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Why Indonesians should celebrate Alfred Russel Wallace every year

Elysa Ng
Elysa Ng

Sixteen-year-old. Loves life sciences and literature.

Jakarta  /  Tue, December 4, 2018  /  04:30 pm
Why Indonesians should celebrate Alfred Russel Wallace every year

The map of Indonesia. The imaginary Wallace Line is the faunal divide that is drawn between Borneo and Sulawesi as well as Bali and Lombok. (Shutterstock/File)

If somebody was to mention the father of evolution, people would immediately think of Charles Darwin.

To this day, Charles Darwin is most famous for being the writer of the most influential book that has shaken the entire world upon its publication. Titled On the Origin of Species, this book shaped biology into what it is now.

But everybody has gotten so used to Darwin being placed under the spotlight alone for many years, that it might come to a shock when people find out that a cofounder for evolution actually exists.

Unbeknownst to many people, another scientist played an influential role in the discovery of evolution. There could be many other scientists out there who also observed evolution, but did not step up with their discovery because of the traditional rules of society back then.

Almost entirely unheard of, Alfred Russel Wallace, who was born on Jan. 8, 1823, and died on Nov. 7, 1913, was also an English naturalist and explorer.

Just like Darwin, he sailed on a voyage, collecting about 100,000 insects, birds and animal specimens that he donated to British museums. Through careful observations of the wildlife around him, he deduced in 1855 that animals could evolve by adapting to their environment.

It began when he wrote down his theory in a document about eight to nine pages long and mailed it to Darwin. Eventually, he became Darwin’s pen pal and mentor, and the two continued to write back and forth about their theories on evolution.

Of course, Darwin had discovered the idea first a couple of years back and this correspondence with Wallace inspired Darwin to write it down. It can be said that Wallace was the main catalyst for why the On the Origin of Species was published.

On the Origin of Species started with them doing a joint paper about the beginning of the theory of evolution. However, the joint paper was mostly forgotten. A year after it was published, Darwin began to write On the Origin of Species.

Read also: 2018 Wallacea Week: Celebrating diversity and science

As On the Origin of Species began to stir up controversy and gain popularity inside the world of natural science, Wallace’s popularity began to fade and the fame all went to Darwin. Now everybody recognizes Darwin as the father of evolution, without keeping in mind that Wallace also played a significant role in the founding of this theory.

Wallace himself never really protested over that, choosing instead to stay humble about it. He never tried to steal Darwin’s fame. 

While Wallace should regain more attention worldwide, why is it important for us as Indonesians to appreciate Wallace more?

While Darwin went to the Galapagos and got his inspiration through the Galapagos finches, Wallace sailed to the Dutch East Indies, which was the name of the chain of islands before it was changed to Indonesia.

He landed on what we now call Sulawesi, to find the native Maleo bird. The main thing he observed was that the Maleo bird was very well adapted to its environment, unique for using geothermal energy to incubate its eggs rather than body heat like what typical birds would use. This led him to develop evolution as a plausible theory.

Aside from that, he created the Wallace line, which is a boundary line separating the ecozones and faunas of Asia and Wallacea. Wallacea is the zone between Asia and Australia. This clear division line is split right in Indonesia, with Kalimantan, Java and Sumatra on the west side and Papua, Sulawesi and Australia on the east side. On the West of the line are the Asiatic species, and toward the East are species that look like a mix of Asian and Australian origin. This split is important because it shows how evolution varies across the continent and how it’s a gradual and constant change.

Wallace has a great number of achievements and clearly deserves more fame. As Indonesians, we have to be extremely proud as Wallace found out a very important discovery right in our homeland and contributed to a very important theory that changed the entire world.

To celebrate him, I think exhibitions and memorials should be created in his honor every year to commemorate his death anniversary. And by that, I don’t mean some floppy exhibition —something that would rival the exhibitions that people created in honor of Charles Darwin.

It’s time we give Wallace the recognition that he deserves. (kes)

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Elysa Ng is a junior high school student and a passionate supporter of environmental conservation and protection. She loves wild animals, reading, writing and white chocolate, and has been writing seriously since she was 10.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.