A ‘Forgotten Evolutionist’ – Alfred Russel Wallace at the National Museum of Wales

I had the opportunity to go to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff this week and to see the new exhibit “Alfred Russel Wallace: Forgotten Evolutionist?” which just opened this past week.  I’m not a Wallace scholar, but I am a historian of evolution and biology, so I came to this with a fair bit of knowledge about Wallace’s ideas and some of his discoveries. But I must admit I didn’t know much about his early life.  I was pleasantly surprised by some of the information the exhibit contained.  At the same time, there were a few frustrating errors in the presentation.  And in one instance, there was even material which I found offensive and racist.  The result was a better knowledge of Wallace than I’d previously had, but a conflicted view of the museum’s curatorial choices.

(note – the Museum expressly prohibits posting photographs of exhibits online, so I will not put any up on this blog.)

While I certainly understand that Wallace gets much less public attention than Darwin, this idea of the “forgotten” Wallace seems to be a bit of overstatement—yet it is the rhetoric that the Natural History Museum and the National Museum of Wales has been employing and which the press has picked up on in this 100th anniversary of his death.

The exhibit is laid out in a single room with several alcoves.  An anti-clockwise progression takes us through Wallace’s early life, to some of his voyages and discoveries, to his connection to Darwin and Darwinism and the fallout from their similar theories, and finally to his public persona by the end of his life.  In the center there are two video screens with headphones.  There are also a few cases of specimens that Wallace collected during his voyages.

There’s a bit of subtext that the collective Wallace-amnesia might be due both to the class differential between him and Darwin’s circle, and also perhaps the tendency of Wales (with only 5% of the UK population) to be ‘forgotten’ within the larger context of Britain.  At one point, the exhibit recounts his collecting voyages and publications with the pithy conclusion: “Not bad for a self-educated man from Usk in Wales!”

It’s not surprising to see the National Museum of Wales emphasising the Welshness of a famous son such as Wallace. But the exhibit does suggest that Wallace’s Welshness wasn’t mentioned just for the sake of patriotism; it actually mattered to his progression in science.  It was the economic and technological circumstances of Wales at the time of his upbringing that led Wallace to employment and background as a land surveyor (although the exhibit also hints at a social activism by claiming that Wallace recognised that much of the surveying was being done to take the land away from local control into national and private economic interest—land surveying as the vanguard of economic and cultural hegemony at the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.)  The point is made that Wallace’s experience and training as a land surveyor was critical to his ability to precisely map the locations and distributions species, and made possible his understanding of biogeography.

That was perhaps the best of the exhibit.  Although there was also some very useful discussion of the rather famous scene where Wallace sent his paper outlining an evolutionary theory to Darwin, leading to the joint presentation of the two’s theory at the Linnean society and the resultant publication of the Origin of Species.  The exhibit slyly suggests that there’s more to this story:

So ends a scientific fairy tale? Two men from very different backgrounds arrive at the same cutting edge idea separately? Maybe not.  Some scholars question these events, arguing that conspiracy robbed Wallace of his proper credit.

What do you think?

I find the – What do you think? –  rhetoric a bit disingenuous.  It’s not as though the exhibit gives its audience the evidence necessary to decide this and relegates historical interpretation (you know, using facts) to be reducible to gut opinion.  Moreover, contrasting Wallace receiving “proper credit” with a “conspiracy that propagated a “fairy tale” to “rob” Wallace certainly slants the story.  There was also the suggestion that his beginnings in a “lesser social class to the ‘eminent men’ of English [of course not Welsh…] natural history like Darwin.” This meant that “Wallace didn’t have a reputation to lose!” The implication is that this made Wallace a bolder naturalist than the overly-cautious, reluctant-to-publish Darwin.

But ultimately because “Wallace was prepared to champion unpopular causes without regard for his own reputation,” his legacy suffered.  The exhibit suggests that this very boldness and willingness to be unpopular was responsible for the quick fading of his fame after his death.  By contrast, “Darwin was remembered thanks to his popular book ‘On the Origin of Species’ whilst Wallace remained in the shadows.”

This has the feeling of trying much too hard.  The effect is one of creating a Darwin who was: cautious of publishing to the point of cowardice (pushed forward only because of Wallace); socially privileged and part of a good old boys club of Victorian scientific elite—and of course English; who usurps Wallace’s rightful legacy because he wrote a ‘popular’ book.

While the exhibit presents some of the important aspects of Wallace’s thought and does so in ways that are not too technical, it doesn’t always do a good job explaining how Wallace’s ideas fit into the broader conversations about evolution.  We are told that Wallace’s evolutionary idea “suddenly flashed before him” “while suffering from malarial fever.” This depiction of a disease-induced hallucinatory revelation doesn’t really fit with the earlier idea of Wallace as a hard-working “self-educated man from Usk.” So is it the case that scientific discovery is the result of a lifetime of hard work or a brief moment of insight?

