Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero Pt. 2

Yesterday saw the last part of Bill Bailey’s programme exploring the work of the Victorian explorer, Alfred Russell Wallace, and his independent discovery of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. The show followed Wallace’s expedition through Indonesia, Malaya and Sarawak collecting specimens, and the creatures that spurred his discovery of the motor of evolution. In Darwin’s case, this was the famous finches he found in the Galapagos islands. In Wallace’s case, it was the different varieties of macaque and a species of tree-climbing kangaroo. Bailey pointed out the dividing line in that part of the eastern Pacific dividing the types of animals in that part of the world. Still called the Wallace Line after him, it separated animals characteristic of Indonesia and Malaya to the east, while to the west were those of Australia. The macaques Wallace found in the rest of the Indonesian and Malayan islands were grey with tales. On the island of Ternate, they were black without tails. They also had a tuft of hair which Bailey described as a mohican. In a piece of self-deprecating humour Bailey posed for the cameras, showing the apparent similarity between his own features and those of the macaques. Like David Attenborough with the gorillas in Life on Earth way back in 1979, Bailey seemed to get on well with primates. He sat very still while the macaques came up to him, investigated and sniffed him, and accepted him as one of their own. In the Australian ecological zone, Wallace discovered the tree-climbing kangaroos. With their smaller front paws and large hind legs, these animals weren’t well adapted to the arboreal existence. The programme showed a few of them gingerly making their way up the trees, with several mis-steps. This conflicted with the Natural Theology of the day, which, according to the programme, declared that each species of animal had been separately created. When the environment changed, and the animals died out, God simply created a new species of that particular animal which was better suited to its environment. Wallace also noted that some of the animals on different islands differed strongly from their cousins elsewhere. Looking at maps of the sea depth in the Indonesian and Malayan achipelagos near Irian Jaya, he theorised that whwere the sea was shallow there were once land bridges allowing species to cross from one island to another. The ease of access between 5these islands meant that these species remained closely related. The much deeper waters around the other islands meant that these islands were colonised by castaways, which drifted there. Cut off from the rest of the world, the creatures there evolved into markedly more different forms. The question remained of the actual motor of evolution, the process that brought these species into being. A bout of acute malarial fever led Wallace to remember Malthus’ Theory of Population, and he realised that quite small differences in an animal’s constitution could give it an advantage in the struggle for existence, such as larger eyes for finding insects in the case of lemurs. He thus discovered Natural Selection.

Attempt to Restore Wallace to Prominence with Darwin

Bailey was keen to take his hero out from under Darwin’s shadow, and the shadow the maneouvering that had taken place to make sure Darwin was not pre-empted by Wallace. Wallace was delighted when Darwin accepted him as one of his collectors. However, when Wallace sent Darwin a letter discussing his activities and his formation of a new theory of evolution, Darwin sent a polite reply telling him that he was working on his own, and implying that he should stay away in the tropics and not hurry back. When Wallace sent Darwin his letter outlining his theory of Natural Selection, Darwin was shaken. He had spent the last eight years working on barnacles to support his own theory, which he still had not published. Quickly consulting his friends, including the geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin decided to rush his own account, The Origin of Species, into print. He also read out a paper he wrote on evolution to a meeting of the Royal Society with Wallace’s paper. He did not ask Wallace’s permission, and Wallace was not even aware this had occurred until he returned to Britain. Bailey stated that, depending on your point of view, it was either a delicate compromise or a highly shameful episode.Nevertheless, after over a century of undeserved relative obscurity, Wallace was being accorded the honour that rightfully was his. At a meeting in the Natural History Museum, Bailey unveiled a portrait of the great man to hang alongside Darwin’s statue.

Bailey and Wallace in Ternate

It was a fascinating programme. As I said in my review of the first episode, Bailey is an affable, knowledgable host. Not only did the programme have some superb footage of the animals in Indonesia and Malaya, it also showed some equally interesting episodes with the human inhabitants of these islands. Bailey attempted to recreate the style of Wallace’s expedition, including what he ate, and his historic meeting with one of the countries’ rulers. When on his expedition, Wallace was forced to eat what he found in the rainforest. Thus, in another moment worhty of Ray Mears, he was shown eating a fruit bat. Bailey picked delicately at it, while his Indonesian hosts downed it with gusto. Wallace had had to get the permission of the Sultan of Ternate before he could travel there on his collecting mission. So Bailey also sought an audience with his highness. He therefore appeared outside the Sultan’s palace dressed in white linen suit, cravat and panama hat, while liveried courtiers and guards ushered him in. Eventually he was allowed into the Sultan’s presence. As you’d probably expect, the Sultan himself spoke excellent English, and was voluble on the subject of Wallace. Wallace himself appears to have been the subject of local pride.
In a street near the waterfront Bailey found a mural of the eminent Victorian on the wall of a building. Beneath it, in Indonesian, was the legend ‘Alfred Russell Wallace, Ternate scientist born England’. Ternate clearly viewed him as one of their own.

