The last couple of months have brought with them a barrage of exams which has forced me to put aside the hours of natural history documentaries that I have saved on my iPad and actually buckle down to some work. Thankfully the iPlayer app allows me to save these for the month that it may take for me to get up to date. I realise that this is probably starting to sound like I work for the BBC but I promise there is a point. You see this all means that I have only just had the pleasure of watching Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero, a wonderful two part documentary on Alfred Russel Wallace, the noted scientist and explorer.
I’m ashamed to say that until recently I knew very little about Wallace, his travels and his contribution to science which seems surprising considering the influence that his research has had. I find my lack of knowledge particularly surprising considering he seems like my kind of guy! He was essentially a naturalist, geographer, explorer and biologist so the fact that the details of his life have remained unfamiliar to me for so long I find rather difficult to comprehend. I’d have thought one of my friends would have put me on to his adventures sooner but the fact that none of them thought to enlighten me just shows how relatively unknown the details of his life are. So I guess I should now issue a public statement to thank Bill Bailey (and his crew) for the introduction. So thank you!
The reason I am quite so grateful is easy to explain. Not only was Wallace a phenomenal scientist who came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection at the same time but independently from Darwin, he was also an incredible character. His early life was quite unsettled but at 25 years old he made the life changing decision to travel to Brazil with his friend to collect animals from the Amazon for collectors in the UK. (To put this into perspective, his journey took place in 1848) Over the 5 years he spent away he collected a huge number of specimens but on his way back to the UK the boat he was travelling on caught light and the large majority of these specimens (totally in the thousands) and all of his notes were lost. Wallace, and the crew he had been travelling with, suddenly found themselves adrift in the middle of a vast ocean but thankfully, and against all odds, they had the good fortune to be picked up by a ship travelling to London. The journey was difficult with the extra numbers, all of whom had to be fed with a cargo that had been meant for many less, but this didn’t put Wallace off and a few years later he set out for the Malay Archipelago. A destination I am extremely jealous of as this area currently lies right at the top my very long hit list. It is here that Wallace, in my opinion, really came into his own. He continued to collect specimens and make detailed notes on the species he found but he also started to notice faults in the theories he had been taught when younger. These doubts led him to come to a conclusion that had only ever been made by one other person, and never publically. Totally independently of Darwin, Wallace came up with the theory of natural selection!
Years earlier Wallace had made contact with Charles Darwin so, having written up his conclusions, he sent them to him for a second opinion. Understandably, upon reading Wallace’s paper Darwin was startled to discover that they shared a common conclusion and, without Wallace’s permission, sent both their papers to be published. This was the first step towards the publication of the Darwin-Wallace paper though Wallace, who was still on the other side of the world, had no knowledge that his original paper was being published and had certainly not given his permission for its publication. He did however accept the arrangement when he learnt of it and, being relatively unknown in comparison, used Darwin’s notoriety to his advantage. The Darwin-Wallace paper would go on to change the scientific community’s entire outlook on the world around them and has had an immeasurable impact on modern science! Not bad for two men on opposite sides of the globe!
Not only did Wallace come up with a world altering theory while in the Malay Archipelago but he was also the first to recognise what is now known as ‘The Wallace Line’, an invisible boundary that cuts the Malay Archipelago in two with one side being inhabited by animals that he identified as being typical to the far east, and the other being home to animals you would expect to find in Australia. And all of this while managing to collect nearly 230,000 specimens, over 5,000 of which are thought to have been new to science at the time!
All of this is undoubtedly very impressive but weirdly is not why I have come to admire him so much. It is beyond all argument that Wallace was not only extremely intelligent but observant and insightful but he was also hungry for adventure and knowledge. It is this that I love! Had he never had any scientific breakthroughs or in fact achieved anything during his time away, I would still admire these traits. The courage and determination he must have possessed is astounding.On top of all of this, and in my eyes the cherry on the top of a very impressive cake, he was acutely aware of the impact we were (are) having on our planet. He wrote extensively about the destruction we were causing and the “reckless waste of man”, even taking time to note the implications of such change!He was a brilliant man and I find it disappointing that I wasn’t born to a generation that would allow me to meet him.So thank you again to Bill Bailey for introducing me to Mr Alfred Russel Wallace. Better late than never!!