Alfred Wallace and Me – Part Two
Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia – The London scientific community viewed Alfred Wallace as a redneck, or, in their lingo of the day, a collector. These were people who went out to the tropics with a butterfly net or gun and brought back animals that were sold to the public.
The collectors, usually uneducated rogues who sailed to the tropics to feed the frenzy of the amateur collectors, could make a fortune. However, they often ruined prized specimens through inept storage or fixing methods and had very little or no scientific training.
Wallace was self taught and read voraciously, but he lacked the refinement of the educated upper class. He tried desperately to be accepted in the scholarly world but was frustrated by his need to make money.
He directed his agent to enter his prize specimens in shows and also made minor remarks in scholarly journals. By the time he arrived in Malaya, his name was known and he was beginning to be acknowledged, although grudgingly, as more than a redneck.
Wallace charged through the forest grabbing and then stuffing or fixing everything in sight. As an astute businessman, he kept notes, estimated the number of species in a given area, and then sent back the correct numbers in order not to flood the market. This would keep prices high.
He usually avoided collecting butterflies and concentrated mainly on beetles. The butterfly people had come through before him, and the market was pretty well saturated. There were so many different beetles for the “beetle people” that he was able to carve out a niche.
He shot the occasional bird if it was a great specimen and captured butterflies that were unknown to him. These were sent back, along with the beetles. They provided him with extra income.
Wallace arrived first in Singapore and met Stamford Raffles, the founder of the British presence on the island. Raffles was a collector also but was of higher status, education and class than Wallace. It is doubtful the two got along.
After exploring Singapore Island, he left and went to Malacca, from where he sent back a huge batch of specimens to his agent in London, who turned them around for a profit. While there, the ships came in from London, filled with magazines, albeit about three months late, through which he kept up in his field.
Wallace usually got up around eight, bathed, ate breakfast and went into the jungle until about six. He returned to his hovel and then skinned, stuffed or fixed his days work. When he was finished with an area he moved on through all of Malaya, Borneo and most of Indonesia, through what is now New Guinea.
How did this uneducated redneck, who spent most of his time in the jungle killing things, come up with the single most important theory in history whose effects we are still feeling today?
His collecting was not pleasant work. Scrabbling on all fours of the rainforest floor to collect beetles, skinning and mounting birds and mammals, blood and guts scattered and battling associated flies could not have been enjoyable. He was always bothered with ants trying to carry off what he had captured. A smoky, damp rain forest fire helped to dry the specimens.
One may think of the tropics as a region of endless sunshine, but there are many days unsuitable for collecting – or much else. The monsoon season lasts for two and sometimes three months. Rain, in all forms imaginable, can visit for weeks and weeks without stopping, 24/7. I know. I just suffered through one. Malaria and other fevers can land one in bed for long periods. Leech bites get infected and mites can attack, causing swollen limbs. I have not included snakes, scorpions, salt water crocs and other wonderful little creatures. Wallace must have been incredibly lonely.
This left Wallace with science magazines, his written journals, his statistics and his observations. From the science journals, he could study science writing and reporting methodology. His personal journals allowed for comparisons of one location to another and the creatures therein. The statistics allowed for the numbers while personal observations gave him the insights. The monsoon season provided the time.
He was able to pull it all together.
Next Time – Darwin and Wallace
The Ternate letter to Darwin is seven pages of single spaced Internet copy supporting Natural Selection. The following is a quote that summarizes the paper.
“It appears evident, therefore, that so long as a country remains physically unchanged, the numbers of its animal population cannot materially increase. If one species does so, some others requiring the same kind of food must diminish in proportion. The numbers that die must be immense; and as the individual existence of each animal depends on itself, those that die must be the weakest…while those that prolong their existence can only be the most perfect in health…It is a struggle for existence which the weakest and least perfectly organized must always succumb”