Victorian Society Increasingly Inclined towards Evolution not Mentioned

It was an excellent programme, but as I mentioned in my previous post, I have a few, major objections to it. Firstly, it didn’t mention how Wallace’s theory differed from Darwin’s. Unlike Darwin, Wallace believed that evolution was teleological, working towards higher and better forms of life. He also believed that human intelligence and our moral sense could not have been shaped by Natural Selection, but were the result of the intervention of spiritual entities. The programme stressed that Wallace’s theory was in conflict with Natural Theology and the scientific and religious establishment. It did not mention how scientific and theological opinion in Britain was actually turning away from Natural Theology and embracing evolution. I mentioned some of the reasons for this in my last blog post on the subject. In addition to these there was the influence of John Henry, later Cardinal Newman. Natural Theology was closely associated with William Paley, whose book was the major work on the subject at the time. Paley, however, was linked with the Benthamite Utilitarians. By the 1840s there was a reaction against Utilitarian philosophy. Newman rejected Natural Theology as it reduced the existence and operation of the Lord to a purely scientific question. At the time Darwin and Wallace were working, there was already a large body of opinion, both inside and outside the church, that was favourably inclined towards evolution.

Links between Darwin-Wallace Theory and Lamarckianism

The programme also claimed that ‘Natural Selection’ was a radical theory. This is also open to question. Some of the Lamarckians, like Geoffroy, were also including it as an evolutionary mechanism before Darwin and Wallace. The Lamarckians had also discovered the theory of ‘adaptive radiation’, in which different species emerge as the parent species spreads out to colonise new territories before Darwin. Darwin even had one of their books on his shelf on the Beagle. The programme did mention that an earlier letter Wallace had written about the subject was dismissed as ‘nothing new’. There is therefore the question of how novel Wallace’s and Darwin’s theories actually were. In the case Darwin’s theory, it was still quite Lamarckian as Darwin believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Subtext of Programme against Intelligent Design?

The other problem with the programme is that it seems to be subtly written against Intelligent Design. The view that God creates new, improved species after the extinction of their predecessors sounds close to the modern Intelligent Design view that new species are created through an intelligence generating or inserting new information into the genome. For theists, this intelligence is the Almighty, though the official ID position is that the identity of the Designer is unknown.

Medieval Natural Philosophers accepted Some Speciation due to Natural Forces

Now I have to say, I don’t know how prevalent this theory of speciation by divine action was at the time of Darwin. It sounds like the views of Richard Owen, the great Victorian naturalist whose statue used to stand in the Natural History Museum until ousted by Darwin four years ago. But previous generations of Natural Philosophers had also accepted that some speciation was due to natural forces. Ancient Greek anthropologists, including the medical authority Hippocrates, believed that the different races of humanity and their different temperaments were the result of differing climates and geographical influences. In the Middle Ages authorities such as the 15th century bishop of Paris, Pierre d’Ailly, stated that new species had emerged after the Flood when different animals moved into different environments. The types of animals were roughly fixed, but new species could arise from these types through natural, environmental influences. I have to say, I don’t know if this view was still current at the time of Darwin and Wallace, but it certainly had been present in evolutionary thought before them. It would have been good if the programme had mentioned this. In this case the programme looks less like a simple attempt to restore a forgotten Victorian scientific hero and more like another piece in the attack on Creationism and Intelligent Design.

Wallace still Scientifically Disreputable

As for Wallace himself, Bailey stated that there seemed to be still some reluctance to be seen mentioning him. He said that while he was making the series, he had various scientists sidle up to him saying, ‘If you want any information on Wallace, here’s my card’, while looking around to see that they were not overheard. Bailey wondered why it was that the great Victorian should still be seen as somewhat disreputable and a danger to the careers of contemporary scientists. Though the programme didn’t say it, this might have been due to the fact that Wallace’s own theory of evolution still left explicit room for the operation of the supernatural.

Bailey’s exploration of Wallace and his almost forgotten contribution to evolutionary theory was a fascinating programme, and well worth watching. But it omitted the larger debates on the nature of the evolutionary process and the growing willingness of parts of the Church to accept evolutionary theory in favour of a simplistic narrative of lonely outsider battling class prejudice and religious ignorance. I hope that future programmes on the development of evolutionary theory will correct this view, and do more to place Wallace, Darwin and their predecessors into the context of the wider changes in scientific and theological opinion of which they were apart.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: