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As Long as We Remember...

November 18, 2015

Book on Wallace “Somewhat Incomprehensible”

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – While in the States, I ordered a book from Harvard University Press. I should have known, of course, that it would be unmanageable and way over my head, but in the frenzy of travel, I did it anyway.


The small volume, about 325 pages, arrived at my daughter’s house in Eastern Montana where I was to spend two and half glorious weeks on the prairie, with visits to my book as a relaxing evening read. A perfect close to a perfect day.


The book was about Alfred Russel Wallace, an adventurer here in Malaysia and Indonesia, who came up with two laws of nature while wandering around the archipelago searching for beetles. He sent specimens back to England to be sold to collectors, much like stamps and coins are today. I guess people really collected those bugs. I was a real fan of his because anyone collecting insects for eight years and coming up with two biological principles was alright by me. He would make an excellent Republican presidential candidate today.


The first chapter was a recap of his travels from when he left England, his eight years wandering the area, and then his return. Quite easy, as I was very familiar with his travels and, with a college professor, retraced his steps here in Sarawak. This was going to be easy, I thought, as I sat in a comfortable chair having a go.


The second chapter was totally incomprehensible. I mean I read it three times with a dictionary next to me looking up every other word. The chapter was entitled "The Consilient Mr. Wallace." I looked up "consilient" on my computer dictionary but no luck. However, the author just assumed I knew what the word meant because he used it several times in the chapter.


There was drawing of the "Female Great Pied" or the" Great Indian" Hornbill with a plump chick. I understood that because they fly around here and I see one occasionally. Another drawing, done by Mr. Wallace of a young female orangutan, drawn in 1869, and held by the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, was also quite interesting. I have no idea how the drawing travelled from London to Berlin, but there you go.


Another section of the book had the original 1858 writings of Mr. Wallace followed by a detailed explanation by the author. I understood perfectly well what Mr. Wallace was trying to communicate, but I hadn't clue what the author wrote about when he tried to explain it.


For example, his Sarawak Law listed nine "facts" from geology and geography and then he came up with the tenth one: "Every specie has come into existence coincident in both time and space from a closely allied spices."


Where the hell did people think they came from? Dust? I guess Victorian England still believed in Adam and Eve and scientific principles, even the most obvious ones, had to be set down in writing. However, the language was far from "Jane Eyre."


I guess people with an advanced degree in Evolutionary Biology would understand the book. I surely didn't get most of it except what Mr. Wallace wrote. I will place it on my bookshelf and when more learned people that come to visit and say "I see you have read Costa," I will say yes and we will shake our heads knowingly about a fraternity who understand the deep implications of both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.


...Life is good. . . . .


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