British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was not only a key figure in developing the theory of evolution in the mid-19th century but also had the foresight to call for saving endangered species.
Wallace, who died 100 years ago this year, did his most important research in the rich biodiversity of Indonesia, and his plea for preservation is even more compelling than when he wrote it.
From my base in Jakarta, I can just step outside my home to observe the spectacle of life in overdrive that attracted Wallace.
OK, it’s downtown Jakarta, so there are no rhinos or orangutans. Still, just outside my door, bugs flit, swarm and crawl in great abundance, and predators — birds, bats, toads and geckos — dart, swoop and pounce at them, and appear quite plump and well-nourished as a result.
But sadly, part of the story is the destruction of the natural abundance that Wallace noticed here.
I was shocked to discover on a reporting trip two years ago that more than 90 percent of the world’s oldest virgin rainforests in Indonesian Borneo have been cleared to make way for, among other things, palm oil plantations.
The Modern Debate Over Evolution
While there may be a consensus among scientists about Wallace’s and Charles Darwin’s theories, it is worth noting a Gallup Poll last year that found that only 15 percent of Americans believe in any form of evolution that is not guided by God. Other studies suggest that the theory of evolution is more widely accepted in other Western countries.
Reading and thinking about Wallace has given me some new perspectives on my own work. It occurs to me, for example, that to discern the difference between two things, it helps to look at the seam or point of transition from one thing to the next.
The Indonesian archipelago is just such a transitional zone between the Asian, Pacific and Australian regions.
The news focus has always been more on Indochina than on maritime Southeast Asia. Despite the archipelago’s great natural and human diversity, media have tended to ignore it, except for natural disasters and terrorist attacks. But the balance appears to be shifting in favor of Indonesia, which is Southeast Asia’s largest economy.
The more I travel for reporting, the more I see how Wallace’s ideas about biogeography also apply to humans.
In one country after another, I have looked at people’s faces, food, language, music, and seen how each group transitions into the next one on a map, and how those who have migrated over the course of history have adapted to new environments.
On one level, the biodiversity that enabled Wallace’s discoveries implies the infinite variety of life — if not infinite in the number of species, then at least beyond our current ability to identify them all.
At the same time, biodiversity is a mechanism to ensure the survival of life on Earth as a single entity. The simultaneous diversity and unity of life is reflected in Indonesia’s national motto, “unity in diversity.” Or, as we would say, “out of many, one” — e pluribus unum.
Wallace’s skill at this kind of observation reminds me of a passage in the ancient Chinese Taoist classic, the Dao De Jing:
“The ten thousand things — side-by-side they arise;
And by this I see their return.
Things come forth in great numbers;
Each one returns to its root.”
So it seems that the man some describe as the last great Victorian had some interests in common with ancient Chinese philosophers. They seem to have shared ideas about the importance of observing nature as the key to perceiving the laws of the universe and advancing human knowledge.