He was a pioneer of sampling biodiversity and comparing different islands and regions of the globe. Many people have heard of the Wallace Line but have no idea why it is significant, what Wallace really said, and what it means today.
Dr John van Wyhe
Next year will mark the centenary of the death of the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), whose paper on the theory of natural selection was presented simultaneously with Charles Darwin’s at a scientific meeting in London in July 1858.
With the help of an anonymous donor from the United States, it is possible for the first time – as of yesterday – to view and explore all of Wallace’s works in one place. In the course of his varied career, Wallace spent four years as a collector in Brazil and a further eight years in Southeast Asia, amassing a breathtaking collection of approximately 125,000 insect and bird specimens.
The Wallace Online project provides access to 28,000 pages of historical documents, manuscripts and publications, as well as 22,000 images, made freely available to everyone around the world under the direction of the award-winning Darwin Online site founder Dr John van Wyhe.
Dr van Wyhe, who is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of History at the National University of Singapore (NUS), has his own theory on why Wallace remains such a relatively unknown figure in comparison to his contemporary Darwin.
"Usually only one figure is remembered for a discovery," Dr van Wyhe reasoned. "In this case it is primarily Darwin who is remembered because it was his book – The Origin of the Species
– which convinced the international scientific community that evolution was a fact.
The Origin of the Species
, very unusually, revolutionised the views of the international scientific community within the space of two decades, a shift of opinion that people naturally attributed to Darwin as it happened. Retrospectively, some have attempted to ‘rescue’ Wallace from the older naturalist’s shadow into greater fame.
"Many who bemoan Wallace’s relative obscurity today argue that since they both published the theory of natural selection simultaneously in 1858 – the year before Darwin’s book – they should have equal credit," said Dr van Wyhe. "While this is a sensible claim, that is simply not the way history worked out. They shared the credit for being the first two people to publish the idea, but the real reason that Darwin became so famous was because his book was so powerful, with so much evidence and data compiled in one volume."
This timely compilation assembles all of Wallace’s works in their great variety. The sheer scope of his interests is astounding, but combined with the volume of material, the task of digitalising Wallace’s oeuvre cannot have been an easy one.
"As well as his work early travel works and specialist works on biodiversity, biogeography and particular kinds of insects and birds, he later moved on to look at various social issues," Dr van Wyhe outlined. "This is one of the reasons that it has proven so difficult to collect all of Wallace’s work in one place. We have gathered it all together for the first time in this project, which could only be carried out electronically."
The Borneo Bay Cat; still the rarest cat in the world.
Dr van Wyhe is particularly proud that the team behind the project have managed to digitalise documentation and illustrations by contemporary artists pertaining to some of the many thousands of specimens Wallace collected. Related specimens occupy single pages so that anyone, anywhere, can see them at the click of a mouse. Before, these records were virtually inaccessible, being distributed throughout more than 150 publications.
"Aside from his work on natural selection, Wallace’s main scientific legacy probably lies in his work on biogeography," replied Dr van Wyhe when I asked about Wallace’s lasting contribution to the scientific world. "He was a pioneer of sampling biodiversity and comparing different islands and regions of the globe. Many people have heard of the Wallace Line but have no idea why it is significant, what Wallace really said, and what it means today."
Wallace was first to identify the invisible boundary that could be drawn to delineate the natural habitat of Asian from Australasian fauna. He had his own theories about why the two categories were so dissimilar given the lack of geographical barriers between their habitats in places, but it was not until plate tectonics was discovered that we truly understood.
To mark the centenary of Wallace’s death next year there will be many commemorations, conferences and so on. It is the hope of Dr van Wyhe and his colleagues that by having this scholarly archive available, it will be possible for those documenting these events to produce more accurate reports on Wallace and his achievements.
"Wallace means a lot of different things to different people," he remarked. "There are many myths and misconceptions, such as that he was wronged by Darwin in some way. The place to begin with important but less understood historical figures is with an authoritative and scholarly edition of their complete works. We can’t let the public rely on sources such as Wikipedia. Scholars and universities have a responsibility to share the results of their research with the public.
"There has been so much quality research and scholarship on Darwin for so many years that the work on Wallace so far pales in comparison, but hopefully this collection can help readjust the balance by making the original source materials freely available to everyone."