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Postcard from Borneo: Wallace and the Orangutan

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Today while in Sabah I saw my first Borneo orangutan (above), prompting me to reflect on Alfred Russel Wallace’s own experience with this great ape.

One of the reasons Wallace came here to Borneo in the first place was to find the orangutan (called "mias" by the natives). He devoted a whole chapter to this most curious of creatures in his superb travel narrative The Malay Archipelago.

More interestingly, in a paper "On the Habits of the Orang-utan of Borneo" published in 1856 Wallace described the habits and habitat of the mias and marveled not so much at its long arms but at its large teeth. He chided his colleagues for demanding a naturalistic purpose for everything in nature:

Here then we have an animal which lives solely and exclusively on fruits or other soft vegetable food, and yet has huge canine teeth. It never attacks other animals, and is rarely attacked itself; but when it is, it uses, not these powerful teeth, but its arms and legs to defend itself. And, lastly, the female, which is weaker, which is encumbered by its young, and which would therefore afford a much easier prey, and a more tempting object of attack, is quite unprovided with these supposed means of defence. Do you mean to assert, then, some of my readers will indignantly ask, that this animal, or any animal, is provided with organs which are of no use to it? Yes, we reply, we do mean to assert that many animals are provided with organs and appendages which serve no material or physical purpose. The extraordinary excrescences of many insects, the fantastic and many-coloured plumes which adorn certain birds, the excessively developed horns in some of the antelopes, the colours and infinitely modified forms of many flower-petals, are all cases, for an explanation of which we must look to some general principle far more recondite than a simple relation to the necessities of the individual. . . . Naturalists are too apt to imagine, when they cannot discover, a use for everything in nature: they are not even content to let beauty be a sufficient use, but hunt after some purpose to which even that can be applied by the animal itself, as if one of the noblest and most refining parts of man’s nature, the love of beauty for its own sake, would not be perceptible in the works of a Supreme Creator.

Citing Plurality of Worlds (1855) by William Whewell (1794-1866), Wallace suggested that beauty was an intrinsic part of nature. The orangutans of Borneo seemed nearly human, but Wallace discerned profound differences. Could the orangutan appreciate the beauty of nature in the same sense that man could? Herein lay an unbridgeable divide between man and beast.

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.