Today is the birthday (1823) of Alfred Russel Wallace OM FRS, a British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist, and biologist. He is best known for independently conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection; his paper on the subject was jointly published with some of Charles Darwin’s writings in 1858. This prompted Darwin to publish his own ideas in On the Origin of Species. Wallace did extensive fieldwork, first in the Amazon River basin and then in the Malay Archipelago, where he identified the faunal divide now termed the Wallace Line, which separates the Indonesian archipelago into two distinct parts: a western portion in which the animals are largely of Asian origin, and an eastern portion where the fauna reflect Australasia.
He was considered the 19th century’s leading expert on the geographical distribution of animal species and is sometimes called the “father of biogeograph.” Wallace was one of the leading evolutionary thinkers of the 19th century and made many other contributions to the development of evolutionary theory besides being co-discoverer of natural selection. These included the concept of warning coloration in animals, and the Wallace effect, a hypothesis on how natural selection could contribute to speciation by encouraging the development of barriers against hybridization.
Wallace was strongly attracted to unconventional ideas (such as evolution). His advocacy of spiritualism and his belief in a non-material origin for the higher mental faculties of humans strained his relationship with some members of the scientific establishment. In addition to his scientific work, he was a social activist who was critical of what he considered to be an unjust social and economic system in 19th century Britain. His interest in natural history resulted in his being one of the first prominent scientists to raise concerns over the environmental impact of human activity.
Wallace was a prolific author who wrote on both scientific and social issues; his account of his adventures and observations during his explorations in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, The Malay Archipelago, is regarded as one the best of all journals of scientific exploration published during the 19th century.
Wallace had financial difficulties throughout much of his life. His Amazon and Far Eastern trips were supported by the sale of specimens he collected and, after he lost most of the considerable money he made from those sales in unsuccessful investments, he had to support himself mostly from the publications he produced. Unlike some of his contemporaries in the British scientific community, such as Darwin and Charles Lyell, he had no family wealth to fall back on, and he was unsuccessful in finding a long-term salaried position, receiving no regular income until he was awarded a small government pension, through Darwin’s efforts, in 1881.
Wallace’s contributions to evolutionary biology have now largely been forgotten, and evolution tends to be linked with Darwin only. But Wallace had a profound influence on the field and on Darwin himself. In fact, it has been argued that had he not corresponded with Darwin about his own theories concerning natural selection, Darwin might never have published his. Darwin had sat on his notes for many years because he was aware of the firestorm that would follow – and did. In his lifetime Wallace was one of the most famous scientists in the world, but soon after his death he was forgotten, and remains so. Hence my desire to celebrate him today.
Inspired by the chronicles of earlier travelling naturalists, including Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, and William Henry Edwards, Wallace decided that he too wanted to travel abroad as a naturalist. In 1848, Wallace and Henry Bates left for Brazil aboard the ship Mischief. Their intention was to collect insects and other animal specimens in the Amazon rainforest and sell them to collectors back in the United Kingdom. Wallace also hoped to gather evidence of the transmutation of species which was a theory that was largely unsupported by empirical evidence.
Wallace and Bates spent most of their first year collecting near Belém do Pará, then explored inland separately, occasionally meeting to discuss their findings. In 1849, they were briefly joined by another young explorer, botanist Richard Spruce, along with Wallace’s younger brother Herbert. Herbert left soon thereafter (dying two years later from yellow fever), but Spruce, like Bates, would spend over ten years collecting in South America.
Wallace continued charting the Rio Negro for four years, collecting specimens and making notes on the peoples and languages he encountered as well as the geography, flora, and fauna. On 12 July 1852, Wallace embarked for the UK on the brig Helen. After 26 days at sea, the ship’s cargo caught fire and the crew was forced to abandon ship. All of the specimens Wallace had on the ship, mostly collected during the last, and most imporant, years of his trip, were lost. He could save only part of his diary and a few sketches.
Wallace and the crew spent ten days in an open boat before being picked up by the brig Jordeson, which was sailing from Cuba to London. The Jordeson’s provisions were strained by the unexpected passengers, but after a difficult passage on very short rations the ship finally reached its destination on 1 October 1852.
