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The Malay Archipelago
The land of the Orangutan and the Bird of Paradise - A Narrative of Travel with Studies of Man and Nature
by Alfred Russel Wallace - 1898

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Wallace chose the Indonesian Archipelago for detailed study, travelling to what was referred to in those days as "the Malay Archipelago." He arrived in Singapore on 20 April 1854, to begin what would turn out to be the defining period of his life. Wallace's name is now inextricably linked with his travels in this region. He spent nearly eight full years there; during that period he undertook about seventy different expeditions resulting in a combined total of around 14,000 miles of travel. He visited every important island in the archipelago at least once, and several on multiple occasions.

 The volume he later wrote describing his work and experiences there, The Malay Archipelago, is the most celebrated of all writings on Indonesia, and ranks with a small handful of other works as one of the nineteenth century's best scientific travel books. Highlights of his adventures there include his study and capture of birds-of-paradise and orangutans, his many dealings with native peoples, and his residence on New Guinea .

Beyond his travel and collecting activities, Wallace's time in the Malay Archipelago was marked, of course, by the 1858 event that would assure his place in history. Three years earlier he had still been struggling with the causes of organic evolution when an article by another naturalist prompted him to write and publish the essay 'On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species', a theoretical work that all but stated outright Wallace's belief in evolution. The paper was seen by Lyell, who thought highly of it and brought it to Darwin's attention. Darwin, however, took relatively little notice.



Now that he had a provisional model of the relation of biogeography to organic change, Wallace quickly applied the related concepts in two further studies, published in 1856 and 1857. In February of 1858, while suffering from an attack of malaria in the Moluccas (it is not fully certain which island he was actually on, though either Gilolo or Ternate seems the likely candidate), Wallace suddenly, and rather unexpectedly, connected the ideas of Thomas Malthus on the limits to population growth to a mechanism that might ensure long-term organic change. This was the concept of the "survival of the fittest," in which those individual organisms that are best adapted to their local surroundings are seen to have a better chance of surviving, and thus of differentially passing along their traits to progeny. Excited over his discovery, Wallace penned an essay on the subject as soon as he was well enough to do so, and sent it off to Darwin. He had begun a correspondence with Darwin two years earlier and knew that he was generally interested in "the species question"; perhaps Darwin would be kind enough to bring the work, titled 'On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type,' to the attention of Lyell? Darwin was in fact willing to do so, but not for any reasons Wallace had anticipated. Darwin, as the now well-known story goes, had been entertaining very similar ideas for going on twenty years, and now a threat to his priority on the subject loomed. He contacted Lyell to plead for advice on how to meet what just about anyone would have to admit was a very awkward situation. Lyell and Joseph Hooker, a prominent botanist and another of Darwin's close friends, decided to present Wallace's essay, along with some unpublished fragments from Darwin's writings on the subject, to the next meeting of the Linnean Society. This took place on 1 July 1858, without obtaining Wallace's permission first (he was contacted only after the fact).
 


Whatever one thinks about Wallace's treatment in this matter, the events of summer 1858 did ensure that the world wouldn't have to wait any longer for its introduction to the concept of natural selection. Darwin had been working on a much larger tome on the subject that was still many years away from completion (and in fact never was completed); Wallace's bombshell had the immediate effect of forcing him to get together a more compact, readable, and, ultimately, probably more successful work. On the Origin of Species was published less than eighteen months later, in November of 1859. And, although Darwin would overshadow Wallace from that point on, Wallace's role in the affair was well enough known to insiders, at least, to ensure his future entry into the highest ranks of scientific dialogue. It should in all fairness to Darwin be noted that Wallace took full advantage of this opportunity, an opportunity he might not otherwise have received.

Wallace's discovery of natural selection occurred almost at the midpoint of his stay in the Malay Archipelago. He was to remain there four more years, continuing his agenda of systematically exploring and recording the circumstances of its faunas, floras, and peoples. By the end of his trip (and for the rest of his life) he was known as the greatest living authority on the region. He was especially known for his studies on its zoogeography, including his discovery and description of the faunal discontinuity that now bears his name. "Wallace's Line," extending between the islands of Bali and Lombok and Borneo and Sulawesi, marks the limits of eastern extent of many Asian animal forms and, conversely, the limits of western extent of many Australasian forms.

 

 

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