British comedian Bill Bailey is famous for his stand-up comedy performances, musical virtuosity, numerous appearances in movies and television programs, and now for Indonesian Heritage Society friends, his championing of the legacy of naturalist Alfred Wallace.
Bailey’s talk on Alfred Wallace—who he “came to through a love of birds— filled the Indonesian Heritage Society library on a Sunday morning in November.
Bailey’s first introduction to Indonesia was with the arrival of a Moluccan cockatoo “Molly”, into the menagerie of animals collected by his wife.
He first came to Indonesia 13 years ago. Bailey and his then partner travelled to Banda Neira. They liked it so much they got married there.
On their next visit, they organised a trek across Seram,mainly to look at bird life, using the tome ‘Birds of Wallacea”as a reference. Bailey was intrigued, and wondered “What was this area Wallacea?” He then read Alfred Wallace’s account of his travels in the 1850s, The Malay Archipelago and says, “that was it, I was off and running.”
Bailey’s growing interest in Wallace brought him into contact with other experts, such as George Beccaloni, curator of insects at the Natural History Museum. He was also invited to the Linnean Society for the 150th anniversary of the first delivery of Darwin and Wallace’s papers on evolution. A Cambridge don there almost surreptitiously passed Bailey a name card so they could discuss Wallace further.
Bailey believes this demonstrates the “uncomfortable truth”about Wallace, that he too was responsible for the theory of evolution, but has been denied proper recognition.
“In England, Wallace’s name has been lost from history,”Bailey says. “This is a terrible injustice. He is a hero…He was perhaps the greatest naturalist of the century, certainly the greatest field naturalist.”
Bailey says when the “brilliant and unassuming” Wallace died at the age of 90, he had devoted his life to the study of the natural world, as well as campaigning for social justice.”
“The more I read about him, the more respect and tremendous admiration I had for him…It bugged me [that] more people did not know about him.”
Bailey was inspired enough to suggest to the BBC in 2008 that he make a documentary about the life of Wallace. There was no money to support the idea, and Bailey said he “realised Wallace was being edged out again.” Two years later the BBC agreed to proceed, in order to mark the 2013 centenary of Wallace’s death.
Bailey showed us a number of slides taken from his travels around Indonesia with the documentary crew, including shots of playful teenage Sulawesi macaques and other animals.
The documentary team used Wallace’s books, letters and journals during their travels, and aimed to portray the naturalist as a collector and scientist, as the father of evolutionary “ biogeography” through discovery of the Wallace Line (the “extraordinary boundary”between Bali and Lombok dividing Asian fauna on one side, and Austronesian on the other), and as a scientist who had arrived at the theory of evolution independently of Darwin.
As Bailey tells it, Wallace’s goal was to find the mechanism of natural selection. Unlike Darwin, who had social connections and a classical education, Wallace had a fractured childhood, had left school at 14, and never really had a proper formal education. He began to work as a surveyor, where his passion for the natural world was born, or as Bailey says, “he saw beetles everywhere.”
Wallace read Darwin’s Voyage Of The Beagle and the work of Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, and “dreamt up a plan to travel to the Amazon”along with a friend. They left in 1848 and began collecting and selling specimens to Victorian collectors to fund the journey. Wallace spent four years collecting and writing papers in the Amazon, and was just about to “make a huge impression on the scientific community”when the brig Helen, on which he was sailing home, caught alight. Wallace lost virtually everything.
Rather than giving up, Wallace regrouped and left for a voyage to Malaysia and Indonesia, a journey that was to last eight years.
Bailey says Wallace was collecting and taking meticulous notes, but he was “here on a noble purpose….to search for the mechanism of natural selection.”
In London in 1842, an anonymous article suggesting transmutation (the alteration of one species into another) was published to a very negative reaction. Charles Darwin was horrified. As Bailey says, “to publish his theories of evolution then would have been “professional suicide”.” Darwin retreated from his idea of publishing to collect more evidence.
In 1855 Wallace wrote what became known as the Sarawak law, that is, that animals are consistent in space and time. “He was almost there”says Bailey. “Wallace was trying to find the connection.”
Whilst in a malarial state in February 1858, he had his Eureka moment and did exactly that.
Drawing on his reading of Malthus’s ‘Principles of Population’—that eventually population is limited by famine and disease—Wallace realised that the same pressures applied to the world of animals. He asked himself, “Why do some die and some live.”
Bailey suggests Wallace was also acutely aware of his own mortality. He had had several near misses, and his brother Herbert had died of yellow fever. Wallace concluded that only the fittest survived.
Once recovered from his bout of malaria, Wallace sent Darwin a letter communicating his ideas. For Darwin it was a serious blow, he was under pressure to publish his theory by the few people who knew about it. He felt he still needed more information, that he wasn’t ready. But, Bailey says, he remained a decent man, and said “I must given priority to Wallace.”
His friends Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker reportedly convinced him otherwise, and eventually the writings of Darwin were read to the Linnean Society along with Wallace’s letter. This 1858 presentation basically marked the birth of the theory of evolution, and established Darwin’s priority. But it had a fairly subdued reception. Wallace was still ‘collecting butterflies and beetles’ when Darwin published On The Origin of the Species a year later, which had a huge impact.
It is here that Bailey believes Wallace was “robbed.”
“If he had sent it [the letter] to anyone else but Darwin, we would be talking about the Wallace Theory of Evolution. “
Bailey’s film will be broadcast by the BBC in March 2013. “I hope he is an inspiration to people and inspires them to go out and find new species.”
Meanwhile Bailey’s relationship with Indonesia endures. He supports an ecotourism project in Seram, which involves taking visitors high into the tree canopy for birdwatching. Former bird trappers who used to sell birds in Ambon market, are now employed to show people birds. He is also a patron of the Sumatran Orangutan Society.
This article originally appeared in the Indonesian Heritage Society’s September-December 2012 newsletter.