Thursday, 13th August 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

Posted on 02. Jul, 2010 by in LECTURES

An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

Alfred Russel Wallace and the Theory of Natural Selection

The 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was celebrated in 2009.  It was a landmark book which dramatically changed how we think about ourselves and the world in which we live.

Charles Darwin has been lionized as one of the giants of western thought for his theory of evolution.

But what about Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin’s who independently developed the theory of natural selection during his eight-year sojourn in Southeast Asia?  Why did Darwin become a household name while Wallace became a historical footnote?

I’ve been following Alfred Russel Wallace for some 30 years, retracing many of his voyages in the Amazon and Southeast Asia.

Wallace was a self-taught (he left school at 13) naturalist, a self-described “beetle collector” who traveled some 14,000 miles in the mid-19th century through what are now Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.  His travels through the Indonesian archipelago helped him develop his theory of island biology.  He theorized that the animals he found in western Indonesia and Peninsular Malaysia were different to those in eastern Indonesia because of changing sea levels and a combination of shallow seas and deep oceanic trenches.  This east-west boundary came to be known as the “Wallace Line”, the dividing point between Southeast Asian fauna (elephants, tigers, monkeys and apes, hornbills) and Austro-Malayan realm fauna (kangaroos, birds of paradise, marsupials).

During his epic eight-year journey Wallace caught, skinned and pickled 125,660 specimens of “natural productions” including 212 new species of birds, 900 new species of beetles and 200 new species of ants.  Consider just the logistics — how could one man, on a limited budget and without governmental or organizational support, living rough in rainforests,  mount and transport 8,000 bird skins and 100,000 insects?

Who was this man?  What drove him?  How did he break the cool Victorian mold by writing passionately about finding new butterflies and birds?  How could he adopt an infant orangutan and raise it like a child (he orphaned the little critter when he shot the mother, one of 17 he killed) and then, in order to obtain a commercially-viable skeleton, calmly boil the animal’s bones when the baby died?

And what led Wallace to develop his contributions to the theory of evolution, first the Sarawak Law (written with the support of the White Rajah of Sarawak, James Brooke), and then the famous Ternate Paper in which he outlined the concept “the fittest shall survive.”  Wallace sent the Ternate Paper to Darwin (who up to that point had not published one word on evolution) and at that point the conspiracy theorists get involved.  Did Darwin and Wallace arrive at their similar ideas independently? Or did Wallace inadvertently give Darwin the “key” to evolution and subsequently get ripped off by the more prominent and well-placed Darwin?