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The Darwin Conspiracy

The Darwin Conspiracy

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ONCE HE had sent off his articleson orang-utansand birdsto the Annals
early in 1856, Wallace waited at Singapore for a boat that never came.
His aim was to get to Celebes (now Sulawesi), the island between his
recent base of Borneo and New Guinea. Boats sailing directly to Macassar
(now Makassar), the capital of Celebes, from Singapore were rare, and the
months passed slowly.
At that time, Celebes was the least known of the large islands of the
archipelago, and Wallace believed that because of its position (at the
centre of fourteen thousand other islands sprinkled over an area roughly
the size of North America), it could turn out to be a wonderland of
unknown species.

Wallace had already spent two years in the Malay Archipelago, but
had still to achieve his main objective, which was to investigate the less
well-known eastern islands. He was familiar with the Malayan language
and had become acquainted with ‘the manner, customs and prejudices of
the people’. His assessment of his progress up to that point was that he had
learned much by experience, and had obtained ‘such a knowledge of the
productions of the western portion of the archipelago as will add greatly to
my pleasure and interest when exploring the eastern’.1
The loneliness of his quest for an answer to the puzzle of how species
originate was evident:

I look forward, in fact, with unmixed satisfaction to my visit to the rich and
almost unexplored Spice Islands – the land of the Lories, the cockatoos
and the birds of paradise, the country of tortoise-shell and pearls, and
beautiful shells and rare insects… The physical privations which must be
endured during such journeys are of little importance, except as injuring
health and incapacitating from active exertion. Intellectual wants are
much more trying; the absence of intimate friends, the craving for intellec-
tual and congenial society, make themselves severely felt, and would be

unbearable were it not for the constant enjoyment and ever-varying
interest of a collector’s life and the pleasures of looking forward to a time
when the stores now amassed will furnish inexhaustible food for study and
reflection, and call back to memory the strange, beautiful scenes among
which they have been obtained.2

When he wrote this summary, he might have expected to have received a
certain amount of intellectual inspiration from the gentlemen natural
philosophers of London. It was more than a year since he had forwarded
his paper on the Sarawak Law to the Annals. He also needed some good
fortune to revive interest in the specimens he was sending back to London.
From Stevens, he had learned that collectors in England were disap-
pointed with his produce. Wallace complained that:

some persons who have seen that portion of my collections which has
already arrived in Europe have been much disappointed, and have
complained (almost as if I made the insects as well as collected them) that
… beetles from the North of China, though from a comparatively cold
climate, were much finer.3

Wallace was aware that collectors and enthusiasts back in Europe had
been given a completely false idea of the species and varieties to be found
in the Malay Archipelago. Before he had arrived, European collectors
living there had bought (from natives and traders alike) specimens
captured from vast distances away. Wallace, who was as interested in
precisely when and where a specimen had been taken as he was in the
specimen itself, felt that this practice was totally unscientific, and
misleading to anyone interested in studying animal life.
He had discovered that many of the designated localities of specimens
written about by the early French naturalists such as Boisduval, Lesson
and Guérin-Méneville were quite inaccurate. His problem was that most
collectors at that time believed that God played a role in deciding where
new species should be introduced. Since there was no way of knowing
where those places were, the scientific importance of precise geographical
location was lost on them.
Stalled in his endeavours, desperate for intellectual stimulation and
frustrated by amateurs, the waiting in Singapore must have been difficult
for someone of Wallace’s energy and ambition; but this period proved to
be a turning point in his scientific understanding of species and their
geographical boundaries. Had the shipping timetable been different or
had he managed to catch the last available boat to Macassar, which had

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The Darwin Conspiracy

left Singapore the day before he arrived at the port, Wallace would have
missed one of his greatest practical discoveries.
In mid-May 1856, Wallace gave up waiting for a boat to take him
directly to Macassar, and took passage instead for the island of Bali, where
he thought he had more chance of finding a boat heading for Celebes. He
stayed on Bali for only two days because the cultivated nature of the coun-
tryside was not ideal for collecting rare insects and birds. He crossed the
fifteen-mile-wide channel to the neighbouring island of Lombok, only to
find exactly the same kind of development near the port of Ampenam,
where he hoped to find a ship leaving for Macassar.
One day, having a few hours spare, Wallace hired an outrigger to take
him to the southern part of Ampenam Bay, where the land was covered
by scrubby, thorny vegetation. It was an unlikely place for what was to
prove one of the most amazing natural boundaries on earth: a natural
boundary between the families, genera and species of the Australian and
Asian regions. To the east, the chain of islands leading towards New
Guinea exhibited a relative absence of Asian species; to the west, towards
Bali and Sumatra, he knew no Australian species. The boundary is still
known as the Wallace Line.
In his journal he noted, ‘Birds very interesting, Australian forms
appear. These do not pass further West to Bali and Java and many
Javanese birds are found in Bali but do not reach here’.4

In a letter to
Stevens towards the end of his time on Lombok, he went into some detail
about his discovery. He told his agent that ‘many other species illustrate
the same fact, and I am preparing a short account of them for publica-
tion’.5

