Guest post: The most poignant episode in all of the history of science

March 7, 2013 • 9:04 am

When my friend Andrew Berry, who teaches at Harvard, told me this story two days ago,  I realized that it would be a great post for Wallace Year. (This is the centenary of the death of the great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, aka The Man Who Also Thought of Natural Selection.) I begged Andrew, an excellent writer with several books under his belt (including a very nice one on Wallace), to write up this tale for my website, and he kindly complied. And so, here is . . .

The most poignant episode in all of the history of science

by Andrew Berry

On July 12th 1852 in Belem, Brazil, Alfred Russel Wallace boarded a freighter, the Helen, bound for England.  His great Amazon adventure was finally, he thought, at an end.  The four years in the field that had transformed him from a biological neophyte into a serious scientific naturalist had done their work, and it was time now for Wallace to return to Britain to try to establish himself as part of the Victorian scientific elite.

The adventure had really begun in 1841 when, in Leicester, Wallace, 18 years old and with an untutored interest in plant life, met Henry Walter Bates (of future Batesian mimicry fame). Like Wallace, Bates was largely self-taught, but he had developed a sophisticated interest in beetles, and soon Wallace too was obsessing about beetles.

But it was not just beetles: Wallace and Bates were interested in the pressing scientific topics of the day, including the “Species Question,” as evolution was termed at that time—where and how had species arisen.  If they were to do serious science, and to become anything more than enthusiastic amateurs, Wallace and Bates realized that they would have to set their sights beyond the delights of British beetles.  They would have to travel to explore biological diversity in its tropical citadel.

May 1848, then, saw the pair arriving in Brazil, planning between them to explore the Amazon basin, all the time collecting specimens.  They would bankroll the whole enterprise by selling duplicate specimens through their London-based agent. Just how naive they were can be gauged from how they chose their destination.  They were swayed by an account of the Amazon published in 1847 by an American entomologist, W H Edwards.  Edwards, presumably with an eye to book sales, peddled a bizarrely romanticized view of tropical forests.  For example, he observed that the canopy was inhabited by squirrels that “scamper in ecstasy from limb to limb, unable to contain themselves for joyousness.”

One can hardly question the choice made by Wallace and Bates: who would not want to head off to view those ecstatic, joyous Amazonian squirrels? Needless to say, the reality of tropical forests on arrival forced them to recalibrate.  Having thus rapidly been disabused of their Edwards-generated expectations of a zoo-like density of animals—Wallace wrote that the “productions of the South American forests are much scarcer than they are represented to be by travellers”—Wallace and Bates split up, with Bates heading up the main branch of the Amazon and Wallace up the Rio Negro.

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The Amazon forest.   This image comes from H W Bates’ account of his journey, The Naturalist on the River Amazons.

Over the next four years, Wallace led an extraordinary, lonely, itinerant life.  He was largely on his own, dependent on the hospitality and assistance of local people, remaining throughout, as he put it, an “industrious and persevering traveller.”  His younger brother came out from England to help, but died of yellow fever on the way home.  (Wallace, still up country, did not find out about this for many months.  He had heard that his brother had contracted yellow fever in Belem, but the news that he had died took a long time to make its way to the interior).

Wallace himself nearly died on several occasions.  He traveled in to areas previously unvisited by Europeans, all the time amassing an extraordinary biological collection and taking copious notes on everything he encountered.  He collected anthropological materials as well as biological ones and was at pains to learn the rudiments of a number of local languages.  When finally it came time to head back down river, home, he discovered on arrival at Manaus, half way across the continent, that many of the specimens that he had sent off back to England had been impounded by the authorities.  No matter, the material would travel with him, making his final arrival in London all the more triumphant.  As he headed down the Rio Negro, Wallace added living animals to his collection.  This menagerie would surely be his passport to the scientific big time when he got home: imagine walking in to an early Victorian scientific meeting with a toucan on your arm!  These animals were professionally important to Wallace but they were also pets.  He cared for them, fed them, nurtured them, on that long slow journey by boat across the continent.

Now aboard the Helen, more than three weeks into the voyage and more or less in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the captain calmly roused his sole passenger (Wallace was sharing the captain’s cabin), “I’m afraid the ship’s on fire.”  Poorly stowed flammable cargo was apparently responsible.  The crew made forlorn attempts to control the fire before the order came to abandon ship.  The Helen, a tropical tinder box, was going up in what Wallace later called a “most magnificent conflagration.”

