Thursday, January 22, 2004

The "Orang-Utan" of the Malay Archipelago

The "Orang-Utan" of the Malay Archipelago

Alfred Russel Wallace, spent years wandering among the many Indonesian islands collecting zoological speciments to be sold to collectors back home in England. He travelled alone in some of the remotest regions of the world with only a couple of local helpers whome he hired. His expeditions were financed entirely from proceeds of his sale of specimens.

A shy and unassuming man with no formal academic qualification, he was a relative outsider to the scientific community when he wrote an article expounding his views on how the diversity of species in natural world came about. The article was written in a ramshackle hut somewhere in the spice islands of Maluku while he was struggling with his regular bouts of malaria fever in 1858.

He mailed a copy of this article to an eminent scientist who, unknown to Wallace, had been working on similar ideas about the origin of species for the past 20 years but had yet to publish them. On reading Wallace's article, Charles Darwin was stunned that this strange equatorial wanderer has come up with ideas almost identical as his.

When Darwin finally published his famous The Origin of Species, he acknowledged Wallace's independent discovery of the theory of natural selection for the evolution of species. Even though Darwin is the better known figure among the two as the founder of this controversial theory, Wallace's contribution to our understanding of the flora and fauna of the Indonesian archipelago has been an enduring one. Naturalists name the invisible boundary separating two distinct groups of flora and fauna--one that traces its origins from mainland Asia, the other from Australasia as the Wallace Line.

Despite being the legitimate co-founder of the theory of natural selection, he was happy to let Darwin grab all the limelight, even stating that the controversial theory needed someone eminent like Darwin to promote it. The two men became good friends, and the often self-deprecating Wallace held Darwin in the highest esteem.

When Wallace finally wrote his famous tome, The Malay Archipelago, describing his travels in the region, he dedicated the book to Darwin. Unlike Darwin's Origin of Species, reprints of the Malay Archipelago can be found in any bookstore in Malaysia and Indonesia today. And what a great read it is: it is a combination of travelogue and the meticulous observations of a scientist who explored a region which has some of richest diversity of flora and fauna in the world.

The Malay Archipelago has been a favourite book of mine over the years that I've been travelling to and later, living in Indonesia. Alfred Russel Wallace comes across as a gentle and likeable person from his writings. With his nerdy glasses, bushy beard and gangly frame he must have appeared a strange figure indeed to the locals then--many whom have not seen a white man before. They must have thought that this bird and insect catcher is the real orang-utan (jungle man).

I am ashamed to have only visited a fraction of all the places that Wallace had been to during his eight years of travels in the region. Reading his description of Manado as being the "prettiest town in the East" had made me want to go there ever since. Too bad I did not manage to find the opportunity to make such a trip during my two-year stay in Indonesia. But I will someday. At the meantime, I'll just content myself with reading the writings of this great Victorian jungle man.

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