Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters from the Malay Archipelago

Product DetailsJohn van Wyhe & Kees Rookmaaker
November 2013

Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters from the Malay Archipelago, as the title indicates, is an annotated collection of all of Wallace’s correspondence during five years of field work in southeastern Asia during the 1850′s and early 1860′s.

These letters include Wallace’s correspondence with Charles Darwin, both before and after the 1859 publication of The Origin of Species. The current editors re-make the strong case that Wallace never felt that Darwin had “stolen” any of his ideas. Indeed, Wallace’s praise of the Origin is both fulsome and constant.

Yet it isn`t this well-documented issue that most held my interest in Whye & Rookmaaker`s book. Thanks to its comprehensiveness, their compilation gives us, a century and a half on, a rich and rather alien look at zoology and botany as they were practiced in the mid-19th century.

With today`s resources, scientists can “collect” previously-unknown species with cameras and DNA samples, in Wallace’s time the only way to make new species known to European scientists was to capture, kill, or uproot the specimen and send it on a long sea voyage to “civilization.” And the Victorian scientist’s attitude toward the creatures he collected was very different from our own.

For example, when Wallace first encountered the orangutan, his impulse was to “collect” it by shooting specimens. In one letter, Wallace writes nonchalantly about his success in sighting the “man of the forest” and killing eight representatives of the unknown species. “Look, something new and interesting — kill it quick, before it gets away!” Hardly an attitude that PETA would endorse, is it?

Wallace had a second, less scholarly motivation for collecting specimens. His field work was expensive, and he financed it by selling mounted beetles, butterflies, birds, and mammals to European collectors, for the most part the many amateur, gentleman scientists who competed with each other to amass the largest array of exotic species.

In just one shipment, Wallace included thousands of insects, mostly beetles, preferably iridescent species,and hundreds of birds, including many rare varieties of birds of paradise. Crateloads of animals were shipped along with Wallace’s detailed instructions on who would be the most likely clients and what should be the profit realized from each sale. Wallace was very controlling and specific. If no one takes any of the five birds of paradise on offer, for example, offer them as a group to so and so, at this or that price.

Again, this is an approach that is alien to us today, in a world where trade in rhino horn, elephant ivory, monkey testicles, and the like has been banned worldwide.

Yet, given this unfamiliar and uncomfortable methodology, Wallace manages to come across in his letters as a serious and sincere scientist, interested in advancing human knowledge and solving the mysteries of evolution. Wallace is direct and earnest in his conviction that evolution is fact, not theory, as we can see in this impassioned passage from one of his letters:

Isolated difficulties & objections are nothing against this vast cumulative argument. The human mind cannot go on for ever accumulating facts which remain unconnected & without any mutual bearing & bound together by no law. The evidence for the production of the organic world by the simple laws of inheritance is exactly of the same nature as that for the production of the present surface of the earth, hills valleys plains rocks strata volcanoes, & all their fossil remains, by the slow and gradual action of natural causes now in operation. The mind that will ultimately reject Darwin must (to be consistent) reject Lyell also. The same arguments of apparent stability which are thought to disprove that organic species can change will also disprove any change in the inorganic world, & you must believe with the your forefathers that each hill & each river, each inland lake & continent, were created as they stand, with the various strata & their various fossils,—all appearances and arguments to the contrary notwithstanding.

Add to these features the always interesting details of Wallace’s travels and trials in conducting his research, where finding a single, particularly desirable species may entail a month-long journey into “unknown” territory, and Wyhe and Roomhaaker’s book is a readable and always informative piece of scientific history.

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