Bill Bailey on Alfred Russel Wallace – the forgotten father of evolution

The musical comedian hails the science genius you've probably never heard of...

Ask anyone in the street, “Have you heard of Alfred Russel Wallace?” and you will probably be met with blank stares. Actually, don’t do that, because I’ve tried it and believe me that’s exactly what happens.


But in fact, by the end of the 19th century, Wallace was one of the most famous people in the world; recipient of many awards, garlanded for his achievements in science and hailed by the establishment.

Wallace’s rise to fame was not easy. He was the underdog, an amateur “bug collector”, undereducated and short of funds, so the odds were stacked against him. But, through his own determined efforts, his boldness and his charmingly unflappable nature, he made it from obscurity to sharing one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time.

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The plaudits followed, the respect, acceptance into the Victorian scientific elite. So why has he been forgotten?

Well, OK, it’s not strictly true to say “forgotten”, because while he is unknown to the vast majority of people, his name will be familiar to those in the rarefied world of academia, and to any intrepid traveller to Indonesia who has crossed the Wallace Line, or has explored a vast swathe of that country called Wallacea, and has glimpsed perhaps some of the many animal species that still bear his name.

I fall into the latter of these categories. I have been exploring Indonesia for 15 years. And it was here that I first encountered Alfred Russel Wallace.

It was 1998 and I was boarding a crowded ferry in Ambon in the Eastern Moluccas with my partner, Kristin. The scene on the dock seemed utterly chaotic, with hundreds of passengers laden with packages both boarding and disembarking simultaneously.

We’d left behind the tourist spots, and now we were way off the beaten track. We’d only read about these “forgotten islands” of Indonesia, unspoilt jewels surrounded by crystal-clear waters and smoking volcanoes. They sounded impossibly romantic but out of reach, yet here we were after three flights and a six-hour ferry crossing, sailing towards the Banda Islands.

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It’s still one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever encountered, a view that I learnt had changed little since Wallace visited in the 1850s. We fell in love with the place and, struck by its beauty and perhaps giddy with excitement, we both declared, “Let’s get married here!”

And so we did, in a little Dutch Protestant church, with the Banda islanders as witnesses.

We returned to Ambon later that year to trek across the neighbouring island of Seram. The reference book for our expedition was entitled Birds of Wallacea and at this point I became interested in Alfred Russel Wallace.

Who was this man who gave his name to a huge area of eastern Indonesia? How had that come about? Then I read his excellent account of his travels in the region, The Malay Archipelago, and his biography and I was now hooked and intrigued.

Why was this extraordinary biologist, explorer and meticulous scientist not more widely known? Surely he is a hero, I thought. I assumed there would be a TV documentary, but aside from some mentions as part of a wider subject, I couldn’t find one.

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Wallace was the greatest field naturalist of the 19th century – perhaps ever. He illuminated littleknown parts of the world with his brilliant and lucid writing, and was the author of 22 books and over 200 scientific papers.

He travelled to some of the most remote parts of the world in a time where such endeavour was extremely tough, with no real medicines to speak of and any of a number of tropical diseases to succumb to.

Then the most astonishing discovery of all. Wallace came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently of Charles Darwin. He wrote to Darwin describing this theory and his letter proved the catalyst for Darwin to rush into print The Origin of Species.

The theory, this world-changing scientific break-through, was known as the Darwin-Wallace theory for the duration of Wallace’s life. So how come it’s Darwin alone who is remembered for unlocking our secret evolutionary code? Why has Wallace been airbrushed from history?

These are the questions that fired my curiosity and inspired me to follow in his footsteps. I wanted to experience a taste of Wallace’s epic journey, and to try to understand what drove him on, and how he arrived at his discoveries.

So, filming this documentary about Wallace is the culmination of an ambition I have nurtured for many years.

On the shoot we had some extraordinary encounters, like the tarsiers of Sulawesi, bizarre little gremlin-monkeys flitting among the trees with incredible speed, or finding Wallace’s flying frog as we sloshed around in the mud of Borneo.

But for me the greatest moment was seeing up close Wallace’s bird of paradise, and understanding why he considered this discovery his ultimate prize. Watching the males of these beautiful creatures displaying at dawn in the depths of the jungle, I got a sense of the wonder Wallace must have felt.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have endured many years alone in the unforgiving tropics, but when rewarded with jewels of nature like this, you see how he would have been spurred on to pursue his quest. 

Wallace lived an amazing life. He was a courageous and deeply moral man who contributed hugely to our understanding of life on earth. Everyone with an interest in the natural world should know who he is. In fact, anyone with a sense of adventure should be inspired by his extraordinary travels and relentless curiosity.

But he lacked the connections and status to impose himself on the world of science, and so his contributions to understanding evolution were overshadowed by Darwin, who wrote the “bible” of evolution if you will, and this is what has endured.

Wallace was not best adapted to bring his thoughts to a wider public – a case of “survival of the fittest”? I hope that in this centenary year of his death, Wallace will finally get the wider recognition he deserves.

Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero is on BBC2 tonight at 8:00pm


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