After his return to the UK, Wallace spent 18 months in London living on the insurance payment for his lost collection and selling a few specimens that had been shipped back to Britain prior to his starting his exploration of the Rio Negro. During this period, despite having lost almost all of the notes from his South American expedition, he wrote six academic papers (which included “On the Monkeys of the Amazon”) and two books; Palm Trees of the Amazon and Their Uses and Travels on the Amazon. He also made connexions with a number of other British naturalists—most significantly, Darwin.
From 1854 to 1862, age 31 to 39, Wallace travelled through the Malay Archipelago or East Indies (now Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia), to collect specimens for sale and to study natural history. A set of 80 bird skeletons he collected in Indonesia and associated documentation can be found in the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology. His observations of the marked zoological differences across a narrow strait in the archipelago led to his proposing the zoogeographical boundary now known as the Wallace line.
Wallace collected more than 126,000 specimens in the Malay Archipelago (more than 80,000 beetles alone). Several thousand of them represented species new to science.] One of his better-known species descriptions during this trip is that of the gliding tree frog Rhacophorus nigropalmatus, now known as Wallace’s flying frog. While he was exploring the archipelago, he refined his thoughts about evolution and had his famous insight on natural selection. In 1858 he sent an article outlining his theory to Darwin; it was published, along with a description of Darwin’s own theory, in the same year.
Accounts of his studies and adventures there were eventually published in 1869 as The Malay Archipelago, which became one of the most popular books of scientific exploration of the 19th century, and has never been out of print. It was praised by scientists such as Darwin (to whom the book was dedicated), and Charles Lyell, and by non-scientists such as the novelist Joseph Conrad, who called it his “favorite bedside companion” and used it as source of information for several of his novels, especially Lord Jim.
In 1862, Wallace returned to England, where he moved in with his sister Fanny Sims and her husband Thomas. While recovering from his travels, Wallace organized his collections and gave numerous lectures about his adventures and discoveries to scientific societies such as the Zoological Society of London. Later that year, he visited Darwin at Down House, and became friendly with both Charles Lyell and Herbert Spencer. During the 1860’s, Wallace wrote papers and gave lectures defending natural selection. He also corresponded with Darwin about a variety of topics, including sexual selection, warning coloration, and the possible effect of natural selection on hybridization and the divergence of species. In 1865, he began investigating spiritualism, his advocacy of which alienated him from many powerful figures in the scientific community.
John Stuart Mill was impressed by remarks criticizing English society that Wallace had included in The Malay Archipelago. Mill asked him to join the general committee of his Land Tenure Reform Association, but the association dissolved after Mill’s death in 1873. Wallace had written only a handful of articles on political and social issues between 1873 and 1879 when, at the age of 56, he entered the debates over trade policy and land reform in earnest. He believed that rural land should be owned by the state and leased to people who would make whatever use of it that would benefit the largest number of people, thus breaking the often-abused power of wealthy landowners in British society. In 1881, Wallace was elected as the first president of the newly formed Land Nationalisation Society. In the next year, he published a book, Land Nationalisation; Its Necessity and Its Aims, on the subject. He criticized the UK’s free trade policies for the negative impact they had on working-class people. In 1889, Wallace read Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy and declared himself a socialist. After reading Progress and Poverty, the best-selling book by the progressive land reformist Henry George, Wallace described it as “Undoubtedly the most remarkable and important book of the present century.”
Wallace opposed eugenics, an idea supported by other prominent 19th century evolutionary thinkers, on the grounds that contemporary society was too corrupt and unjust to allow any reasonable determination of who was fit or unfit. In the 1890 article “Human Selection” he wrote “Those who succeed in the race for wealth are by no means the best or the most intelligent …”. In 1898, Wallace wrote a paper advocating a pure paper money system, not backed by silver or gold, which impressed the economist Irving Fisher so much that he dedicated his 1920 book Stabilizing the Dollar to Wallace. Wallace wrote articles on other social and political topics including his support for women’s suffrage, and the dangers and wastefulness of militarism.
