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December 11, 2013

A Different Kind of Man

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – Who was Alfred Wallace? He was a business man who came to Borneo to collect beetles and other insects in the late 1850s. They were then shipped back to England where they were sold to collectors.


I think people collected exotic insects because stamps had not yet been invented and I think it is human nature for people to collect something.


Here in Borneo we have the monsoon season which lasts from December to about mid March. Many times it rains 24/7. Wallace could not collect his bugs so he wrote articles about natural history. He composed two very famous papers about evolution; the second was published with Darwin in London and was the kick off for natural selection.


I am by no means an expert on Wallace even though I have read almost everything he wrote or was written about him. The problem lies in that Wallace was not very clear when he wrote. In fact, many times he was obtuse.


This necessitates one to try and figure what he was thinking when he wrote a particular statement. What could he have meant?


In trying to figure this out, we have two opinions, mine and everybody else. I look at him from the standpoint of a person who has roamed the jungles and the edges of the Malay Archipelago looking for beetles and was holed up in a hut during the rainy season. I also have the advantage of living where he worked. How would a 1850s Englishman think?


Everybody else has his mind set considering books and scientific articles he had read, his childhood and other travels; but not his experiences here in the Far East. They say his mind was compartmentalized; he was able to seal off outside influences in formulating his theories.


I don’t know how anyone can compartmentalize and think of theories with mosquitoes, snakes, leeches, crocodiles, hunting for food, staying dry and all the other requirements for survival here in the forest. However, the scholars, those who wrote books, insist that he did. I disagree because the East must have had some influences. I know it has on me.


Yet, every example I put forth and every alternate explanation is immediately shot down by them. They are right and I am wrong.


For example, after he returned from the Malay world, he spent untold hours trying to contact the dead through séances. The English and one American scholars say it was the “in” thing to do” during the Victorian period. It is difficult for me to think that one of the greatest minds of the era would suddenly and seriously take up parlor games because it was a fad.


I maintain that the world of spiritualism practiced by the denizens of the Archipelago had a profound effect on his psyche. He was alone most times in or near the jungles with only his workers, who often reveled him with ghost stories and he feared many spirits who inhabit the area. One suddenly does not wake one morning wanting to contact those who have passed on and continue to do so and write about it for the rest of his life without some good reason and a major influence.


Although I will concede, most of the locals, at the time, spent a great deal of effort trying to ward off the spirits with amulets and carved figures while Wallace was making a determined effort to bring them into his living room. A major difference, but still I think the idea came from here.


I will continue to write that this wonderful and incredible place where I live had a profound effect on Alfred Wallace, forcing others, even for a moment, to view him in a different perspective.


…Life is good. . . . .


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