Primary Inquiry at Occidental: A Co-Lab for Information Literacy

Alfred Russel Wallace, the "other Darwin"

On partnerships, collaboration and exploitation

Many of the bird specimens stolen from the Tring Museum were originally collected by Alfred Russel Wallace during an expedition to Malaysia in the early 19th Century. Wallace was a contemporary and friend of the naturalist Charles Darwin, and though he is lesser known, he is credited with independently developing the theory of evolution by natural selection. In fact, he published on the topic prior to Origin of the Species (1859) and dedicated his work to Darwin. The value of lost specimens is associated with the role they played in Wallace's foundational research in the history of evolutionary biology. 

When we consider the value of specimens to science, we might also consider the costs involved in their original collecting process. Wallace's journey is documented in colorful detail in his two-volume series The Malay Archipelago. In this publication, he intermixes accounts of peoples, wildlife, and traveling conditions from the point of view of a Victorian English gentleman. To finance the trip,

There were almost no jobs in science at the time. 
However, the practice of collecting natural history specimens, by national and regional museums as well as individuals, of all social ranks, was creating a burgeoning market for preserved specimens of birds, butterflies and so forth. Like other unmonied young naturalists of the time, Wallace and Bates decided to try to make a living and build their scientific reputations by turning professional specimen collectors. (van Wyhe. 5)

The impulse to collect, in other words, was technically to advance science, but it had as much to do with money. Our retrospective understanding of the value of specimens must take into account the competitive instincts of naturalists in writing their own stories once major discoveries were better known (clickbait: you won't believe what van Wyhe reveals about the documentary evidence of the missing naturalist). 

In The Malay Archipelago, Wallace expresses an almost lyrical ambivalence about the impacts of his own work, in ways that resonate to this day. 

It seems sad, that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man.

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