The Dissent Of Man

By JF Derry

Exploring the influence of Darwin on everyone: atheists, Christians, biologists and entrepreneurs

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Sekonyer Simpang Kanan - Borneo 2015

Here’s that final post I said was coming too long a time ago; apologies. It’s about our trip to Indonesia in July 2015, now and then crossing Alfred Russel Wallace’s path, traversing the Wallace Line that lies longitudinally between Bali and Lombok, and following a similar river route to his, ours up the Sekonyer Simpang Kanan in the West Kotawaringin Regency of Central Kalimantan province, southern Borneo (that’s a timelapse video on board our Klotok, a renovated fishing boat now used for tourism, above). 



Where’s Wallace?

Alfred Russel Wallace is sometimes thought less of a scientist because of the seemingly impulsive way that natural selection occurred to him, in 1858 during a bout of fever on a tropical island. Literally, out of the blue,

During one of these fits, while again considering the problem of the origin of species, something led me to think of Malthus’ Essay on Population . . . and the “positive checks” . . . which he adduced as keeping all savage populations nearly stationary. It then occurred to me that these checks must also act upon animals, and keep down their numbers; and as they increase so much faster than man does, while their numbers are always very nearly or quite stationary, it was clear that these checks in their case must be far more powerful, since a number equal to the whole increase must be cut off by them every year. While vaguely thinking how this would affect any species, there suddenly flashed upon me the idea of the survival of the fittest—that the individuals removed by these checks must be, on the whole, inferior to those that survived. Then, considering the variations continually occurring in every fresh generation of animals or plants, and the changes of climate, of food, of enemies always in progress, the whole method of specific modification became clear to me, and in the two hours of my fit I had thought the main points of the theory.  - Alfred Russel Wallace (1898) The Wonderful Century; Its Successes and Its Failures.


Inspired, Wallace “sketched out the draft of a paper,” and had completed twelve typeset pages just two days later. Excited by his revelation, Wallace posted his finished essay titled, “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type” direct to Down House for Darwin to comment. It had been revealed through their previous correspondence that Darwin was also “considering the problem of the origin of species”, so in sending his manuscript to someone most people in the same position would have considered in competition, Wallace instead showed that he held huge respect and trust in Darwin. To have submitted his manuscript to a journal and pipped Darwin to publication might well instead made Wallaceism the household name, but adulation wasn’t a priority, just sound science. It’s ironic then that many people since have invested huge effort in attempting to dishonour Darwin by suggesting plagiarism of the idea in Wallace’s paper. This would not have been at all necessary as Darwin had already made notes on the subject including a series of phylogenic trees (of life) dating from 1837, and his first exposition of natural selection from 1842.

In contrast, the doubt would more obviously point in the opposite direction. At that juncture, without any accompanying account of years of collecting evidence upon which to build his hypotheses, Wallace’s discovery was nothing short of miraculous, unbelievable even. Nonetheless, Wallace’s assessment of character was clearly very good, because not only was the accreditation for his work safe, Darwin also immediately saw in him an equal and ensured that he would be guaranteed a fair representation. 

Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker were given copies of both Darwin’s and Wallace’s works, plus relevant correspondence with Asa Gray, from which anyone could see that the same findings had been arrived at independently. A joint paper with co-authorship for Darwin and Wallace was read to the Linnaean Society on 1 July 1858, and later published in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnaean Society as "On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection," by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. It raised barely an eyebrow! 


Controversy and vilification only followed publication of On the Origin of Species, a hugely popular shortened account of natural selection, excised from his longer, unfinished book on transmutation. There have been many discussions about why the book was received so well by the public, the entire first print run of 1250 copies sold out on November 24, 1859, the first day of publication, leaving John Murray publishers short of 250 copies already sold to trade. These orders were met from the 3000 copies of the revised second edition released early in the new year. A further 8,500 copies comprised the following 4 editions, reaching 1872. If Darwin had shared the stage in the first Act, there was no mistaking that he overshadowed all others by dominating the limelight from that point on.