Wallace is described as having reached “the same brilliant idea” as Darwin.  Elsewhere in the exhibit, points of difference between the two’s theories, such as the development of the human mind and human ancestry are mentioned.  There’s a brief and somewhat distorted presentation of previous evolutionary ideas, which seems to conflate aspects of Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin.  It also includes the unfortunate phrase: “Lamarck came up with an early theory for evolution called Lamarckism.”  There’s a very simplistic mention of the so-called eclipse period, which states simply that evolutionary ideas fell out of favour in the early 20th century, before experiencing a revival in the 1930s.  There’s been some good criticism of this idea (first put into print by Julian Huxley as a narrative to advance his own ‘modern synthesis’) of the Darwinian eclipse (such as this article by Mark Largent).  The exhibit doesn’t explain the causes for this apparent eclipse but seems to suggest that Wallace’s having died at the peak of it might have further led to his quick forgetting.  Unlike the beatification of Darwin that led to his entombment in Westminster Abbey.

The presentation of Wallace’s theory of biogeography is generally much better, and more directly tied to the claims that his experiences as a land surveyor (and his Welsh background) informed his scientific discoveries.  And there’s a good presentation of the discovery of different species on opposing sides of the “Wallace Line” through Indonesia.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t presented as clearly as it could be.  The line is illustrated against a map of the Malay archipelago.  The Wallace line is projected as a thick red line on a pane of glass mounted several centimetres in front of the actual map.  This makes it hard to tell exactly where the line runs through the map.  The actual Wallace line runs through the Lombok strait, between the islands of Bali and Lombok.  But depending on the angle, the line either covers Lombok (not a large island) entirely, or even appears to put Bali and Lombok on the same side, with the Wallace line appearing to wrongly traverse the Alas strait, dividing Lombok and Sumbawa.  (A map of the three islands here)

There’s a few other odd curatorial choices.  Towards the end of the exhibit there’s a cast of a Homo rudolfensis skull found in East Africa in 1972.  This is given as evidence of the human evolution that Wallace championed.  It’s perhaps unfortunate that the same week the exhibit opened, details of new skull finds in Georgia cast doubt of the existence of Homo rudolfensis as a distinct species from Homo erectus.  But moreover, this is a strange choice of skull.  It’s not one that Wallace would have been associated with in any way, having been discovered long after his death.  And it’s not even from a part of the world where Wallace explored.  Yet within Wallace’s lifetime, fossils of Homo erectus were found in Java, an island that Wallace himself explored.

But the most outlandish thing in the entire exhibit is a serious of biographical cartoons depicting stages in Wallace life.  These are done in a style that could have been from Wallace’s own era, however these are quite clearly not nineteenth century depictions of the naturalist, but present-day ones.  They’re all done by the same artist, and they include events (like young Wallace looking for insects whilst surveying land as a teenager) that certainly wouldn’t have attracted any attention for caricature.

In general the use of cartoons to depict biography is accessible, and easily digested.  It’s also child-friendly and humorous.  I have nothing against the medium.  But it’s precisely because the medium is so accessible, and might be the only part that some children really look at, that the cartoons need to be careful about what messages they reinforce.  Unlike some of the other visuals, (like the biogeography map) this doesn’t really require reading the further text to take away a message, and unlike the video, this doesn’t require wearing headphones or waiting a while for a point to be made.  For many people this is the quickest explanation of Wallace the man.  And that’s why I found them so troubling.

A few are harmless attempts at tongue in check irreverence (Wallace on a sinking ship on return from the Amazon, crying out “Women, children, and rare beetle specimens first!”).  The final one, showing the ghost of a deceased spiritualist Wallace hovering over his grave exclaiming “I was right!” seems a bit disrespectful to Wallace’s religious beliefs.

Two of these cartoons, however are quite blatantly racist and inappropriate.  I can’t post photos of them here, so I’ll just describe them.

One shows a bespectacled and kitted up (backpack, butterfly net, etc) Wallace greeting a person in the Malay Archipelago.  Wallace says: “I’m a collector!” In reply, a dark-skinned man wearing nothing but a loincloth, with a hut behind him filled with skulls, replies “Me too!”

The next one shows Wallace reclining under a lean-to, writing in his journals.  Next to him a well-muscled (topless, also in a loincloth) dark skinned man states: “I tell you what – only the fittest survive out here!” and Wallace replying “Waaaait a minute…”

If these were actual Victorian-era cartoons, the depiction of natives of these lands as naked primitives might be expected.  If these were themselves historical artifacts that showed how Wallace was perceived at the time then they might have a place in the exhibit.  But to newly create and reinforce these stereotypes and to present them as humorous depictions of Wallace’s travels is appalling and inappropriate.  In an otherwise clever, if not flawless, exhibit, what in the world are they doing there?

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4 thoughts on “A ‘Forgotten Evolutionist’ – Alfred Russel Wallace at the National Museum of Wales

  1. Ask most people who first published the theory of evolution by natural selection, and I think you’ll find that if they have an answer most will say “Charles Darwin”. In Wallace’s lifetime it was much more widely known than it is today that he was the co-discover of this process, so it is (in my view) correct to say that he has been ‘forgotten’.

  2. Emphasising Wallace’s ‘Welshness’ is more than a bit strange as Monmouthshire and Usk (which I know very well, too well!!) are much more English than Welsh

  3. Wallace, of course, also spent several years living in the Neath area, which would have been decidedly ‘Welsh’, and it was there that several events took place which determined the course of his future life (i.e. he became interested in natural history and began to collect specimens, and he also developed his interest in the idea of species ‘transmutation’ (evolution)).

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