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As Long as We Remember...

May 20, 2009

Alfred Wallace and Me Part 3

Tom McLaughlin

Kampung Santubong, Sarawak, Malaysia – Alfred Wallace’s second and most famous Law of Natural Selection “suddenly flashed upon him” (his words) in February, 1858. With the monsoon season beginning to taper off, he suffered from malaria induced fevers.


Probably plied with vast quantities of gin and quinine to combat the disease, this revelation or epiphany propelled him on a two-day writing spree. Whether he was sober, half lit or stewed to the gills, probably a combination of all three, he wrote down his theory on how a species survives.


For some reason, he mailed the paper off to Charles Darwin. Probably a reaction to his insecurity, queasy from malaria and hung over, the paper would kick Darwin in the butt and unleash a fire storm in the scientific community.


Darwin, in 1844, had shelved his theory of evolution, outlined in a series of notebooks. Nobody seems to know why, except he was thought to be suffering from psychosomatic illnesses, or maybe he was crazier than a loon. Locked away in a large home, rich, and with a huge doting family, he worked on books about barnacles and other arcane subjects.


Wallace’s letter came, and a bolt of light penetrated Darwin’s fogged over brain. The mist cleared and, with the help of Wallace’s missive, he was able to organize his notes and mind to write his own theory. He informed the scientific powers that be, who organized a presentation before the Linnaeus Society, a big deal then. To his credit, Darwin insisted he share the stage with Wallace.


Whether alphabetical, by date of arrival, or political means, Darwin’s name came first and thrust him into world spotlight. Living outside of London, he courted the press, held parties and granted every interview possible with the world press. His wealthy wife, of the Wedgwood crockery family, helped in this endeavor.


With encouragement and assistance from others, Darwin then wrote his book “The Origin of the Species.” The volume appeared 15 months after the joint presentation.


Did Darwin steal Wallace’s work, as many have charged?


Probably not.


Wallace’s letter organized and cleared up what Darwin already had and allowed him to change his writings from random ramblings into a proper scientific communication. Remember, Darwin was mentally ill most of his life after the Beagle voyage. It is also interesting to note both were mentally impaired when they derived their respective theories, with Wallace in the grips of malaria.


Wallace explored the rest of what is now Indonesia and New Guinea, sending back thousands of specimens. He returned to England in 1862 and wrote his book, “The Malay Archipelago” published in 1869. Both “The Origin of the Species” and Wallace’s work have never been out of print.


In his later life, Wallace was to write over 700 papers and books, including one on the canals of Mars refuting Lowell’s Theory that they were built by occupants of the red planet. Maybe because of his exposure to the animists, ancestor worship, or other experiences in the archipelago, he became a spiritualist, séances and all. He wrote two books on the subject.


Following Darwin’s death (April 19, 1882) he was celebrated as the last of the great Victorian explorers and thinkers only to sink into oblivion. Unlike Darwin, Wallace was a recluse. He refused most awards and honors. He once said he preferred the company of the local natives to fellow Englishmen. He would become a footnote, or just a mention in biology texts.


The site of the composition of the Sarawak Law is possibly located on a high bluff over looking the Santubong River in the kampung by that name. Built by the Rajah Brook, it is supposed to be where the Rajah and Wallace discussed the law over gin and where Wallace wrote it. Almost everyone agrees on this location – except me.


There is no fresh water as the Santubong River is tidal. I have searched for a source. It does not back onto Santubong Mountain as the very few descriptions maintain. It is very difficult to access.


An alternative site I have selected has a stream nearby, a path to the mountain and easy access to the sea. It holds ancient ruins of a structure. The kampung people say white people lived there.


Dr George Beccaloni, the curator of the Wallace Papers at the Natural History Museum in London, and who is staying with me in my condo, has seen the site and has invited me to present my ideas. Quite an honor. He jokingly refers me as “our man in Kuching.”


There is an old Malay Proverb:


Sedkit, Sedikit

Lama Lama

Jadi bukit


Take your time and slowly climb the mountain.


During rainy days and the next monsoon season, I will probably continue my search through the Internet, the museum library, tromp through kampungs and bounce ideas off experts in the field to support my idea and try to dig up more stuff about Wallace.


I love these searches, testing my theories and making minor contributions to literature of historical science.


Life is good.


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