Darwin and Wallace are correctly and accurately identified as the discoverers of evolution by natural selection. They independently identified the mechanism, having drawn on a breadth of knowledge to make their informed assessments. Each having had their insight, they instantly recognised the huge consequences it meant for comprehending nature in all its diversity, and how every variety could be fitted into a single continuum through time, and a single snapshot of the integration and interaction of all ecologies across biogeographical space. It can only be the failure to understand the greatness of Darwin and Wallace’s shared vision that moves some people to attempt a challenge of their right to be credited. Except for a few exceptional cases, the Priority Rule in Science always favours the first to report their account. Irrespective of how close you are, doing so second simply does not cut the mustard. That’s the usual case. 


Edward Blyth and Patrick Matthew are names that frequently pop up in claims that both Darwin and Wallace were pre-empted by earlier descriptions of natural selection. The zoologist Blyth wrote a few papers about his conception of a mechanism that acted to maintain stable, immutable species by trimming and pruning extreme varieties. Having selection act this way, essentially in reverse by blocking change, renders Blyth’s hypothesis tantamount to William Paley’s Natural Theology, the clergyman’s teleological argument for the existence of God. 

Scottish agriculturalist Patrick Matthew did slightly better in that at least his recommendations, in an appendix of On Naval Timber and Arboriculture (1831), for how to improve timber for shipbuilding described a process of artificial selection of desirable qualities. It even went as far to suggest this process could eventually give rise to novel varieties. If he had then gone on to develop his idea and apply it further than the single, specific context, there might be some credence to the claims that he should have received priority. But, he didn’t. Nor did he, as “modern synthesis” (see below) pioneer Ernst Mayr put it, comparing him to Darwin’s efforts, “devote the next twenty years to converting it into a cogent theory of evolution. As a result it had no impact whatsoever”. The final nail in Matthew’s coffin for credibility was hammered home when he strongly aligned himself with Natural Theology, protesting against Darwin’s ideas on human evolution in The Descent of Man. Clearly Matthew had no insights into the mechanism of natural selection when applied beyond trees, or about how core it is in defining the entirety of nature. Nor, might I add, does anyone arguing for Matthew to enjoy equal status with those who do. (You know who you are). Evolution historian Peter Bowler summarised the situation nicely when he recently wrote,

Such efforts to denigrate Darwin misunderstand the whole point of the history of science: Matthew did suggest a basic idea of selection, but he did nothing to develop it; and he published it in the appendix to a book on the raising of trees for shipbuilding. No one took him seriously, and he played no role in the emergence of Darwinism. Simple priority is not enough to earn a thinker a place in the history of science: one has to develop the idea and convince others of its value to make a real contribution. Darwin's notebooks confirm that he drew no inspiration from Matthew or any of the other alleged precursors.


With respect to reserving his own place in the history books, Wallace perhaps did himself no favours, if he was in fact seeking recognition. He only returned to England in 1862, but as soon as he was recovered from yet another bout of malaria, he was catapulted into a circle of,

scientific and intellectual luminaries such as Herbert Spencer, Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker, Francis Galton, Thomas Huxley, William Crookes, E. B. Poulton, Karl Pearson, Raphael Meldola, and even John Stuart Mill. This was only possible because of his new and stellar reputation in science afforded him by this arrangement. Given his station in life, Wallace could not help but be pleased that his essay elevated him into the ranks of world-class scientists.” Michael Shermer, 2011, In Darwin's Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace.   


Alas, Wallace was not able to maintain his high profile as he might have wished. Newly affluent from realising the value of his collecting activities whilst abroad, he was unfortunate and lost a good deal of the money from some unwise investments. Forced then to accept exam marking amongst a series of jobs taken purely to maintain income, Wallace’s ability to take the lead in evolutionary studies was very likely compromised. Fortunately, he appeared quite prepared to assume a supporting role, publishing his book, Darwinism: An Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection with Some of Its Applications in 1889, primarily to defend natural selection against its critics.

Wallace did not whole-heartedly accept all of Darwin’s ideas. Their major clash was over sexual selection, the development of characteristics through mate choice. The classic example is the peacock’s tale, where an adaptation promoted by being able to get sex, can end up being costly and detrimental to the individual. But, Darwin could see how the same process could generate everything from plumage to vocalisations, and ultimately language, all from the need to communicate availability and attract a willing partner. Inherent to Darwin’s mechanism therefore is a female’s choice of her mate. Part of the dispute that Wallace had with this arose from his spiritualist convictions.