In the smoky cabin, Wallace had time to grab one small trunk of drawings and notes as the life boats were launched.  Clinker-hulled and parched after a life time spent upside down on the Helen’s deck, the boats immediately started to take on water, so bailing and caulking became an immediate priority.  In his haste to join the bailing party, and still weak from his various tropical ailments, Wallace slid down a rope in to one of the boats, badly rope-burning his hands in the process.  Baling salt water with raw, flayed hands proved unpleasant.  Now that everyone was safely aboard the life boats, what to do?  The captain decreed that they should stay close to the burning wreck as their best hope of rescue lay in other shipping coming to investigate.  No ships came.  As they circled the wreck, Wallace could only watch as those animals—his pets—struggled, and failed, to survive. Sprung from their cages by the fire, some, Wallace recalled, made it to the bowsprit, the last part of the boat not on fire.  There, confronted with the daunting prospect of an endless ocean, they turned round and plunged back in to the flames.

Save for those few notes and sketches, the entirety of those four brutally tough years of Wallace’s life had literally gone up in smoke.  His brother’s death had been in vain.  All those fever-wracked bouts of disease had been in vain.  Wallace recalled being too numb initially to take in the scale of his loss.  It was during the long days that followed that he had a chance to process things:

“When the danger appeared past I began to feel the greatness of my loss. With what pleasure had I looked upon every rare and curious insect I had added to my collection! How many times, when almost overcome by the ague, had I crawled into the forest and been rewarded by some unknown and beautiful species! How many places, which no European foot but my own had trodden, would have been recalled to my memory by the rare birds and insects they had furnished to my collection! How many weary days and weeks had I passed, upheld only by the fond hope of bringing home many new and beautiful forms from these wild regions … which would prove that I had not wasted the advantage I had enjoyed, and would give me occupation and amusement for many years to come! And now … I had not one specimen to illustrate the unknown lands I had trod, or to call back the recollection of the wild scenes I had beheld! But such regrets were vain … and I tried to occupy myself with the state of things which actually existed.”

Rescue was slow in coming.  Wallace and the crew of the Helen spent ten days at sea in the open boats before being picked up.  Wallace, in his account of one of the nights, redefines notions of both stiff upper lip and positive thinking: “During the night I saw several meteors, and in fact could not be in a better position for observing them, than lying on my back in a small boat in the middle of the Atlantic.”

Wallace finally made it back to England after a total of 80 days at sea (his uneventful voyage out with Bates had taken 29). Not surprisingly, he was ocean-travel averse: “Fifty times since I left Para [Belem] have I vowed, if I once reached England, never to trust myself more on the ocean.”

But, having lost virtually everything and still determined to make his name as a naturalist-scientist, Wallace would have to do just that. A mere sixteen months after his return to England, then, he was once more at sea, en route to Singapore from where he would launch his second set of extraordinary exploratory journeys.  The Amazon was his scientific apprenticeship; his eight-year journey through South East Asia was, for Wallace, “the central and controlling incident of my life.”  While in Indonesia, Wallace heard that Bates and his collections had finally made it back to England from the Amazon: “Allow me to congratulate you on your safe arrival home with all your treasures; a good fortune which I trust this time is reserved for me.”

In 1862, after those eight momentous years in the field, exploring everything between Peninsula Malaysia and Western New Guinea, good fortune did indeed this time visit Wallace.  His was a painless journey home, and he returned, appropriately enough, to acclaim as the co-discoverer, with Mr Darwin, of the theory evolution by natural selection.

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One of the species that Wallace was especially interested in collecting while in the Amazon, the umbrella bird.  Also from The Naturalist on the River Amazons

26 thoughts on “Guest post: The most poignant episode in all of the history of science

  1. Thanks for that re-telling! I have recently read lots of books that cover Wallace & his fellow naturalists of that era, Marek Kohn’s A Reason for Everything, Iain McCalman’s Darwin’s Armada (Hooker, Huxley, Wallace et al), Penny van Oosterzee’s Where Worlds Collide(Wallace & the Wallace Line) , & now I am on Richard Conniff’s The Species Seekers. It seems I will have another one to add to the enormous pile!

    1. It also makes me wish I had been born in that age. Van Oosterzee relates how the clear waters of a harbour in Indonesia where Wallace could see the fish, corals etc, are murky with pollution. So much is lost with de-nuded island forests, & we will never know what we lost.

  2. I’m afraid that I have to admit to knowing essentially nothing about Wallace’s life. Thank you for starting the correction process. Now I’ll need to pick up some of the books on Dominic’s list.

    That’s an incredible story. What if Wallace’s Amazonian treasures had survived?


  3. Beautifully told; I nearly cried.

    Trying to imagine multiplying the awful feeling of having one’s hard drive crash or accidentally deleting the images on one’s camera card by a few orders of magnitude. With lost years and lost life, both human and animal.

    Its remarkable Wallace emerged still sane, yet alone as dedicated to science as ever. Shoulders of giants, indeed.

