by Peter Raby
Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero, a documentary about Alfred Russel Wallace in the year that marks the centenary of his death (BBC 2, April 21st and 28th) proved to be even more than the sum of its parts, which were considerable. Bill Bailey’s knowledge about Wallace and about Indonesia, and his wittily expressed enthusiasm and admiration, were supported by excellent camera-work, illuminating use of documents from the archive at the Natural History Museum, and a dazzling cast of supporting characters, human and animal. Among the latter group were orang-utans, frogs, including a slightly reluctant flying frog; a grumpy-looking cuscus; a ruthless tarsier; countless beetles and butterflies; and the dazzling standard wing bird of paradise, named after Wallace. Here was a guide whose words on Wallace – his sense of adventure, discovery and delight in the natural world – could equally be applied to himself. Bailey travelled in the footsteps or the wake of his hero, up rivers, across straits, through jungle paths, wading barefoot through streams, and eating the occasional fricassee of fruit bat, while a battered trunk, an image of Wallace’s eight year journey, provided continuity, a constant reminder of the sheer logistical feat accomplished by Wallace, as he transported all the necessary equipment for a major collecting expedition from Singapore to Borneo, the Spice Islands and New Guinea, and back again. He criss-crossed the Malay Archipelago with astonishing energy, collecting, observing, and writing scientific papers, and moving from the comparatively well-known and accessible areas to remote islands involving hazardous sea-voyages.
The programme was very clearly structured. Part 1 introduced Wallace and his first years of field-work, spent largely in Sarawak on the island of Borneo, a period during which he collected astonishing quantities of insects, encountered orang-utans which he was able to study as well as to shoot (he was financing his journey by selling what he collected), and also found time to write his first important theoretical paper, ‘On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species’ (published September 1855 in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History. In this he argued that all species evolved from earlier forms. He despatched it for publication in London, and then travelled eastwards, crossing from Bali to Lombok, and from there to Sulawesi (formerly Celebes). Having crossed the twenty odd miles strait to Lombok, he found himself startlingly in a new world of fauna. This abrupt change was an epiphanic moment. He had crossed an invisible frontier, represented geographically by deep water, and had moved from, he realised, an island populated by essentially Asian animals, to a distinctive Australian fauna. He had, in fact, discovered the line now labelled by his name, and worked out the broad geographical and geological causes before anyone knew about tectonic plates.
Part 2 took up the story as Wallace landed on Sulawesi, delighting in the strange animal forms he found there, a moment memorably captured in the film when a black, tail-less macaque nuzzled Bill Bailey as he sat cross-legged on the beach. This second episode was dominated by three themes: Wallace’s engagement with the questions revolving around species, their variation and distribution; his quest to collect birds of paradise, which would, once sold, fund the next stages of his expedition; and the great breakthrough on the mechanism of evolution. Suffering from malaria, he suddenly recollected Malthus’s doctrine as to why some lived, and some died, and realised that the superior or best-fitted forms would necessarily survive. Wallace wrote out his theory, added a covering letter, and sent it to Darwin by Dutch mail-boat (we saw Bill Bailey popping an envelope into a Ternate mail-box).
This is where the story becomes either very complicated, or extremely simple. The outcome is well-known: a joint paper read to the Linnean society on July 1st, 1858, sponsored by Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, featuring two pieces of text by Darwin
intended for other purposes, followed by Wallace’s eloquent exposition. Darwin was not present, kept at home by family illness and bereavement; Wallace was not consulted, perhaps inevitably. Darwin’s name and texts came first, as he had conceived his own theory years before; Wallace followed. The point of view followed by the programme was trenchantly expressed. Lyell and Hooker ‘cooked up’ a plan, ‘a contrivance’; ‘Wallace was robbed’. But now, triumphantly, a full-length portrait of a benign-looking Wallace was unveiled at the Natural History Museum, hanging proudly beside the statue of Darwin, which has dominated the main hall in recent years.
And quite right too. Wallace has been undervalued for far too long, though at his death he had an international reputation, and certainly in the field of biogeography he has never been eclipsed. Bill Bailey’s advocacy is part of a process of the recent rediscovery of this extraordinary giant of natural history, and much else besides. Conferences are being held throughout the world in this centenary year, including a two day event organized by the Royal Society on October 21st and 22nd, followed by a Wallace day at the Natural History Museum on October 23rd. This latter event offers an opportunity to appreciate the riches of the Museum’s Wallace collection, including the project to make Wallace’s entire correspondence available on-line. If Thomas Huxley was Darwin’s bull-dog, Dr George Beccaloni, curator of orthopteroid insects at the Museum and the historical consultant for Jungle Hero, is Wallace’s indefatigable champion and equivalent.
