) died in infancy. 

Wallace spent the rest of his long life explaining, developing and defending the theory of natural selection, as well as working on a very wide variety of other (sometimes controversial) subjects. He wrote more than 1000 articles and 22 books, and received many awards for his discoveries, including the Order of Merit, the greatest honour that can be given to a civilian by the ruling British monarch.  

By the turn of the century, he was very probably Britain’s best-known naturalist and by the time of his death in 1913, he may well have been one of the world’s most famous people. 

TIMELINE OF WALLACE’S TRIP TO THE MALAY ARCHIPELAGO 

1854 Leaves England 4 March with assistant Charles Allen on P&O steamer. Travels through Mediterranean to Egypt, then overland to the Red Sea and boards next ship. Arrives in Singapore 19 April. London’s Royal Geographical Society paid for the trip. 

1855 Writes the “Sarawak Law” essay in February, which he hopes will convince other naturalists of the reality of evolutionary change. Begins to make notes for a book about evolution. This plan was shelved after he read Darwin’s Origin in 1860. 

1856 Discovers the Wallace Line between Bali and Lombok islands, Indonesia. Begins corresponding with Darwin, after receiving a request from him for specimens of unusual foreign domesticated animals, send via Wallace’s natural history agent Samuel Stevens.  

1857 Publishes paper “On the natural history of the Aru Islands”, arguing against the geologist Charles Lyell’s anti-evolutionary doctrine of “centres of creation” (repeated creation by God of sets of animals in newly formed habitats).  

1858 Rents house on Ternate Island, Indonesia (used as his base for three years). Discovers natural selection in February while ill on neighbouring Halmahera Island. Posts essay explaining his idea to Darwin, which is published in a joint paper with Darwin in August. 

1859 Discovers the World’s largest bee (Megachile pluto) and the Golden Birdwing Butterfly on Bacan Island, Indonesia. He also found the Standardwing Bird of Paradise there (in October 1858) and (ironically) regarded it as “…the greatest discovery I have yet made…” 

1860 Receives Darwin’s book Origin of Species in February while on Ambon Island, Indonesia. It had been published in November 1859. He is greatly impressed by it, reading it “…5 or 6 times…each time with increasing admiration…” 

1862 Departs Singapore 8 February with two living male Lesser Birds of Paradise, bought in Singapore. Their purchase by the Zoological Society for their zoo in London’s Regent’s Park pays for his first-class P&O steamer ticket. Arrives in England 31 March. 

1869 The Malay Archipelago is published. Darwin flattered that it is dedicated to him. Reading it he says, “Of all the impressions which I have received from your book the strongest is that your perseverance in the cause of science was heroic.”