5 things Swakians should know about Alfred Russel Wallace

By Patricia Hului


SO WHO IS Alfred Russel Wallace, and why should Sarawakians know about him?


The answer was made clear to me after attending a Sarawak Museum talk “Alfred Russel Wallace and Natural Selection: The Real Story” by Dr George Beccaloni on Dec 13.


Beccaloni, dubbed ‘Wallace’s Rottweiler’, a nickname he earned for being an expert and defender of Wallace and his works, talked about the development of Wallace’s ideas about evolution, from his early years in Wales, his expedition along the Amazon Basin and his journey around the Malay Archipelago where he discovered and worked on his theory of natural selection, the process thought to drive the evolution of life on Earth.


DISCUSSION: Ipoi Datan, Director of Sarawak Museum (left) having a discussion with Beccaloni after the talk.

DISCUSSION: Ipoi Datan, Director of Sarawak Museum (left) having a discussion with Beccaloni after the talk.


After listening to Beccaloni’s talk, I wanted to e-mail my former lecturer who taught Theory of Evolution and Biogeography, and write, “Excuse me Doctor, do you remember how years ago you said that Darwin came up with the idea of natural selection? I think you missed out someone’s name, someone named Wallace.”


But of course I didn’t have the guts to do so. Charles Darwin is a household name when it comes to the theory of evolution. He is known as the man who shocked the world, especially the four walls of the church, with his book On the Origin of Species (1859) claiming that the human species did not begin from Adam and Eve, but had originally evolved from the hairy primate.


In Indonesia in 1858, Wallace wrote his theory of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution in a letter to Darwin. What Wallace did not know was Darwin had discovered natural selection many years earlier and had been working on it for at least 20 years.


That essay was printed without Wallace’s knowledge that same year together with two of Darwin’s unpublished excerpts as the paper “On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; And on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection.”


The controversial part was that Darwin’s contributions were placed before Wallace’s essay, thus emphasising Darwin’s priority to the idea.


Besides being attributed as the co-founder of Theory of Natural Selection with Darwin, Wallace had contributed in so many of other areas that to list it all down in a mere 800 words or so is impossible.


Born in 1823, Wallace was a British naturalist, biologist, anthropologist, ethnographer, and epidemiologist. He pioneered the work in evolutionary biogeography (meaning: the study of how species and ecosystems are divided out in geographic space and through geological time) which earned him the recognition as the ‘Father of Biogeography’.


In relation to Sarawak, Wallace arrived in Kuching on November 1, 1854 after a brief spell recovering from a shipwreck on his return to England following his explorations of Brazil between 1848 and 1852.


Here are the top 5 things Sarawakians should know about Alfred Russel Wallace and how he was an important historical figure in Sarawak.


1. Sarawak Law


Wallace was in Sarawak in Feb 1855 when he wrote “On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species”. It was published in ‘The Annals and Magazine of Natural History in London’ that same year.


What is the big deal about this paper? This was the first paper where Wallace mentions evolution publicly. The paper is also known as the “Sarawak Law” paper since he wrote it while bunking at James Brooke’s cottage at Bukit Peninjau.


In the Sarawak Law, he stated that ‘Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.’ To put it simply: each species that may come from the same origin have evolved over time due to external factors.


Wallace frequently led expeditions along the Sarawak River to Santubong and into the Chinese-owned goldfields and coalfields near Bau and Simunjan.


January 1856 saw Wallace’s departure from Borneo as he moved on to Sulawesi Island, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Singapore before returning to London in 1862.


2. Wallace’s Records of Sarawak Biodiversity

Beccaloni shared that it was in Simunjan where Wallace was the most productive in his species collection. Wallace wrote in the Malay Archipelago, “Now, during my whole twelve years collecting in the western and eastern tropics, I never enjoyed such advantages in this respect as at the Simunjan coalworks.”


During his 15 months’ stay here in Sarawak, Wallace collected a total of 25,000 insect specimens. Based on his writings, we can roughly imagine how high our biodiversity rate was back in those days. He even killed and preserved orang utan specimens.  If he did that in the 21st century, Wallace would be prosecuted by law under the Sarawak Wild Life Protection Ordinance, 1998. Still, we cannot deny Wallace’s contribution to our scientific heritage.


These collections are now kept in the Natural History Museum in London and Tring.


3. Wallace’s Historical Sites in Sarawak

It is such a shame when foreigners know more about our backyard than we do. Tracing the trails of Wallace, it is interesting to know how these places have now become tourist attraction spots. The Simunjan Coal Mines was where Wallace collected insects and orang-utans as he wrote in his book, The Malay Archipelago.


Another notable site is the Brooke Cottage at Bung Muan, Bukit Peninjau where Wallace wrote the Sarawak Law.


