An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles
Campfire Conversations with Alfred Russel Wallace on People and Nature Based on Common Travel in the Malay Archipelago,
The Land of the Orangutan and the Bird of Paradise
Explorer’s Eye Press. Geneva. 2017. 454 pages
Second edition April 2017
While Alfred Russel Wallace is recognized as co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection (and was perhaps deliberately sidelined by Darwin) he was also an edgy social commentator and a voracious collector of “natural productions” – while in Asia he caught, skinned, and pickled 125,660 specimens including 212 new species of birds, 200 new species of ants, and 900 new species of beetles.
In the book Sochaczewski, who has lived and worked in Southeast Asia for more than 40 years, follows Wallace’s eight years of exploration in Southeast Asia, based on Wallace’s classic book The Malay Archipelago.
In An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles Sochaczewski has created an innovative form of storytelling, combining incisive biography and personal travelogue
Sochaczewski examines important themes about which Wallace (and he) care about deeply — our relationship with other species, humanity’s need to control nature and how this leads to nature destruction, white-brown and brown-brown colonialism, serendipity, passion, mysticism — and interprets these ideas with layers of humor, history, social commentary, and sometimes outrageous personal tales. This is “A new category of non-fiction — part personal travelogue, part incisive biography of Wallace, part unexpected traveller’s tales which coalesce into an illuminating, sometimes bizarre and always-entertaining volume,” according to one reviewer.
Some of the provocative ideas include:
- Why we collect stuff.
- Women’s role in social evolution.
- Orangutan-human communications.
- Brown-brown colonialism.
- Our need/fear relationship with nature.
- Tribal rights.
- Loneliness and aloneness.
- Man as part of nature or man against nature?
- Things that go bump in the night.
- Backyard biodiversity.
Who was Wallace?
Alfred Russel Wallace was a self-taught (he left school at 13) British naturalist, a self-described “beetle collector” who traveled for four years in the Amazon and eight years in Southeast Asia. During his Asian sojourn in the mid-19th century he covered some 22,500 kilometers through territories which are now Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
Wallace made his voyages without formal government support, without a floating base camp (like Charles Darwin had with HMS Beagle), without infrastructure, without much cash.
During his epic 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 tight budget and without organizational support, living rough in rainforests, collect, identify, mount, preserve and transport 8,000 bird skins and 100,000 insects?
If Wallace did nothing more than collect and identify new species he would have left an important scientific legacy. But the breadth of his interests raised him to the top tier of scientists.
His travels through the Indonesian archipelago, supported by his knowledge of geology, helped him develop his understanding of the dynamics of island biology. He observed that the “natural productions” he found in western Indonesia and Peninsular Malaysia were different to those in eastern Indonesia, due to changing sea levels and a combination of shallow seas and deep oceanic trenches. By studying these differences he developed a west-east boundary which came to be known as the “Wallace Line,” the dividing point between (western) Southeast Asian fauna (elephants, tigers, monkeys and apes, hornbills) and fauna of the (eastern) Austro-Malayan realm (kangaroos, birds of paradise, marsupials).
Who was this man? What drove him? Why did he break the cool Victorian mold by writing passionately about finding new butterflies and birds – in one of several similar passages he wrote that he “trembled with excitement” on finding a new species of butterfly. He was both a sentimentalist and a realist — he adopted an infant orangutan after he shot and killed its mother (one of 17 he shot), and then, when the baby animal died, he calmly boiled the animal’s bones in order to obtain a commercially-viable skeleton.
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 Charles 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 sidelined by the more prominent and well-placed Darwin?
“The feeling I got reading An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles was as if I had boarded a time machine to accompany Wallace as he marveled at and studied the natural wonders of Southeast Asia. The book is a revelation of Wallace’s mesmerizing natural history insights interwoven with Sochaczewski’s unique view of the world and our place in it.”
Thomas E. Lovejoy, professor at George Mason University
“Structures Wallace’s adventures and ideas by themes which resonate with contemporary challenges. Sochaczewski is an explorer of ideas and issues that Wallace cared about deeply: the natural dignity of tribal peoples, the role of colonialism, threats to our natural environment, why boys leave home to seek adventures and collect, how women will determine mankind’s future, and how difficult it is to eliminate ego and greed from people in positions of power.”
Robin Hanbury-Tenison, explorer, author of Mulu: The Rainforest, The Oxford Book of Exploration and The Great Explorers
“I’ve visited many of the places Alfred Russel Wallace and Paul Sochaczewski write about in this exceptional travelogue. An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles does something rare and wonderful – takes us back in time to the mid-19th century when Wallace was collecting and exploring, and forward to the present with insights about Indonesia and our relationship with nature that few people have thought of. This is a true adventure book, it provokes on many levels; it makes me want to dust off my backpack and follow the trail of Wallace once again.”
