Wallace and the track of next week’s eclipse

The first of this year’s two total eclipses is drawing near: March 9, to be seen from within a narrow path across the Earth:

Eclipse track 2016 March 9

This is a detail (modified) of the large globe picture on page 62 of Astronomical Calendar 2016. See that page for the narrative of what happens. But there’s something I want to add; it may be of interest even if you will not be in Indonesia to witness the thrilling spectacle.

Weather probably improves as the track goes eastward and curves slightly northward: Sumatra and Borneo are in the monsoon season, and this eases off over Sulawesi (formerly called Celebes) and the further smaller islands called the Malukus (formerly Moluccas). It is quite remarkable that the narrow track goes centrally over small Ternate and its town of the same name, then, immediately afterwards, centrally over the larger island Halmahera (formerly Gilolo), embracing most of it.

Among the little I knew about Halmahera was that its tribes, at least those of the northern half, are like the peoples of Papua in being non-Indonesian: they are, by accident of colonial history, part of the Indonesian empire. (The 1999-2000 violence between Christian and Muslim districts of Halmahera, in which thousands were killed, was probably based as much on ethnicity as on religion.)

And among what little I knew about the Moluccas was that a letter came from there is 1858 to Charles Darwin, at his country home in Kent.

Darwin, after twenty years of assembling his vast body of facts and organizing and testing the vast structure of his argument, was almost ready to publish his theory of evolution by natural selection. There came this letter from a young naturalist called Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace’s was lying sick. with what might have been malaria or dengue, in a Moluccan rainforest, and his feverish head had independently conceived the same theory, and he had set it out in a brilliant short paper.

Darwin could have “lost” Wallace’s letter; or Wallace, instead of sending it to Darwin, whom he respected and by whose earlier book he had been inspired, could have sent it to a journal for publication, in which case Darwin would have been scooped. Darwin’s characteristically generous and humble solution was the famous public joint reading of Wallace’s paper along with several of Darwin’s drafts, at the Linnaean Society in London. (In the absence of both of them – Darwin’s son had just died.) Over the next year Darwin pulled the whole theory together and published On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection.

I didn’t mention (because I didn’t then know) how Ternate and Halmahera figured in the story.¬† Wallace based himself for three years at a house in Ternate, and made journeys into Halmahera. He recorded in his autobiography that it was in Ternate that he conceived the theory, but scholars studying his diaries find it more likely that he conceived and perhaps even wrote it in Halmahera, and mailed it when he got back to Ternate.

Evolution by natural selection (Wallace preferred Herbert Spencer’s term “survival of the fittest”), the great idea that others had foreshadowed but Darwin and Wallace were the first to think out thoroughly, has been the foundation of biological science from then on. It is sometimes called the Darwin-Wallace theory, but Wallace is overshadowed by Darwin; referred to, if at all, as co-discoverer. a sort of “junior Darwin.” Indeed no one can rival Darwin; Wallace said of himself that he “could never have approached the completeness of his book, its vast accumulation of evidence, its overwhelming argument, and its admirable tone and spirit”; and titled his own book on the theory Darwinism. But Darwin’s one adventurous voyage, five years on the “Beagle” (1831-1836) in a comfortable cabin, pales in comparison with the strenuous travels of Wallace.

Wallace was fourteen years younger than Darwin. He was the eighth of nine children of a rather feckless Welsh father; left school at fourteen to work as a carpenter, then land surveyor. Walking the fields and woods made him deeply interested in their wildlife. His astonishment at the number of kinds of beetle may have been the seed of his ponderings about evolution. He read, among much else, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. In Victorian times, a new fascination with nature inspired thousands of rich or ordinary people to build collections of minerals, moths, stuffed birds from exotic lands. Wallace saw how to make a career of traveling to those lands and bringing back specimens.

The first of his two great voyages (1848-1852) was to the Amazon, mainly up its tributary the Rio Negro. For four years he lived in canoes, suffered bouts of malaria, collected massively, including many new species, and made copious detailed illustrated notes, not only on the wildlife but on geography and the native peoples.