In 1898, Wallace published The Wonderful Century: Its Successes and Its Failures about developments in the 19th century. The first part of the book covers the major scientific and technical advances of the century; the second part covers what Wallace considered to be its social failures including: the destruction and waste of wars and arms races, the rise of the urban poor and the dangerous conditions in which they lived and worked, a harsh criminal justice system that failed to reform criminals, abuses in a mental health system based on privately owned sanatoriums, the environmental damage caused by capitalism, and the evils of European colonialism. Wallace continued his social activism for the rest of his life, publishing the book The Revolt of Democracy just weeks before his death.
Wallace continued his scientific work in parallel with his social commentary. In 1880, he published Island Life as a sequel to The Geographic Distribution of Animals. In November 1886, Wallace began a ten-month trip to the United States to give a series of popular lectures. Most of the lectures were on Darwinism (evolution through natural selection), but he also gave speeches on biogeography, spiritualism, and socio-economic reform. During the trip, he was reunited with his brother John who had emigrated to California years before. He also spent a week in Colorado, with the American botanist Alice Eastwood as his guide, exploring the flora of the Rocky Mountains and gathering evidence that would lead him to a theory on how glaciation might explain certain commonalities between the mountain flora of Europe, Asia and North America, which he published in 1891 in the paper “English and American Flowers”. He met many other prominent American naturalists and viewed their collections. His 1889 book Darwinism used information he collected on his American trip, and information he had compiled for the lectures.
Wallace assembled a huge collection of flora and fauna which were kept in “cabinets.” Only one of these collections remains in its original cabinet. It consists of 1,700-items consisting of a variety of insects, including butterflies, beetles, moths, shells, flies, bees, praying mantises, tarantulas, seedpods, a hornet’s nest, and a small bird. A collector named Robert Heggestad found this cabinet/collection in Washington DC in 1979 and purchased it for $600 (not knowing who had assembled it). Heggestad began documenting references in Wallace’s work to specimens in the cabinet, resulting in a 62-page report to support the theory that the collection once belonged to Wallace. He also employed graphologist Beverley East to verify the handwriting on the collection. It is Wallace’s only known personal collection still in its original cabinet. Today it is believed that Wallace collected the specimens in the rosewood cabinet for instructional purposes.
On 7 November 1913, Wallace died at home in the country house he called Old Orchard, which he had built a decade earlier. He was 90 years old. His death was widely reported in the press. The New York Times called him “the last of the giants belonging to that wonderful group of intellectuals that included, among others, Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Lyell, and Owen, whose daring investigations revolutionised and evolutionised the thought of the century.” Another commentator in the same edition said “No apology need be made for the few literary or scientific follies of the author of that great book on the ‘Malay Archipelago’.”
Some of Wallace’s friends suggested that he be buried in Westminster Abbey, but his wife followed his wishes and had him buried in the small cemetery at Broadstone, Dorset. Several prominent British scientists formed a committee to have a medallion of Wallace placed in Westminster Abbey near where Darwin had been buried. The medallion was unveiled on 1 November 1915.
I thought it fitting to talk about Malay cuisine because of Wallace’s close ties to the Malay region. I enjoy cooking one or two dishes when I can get hold of the ingredients which is easier for me now I am in SW China. But I do not have a kitchen yet, so I will just have to describe it. Malay restaurants are not common in the West, but I did find a good one once in Brighton on the south coast of England.
Malay cuisine is noted for its complex spice mixes, fiery sambals, coconut milk, and rice. Nasi lemak (Jawi: ناسيلمق) is a fragrant rice dish cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf, commonly found in Malaysia, where it is considered the national dish. It is also popular in neighboring countries such as Brunei, Singapore, Riau Islands, and Southern Thailand. It is not hard to prepare but you do need pandan leaves to get the right flavor. They can be found in the West, frozen, in Asian stores. They add a flavor similar to basmati rice to plain rice. So, if you cannot get them use basmati as a substitute.
Basically you use coconut milk in place of water using about a 2:I ratio of milk to rice so that the milk is completely absorbed. Add a few slices of fresh ginger and a knot of pandan leaves for flavoring. The rice is traditionally served with sliced cucumber, fried anchovies, boiled egg, and peanuts with some kind of sambal. But it can accompany any dish. Here’s a little gallery of ideas for you.