Aristides Katoppo, editor of Sinar Harapan
“This is a classic hero’s journey – actually a double hero’s journey – which amuses, entertains and surprises us as Wallace and Sochaczewski both experience life-changing adventures in Southeast Asia. Wallace was one of science’s great over-achievers, and by following his trail, Sochaczewski explores, with ample wit and sardonic insight, Wallace’s extraordinary breakthrough in 19th century evolutionary thinking, and reveals how this relates to contemporary Southeast Asian society, politics and the conservation of life on earth.”
Andrew W. Mitchell, founder and director, Global Canopy Programme, and author of The Enchanted Canopy.
“Alfred Russel Wallace isn’t widely known in Indonesia, which is a pity since his passion for the natural world and insights about our relationship with nature (and with each other) contain messages that will help contemporary Indonesians learn how to best respect, protect and manage our vast natural resources. But the book never lectures, never becomes boring. Just the opposite, it is a joy to read, filled with fascinating stories that bring Wallace to life. I intend to insist that my students read this book and consider its messages thoughtfully.”
Jamaluddin Jompa, director of Research and Development Center for Marine, Coasts and Small Islands, Hasanuddin University, Makassar, Indonesia
“A new category of non-fiction — part personal travelogue, part incisive biography of Wallace, part unexpected traveller’s tales which coalesce into an illuminating, sometimes bizarre and always-entertaining volume.”
Jeffrey Sayer, professor of Conservation and Development, James Cook University, founding director general Centre for International Forestry Research-Bogor
“The rhythm and magic of a verbal fugue between two minds, moulded by contrasting background and upbringing; neither man eschews controversy. Read, laugh and, in the light of impacts during the past century and a half, ponder on the uncertain future of the people and wildlife in this gloriously biodiverse archipelago.”
Dato Sri Gathorne, Earl of Cranbrook, author of Mammals of Borneo, Mammals of Southeast Asia, Wonders of the Natural World of Southeast Asia
“Incisive and entertaining, a guidebook for seekers of ideas and people who want a different way of viewing one of the most surprising and dynamic parts of Asia. Wonderfully irreverent.”
Peter Kedit, former director Sarawak Museum (founded by the second White Rajah of Borneo, Charles Brooke, at the suggestion of Alfred Russel Wallace)
“A fascinating journey and dialog with Wallace. Thought-provoking about change and constancy, and a delight to read.”
Peter H. Raven, president emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden
“This book represents a high point in Sochaczewski’s series of Asian-themed books; he couldn’t have written it without having explored the hidden corners of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia for 40+ years. It’s simultaneously funny, sardonic, and insightful. Sochaczewski isn’t afraid to shake Wallace’s pedestal once in a while, and doesn’t take himself too seriously either. What I particularly like is its unusual structure – it’s not chronological but thematic – brown-brown colonialism, why boys leave home and collect insects, the joy of solitude, speaking with spirits, how ego stymies nature conservation. The book is like a pizza with everything – Sochaczewski throws in curious facts and anecdotes which enhance the narrative. Reminds me of Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines and Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo. I think he might even have created a new genre – part biography, part travel adventure, part commentary, part something new and refreshing.”
Jim Thorsell. Senior advisor on World Heritage to IUCN
“Wallace, the unsung co-discoverer of evolution, is brought to life in a new and informative way.”
Sir Ghillean Prance, former president the Linnean Society, former director Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
“A natural storyteller, Paul Sochaczewski has created something much bigger than an “in the footsteps of” book. He has produced a work that looks at the themes Wallace wrote about and lived through — women’s power, why boys leave home, the need to collect, our relation with other species, nature destruction, arrogance, the role of ego, white-brown and brown-brown colonialism, serendipity, passion, mysticism — and interpreted them through his own filter. He is a gifted storyteller and the layers of thought, humor, history, commentary and outrageousness Sochaczewski has given us provides a very special view of Wallace that goes beyond biography, beyond travelogue, beyond memoir.”
Daniel Navid, international environment and development law expert, former UN diplomat and founding secretary general of the International Wetlands Convention
“Many of us dream about how exciting it must have been back in the days when Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were discovering new ways to think about life. Paul Sochaczewski has shown us that the dreams can go live, if one just heads out and looks for the kinds of intriguing, bizarre, exciting, and mind-bending stories that he writes so well. As Wallace might have said, “diversity is the spice of life,” and Paul’s adventures with Wallace will make your mental curry taste like a party in your brain.”
Jeffrey McNeely, chief scientist, IUCN-International Union for Conservation of Nature
“We all owe Wallace a great debt of gratitude for helping us to understand how biological diversity resonates with and is inseparable from cultural diversity, something anthropologists and others are only recently documenting systematically. Likewise we are greatly indebted to Sochaczewski for adding his own observations and insights about how the human relationship with nature is changing in ways that Wallace suggested might occur. It’s rare to find such a captivating book like this one which so creatively combines hard science, passion, whimsy and travel adventures of a very special kind.”
Leslie E. Sponsel, author, Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution
“One of the best books about Alfred Russel Wallace’s adventures, insights and impact, coupled with Sochaczewski’s tales of modern mysticism, corruption, arrogance, courage, greed and inspiration in Southeast Asia. All combined in a startlingly innovative literary form that I’ve never come across previously.
John G. Wilson, author of The Forgotten Naturalist: In Search of Alfred Russel Wallace
“After suffering years of neglect, the life and times of Alfred Russel Wallace – the “Grand Old Man of Science” – have been enjoying somewhat of a revival over the last decade or so. But lest one is tempted to think that Paul Sochaczewski has written yet another book on Wallace, take a peek inside, sense the ‘campfire conversations’, read a chapter, and then start at the beginning and enjoy the whole book. Sochaczewski takes us not on a chronological or geographic adventure with Wallace, but on a much more thoughtful journey in which Wallace himself is explored through his writings, compared and shared by Sochaczewski‘s own travels and experiences (by turn fun, weird, and somber) in many of the same places Wallace knew. Many of us who have read Wallace and have seen his specimens will discover much here, not just about him, but also perhaps, ourselves.”
Tony Whitten, Asia director for Fauna & Flora International, author of various Ecology of Indonesia volumes
“A classic hero’s journey that amuses, entertains and surprises us as Wallace and Sochaczewski experience life-changing moments in their travels through Southeast Asia. Working on several fronts as a coming-of-age book, a travelogue, a bonding of minds, and a good page-turning yarn, the book is compelling with enlightening insights woven in an engrossing narrative.”
Mo Tejani, author of Global Crossroads: Memoirs of a Travel Junkie
“A modern-day adventurer in his own right, Sochaczewski retraces the physical and intellectual journey of Alfred Russel Wallace, the great explorer, naturalist, humanist and pioneering theoretician on evolution by natural selection. The reader, in turn, is swept along on a quest to discover the dynamics that shape our natural world. In a virtual dialogue, both explorers bring their individual experiences to bear.”
Javed Ahmad, former director of Communication, Environmental Education and Publications of the World Conservation Union-IUCN
“A fascinating exploration of the people and places that touched Wallace, and insights into his mind seen through the author’s personal journey retracing those epic journeys. A deeply personal telling of Southeast Asia’s character and nature, through the eyes of a naturalist, and a traveler. An enticing read.”
Tony Sebastian, past president of the, Malaysian Nature Society, president Friends of Sarawak Museum
“This is an audacious book in which Paul Sochaczewski talks with Alfred Russel Wallace, bridging 150 years of change in ecology, geography and demographics. Sochaczewski entertainingly discusses Wallace’s views on the natural history of the Malay Archipelago side-by-side with his own reflections on contemporary 21st- century Southeast Asia.”
Natarajan Ishwaran, director of ecological and earth sciences at, director of Ecological and Earth Sciences, UNESCO
“This is a Really Good Book! Paul Sochaczewski has written a scholarly personal travel book that is much, much more. He follows Alfred Russel Wallace to little-visited corners of Asia, discussing Wallace’s views and discoveries combined with the author’s erudite insights and musings into history, philosophy, people, and natural history. Extremely well written with nice touches of humor, this book is hard to put down. “
Lee M. Talbot, professor of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University; former director general, IUCN, environmental adviser to three United States presidents.
Sample chapter (excerpt)
TEN PAGES THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
Wallace’s eureka-moment, triggered by malarial fever, challenged both his ego and the belief systems of many people.
TERNATE, Moluccas. Indonesia
Wallace had two bases in Southeast Asia where he could recover his strength, keep supplies, receive mail, pack and ship his collections, and eat decent food: Singapore and, more important, Ternate.
During a malaria fever in February 1858, and perhaps inspired by Ternate’s “grand views on every side,” Wallace had a breakthrough that explains the mechanism of natural selection in the evolution of species. Within two days he had written “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type” and sent the paper to Charles Darwin.
Darwin, on receiving Wallace’s “Ternate Paper,” wrote to his friend, the noted geologist Charles Lyell: “I never saw a more striking coincidence; if Wallace had had my manuscript sketch, written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract of it.”
Thus began one of the most curious episodes in the history of science.