He could expect, on coming home with all this, not only to make some money but to become accepted into the community of scientists. But, three weeks out from Brazil, the ship caught fire. Wallace, from the lifeboat in which he and others were to drift for ten days, watched the flames consume all his boxes of notes and specimens. Except for some that he had sent home in the first and least interesting year, and a few bits of paper that he grabbed. But including some live monkeys and birds of which he was fond.

An almost unthinkable tragedy, from which Wallace recovered. Without his lost notes, he wrote articles and two books. After less than two years, he set off on travels twice as long (1854-1862) to Indonesia, then called, as in the title of his great book, the Malay Archipelago.

He discovered 200 new species of birds, was so excited by the beauty of one of the butterflies he discovered that he had a “headache for the rest of the day,” was fascinated by the orang-utans of Borneo, was determined to see birds-of-paradise, which had a mythical status. They were believed, falsely, to have no wings or legs, only the golden plumes along their sides which caused them sometimes to be brought out of the jungles for trade. Wallace after great persistence became the first European to see them in the wild and displaying these plumes in courtship, and he discovered and named some of their forty species.


Wallace catching sight of the butterfly so beautiful that it gave him a headache. Sculpture by Anthony Smith, at London’s Natural History Museum.

It was in the year after his first sighting of the great gathering of birds-of-paradise that Wallace wrote his paper on evolution, and then he continued his laborious travels around the Indonesian and Papuan islands for four more years. The second great piece of theory for which he is remembered is the Wallace Line: a north-south boundary across the whole archipelago that sprawls between Asia and Australia. It looks like an improbable line threading between neighboring islands – Borneo and Sulawesi, Bali and Lombok. But on the western or Asian side of it are found many animals, such as monkeys, and on the eastern or Australian side many such as marsupials, that are not found on the other side. Wallace founded the study of biogeography, the distribution of living forms.

It’s hard to imagine how, in huts and swamps and on mountains and the banks of rivers, amid monsoons and sweltering heat and clouds of mosquitoes, Wallace did work of the kind that needs lab counters: preparing skins for preservation, pinning insects, writing and drawing. Did he have bottles of ink and quill pens?

There has perhaps been only one traveler-naturalist to exceed him: Alexander von Humboldt, who was Wallace’s other inspiration. To Darwin and Wallace we owe our understanding of evolution; to Humboldt, the interconnected ecology of the Earth.

Four years after the joint publication, Wallace, in broken health, got back to England and to the crushing task of unpacking hundreds of thousands of specimens from their crates. It took him seven years to write his book about it all. He and Darwin were mutually-admiring friends, though they came to disagree about aspects of their theory. Wallace could not accept the role of sexual selection by females (as among the birds-of-paradise), or the application of the whole theory to Man. (There is a relation between these two ways in which Wallace fell away from the true Darwinian theory, but I’ve decided to cut out my 200-word explanation of it.) Wallace had money troubles like his father’s, until Darwin managed to get him a government pension. He was an early environmentalist, socialist, feminist, and thinker about extraterrestrial life (it was he who debunked the “canals” on Mars, and he thought that Man would be unique in the universe). He outlived Darwin by 31 years, dying at age 90 in 2013.

(1913, that is. Thanks to those who pounced on the mistake, which could have been a sideslip of the mind or of the fingers but was, I can now reveal, ahem, deliberate, to see whether anybody reads these things to the end. Evidently at least half a dozen do.)



18 thoughts on “Wallace and the track of next week’s eclipse”

  1. March 10–I hope you saw NASA/APOD’s beautiful photograph today of Ternate under the eclipse. It meant so much more to me thanks to your column.

  2. A little late but one more read all the way to the end. Often busy but am fascinated with your blog and all its twits and turns.

    1. Thank you, Jack. And you might have said “all its tweets and turns”. It’s only this blogging that has led me into tweeting, which is a by-product of it. I suppose I’m only about the five thousandth to grumble that I hate these words, blog and tweet.

  3. I am willing to bet that a lot more than half a dozen people read all of your blog. They are too rich and informative not to enjoy every word. Thanks for such an exciting portrait each and every time.

