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May 6, 2009

Alfred Wallace and Me Part 1

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia – The monsoon season had settled in and my exploring the nearby rain forest had come to a halt. Blinding 24-four hour rains and muddy, slippery paths drove me indoors searching for activities. It was time to pursue my interest in Alfred Russell Wallace.


Who was Alfred Russell Wallace? I had taught about him in biology classes when I covered evolution, but he still remained an enigma. When I moved to Santubong, here on Borneo, I had no idea he had written his second most important piece, The Sarawak Law, in this locale. My curiosity was aroused.


I first started on the Internet, reading everything I could find. I contacted several experts and discovered there was some question as to the 1855 location of his residence in Kampung Santubong, just down the road.


I am not the brightest penny in the bag, and I had hoped that if I could find the location lightening would strike twice, mystical forces would flow upward from the ground and my intelligence level would sky rocket, mostly to choose winning stock market offerings.


Having finished my Internet quest, the Sarawak museum library was next. I took the bus in the pouring rain, week three of a 10 week deluge. I started my search through the considerable number of books and began researching the old newspapers, dating back to the late 1800’s.


A mental picture began to emerge of this “forgotten scientist,” his life and work. My original idea of a stuffy old dude wandering the jungles seeking butterflies and other bugs turned into a colorful character whose thunder was stolen by Charles Darwin.


Victorian England at the time of Wallace was the age of exploration. Those who could not hop a boat to the far flungs collected insects and other natural history items from the four corners. Bugs, butterflies, stuffed mammals and birds were the “in” thing to acquire.


Mr. Wallace started a beetle collection much like we would collect rocks, Barbie’s or stamps as a kid. His interest in bugs continued much longer than everyone thought it should. Obsessed, he read every thing he could find. Mom and Dad thought it was time for him to get a real job. Not having the funds for university, he was apprenticed to his brother as a surveyor.


When that business went south, Mr. Wallace hooked up with a guy named Bates, also a beetle collector, and took off for Brazil. Everyone was making a bundle on the collecting frenzy, and he sailed up the Amazon and into the Rio Negros, little explored at that time. He collected beetles, butterflies, birds and anything else he could peddle for a farthing or two back in England.


Back in merry ole, an agent received the goods, priced and sold them to the general public. Mr. Wallace also kept some specimens for himself, building his own collection.


Collecting can be obsession as well as a lucrative enterprise. Let’s take baseball cards for example. For world champion season, a signed card of the first baseman would be worth money. A signed card from the second baseman together with the first baseman would be worth more. As more and more cards are collected the grouping becomes more valuable so that an entire signed card team would be worth a fortune.


Mr. Wallace’s evolution from a nerdy collector to a full fledged money hungry entrepreneur merged. He grew to dislike the intellectuals who were fortunate enough to remain in London writing in prestigious journals while he had to be out making a living. He became insecure in his scientific thrusts, yet very successful in the collecting business.


Meanwhile, his agent banked the money and exhibited some of his unknown species at various scientific meetings, keeping his name in front of the great minds. They regarded him as a mere collector, a businessman and lower than whale poop in the Mariana Trench.


Unfortunately, on his return from Brazil his ship burned, destroying his own collection and all of his notebooks. He probably wanted to use the material to advance his reputation in the scientific world.


The collecting frenzy was still going strong. He spent his insurance money, the funds from the Brazil sales and advances on sending back stuffed orangutans and sailed off to Malaya and Southeast Asia.


Next Time: Early Times in Malaya.


(Editor’s Note: The Sarawak Law was written in Santubong in February 1855 (at the end of the monsoon season!) and published in September of the same year. From the Internet, it is 10 pages of single spaced, very readable support of evolution. The Sarawak Law states “Every species has come into existence coincident both in time and space with a pre-existing closely allied species.”)


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