Begun in 1865, by the time he wrote World of Life in 1911, Wallace believed that evolution was a spiritual process, giving the universe, "creative power, directive mind and ultimate purpose”. He also diverged from Darwin insisting that selection could not account for human intelligence, language, music, and anything of creative beauty, and so must have ethereal origins.

A disagreement even more core to selection arose from the different laboratories in which they had worked. Darwin made observations during the Beagle voyage and tested his ideas on natural selection occurring in the wild, through using the model of artificial selection when back in civilisation. Wallace had a problem in extrapolating the domestic to nature, thinking them incomparable, and domestic animals subnormal.


Despite these disagreements, Wallace proved to be one of Darwin’s greatest admirers, so keen was he to preserve an unembellished, pure reading of Darwinism that when it came to the great “modern synthesis” of evolutionary theory and Mendelian genetics, the latter mechanism for inheritance replacing Darwin’s proposed pangenesis, in the first half of the twentieth century, it was Wallace’s pared down version of Darwinism that was taken forward, more than Darwin’s own, and whilst never becoming a household name, this element of neo-Darwinism was indeed named Wallaceism, by George Romanes, Darwin’s research assistant towards the end of his life.

So Wallace might attract sympathy from some quarters, for not being revered as much as Darwin, but his contribution to evolutionary theory amongst its academics and enthusiasts has never been in doubt. 



A Fine Line

Undeniably, Wallace’s extensive travels through the tropics coupled with his keen observation and drive to understand nature formed in him an incisive appreciation of large-scale processes, hence, his independent discovery of natural selection. When applied in other directions, his faculties led to significant contributions to what we now call the fields of biogeography and ecology, especially with his identification of the Wallace Line, first published in an 1863 edition of the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, as "On the Physical Geography of the Malay Archipelago”. The paper was accompanied by this map, 


In addition to Wallace’s other commonalities with Darwin, they also shared an enviably clear and concise writing style. Wallace eventually collected his observations into his large work “The Malay Archipelago“, published in 1869. The following excerpt is from his “Borneo, Celebes, Aru”, a short section excised from the first volume, and containing this account of the delineation in species distribution he detected, 

It is well known that the natural productions of Australia differ from those of Asia more than those of any of the four ancient quarters of the world differ from each other. Australia, in fact, stands alone: it possesses no apes or monkeys, no cats or tigers, wolves, bears, or hyenas; no deer or antelopes, sheep or oxen; no elephant, horse, squirrel, or rabbit; none, in short, of those familiar types of quadruped which are met with in every other part of the world. Instead of these, it has Marsupials only: kangaroos and opossums; wombats and the duckbilled Platypus. In birds it is almost as peculiar. It has no woodpeckers and no pheasants – families which exist in every other part of the world; but instead of them it has the mound-making brush-turkeys, the honeysuckers, the cockatoos, and the brush-tongued lories, which are found nowhere else upon the globe. All these striking peculiarities are found also in those islands which form the Austro-Malayan division of the Archipelago.

The great contrast between the two divisions of the Archipelago is nowhere so abruptly exhibited as on passing from the island of Bali to that of Lombock, where the two regions are in closest proximity. In Bali we have barbets, fruit-thrushes, and woodpeckers; on passing over to Lombock these are seen no more, but we have abundance of cockatoos, honeysuckers, and brush-turkeys, which are equally unknown in Bali, or any island further west. [I was informed, however, that there were a few cockatoos at one spot on the west of Bali, showing that the intermingling of the productions of these islands is now going on.] The strait is here fifteen miles wide, so that we may pass in two hours from one great division of the earth to another, differing as essentially in their animal life as Europe does from America. If we travel from Java or Borneo to Celebes or the Moluccas, the difference is still more striking. In the first, the forests abound in monkeys of many kinds, wild cats, deer, civets, and otters, and numerous varieties of squirrels are constantly met with. In the latter none of these occur; but the prehensile-tailed Cuscus is almost the only terrestrial mammal seen, except wild pigs, which are found in all the islands, and deer (which have probably been recently introduced) in Celebes and the Moluccas. The birds which are most abundant in the Western Islands are woodpeckers, barbets, trogons, fruit-thrushes, and leaf-thrushes; they are seen daily, and form the great ornithological features of the country. In the Eastern Islands these are absolutely unknown, honeysuckers and small lories being the most common birds, so that the naturalist feels himself in a new world, and can hardly realize that he has passed from the one region to the other in a few days, without ever being out of sight of land.

