Lives of Alfred Russel Wallace

“Last month my students and I took a field trip to a small forest reserve a couple of miles from our university campus in Malaysian Borneo. Slip-sliding down a steep jungle path, clutching the soggy stems of wild yams in a futile attempt to stay upright, we collapsed into a pebbly streambed. As we regained our composure and began to look around the steep-sided valley cluttered with the mossy logs of fallen rainforest giants, one of the students, Sharifah Ibrahim, suddenly pointed upward: “A Rajah Brooke!” We all looked, and down came the graceful butterfly, gliding on its long emerald and black wings and settling at a puddle to drink.

A hundred and fifty years ago, Alfred Russel Wallace must have stood in similar awe when he first saw this spectacular birdwing butterfly in Sarawak, a few hundred miles down the coast from where we were hiking. Having arrived in Borneo in November 1854, the naturalist struck up a friendship with the legendary Sir James Brooke, the first “white rajah” of Sarawak. It was Brooke who gave him a specimen of the as-yet-unnamed species. Wallace immediately dispatched a note to the Entomological Society of London, naming the species Ornithoptera brookiana after his new friend…”

Menno Schilthuizen reviews two biographies of the man who came up with natural selection independently of Darwin: The Heretic in Darwin’s Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace by Ross A. Slotten, and An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace by Martin Fichman, here in Natural History Magazine.