When he first undertook his exotic collecting, Wallace’s intent was to
study the distribution of closely related species for evidence that might
‘elucidate the circumstances in which new species arise’,butthe distribu-
tion pattern he had stumbled upon was quite unexpected. He had been
searching for ‘fine-scale patterns’.What he found was discontinuity on a
much greater scale, for the distribution of entire families was demarcated.6
Wallace’s need to identify the circumstances in which new species arise
had taken him from the furthest reaches of the tributaries of the Amazon
towards the outer boundaries of the Malay Archipelago. His discovery of
the Wallace Line gave him the chance to offer radical new ideas on how
species originate on oceanic islands. It also provided more evidence for
Edward Forbes’s Atlantis theory, indicating as it did that most oceanic
islands were remnants of a former continental mass that had been split up
and cut off by incredible geological forces over immense stretches of time.
Bali, which shared families, genera and species with the Malay Peninsula

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95

and the islands of Sumatra, Java and Borneo, must once have been
connected by dry land to the continental land mass of India and China.
Lombok, with its entirely different organic forms, must once have been
connected to the continental mass of Australia. On both land masses,
families of animals had evolved in different ways over hundreds of millions
of years.

After ten weeks of noting the organic forms of the Australian zoological
province on Lombok, Wallace eventually found a boat to take him to
Macassar on Celebes. He arrived there in late August 1856, just as his
birds article was being printed in London. Celebes was a disappointment,
and the collecting was poor. However, Wallace was not the kind of man to
sit around waiting for something to happen. He needed to tell someone
about his discovery. His letter to Stevens, with a very brief account of the
Wallace Line, was dated 21 August and left the island on the mail steamer
which arrived at the end of the month. On 3 November, Stevens read it
out to members of the Entomological Society at their monthly meeting in
London. In the minutes of that meeting, there is no report of any discus-
sion about the significance or otherwise of Wallace’s discovery.7

Had he
known that his discovery had been aired in public, Wallace might have
been surprised. As far as he was concerned, he had shared his information
only with Stevens.

The discovery’s implications for the understanding of the geographical
distribution of species, however, meant that he was obliged to spell it out
to someone who would be critically aware of its theoretical importance,
and to do that he would need to explain where his latest ideas on species
had taken him. But where should that information go? Who should be
told? Where could he send it to ensure the most interested reaction?It is
likely that he was still hurt by the fact that there had been absolutely no
response to the ideas that formed the basis of the Sarawak Law. This time,
perhaps, a learned journal might not be the best way.
Wallace knew about similar discoveries in the past. There had not
been many; the closest example was, however, obvious, and its discoverer
would surely be interested in hearing Wallace’s news.
In the 1845 version of his Beaglejournal, Darwin had written about
North and South America, ‘I know of no other instance where we can
almost mark the period and manner of the splitting up of one great region
into two well characterised zoological provinces.’
Wallace knew the 1845 version well and had a copy of it with him in
Macassar. Now he had another example for Darwin to consider, perhaps
an even more significant example than that of North and South America.
The first letter Wallace ever addressed to Charles Darwin at his home in

96

The Darwin Conspiracy

Kent, written on 10 October 1856, contained more information about
Wallace’s original and radical views on species than Darwin could ever
have expected. (Unfortunately, as the letter no longer existswe cannot
know exactly what it contained.) Wallace knew that Darwin was one of
the few men who would clearly understand the import of what he was
now saying about species. His belief in the existence of some ‘principle’
that regulated the formation of species in the natural world was already on
record from his time in the Amazon basin. The Sarawak Law had identi-
fied that principle, stating that close relatives of any given species tend to
be found nearby, both in geographical space and in geological time as
fossil evidence, because there is an evolutionary process that generates a
diversity of new species from an ancestral species. At the time he had no
idea what this evolutionary process might be, but something certainly
caused species to diverge. For Wallace, the Sarawak Law was always only
‘the announcement of the theory, not its development’.
The second part of his theory was connected to the first. Exactly what
determined the production of new species and varieties in nature had long
defied explanation, but his years of observation had convinced Wallace
that there was no difference between the two.In explaining to Darwin his
ideas on varieties and species, it is likely that Wallace outlined this convic-
tion.

One further element of his core beliefs is likely to have been contained
in that first letter. Wallace had long observed that in the natural world,
different species with structural characteristics inherited from a common
ancestral species could exist alongside other species of the same genre
without recourse to newly established and isolated territories.
All these ideas were revolutionary and Wallace’s innocent letter to
Darwin was to prove highly significant. Wallace dated his letter 10
October. In due course, the letter arrived in Singapore on 15 November,
from where – along with the other second-class mail for England – it
departed on the steamer Singapore eight days later. After a delay to the
P&O steamer Ripon in the Mediterranean and appalling weather between
Malta and Southampton that winter, the mail eventually arrived at
Southampton on 11 January 1857, a crucial date in the controversy
surrounding when and how Charles Darwin arrived at his theory of evolu-
tion as propounded in the Origin of Species.

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97

CHAPTER18

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