An evolutionary excursion (Part I)

Alfred Russel Wallace. Source: London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company
Alfred Russel Wallace.
Source: London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company

I can’t remember the last time we erected a statue in honour of a scientist or of anyone for that matter! It’s been long… too long I think. Well, it looks like that end could now wait, with the prospect of a bronze statue right here in Singapore, commemorating the life and scientific legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace!

Umm… just who is Wallace you ask? Well, Wallace, the  Welsh-born naturalist, is believe-it-or-not, the co-originator of the theory of evolution by natural selection (for real!)! I know it sounds blasphemous, particularly given that evolution has always been Charles Darwin’s best credited discovery, but let me explain…

According to Wallace expert – Dr George Beccaloni, Wallace had ideas about evolution back in Neath in Wales where he first became interested in the subject. To seek evidence for evolution, the Victorian scientist set off by ship for the Amazon, where he collected specimens of insects, birds and other animals over the next two years.

Wallace took ill and had to return home. Tragically, 26 days into his voyage to Britain, he lost all his notes and specimens when the ship he was sailing in, caught fire and sank. Two years on, Wallace set sail again, this time for the Malay Archipelago, which proved to be an epic 8-year expedition, covering some 22,000 km of travel (remarkable in that day and age) and collecting over 100,000 insects, 7,000 shells, 8,000 bird skins and 400 mammal and reptile specimens!

Interestingly, his journey in the Malay Archipelago began right here in Singapore when he arrived on a steamship on 18 April 1854. His first expeditions were the daily treks to the forests and plantations around Bukit Timah and within two months, he collected an impressive 700 species of beetles amidst grave danger!

Wallace alluded to the very real and present dangers lurking in the jungle in chapter 2 of The Malay Archipelago: The land of the orang-utan, and the bird of paradise: A narrative of travel, with studies of man and nature:

“We heard a tiger roar once or twice in the evening, and it was rather nervous work hunting for insects among the fallen trunks and old sawpits, when one of these savage animals might be lurking close by, waiting an opportunity to spring upon us.

“… on the whole I was quite satisfied with these my first attempts to gain a knowledge of the Natural History of the Malay Archipelago.”
Wallace moved on to also cover parts of modern Malaysia and Indonesia in his eight-year stay in the Archipelago.

It wasn’t until 1858 that the idea of natural selection as the engine of evolutionary change occurred to him. He then wrote a detailed essay on this on the Indonesian island of Halmahera and sent it to Charles Darwin who replied mentioning that fellow contemporary – Charles Lyell found his idea noteworthy.

Unknown to Wallace, his writings were published together with excerpts from Darwin on the subject in a journal where the latter’s contributions were placed before Wallace’s essay. This posited Darwin in a more advantageous light and an abstract he wrote on evolution, was later published in 1859, initially titled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life and later renamed in its sixth edition to On the Origin of Species.

On the Origin of Species became the foundation of evolutionary biology and thus, Darwin’s name was almost singularly identified with the theory of evolution by natural selection – that species change and adapt over time.
Undeterred by this setback, Wallace went on to write 1,000 articles and 22 books on the theory of natural selection and on a wide variety of other subjects before dying on 7 November 1913.

It’s not easy to determine if Darwin conspired to steal ideas from Wallace’s essay or had deliberately worked things to his favour. I’m no sceptic or scholar on the subject and I feel that’s something best left to them to try and debunk. But what’s important is that Wallace continues to be remembered and recognised for his contributions.

In Bukit Timah, he is featured at the Nature Reserve’s visitor centre and at the Wallace Education Centre. A small road in Singapore bears his name – ‘Wallace Way’ in his honour. To add to this, it is hoped that a statue of Wallace will add to his memorial right here in Singapore…

I’ll reveal more details about this endeavour in part II of ‘An evolutionary excursion!’  In the meantime, check out our Island Adventurer exhibition at Science Centre Singapore, which has been set up to showcase the extraordinary adventures of Wallace during his expedition in the Malay Archipelago!

Dr George Beccaloni is an entomologist/evolutionary biologist who is the curator of the London (UK) Natural History Museum’s collection of grasshoppers and relatives, and the Director of the Wallace Correspondence Project. George founded the Wallace Memorial Fund in 1999 and in 2002, he played a key role in helping the Natural History Museum acquire the world’s largest and most important collection of Wallace’s manuscripts, books and insect specimens from Wallace’s grandsons. George co-edited the book ‘Natural Selection and Beyond: The Intellectual Legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace’ and was the historical consultant for the highly acclaimed BBC series “Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero”. He presented a talk titled ‘Alfred Russel Wallace and Natural Selection: The Real Story’ at Science Centre Singapore on 4 December 2013.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Kiat Teng says:

    Nice blog post about Wallace, Danny!

    Now I am inspired to check out the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve’s Visitor Centre and Wallace Education Centre!

    1. Danny says:

      Thank you Kiat Teng! I must check it out too! To add, I’ve gone past the Wallace Way road time and again, but I should venture down that too to see if there’s any other memorial along that road or at least something semblent of Wallace…

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