More good things by Wallace

November 23, 2013 • 11:46 am

by Greg Mayer

We’ve already posted some things to read by and about Alfred Russel Wallace in honor of Wallace Year, including a list by me and a recent list by fellow Wallace-ophile Andrew Berry. There’s another item that I can recommend to WEIT readers, which I had known about and forgotten to mention, but Matthew has kindly reminded me of it: the Journal of Zoology has published a “virtual issue” of a number of Wallace’s papers.

Dactlylopsila trivirgata, the striped possum of the Aru Islands.
Dactlylopsila trivirgata, the striped possum of the Aru Islands. The nominate subspecies is endemic to Aru; other subspecies occur in New Guinea and Queensland.

The issue consists of 10 articles, by Wallace or scientists working on his collections, originally published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (later renamed the Journal of Zoology). The papers are technical– species descriptions, faunal lists– rather than synthetic statements of Wallace’s views. But papers such as these are the building blocks out of which Wallace constructed his zoogeographical and evolutionary theories. The article on Wallace’s search for the bird of paradise, a delightful scientific travelogue in the style of The Malay Archipelago, is perhaps the most entertaining of the collection.

The picture above is from an account of the mammals of the Aru Islands, including descriptions of new forms, by the famous zoologist J.E. Gray,  based on Wallace’s collections. In this paper, Gray named and described the striped possum, not only erecting a new species for it, but a new genus as well. The Aru Islands * lie on the great Sahul Shelf which connects New Guinea and Australia, and it is thus not surprising that striped possums were later found in New Guinea and Queensland, as all these were connected by dry land during Quaternary glacial periods. The striped possum (a marsupial, of course) is thus a nice building block for the general conclusion that the fauna of the Aru Islands is of Australian affinity, and that former land connections are of great importance in understanding the distribution of animals, especially mammals.

There are many fine plates, like the one above, in these 10 articles. I’m not sure how long Wiley (the current printer for the Zoological Society of London) will maintain open access at its site, but the articles are all out of copyright, and most or all are freely available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library (direct link to the Proceedings here), and of course also at Wallace Online and The Alfred Russel Wallace Page.

* This link is to a nice paper comparing Wallace’s visit to Aru today.

4 thoughts on “More good things by Wallace

  1. Please remember that Wallace was the original inventor of ID. Late in his life, he became what Darwin hated: he could no longer look at life without seeing the parts that were designed. He saw them in all animals and plants. He did some great work before he did, in 1865, squished on humans. They came from the design. Later in life he extended this to all animals and plants.

    1. Do not throw out the baby with the bathwater. We should accept him as a great humanist, very much a man of his age when those sorts of idea were still within the realms of possibility. That we now know better should not diminish our appreciation of his talents, dogged determination in the face of huge adversity, & simple wonder at the natural world.

      1. Thanks for responding to this, as I’ve been meaning to and forgot.

        He was phenomenal. His spirituality is forgivable, as he was a product of his time and environment, when anything other than god the creator was considered heresy! He was a great help, generous to a fault, and helped Darwin tremendously, sharing his incomparable collection of specimens. He would have suffered greatly from destitution at the end of his life had it not been for Darwin. It is very telling that Darwin showed his regard for and gratitude to him by setting up an endowment for him.

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