    1. Wallace no doubt did what most of us do after a crisis: try to think of a way it could have been worse, consider the contrast with the present situation — and then experience a feeling of relief. Focus on it. Relief relieves grief. The obvious worst case scenario in his mind would be “I could have died.” And where there is life …

      1. Exactly the little dose of CBT I needed. 🙂

        I fear there are some of us who are too easily thrown into depression; and by extension, don’t leave legacies like Wallace’s.

        (Ha ha–not that that’s the only thing standing between us and legacies!)

  4. Thanks for the reminder about these remarkable and tragic events in the life of this amazing individual. I first read about them in an excellent biography by Ross A. Slotten “The Heretic in Darwin’s Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace”. Highly recommended if you want to read one book on Wallace during his year.

  5. Reminds me of a well known archaeologist who left the sole copies of an entire field season’s worth of data and maps in a Mexico City cab, never to be found again. Maybe not as dramatic as a sinking ship, but the streets of the DF can be quite treacherous as well. That episode and Wallace’s misfortune taught me a valuable lesson, always keep multiple copies of your data in different places.

    Wallace was a very interesting character and led a rather interesting life. Thanks everyone for your reading suggestions.

  6. Wallace, in his account of one of the nights, redefines notions of both stiff upper lip and positive thinking: “During the night I saw several meteors, and in fact could not be in a better position for observing them, than lying on my back in a small boat in the middle of the Atlantic.”

    I say, old chap. Time for another bally holiday, eh? Singapore this time, is it?

    Some national stereotypes can be fun.

    1. Although Wallace was Welsh, so the appropriate stereotype would be more like

      “I’m off to the east indies now boyo, see if they play rugby out there, yakky da”.

      Although the name Wallace suggests possible Scottish ancestry, so maybe you should be going for the full set of Welsh, Scottish and English stereotypes?

  7. Thanks, Andrew, for this very moving account; I curated it for the science lovers at G+.

    However, being a native New Yorker no way would you have gotten me to go on a trip to see ‘joyous squirrels’. 🙂

  8. Presumably if Wallace hadn’t lost his collection in the Atlantic, he wouldn’t have gone to Malaysia and discovered the Wallace Line. Maybe all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. 😉 But really, what an appalling thing to happen. I read about this years ago and was amazed he didn’t call down a curse on nature and take up the law.

    1. I have heard that Wallace had insured his collections, and he recovered some money from that after he got back to England. That financed his trip to Malaysia.

      As cranky and crackpotty as he could get, he was a brilliant and important biologist, and generally an admirable man. He also seems to have been the world’s nicest person.

  9. Thanks for writing it up. Though I’ve read about this episode in his life elsewhere before, it was nonetheless heart breaking to be reminded how he lost all that stuff after all that struggle.

  10. Reading this reminded me of a book I recently finished, “Humboldt’s Cosmos” by Gerard Helferich, in that Wallace and Humboldt (as well as Darwin) made the most amazingly arduous journeys imaginable. Which reminds me of something else I read recently, that real scientists are doing all the hard work (think of Lenski’s 20+ years of following the evolution of E. Coli, or the Grants’ many seasons of fieldwork in the Galapagos). Creationists sit in armchairs in comfy offices and babble out their arguments from personal ignorance (“I don’t understand how this [insert feature or organism here] could have evolved”), never thinking that maybe they should go out and do some of the hard work themselves, or that there are a lot of people out there who are smarter than they are.

    1. Yes, that is what most strikes me about stories like this, or stories like the one of Darwin pole-vaulting from one rock to another across the crashing tide to collect special corals during his Beagle trip. These guys were passionate about trying to understand the details of nature. Honestly “passionate” isn’t nearly an adequate word for it. Driven, obsessed, drunk on learning…so unlike the know-nothing creationists who criticize them.

    1. No.
      One down. No shortage of ones still to go.
      I hope he’s being cremated. I wouldn’t want the cockroaches and worms to get indigestion.
      (Well, I did struggle to find something nice to say!)

  11. Was it an accident that the Theory of Evolution was concieved twice by two men living at the same time and same culture?

  12. Thanks for this wonderful, compact re-telling of one of the most inspiring stories that the history of science has to offer! I always use Wallace as an example when a student asks me ‘what it takes’ to deal with setbacks in the field.

    To help students get over the loss of anything written, I use Lawrence’s loss of his first draft manuscript of ‘Seven pillars of wisdom’ on a train – and the subsequent re-writing of the whole damn thing in three months.

  13. It’s a cringe-making story. I’ve lost millions of pounds (sterling, and around 5000 man-days of work!) worth of very fragile core samples simply by having a freight helicopter and a lifting plan organised which included almost everyone on the rig relevant to freight handling. With one vital exception – the guy who put the temporary-storage shipping container onto a boat to get it off the rig before the storm came in.
    When the boat bounced it’s way back into harbour 36 hours later … smashed to smithereens.
    I won’t make that mistake again!

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