4. Wallace’s View of Sarawakians back in the 1800s.


For a glimpse of Sarawak back in the 19th century, Wallace’s books are available online. Wallace not only studied animal and insect specimens throughout his journey, but also wrote of his encounters with the Malay, Chinese, Iban and Bidayuh communities.


“The moral character of the Dayaks is undoubtedly high, a statement which will seem strange to those who have heard of them only as head-hunters and pirates” Wallace wrote in The Malay Archipelago.


A particularly funny anecdote of his was when he described how a girl in a Dayak village actually screamed, jumped into the river and swam away at the sight of him.


 5. Darwin versus Wallace


I wonder if scientists are divided into ‘Team Darwin’ or ‘Team Wallace’ over the theory of evolution as much as a hardcore Twilight fans are into ‘Team Edward’ or ‘Team Jacob’.


Personally I think putting Darwin and Wallace at opposing sides of the boxing ring is unnecessary. They both believed in the core of natural selection and conceived the same theory around the same time while living at opposite ends of the world.


Beccaloni stated that Darwin was a better experimentalist compared to Wallace who spent more time in the field. Wallace was more a field scientist and his writings were based on his collections and observations. While both are significant to historical science, Darwin started to outshine Wallace at the beginning of the 20th century when the latter’s advocacy of spiritualism damaged his reputation as a scientist.


I supposed if Wallace and Darwin were still alive in this 21st century where fame and fortune were the things people most sought after, Wallace could have sued Darwin for publishing his essay without consulting him and taking all the credit.


Beccaloni believed that Wallace was very generous and more interested in the idea itself rather than personal fame. That is something our society today should learn from Wallace. Of course, I’m not agreeing to plagiarism and not protecting our hard work from copycats out there. Sometimes we often forget that seeking knowledge itself is more gratifying than claiming to the world that we have found it.


The Sarawak Museum will open a Wallace Gallery by the end of this year.


Visit www.wallacefund.info for more information on Alfred Russel Wallace written by Dr. George Beccaloni, currently the curator of the London Natural History Museum collections of grasshoppers and relatives and the Director of Wallace Correspondence Project.

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2 Responses

  1. Martin Laverty says:

    One thing Sarawakians should know about the Sarawak Law is that it was written at Santubong…

  2. redape says:

    Actually there are many myths in this piece.
    1) Darwin’s placement in the Linnean Society papers did not give him superior priority. Both writings are in the same work and published together giving them equal priority. Darwin’s paper was likely presented first because he was a member of the Linnean Society and his letters precede in date Wallace’s to Darwin. Or because they were first brought to the attention of Lyell and Hooker. If Hooker and Lyell had not moved to publish Wallace’s essay it likely would not have been published for years. The actual publication date for both sets of writings is the same.There was no controversy about precedence of order at the time. Those who even recognized the papers significance never considered Darwin having publication priority over Wallace. That’s only become an issue amongst some recent revisionists.
    Darwin was very close to finishing his massive 3 volume work “Natural Selection” when Wallace’s letter from Ternate arrived. He had completed and had sent to Joseph Hooker 10 or the 14 Chapters…including the ones on Natural Selection. Only the chapters on the Fossil Record, Classification and Embryology remained. If he had released his volumes serially he could have had the theory out by the end of the year (1858). Instead, in fairness, a result was reached which allowed Wallace equal credit for what may be the most important Scientific Theory of all time.
    2) Wallace never mentions “evolution” at all in the Sarawak Law paper. Although we know from his letters that he was already a follower of “transmutationism” (or the “theory of development” as it was then called) for over a decade he actually avoids explicitly stating the causal factors of the patterns he describes in biogeography, geology and classification. His letter is in response to the “theory of polarity” a Creationist hypothesis put forth by Professor Forbes…in which he shows that all the observed natural phenomenon oppose Forbes’ views. But he also uses the term “creation” repeatedly in the Sarawak paper, which confounded Darwin when he eventually read the paper. Darwin thought “How can Wallace be so close to the ideas of evolution and yet still hold to ideas that seemed to imply that forms of similar form would be created in this pattern”. Later, in their correspondence Darwin and Wallace realized that they were both “evolutionists” working on the same problem.

    The “Sarawak Law” paper laid out the issues…how could the creationists explain these many patterns of similar species with anatomical “affinity” being in the same region, and following one another in geological succession. Wallace, perhaps because many of his financial supporters were still creationists, didn’t want to expose himself to their derision.
    Wallace actually mentions Darwin’s Galapagos research in the Sarawak Paper (although he doesn’t credit him by name). Darwin had already pointed out that the distribution of Galapagos birds and Andean fossil and living mammals would be of great interest to those who supported the “theory of development”.

    Darwin and Wallace corresponded and discussed evolution for several years before Wallace developed the concept of Natural Selection independently. Darwin pointed out he was looking at the development of varieties in domestic animals…i.e. artificial selection. Thus Wallace turned for the first time to the issues of adaptation and selection as a consequence of his discussions with Darwin.

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