When I mention the theory of evolution, I’m sure the first name that comes to your mind is Charles Darwin, the man who is credited with propounding it during his time at the fabled Galàpagos Islands. His seminal theory, expounded in his book “On the Origin of Species”, has stood the test of time and is one of the foundations upon which modern science is built.
His enduring body of work has rightly cemented him in the pantheon of all-time greats such as Einstein, Newton, Tesla, DaVinci, and Brunel. But as impressive as his contribution was, he doesn’t deserve sole credit for its discovery. There is another oft-forgotten great man who contemporaneously and independently came up with the theory of evolution.
And he did it during a fateful stint in pre-independence Malaysia.
Alfred Russel Wallace was born in 1823, in the village of Llanbadoc, Wales, to a middle-class family. He was an avid reader and was especially impressed with Charles Darwin, who was already a prominent figure in the intellectual world, even though he was yet to publish his magnum opus detailing the theory of evolution by natural selection.
He was so moved by Darwin and the many other intellectual luminaries at the time that he decided to emulate them and become a traveling naturalist. So began his adventures, first in the Amazon and then the Malay archipelago, the popular term at the time for the region that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and New Guinea.
He spent an astonishingly fruitful eight years in our own backyard (1854 -1862), travelling over 22,500km and collecting a whopping 125,660 animal and plant specimens. Based on his adventurous expedition here, he wrote the book he’s best known for and one of the most famous books on scientific exploration in the 19th century, The Malay Archipelago. In it, he chronicled his travels from Singapore to Melaka, then to Sarawak, the many Indonesian islands and ultimately to New Guinea.
Soon after he set off on his peregrination, he recruited a Malay boy named Ali to be his cook and to help him learn Malay. Ali was a quick learner and impressed Wallace, who had this to say about him: “He (Ali) was attentive and clean, and could cook very well. He soon learned to shoot birds, to skin them properly, and latterly even to put up the skins very neatly. Of course, he was a good boatman, as are all Malays, and in all the difficulties or dangers of our journeys he was quite undisturbed and ready to do anything required of him.”
Ali eventually became an expert in collecting animal specimens and many of the discoveries credited to Wallace were actually Ali’s. He went on to call himself Ali Wallace and his exploits were remarkable enough to garner him a recent documentary titled Searching for Ali Wallace.
Ali and his fellow assistants were a large reason for Alfred Russel Wallace’s long stint here being highly productive. Another reason, of course, was that he was absolutely enamoured by the region, especially Sarawak, which he fell in love with and spent the most amount of time in – a full 14 months. Wallace relished the abundance and diversity of animal and plant life here and was especially excited by the possibility of encountering orangutans.
The most portentous moment during his stint here came in February 1855, at the top of Bukit Peninjau in Sarawak. Here, in a furious and fateful burst of creativity, he wrote an entire scientific paper in the span of three short evenings. In it, he stated succinctly but decisively that, “Every species has come into existence coincident both in time and space with a pre-existing closely allied species”.
In layman’s terms, new species evolve from existing species as opposed to just appearing as they are. This ingenious, heterodox theory, and the paper that elucidated it came to be known as Sarawak Law.
Dr George Beccaloni, a British entomologist, calls it “one of the most important papers written about evolution up until that time”. Dr Giacomo Bernardi, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, assesses it similarly and states that the Sarawak Law paper was “…as crucial to Wallace’s own thinking in disentangling the mechanisms of evolution as the Galàpagos Islands famously were to his contemporary, Charles Darwin”.
After three more gruelling years of researching, developing, and refining it, Wallace finally had a decisive insight: new species evolve from existing species and the nature of their evolution depends on the geography and environment they inhabit.
He probably didn’t realise the gravity of his discovery then, but he had just laid bare the mechanism by which all life arose and by virtue of that, advanced arguably the most consequential theory in biology: the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Wallace sent an essay detailing his new groundbreaking theory for review to the preeminent naturalist at the time, Charles Darwin, unaware of the fact that Darwin himself had postulated the same theory but had been sitting on it without publishing it for years on end.
Terror stricken, Darwin wrote to a colleague saying: “I never saw a more striking coincidence. If Wallace had my M.S. (manuscript) sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! … So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.”
This spurred Darwin and his influential colleagues to present Wallace’s paper along with Darwin’s at the Linnean Society of London in 1858 – all without Wallace’s permission. During this episode, Dr George Beccaloni says that “Darwin’s contributions were placed before Wallace’s essay, thus emphasising his priority to the idea”.
But in spite of the tumultuous inception of the watershed theory and their many subsequent intellectual disagreements, Wallace and Darwin maintained a solid friendship throughout their lives. In fact, during their lifetimes, the theory of evolution by natural selection was referred to as the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution.
Unfortunately, however, the slow march of time has exalted Darwin’s contributions while eroding Wallace’s.
Maybe if history hadn’t been skewed and skewered in such a way, the world would look at wonderment at Malaysia’s breathtaking biodiversity just as it does the Galàpagos’.
And maybe if history had imprinted on us that our ancient rainforests and wildlife were the inspiration behind one of the greatest scientific theories of all time, we Malaysians wouldn’t be so careless and cavalier about its current widespread and wanton destruction.
Maybe, just maybe.
Malaysia, the land where evolution was discovered
by K. Kathirgugan
#RobertReview: 9 | 10
Published: 1st October 2020.
The Malay Archipelago, the Inspiration behind Evolution, one of the Greatest Scientific Discoveries of All Time