The inference that we must draw from these facts is, undoubtedly, that the whole of the islands eastwards beyond Java and Borneo do essentially form a part of a former Australian or Pacific continent, although some of them may never have been actually joined to it.


Mechanisms to explain such observations were rare in those early days of scientific naturalism; new subject areas of research tend to move from descriptive beginnings into more explanatory investigation of underlying mechanisms. So, when Darwin’s and Wallace’s insights culminated in unveiling natural selection as a mechanism that could explain the diversity of life, it was nothing short of revelatory. However, the sciences do not mature at the same rate. Even though arguably a longer-established field of academic study, geology was at that time unable to explain the cause of discontinuities like the Wallace Line. That would remain a mystery until discovery of the role of continental drift.

The complimentary coastlines of the Americas and Africa had been described as early as 1596 in Ortelius’ Thesaurus Geographicus, but received its first in-depth dealing in Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, published in three volumes spanning four years, 1930-33. The first volume was given to Darwin by Robert FitzRoy, Captain of the  Beagle, and would probably contribute more than any other book to Darwin’s appreciation of James Hutton’s deep (geologic) time and the subsequent gradual progress of physical laws in changing the Earth. In his magnum opus, Lyell developed and popularised these ideas: this consistent gradualism was termed Uniformitarianism by William Whewell in 1832, which is why you won’t find that exact term in the Principles…. Instead, Lyell speaks of, “the decay and reproduction of rocks were always in progress, proceeding with the utmost uniformity”. You will know other Whewell words though. For example, he suggested, “ion”, “dielectric”, “anode”, and “cathode” to Faraday. 


It’s ironic and tragic that FitzRoy would be the path to Darwin discovering Lyell’s work. Although the naval man accepted Uniformitarianism early on, even being sufficiently familiar with the geologist to agree to Lyell’s request that the expedition make some observations on his behalf, he seems to have become a devout Christian following marriage, and was never able to accept Darwin’s ideas. They had kept in touch after the Beagle voyage, FitzRoy a welcome guest at Down House, but the relationship floundered upon publication of On the Origin of Species. As a public critic of the work, FitzRoy spoke at the Huxley-Wilberforce 1860 Oxford debate, and later interrupted proceedings, chastising the audience to “believe God rather than man”. FitzRoy felt terrible guilt and “acutest pain” for his part in the development of Darwin’s evolutionary work, undoubtedly adding to his burgeoning depression.

Despite having been promoted to Vice-Admiral, and successfully founding the Meteorological Department as well as inventing weather forecasting along the way, FitzRoy’s sizeable riches evaporated through misfortune and misadventure, and his health declined not least from the stress of daily weather predictions for a pernicious press. One Sunday in 1865, he chose to go the same way as his uncle 43 years before: FitzRoy, “rose for church and kissed Laura, his daughter, as he walked to his dressing room. Then he turned the key in the lock, picked up his razor and cut his throat”.


Lyell’s work was most comprehensively followed up by meteorologist Alfred Wegener in 1912 and further in 1915, although several other scientists had already proposed similar ideas, but in science evidence is always required in support and, as we have seen above, simply being the first to voice an idea is rarely ever sufficient to earn credit, otherwise we could all be armchair Nobel laureates. Accordingly, Wegener’s hypothesis was not popularly taken up within his lifetime, and there was much debate over his “continental drift”. While some aspects of plate tectonics had been formalised by the 1940s, it wasn’t until the early 1950s that technology could provide the data needed to confirm movement of the Earth’s crust, and the 1960s for the first maps of the ocean floor which revealed the plate boundaries and which proved beyond doubt Wegener had been right, but by then he had been dead for thirty years.



