A biological adventurer with many misfortunes | Column | The throw
Wallace was a contemporary of Darwin, the famous author of the theory of evolution, but while Darwin belonged to a prominent English family, he married Emma Wedgwood and moved into aristocratic circles. . Wallace never achieved Darwin’s star status.
Yet Wallace was instrumental in the development of the theory of evolution. It was Wallace who wrote to Darwin from the island of Pulau Ternate in the Moluccan archipelago with his idea of how natural selection works. Darwin was shocked because Wallace accurately described the route he took.
Darwin wrote a second letter at a meeting of the Linnean Society in London on July 1, 1958, and both letters were read: The Birth of the Theory of Evolution. A year later, Darwin published his famous book ‘On the Origin of Species’.
This historical story about Darwin and Wallace is well known among biologists and is told in almost all introductory courses in evolutionary biology. But little is known that before Wallace traveled to Southeast Asia and Darwin wrote the letter, Wallace had already made a long journey to South America. British biologist Andrew Perry talks about this in the journal Nature earlier this year.
Wallace made his money by traveling to collect plants and animals that he could sell to European museums. At 25, he left for South America with no money or connections. He traveled through the Amazon and the Rio Negro through areas where no Europeans had ever been. He met various tribal people. But life as a collector was difficult. He often fell ill, sometimes so badly that he feared he would die.
Many ants kept eating away at his collection and he had to carry more and more things with him. His brother came from England to help him, but died on the way back. When Wallace was bedridden for a few days with a severe fever, the natives drank all of his rum, which he used as a strong water to preserve biological material.
Wallace occasionally made some money by shipping goods to England, but he never became rich. In 1852, after four years traveling in South America, he returned to England by ship from Belem with a vast collection of spirits, live animals and dried plants, all insects. As his collection was unique, he thought he would become famous upon arrival.
But after a three-week voyage, a fire broke out on board the ship due to a holdup of cargo. Wallace had to abandon ship with the captain and could see from a lifeboat how the ship was lost. Monkeys and parrots freed from their cages fled the Will Spirit, but were burned alive.
Wallace floated in his lifeboat for ten days before finally being picked up by another vessel. Arriving penniless in England, he wrote a book about his adventures in South America, but the book sold poorly. Wallace then booked a trip to Singapore and toured Southeast Asia. His book on it (‘The Malay Archipelago’) is very popular, but his earlier book on South America is not even among biologists.
The question I ask the students and you in this story is: Who would you rather be: Darwin sitting in his country house doing experiments in his garden, world famous for his book, or Wallace working in the tropical rain forest, constantly tormented? Through illness and misfortune, a colleague borrowed money for a grand theory?
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