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Postcard from Borneo: The Alfred Russel Wallace Centennial

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It’s exciting to be here in Kuching (formerly Sarawak), Malaysia, today a thriving city of some 600,000 people. In the photo above, that’s the majestic state house beside the Sarawak River. I’m here to present a paper, "Alfred Russel Wallace, Nature’s Prophet: From Natural Selection to Natural Theology." The occasion is the 2nd International Conference on Alfred Russel Wallace at the Riverside Majestic Hotel. Biologists, field botanists, ornithologists, herpetologists, and specialists in many other disciplines have convened from the U.S., Germany, Australia, Japan, Thailand, and elsewhere to discuss Wallace and the interests that drove him.

As David already noted, today marks the hundredth anniversary of Wallace’s passing at age ninety. He left a legacy as the co-discoverer of natural selection, the developer of biogeography, investigator of island ecosystems, pioneer in ethnographic studies among hitherto unknown peoples, and many other scientific advances of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

In many ways those contributions began here on Borneo, the third largest island in the world. It was while he was in Sarawak from November 1,1854 to January 25, 1856 that Wallace made a seminal contribution to biology. He proposed that "Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species." Basing himself upon four geographical and five geological principles, Wallace was the first British naturalist to employ direct observations and empirical evidence in proposing a theory of common descent. That proposition has come down to us at the Sarawak Law.

It is important to remember this otherwise forgotten naturalist because of the sheer expanse of his rich intellect, an intellect that sometimes got him in trouble with colleagues over the issue of teleology in nature. Wallace, as you know, came to understand evolution as intelligently guided by an "Overruling Intelligence." That was a heresy that made Darwin, by the latter’s own admission, "miserable."

But Wallace was undeterred. He once wrote to his friend Arabella Buckley, "Another point I am becoming more and more impressed with is, a teleology of fundamental laws and forces rendering the development of the infinity of life-forms possible (and certain) in place of the old teleology applied to the production of species." Thus, one hundred years since his own voice fell silent after a life well spent, it seems important now more than ever to keep his memory alive, not just for his many scientific discoveries but also for what those discoveries mean in terms of a broader worldview.

I’ll have more to report as my own adventure in the land of Wallace continues.

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.