Wallace seems to have conceived his theory of evolution by means of natural selection – as expressed in his Ternate paper – entirely independently, a brilliant concept that staggered Darwin when he first read it. The context, of course, he shared with many others. Rebecca Stott’s thought-provoking book Darwin’s Ghosts traces the varied proponents of evolution from Aristotle to Wallace. Wallace himself was inspired by Vestiges (1844), and in his preliminary Sarawak paper uses the example of the Galapagos islands to explain why separate islands each had their peculiar species ‘either on the supposition that the same original emigration peopled the whole of the islands with the same species from which differently modified prototypes were created, or that the islands were successively peopled from each other, but that new species have been created in each on the plan of the pre-existing ones’. (Annals and Magazine of Natural History, 16 (2nd ser.),184-196) (Wallace was not, of course, arguing for creation by God, but by natural laws.) This example seems clearly to derive from Wallace’s reading of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle (1839, revised editions 1845). Among those who did read and understand the implications of Wallace’s Sarawak paper was his co-explorer in the Amazon, Henry Walter Bates. Bates still on the other side of the world, wrote to Wallace in Makassar: ‘I was startled at first to see you already ripe for the enunciation of the theory….The idea is like truth itself, so simple and obvious that those who read and understand it will be struck by its simplicity, and yet it is perfectly original.’ He added, perhaps with an implied though mild rebuke: ‘The theory I quite assent to, and, you know, was conceived by me also, but I profess that I could not have propounded it with so much force and completeness.’ (Bates to Wallace, 19 November 1856, Natural History Museum) ‘Conceived by me also’: the search for the origin of species was very much in the minds of both Wallace and Bates when they headed off to the Amazon in 1848; and the botanist Richard Spruce, whose paths crossed with theirs from time to time, also held independent views on the evolution of organic forms, and later reminded Wallace of the fact: ‘If you recollect our conversations at São Gabriel, you will understand that I have never believed in the existence of any permanent limits – generic or specific – in the groups of organic beings’.(Spruce to Wallace, 21 November 1863, Natural History Museum)
Yet the second and essential part of puzzle eluded them. There were others inching their way towards a new understanding of the world, until Darwin, labouring for many years to pile up incontrovertible evidence, and Wallace, inspired by his penetrating observation of the fauna as he made his way across the archipelago, cleared the way by the joint announcement of 1858, followed by On the Origin of Species in 1859. Wallace, unfortunately,was not in a position to write his own book of theory, although, from the entries in his notebooks, he was clearly planning one. The Malay Archipelago (1869), however, dedicated with characteristic generosity to Darwin, may be read as a counterpart to the Origin. Extracts from this magnificent travel book, read at appropriate contexts by Bill Bailey, reminded us of what a lucid and often enthralling writer Wallace was, yet another of his many accomplishments. His humanity and his sense of wonder shine through. Much of the text closely follows his journal entries, made during long and arduous days on what he described as the central and controlling incident of his life, a journey beautifully and appropriately celebrated by this programme.
Peter Raby is a fellow emeritus of Homerton College, Cambridge. He is the author of Bright Paradise, a study of Victorian scientific travellers, and a biography of Alfred Russel Wallace (Chatto and Windus, and Princeton University Press 2001).
Related JVC Articles:
Bernstein, Susan D., ‘Ape Anxiety: Sensation Fiction, Evolution, and the Genre Question’, Journal of Victorian Culture (2001) 6:2, pp. 250-271.
Levine, George L., ‘Science and Victorian Literature: A Personal Retrospective’, Journal of Victorian Culture (2007) 12:1, pp.86-96.
O’Connor, Ralph, ‘From the Epic of Earth History to the Evolutionary Epic in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Journal of Victorian Culture (2009) 14:2, pp.207-223.
Watt-Smith, Tiffany, ‘Darwin’s Flinch: Sensation Theatre and Scientific Looking in 1872’, Journal of Victorian Culture (2010) 15:1, pp.101-118.
White, Paul., ‘Darwin Wept: Science and the Sentimental Subject’, Journal of Victorian Culture (2011) 16:2, pp.195-213.