“Paradise-bird plumes might recover their now forgotten value as ornaments for the hats of our fair countrywomen.”
It was Spring-time in 1862 and the Saturday Review was appealing to the fashion-conscious ladies of Victorian England with this welcome for Alfred Wallace (1823-1913), back home from Singapore with just two surviving Birds of Paradise that he’d carefully brought with him to England.
The professional collector of tropical animals and plants had been away for five years and felt very uncertain about the reception he was going to receive. The Saturday Review was not interested in the real source of his reticence, that scientific presentation given in his name and Charles Darwin’s announcing their theory of natural selection. It had been given to the Linnean Society in his absence and without his knowledge four years earlier. Now that Wallace was in England he was expecting to be challenged directly and he was afraid of the peoples’ reactions. In particular, how were Darwin and his all-powerful friends going to treat him?
Like the author of the great geological map William Smith fifty years before, Wallace had come up the hard way, five years as an apprentice surveyor stimulating his interest in the environment, its geology and biodiversity. As a professional collector, Wallace was skilled at observing and distinguishing biological features in the animals and plants. He was particularly proud of his observations of the location of species and their geographical range in south-east Asia where he identified two regions separated by what became known as the Wallace Line.
The Wallace Line
This divided the region into two distinct parts, one in which species closely related to those of Australia are common, and one in which they are largely of Asian origin. It was an area of great diversity where so much seemed to be crammed into each zone, using all the natural resources to their limit. That knowledge gave him sufficient know-how to react to Malthus’ famous essay on how a species coped with its particular sustainable limits. It made Wallace even more confident that individuals had to compete for resources such as food, space and light, as well as mates.
In his frequent lectures about evolution Wallace used a metaphor from the industrial revolution to help describe natural selection: “The action of this principle is exactly like that of the centrifugal governor of the steam engine, which checks and corrects any irregularities almost before they become evident; and in like manner no unbalanced deficiency in the animal kingdom can ever reach any conspicuous magnitude, because it would make itself felt at the very first step, by rendering existence difficult and extinction almost sure soon to follow.” Those traits that survived different levels and kinds of catastrophe were inherited throughout the population and became adapted by his proposed mechanism of natural selection.
From his field station in the Far East he had sent Charles Lyell the whole of his draft manuscript for that presentation, asking if he would read through it first. He had sent it to Darwin first, hoping to share these latest reactions to that great range of biodiversity in the tropical rain forests of South East Asia. He was close to the end of two long stretches in the tropics, the first from 1848 to 1852 in the Amazon with his old friend from Leicester in the English Midlands Henry Bates and then from 1854 in SE Asia. Altogether they had collected 125,000 specimens, more than a thousand of which were new species.
The great explorer arrived back home with his colourful birds and more professional credibility than anyone could wish for. It had been a hard life in the tropics but preferable to the stresses of life in London, especially with all the public fuss that was made over his coloured birds in the zoo. The collections from explorations of tropical biodiversity like his were essential in understanding nature in all its general beauty and in its origin in particular. This provided the stimulus for many others at home, taxonomists, experimentalists and philosophers who were desperately searching for evidence of evolution by natural selection. Little did they know that it was going to take both subjective and objective scientific work over another century before the idea was gradually proven, but it was adventurous naturalists like Wallace, Huxley, Hooker and Darwin who started the work, and they had all travelled as global explorers when they were young men.
Then it was 1862 and Wallace was 39 years old and unmarried, without friends or a job. After five years living in tropical jungle he suddenly found himself in the middle of London, where he had never lived and where he was confronted with the demands of highly sophisticated social habits. He was also entering the company of a formidable group of leading scientists, all very much aware that he had made them look very foolish. They had bullied him into publishing with Darwin and that had forced him to conform to their plan and allow their friend the credit. It could have been argued they were taking from him Wallace’s own right for public acclaim and his ownership of one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time.
Wallace was surprised at his own celebrity status and at how he was so much sought after as a dinner guest, unaware that one reason may have been to quell the guilt of his hosts and to help them find out where they stood. They also wanted to get to know him and gain from his experience and scientific expertise. He certainly wanted to make good friends in this lonely city, and he needed help from them, because he had arrived without plans for his future or even much money. Within a few months he had visited Huxley, Hooker, Lyell, Spencer and Darwin, only to learn how very difficult it was for them all to understand, let alone agree, with what Wallace and Darwin thought out.
It was soon clear to Wallace that these four men had worked out different ideas about evolution to suit their own particular needs. This was the last thing that he had expected and it took some time for him to work out the landscape of this particular London society: which of them had which outlook on the theory, and how this was determined by their different interests. Hooker was the Director of a botanical garden, Huxley a professor of zoology, Lyell of geology, all with different purposes for their observations and interpretations. At least, Wallace was relieved that none of them used the quantitative methods of experimental analysis that Francis Galton and others were beginning to think were necessary for other objective purposes.