One Mind, Two Theories : Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace

BannerA small but insightful exhibition is currently on at the Singapore Botanic Gardens called “ONE MIND, TWO THEORIES” referring to the great merging of thought between  Charles Darwin and his lesser known contemporary Alfred Russell Wallace.

2009 is a year of some very meaningful anniversaries. It’s been 150 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s revolutionary book, “The Origin of Species”  It’s also his 200th bicentennial year. And it’s  the Singapore Botanic Gardens’ 150th year of existence, so the exhibition ties in quite neatly.


Darwin, a well off scholar from Cambridge, came to his conclusions about the biodiversity of nature and its evolutionary reasons, based mostly on his research in the Galapagos islands.

RussellRussell’s background was humbler, and his work was largely drawn from his travels in the Malay archipelago including our very own Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in Singapore. He was astounded by the variety of beetles on the hill and found that the number of plant and animal species on a small patch of primary rainforest exceeded that of the entire North American continent.
Darwin was the first to come up with the theory of evolution of species by natural selection but he dragged his feet to get his theory in print, probably fearful of the consequences of what would be considered at the time a heretical theory.

Needless to say, it came as a huge shock to Darwin when Wallace wrote to him about the evolutionary theories that the latter had arrived at independently. But the gentleman than Darwin was, he stayed true to the scientific code of conduct. Darwin jointly published a paper with Wallace entitled “On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties”  which was presented to the Linnean Society  in 1858, which unfortunately for Wallace, nobody really noticed.

booksDarwin published  “The Origin of Species” a year later in 1859, and the rest, needless to say is history. 

The exhibition is especially significant as it brings out the depth and range of Wallace’s experiences here in this region, something that has been obscured by history. Much of this is captured in his book,  “The Malay Archipelago” and his theories in  “Natural Selection of Tropical Nature.”

Wallace’s travels are full of delightful insights.  Take for example, his journal entry about the  Durian, a tropical fruit which normally evokes extreme reactions, to say the least.  His oft-repeated quote on the Durian:

durian“The five cells are silky-white within, and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-coloured pulp, containing about three seeds each. This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience. … as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed.”

I wonder what Wallace would have to say if he were to travel through the Malay archipelago 150 years later. How would he react to the rampant destruction of the rich and teeming rainforests that captured his imagination? How would he react to the rapid disappearance of the multitude of species that he studied with wonder and delight? I wish both Darwin and Wallace were alive to offer perhaps an explanation of why the human mind has evolved to allow all this to happen.

The free exhibition is on from 1st August to 31st August 2009 at the Library of Botany and Horticulture, Botany Centre at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.


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Posted by on Aug 13 2009. Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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