There is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats

Wallace’s accounts of travel in Borneo seem to centre around Suluwesi and the north. I can't actually find reference to him setting foot in Central Kalimantan, where we went. But the flora and fauna he describes was very similar to what we saw on our voyage up the Sekonyer river, and into the heart of Borneo, such as Rattan and screw-pines (Pandanus). 

Something Wallace will not have seen then is the estuary port at Kumai, dispatch point for huge cargos of stacked logs, about which you can't help wonder if they're the operating for illegal loggers.

The Sekonyer river runs down to this estuary, so to get to the orang-utan reserve at Tanjung Puting National Park, we steered our chugging klotok up-river until we reached a side arm tributary where a short way from the junction, there is an extraordinary switch midstream from the murky, muddy waters of the main river, to the glassy blackness of the imaginatively named Blackwater River. Currents have conived to create a boggling visual spectacle that we are informed forms naturally and has always been there. Even if Wallace had been along this stretch, I fear it is again something he would not have seen. Run-off after land has been cleared of its ancient forest, and the corpse-like logs have been stacked and shipped out of Kumai, has turned the river this opaque sludge, added to by topsoil from palm oil plantations and the impacts of gold mining. It's still an impressive sight, but it is an unwelcome reminder of the vast areas of Borneo being ripped apart to feed the global demand for furniture and bijouterie. 


To end on a more positive note, I compiled a spot list of wildlife sightings. It meant I spent a good deal of each day with my face in various bird guides, but to see something in all its majesty, and actually know what the hell it is, preferably before it darts off to find somewhere more private, is a joy in such a beautiful country. I hope the bastards leave some of it alone. 


In Bali I are mostly seeing, hummingbirds, swifts, doves, sparrows (tropical ones!), heron, crane, egret, and water buffalo. 

In Java, there were more swifts, macaques, a frog bird (although it could have been an owl, at a distance, in a field). Oh, and another sparrow or more.

But, in Borneo, there was the excitement of migrating swallows, a dolphin in Kumai harbour, spiders, snakes, lizards, rhinoceros hornbills (and what a stunning bird it is, pic below), very many orang-utans, and a crocodile, but sadly no gharial who are there, but very shy. They do have long noses. As do proboscis monkeys who were in abundance in large family groups all along the river. Wallace wrote in The Malay Archipelago,

After a few miles, the stream became very narrow and winding, and the whole country on each side was flooded. On the banks were abundance of monkeys,—the common Macacus cynomolgus, a black Semnopithecus, and the extraordinary long-nosed monkey (Nasalis larvatus), which is as large as a three-year old child, has a very long tail, and a fleshy nose, longer than that of the biggest-nosed man. The further we went on the narrower and more winding the stream became ; fallen trees sometimes blocked up our passage, and sometimes tangled branches and creepers met completely across it, and had to be cut away before we could get on. It took us two days to reach Semabang, and we hardly saw a bit of dry land all the way. In the latter part of the journey I could touch the bushes on each side for miles ; and we were often delayed by the screw-pines (Pandanus), which grew abundantly in the water, falling across the stream. In other places dense rafts of floating grass completely filled up the channel, making our journey a constant succession of difficulties. 


This is what I was reading, and imagining the endurance and resilience of such an amazing individual who, with a little twist of fate in his favour, might have been far better known than he ever was.



Further Reading

Alfred Russel Wallace (1869) The Malay Archipelago.

Alfred Russel Wallace (1889) Darwinism: An Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection with Some of Its Applications.

Charles Darwin (1839) The Voyage of the Beagle.

Charles Darwin (1859) On the Origin of Species.

Morten Strange (2012) A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Indonesia Paperback.

Birutė Galdikas (1995) Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo.

Ernst Mayr (1985) The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance.

Peter J. Bowler (2003) Evolution: the history of an idea.

Michael Shermer (2011) In Darwin's Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace.   

Charles Lyell (1830-3) Principles of Geology.



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Martyn Murray
 Martyn Murray says:

Great article about two extraordinarily creative field biologists (as they were in their formative years) who respected one-another and put petty temptations to one side.

posted 16th February 2016

JF Derry
 JF Derry says:

Thank you Martyn. I had fun essentially discovering more about the people than their work. A lesson in decorum from which we might all benefit.

posted 18th February 2016

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