Tuesday, July 01, 2008
  150 Years Ago Today

July 1st 1858 was one of the most important days in history, at least for those of us with any understanding of our ties with the natural world.

This was the day that Charles Darwin's paper on The Origin Of The Species was read at a meeting of the Linnean Society in Burlington House, Piccadilly, in a room that is now part of the Royal Academy.

Most folk know that Charles Darwin sailed on a ship called the Beagle, and collected loads of specimens and made loads of observations about animals he'd, erm, observed en route. For example, he noted that the giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands had long necks which enabled them to reach the vegetation above them. That the survival of the fittest and evolution were the sciences, theories and philosophies which developed is known, even if some morons dispute these and suggest that the planet is the result of Intelligent Design.

But what a lot of folk don't know is that Charles Darwin wasn't alone in his theorising and that independently, here in what is now Indonesia, Alfred Russel Wallace had come up with the theory of natural selection and could well have gained the glory that was later, even now, Darwin's.

How Darwin won the evolution race makes for fascinating reading here.

Wallace's story is worth examining, especially by those with an interest in Indonesia. He had explored the Amazon and had come to the Spice Islands to seek specimens of the bird of paradise, when he fell sick with malaria.

He fell to pondering how some recover and others do not, about how disease and famine kept human populations in check, and about recent discoveries indicating that the earth's age was vast. How might these waves of death, repeated over aeons, influence the make-up of different species, he wondered.

Then the fever subsided - and inspiration struck. Fittest variations will survive longest and will eventually evolve into new species, he realised. Thus the theory of natural selection appeared, fever-like, in the mind of one of the world's pioneer naturalists.

Wallace, already a naturalist of some reputation, wrote up his ideas and sent them to Charles Darwin back at his home in Kent, England. Wallace's paper shocked Darwin who had spent twenty years reaching the same conclusions. Not wishing to be pre-empted, friends of Darwin arranged for the readings of both papers.

One important theory marks Wallace for greatness; his observation that species differed according to where they were lead to the new science of biogeography.

On his journeys, he sought to demonstrate that evolution did indeed take place, by showing how geography affected the ranges of species. He studied hundreds of thousands of animals and plants, carefully noting exactly where he had found them. The patterns he found were compelling evidence for evolution. He was struck, for example, by how rivers and mountain ranges marked the boundaries of many species' ranges. The conventional explanation that species had been created with adaptations to their particular climate made no sense since he could find similar climatic regions with very different animals in them.

Although Darwin had reached the same conclusion, Wallace pushed the study of biogeography to grander scales.

As he traveled through Indonesia, for example, he was struck by the sharp distinction between the northwestern part of the archipelago and the southeastern, despite their similar climate and terrain. Sumatra and Java were ecologically more like the Asian mainland, while New Guinea was more like Australia. He traced a remarkably clear boundary that snaked among the islands, which later became known as 'Wallace's Line' which divided the Oriental and the Australian regions.

Wallace's Line

Evidence of the line was also noted in 1521 in Antonio Pigafetta's biological contrasts between the Philippines and the Spice Islands, recorded during the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan when he visited Ternate where Wallace put on paper his theory.

Son No. 1 and I visited Ternate in 1995, and the following is an extract from my diary, slightly edited with the help of Our Kid.

Lake Laguna was weird. A crater lake surrounded by nutmeg trees and with (basilisk?) lizards running across the water on their hind legs - "Jesus", I exclaimed - between the pads of leaves, an overgrown garden. There were supposedly crocodiles, but this didn't stop a woman doing her weekly wash. A spooky place.

We travelled on by bemo (minibus) to a point where there was an upward path to Tolire Lake through Jurassic Park terrain, that scene where Richard Attenborough's two grandchildren and Sam Neill were in a field and had to seek shelter behind a fallen tree as a herd of gallimimus fleeing from a tyrannosaurus rex charged towards them.

When we reached the top we looked down at an obvious crater lake. There was no access to water's edge unless we fell. So what were those creatures which, periscope fashion, raised their heads, looked around and then swam underwater for a bit - kin of the Loch Ness Monster? They must have been big because it was a long way down and even I could see them.

Thinking of monsters, we'd earlier been sitting on a branch of a tree on a beach, with our feet in an emerging hot spring, collecting seashells. There was a sudden rustling above our heads.

Son.No.1 saw it all, but I only saw its tail, about 60cms. of it; it was green and obviously very big. He said it was a dinosaur. Certainly the Laguna Lake lizards were miniature ones.

Ah the wonders of Mother Earth.

Wallace and Darwin may have formulated the theory of 'survival of the fittest', but what should distinguish humanity from the rest of the animal world is our ability to take care of our weakest members.

Those who preach that Man is superior to (other) animals too often ignore that and do so at their peril.

And ours.
Sic transit gloria mundi
(Thus pass the glories of this world)



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