My wife recently returned from a pre-school presentation thrown by a local “mommies group”. Here in LA, as in most other places in the USA, one is expected to begin panicking about school immediately after your kid parts ways from her placenta. I get it. Now that 1% percent of the population has successfully procured most of the booty, its kill or be killed at the waterhole. But man, even lion cubs spend a LOT of time messing around, chasing flies, scaring dogs; you know, kid stuff. When do our kids get to wander in the woods, turn over rocks, and chase frogs along creek banks and lie on their back, staring at clouds? Since when did we adopt the imperative to fast-track toddlers toward their degree? Don’t all kids need time to wander? Were it not for wanderers, who would have brought us the theory of natural selection? Darwin? No! Well, not entirely…
Last weekend, I had the unexpected pleasure of attending a symposium at UCLA about a hugely influential but, until recently, obscure man, named Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace’s profound impact on our basic understanding of the natural world cannot be overstated. A man of humble origins, little education and limited means, Wallace, after a string of odd jobs, became a self-taught biologist of the rarest sort. While his well-healed peers speculated from drawing rooms or gazed from the safety of their boats, Wallace got his hands dirty. On his first journey in 1848, he, his brother, and a man named Henry Bates explored the central Amazon, collecting specimens and living off the land with the native populations. The journey was ultimately a disaster by any account, in that his brother died from fever and Wallace’s ship, filled with specimens, burned and sank in the middle of the sea. He and his crew floated for 10 days in the open sea before being saved, and once on dry land, Wallace swore he’d never wander the woods again. But of course, being the deeply curious iconoclast he was was, he did. And that journey, changed history.
Wallace used his data from the Amazon to finance a staggering 8 year exploration, from 1854 to 1862, of the oceans, mountains and jungles of The Malay Archipelago, formerly known as the “The Dutch East Indies”. The epic expedition included Malaysia, Singapore, the islands of Indonesia, and the island of New Guinea, and resulted in the book, The Malay Archipelago. Wallace’s discoveries were so vast and so broad, that it would be impossible to list them here, but it’s safe to say, it’s one of the most important works regarding our natural history.
It was published in two volumes in 1869, delayed by Wallace’s ill health and the work needed to describe the many specimens he brought home. The book went through ten editions in the nineteenth century; it has been reprinted many times since, and has been translated into at least eight languages.
The book described each island that he visited in turn, giving a detailed account of its physical and human geography, its volcanoes, and the variety of animals and plants that he found and collected. At the same time, he describes his experiences, the difficulties of travel, and the help he received from the different peoples that he met. The preface notes that he travelled over 14,000 miles and collected 125,660 natural history specimens, mostly of insects though also thousands of molluscs, birds, mammals and reptiles.
Not bad for an uneducated, lower class kid from Wales. And here’s where the plot thickens. Wallace, having no audience of his own, sent his theories to Darwin while he was living in the archipelago. Darwin, nervous to publish due to the conservative nature of the scientific community, read Wallace’s work and well, basically shat himself. Wallace was not just reaching Darwin’s conclusions, he was outpacing him. Darwin had no choice but to take Wallace’s revelations on natural selection, animal mimicry and geography’s impact on species and present them, along with his own, to the scientific community. Minds were blown. And though Darwin has just recently been cleared of outright stealing from Wallace, there is no doubt that Darwin’s masterpiece, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” owes a monstrous debt to the vast and ambitious work of Alfred Russel Wallace.
And all this brings me back to my daughter, Aniko. I keep thinking about what’s lost when kids are always under an adult’s supervision, from cradle to college. When I was a kid, me and my friends would race to the woods that bordered our New Jersey development and get lost for hours. We’d explore the ruins of old farms, wade into Walker’s Pond after Painted turtles and make forts from downed trees. We got scrapes, bruises and even broken bones, but we lived. The world was full of mystery and darkness and our minds were on fire. It’s a different time, sure. But how do we keep that fire alive now? Granted, at 10 months, our daugther needs us, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. But this whole process of planning for the future seems to leave room for so few holes, so little getting lost. What, I wonder, would Wallace do?