* * *
The first impression of tiny and isolated Ternate is of a postcard-pretty tropical island, dominated by the cone of spiritually-enhanced, (and sweet-on-the-tongue) Gamalama volcano. But the specks of Ternate and nearby Tidore, Moti, Mare and Makian islands wielded immense power in years past since they were once the world’s only source of cloves, a commodity desired by the Portuguese as early as 1521, and subsequently fought over by the Spanish and Dutch.
For years the sultan of Ternate, the 48th of his royal line, claimed that a house near his run-down kraton (palace) was on the site where Wallace lived. However, more recently the civic authorities have declared that a house a kilometer (0.6 miles) away, in what used to be the European enclave, was actually where Wallace wrote one of the most important intellectual breakthroughs of our time. The newish-dwelling constructed on the site is owned by a Chinese trader. Impressed by the regular stream of visitors who come to take photos at the location, he has raised the selling price to an astronomical figure, hampering serious efforts by the governor to build a visitors’ center on the historic location.
* * *
We’re taught by parents and the media to think “I can do anything.” We’re taught by many religions to believe “I am nothing in the overall scheme of things.” Our lives are a constant juggling of how we nurture (and control) our egos. How did Wallace deal with these issues of ego and personal worth?
* * *
It never hurts to have a letter of introduction to the sultan, and I obtained a “please help this strange foreigner” note from Pak Ola, a relative of the sultan of Ternate, whom I met by chance on the ferry from Ternate to Halmahera.
Pak Ola and I had studied a map prepared by Charles H. Lamoureux, director of the Lyon Arboreteum in Honolulu, in which Lamoureux described the site of Wallace’s Ternate house as being located at 16 Jalan (street) Sultan Hairun. Several days later I went to the specified address. The purported site of Wallace’s house is a few steps from the sultan’s palace, across the street from the old mosque, a distinctive building with a sharp-edged multi-tiered roof made of rusted red zinc. The house is now occupied by the family of Pak Zainal, a nephew of the sultan.
Two mountain bikes leaned against the weathered timbers. Inside, the walls were whitewashed. Wooden beams supported three-meter (ten-foot) ceilings, in places water-stained and crumbling. Out back, near a rusting pickup truck, is a well that corresponds with Wallace’s description of “a deep well which supplied me with pure cold water.” The house is located “five minutes’ walk” from the beach, just as Wallace described. Wallace also noted it was “surrounded by a wilderness of fruit trees,” but only a few large fruit trees remain, and these are certainly of more modern vintage. The house built on the site, probably of 1930s era, is littered and dirty, but I can imagine that in Wallace’s time the much simpler house he built here would have been peaceful and restorative, where he could “return to after my voyages to the various islands of the Moluccas and New Guinea, where I could pack my collections, recruit my health, and make preparations for future journeys.”
This is where Wallace perhaps had one of the most famous malaria fit of all time. Most people have nightmares about demons, flights of fancy, and great adventures; Wallace’s breakthrough dream starred Thomas Robert Malthus.
I was suffering from a sharp attack of intermittent fever, and every day during the cold and succeeding hot fits had to lie down for several hours, during which time I had nothing to do but to think over any subjects then particularly interesting me. One day something brought to my recollection Malthus’s “Principles of Population,” [“An Essay on the Principle of Population”] which I had read twelve years before. I thought of his clear exposition of “the positive checks to increase” — disease, accidents, war, and famine — which keep down the population of savage races to so much lower an average than that of more civilized peoples. It then occurred to me that these causes or their equivalents are continually acting in the case of animals also; and as animals usually breed much more rapidly than does mankind, the destruction every year from these causes must be enormous in order to keep down the numbers of each species, since they evidently do not increase regularly from year to year, as otherwise the world would long ago have been densely crowded with those that breed most quickly. Vaguely thinking over the enormous and constant destruction which this implied, it occurred to me to ask the question, Why do some die and some live? And the answer was clearly, that on the whole the best fitted live. From the effects of disease the most healthy escape; from enemies, the strongest, the swiftest, or the most cunning….Then it suddenly flashed upon me that this self-acting process would necessarily improve the race, because in every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain-that is, the fittest would survive…..I waited anxiously for the termination of my fit so that I might at once make notes for a paper on the subject. [italics Wallace]
Once he got back his strength he got to work and wrote the paper over the next two evenings. Wallace recognized what a significant breakthrough this was, and described his Ternate Paper as “the long-sought-for law of nature that solved the problem of the origin of species.”
This, as they say, is eureka-time. Archimedes in his bath, Newton under the apple tree. Wallace in a cold sweat….
(this is part of this chapter; for the full discussion of what took place at the Linnean Society meeting of July 1, 1858, what Wallace’s relationship with Charles Darwin was, and a discussion of whether Darwin and his friends deliberately sidelined Wallace in terms of claiming priority for the theory of natural selection, with footnotes, please see the book)