Sunday, 29 December 2013

16th Dec - Wallace & Darwin

What better place to remember the centenary of Alfred R. Wallace's death than here in the city of Darwin, Australia. At the Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory they're doing just that.

Here's a bit of surprising chronology: The city here wasn't founded until 1869. The tiny settlement was originally called Palmerston, after the then British PM. Thirty years earlier when the HMS Beagle sailed up the uncharted channel, John Clements Wickham the surveyor onboard, named the whole area Port Darwin, after the 24 year-old naturalist who had accompanied them on the same ship three years earlier. The young man had clearly made quite an impression. The Origin of the Species was finally published in 1859 to an initially mixed reception, but it's ideas took root and grew, until in 1911 the city of Palmerston was renamed Darwin in his honour.

Alfred Wallace was fourteen years younger than Darwin, but they were well acquainted with each others' work and exchanged correspondence for many years. They worked in slightly different areas of naturalism but their theories on evolution converged in 1858 when Wallace sent his famous letter to Darwin, and the latter realised the young man was hot on his heels. Darwin published his long-gestating work soon after receiving that correspondence. The exact timing of this episode is the subject of some speculation, some of it less than flattering for Darwin who was obviously defensive in protecting the exclusivity of his life's study.

Avid readers may recall me recently going on about crossing the Wallace Line by plane and boat. Here in the exhibition were displays that elucidated his theory, and how it was expanded upon and named as such by later scientists as the details of the movement of tectonic plates was learnt. Basically, he looked at the limits of distribution of species type across the islands, working out how some species on different islands shared appearances and traits, and others did not, and from that deduced a line of historic separation in fauna that ran north-south between Bali and Lombok. He concentrated on butterflies and moths as well as making extensive collections of beautiful birds of paradise. In fact, he mostly funded his expeditions by shipping home exotic species to collectors.

In addition to this he wrote on ethnography, anthropology, and primatology, and his book The Malay Archipelago (which has never been out of print) as well as setting out his theories on zoological distribution, was also a well received proto-travel guide to the islands that are now Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua. This is all after spending several years on previous expeditions up the Amazon.
Here's a photo taken in Singapore, the base for his eight-year series of expeditions to the islands, when Wallace (on the right) was my age. Nice hat, good suit.
This astonishingly beautiful archipelago is the Wajag Islands off the north-west coast of PNG. Not such a bad place to do fieldwork I guess. 

Lots of butterflies - look at no.9, it's the same Swamp Tiger that we saw mating in their droves in Gili Meno - here it is in Australia. Wallace was certainly onto something. 

The MAGNT also features several permanent exhibitions, including one on the native fauna and flora of Australia. I now know the difference between Bilbies and Bandicoots, Quolls and Echidnas. 

Also on display was a fascinating exhibition on Aboriginal art, particularly rock painting. Included is a facsimile of what the museum claims is the oldest painting in the world, apparently depicting a Palorchestes (see rendering below) which went extinct 46,000 years ago (by human hand?). This claim would be disputed by the archaeologists who proffer 75,000-100,000 year old paintings at the Apollo 11 site in Africa. It's all pretty difficult to determine though because the ochre pigment used by the early Australians is non-organic and therefore can't be carbon dated.

In terms of the diaspora from Africa of Homo Sapiens Sapiens, the earliest people left the rift valley around 130,000 and their distant descendents finally arrived in Australia around 60,000 years ago. Earlier ancestors of man, for instance Homo Erectus reached the nearby islands of Java and Flores  much earlier though, 1m and 0.8m years respectively. 

Wallace believed that Oran Utangs were the closest of the apes to humans (chimpanzees are), but this was at a time when the origins of humanity were being traced to the Malay Archipelago, rather than central east Africa. 

As an interesting footnote, it's worth considering where Homo Floresiensis fits into the whole anthropological picture, these little fellas discovered in 2003, were apparently coexisting with modern humans on that isolated island next to Komodo, until 12,000 years ago, perhaps even later; maybe, one or two have speculated, they still exist... ://

And here we are thinking we're the be all and end all of human civilisation... 

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