  4. The way you combine this fascinating history and characters with the area about to experience a wonderful solar eclipse is truly lovely, thank you!

    1. Thank you, Shannon.

      The September 2015 issue of my favorite magazine, Natural History, was devoted to Wallace, as part of a Wallace Centenary Celebration promoted by the John Templeton Foundation (I’m not sure why the centenary, since Wallace died in 1913). As you’ve told me, this Templeton was a distant cousin.

  5. Another great article.

    I wish you had included the 200 words on the cutting room floor.

    Humboldt is the name of an Iowa town near where I grew up, but I recall no reference to the great man in my youth.

    1. Okay, from the cutting-room floor. It’s actually part of a longer meditation I wrote for myself about Darwin.

      The “Darwin-Wallace” theory is sometimes referred to, but the two diverged. The younger man, despite his independent and progressive mind, was stuck in the strictest version of the theory, and, in a way, in the past. He was obstinate that adaptation by natural selection explained every change in organisms (the simplistic view ascribed to Darwin by opponents), whereas Darwin recognized additional mechanisms. One of these, which Wallace especially rejected, was sexual selection by females, as in the bird-of-paradise courtship displays: Darwin concluded (from Wallace’s description) that the females were making assessments of beauty, Wallace could not believe that sub-human animals were capable of aesthetic emotions. Yet Wallace made the ultimate exception to the theory, drawing the line at the human mind: it could not have evolved by adaptation, since “savages” had, and fossils showed that humans thousands of years ago had, brains as large as philosophers, before they had need to use their powers; therefore the human mind could not have evolved by adaptation but must have had a separate creation. Darwin answered all this in his 1871 Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. When Wallace knew it was coming, he with characteristic respect anticipated that Darwin would “crush” him with a “mountain of facts”; while Darwin with characteristic humility “grieved” over the disagreement with his friend, writing to him that he was every day trying to move toward his position but could not.

      1. Thanks for adding this. It’s encouraging to read of the friendship, consideration, respect, and kindness that Darwin and Wallace shared with one another. Their story could serve as a good example to many contemporary academics who try to promote their own careers by denigrating the theories of their peers.

  6. Thanks Guy. I only knew that Wallace is acknowledged along with Darwin, but I didn’t know any of his inspiring life story.

    I’m a bit embarrassed to admit, when I first read the title of your post, my first thought was Wallace and Gromit.

    1. And my first mental association for “Wallace” is an “uncle” I had in childhood, really a cousin-by-marriage.
      Alfred Russel W.’s family claimed to be descended from the martyred Scottish hero William Wallace.

  7. “…dying at age 90 in 2013.”

    Oops. That little slip got by the editor. Wallace died 100 years earlier in 1913.

    Thanks for the great story. Interestingly, I read this post while sipping on a cup of coffee from Sumatra.

  8. fascinating! but I suppose you meant he died in 1913? I knew a little bit about Humboldt but had not heard of Wallace. I have noted in my travels around the U.S. and in perusing maps, that there are lots of counties and parks and landforms that seem to have the name Humboldt, so I always wondered if they were named for the same person, Alexander von.

    Somewhat surprising is that Wallace “debunked” the idea of canals on Mars. I was under the strong impression that the canal idea had currency well into the 20th century?!?

    1. Yes, pardon the last-minute tupo. –They were probably all for the same Humboldt; he was in his time about the most famous person in the world. –Wallace wrote a book in 1907 “Is Mars Habitable?” and concluded it was not, and that water in the supposed canals would have rapidly evaporated.

  9. Wallace died in 1913. He would have been an absolutely unrivalled modern human had he made it to 2013.

    Lovely piece about a most interesting and frequently ignored explorer/biologist/theorist.

      1. Delightful! (Actually I think the philosopher Herbert Spencer coined the term and Wallace liked it.)

        Now, let me reveal that my mistake in the very last word was a deliberate mistake, to test whether anybody reads to the end of these pieces. Evidently at least half a dozen people do.

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