Bill Bailey Celebrates the Other Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace.

TX-card-crop-pro1-1.5+(1)I was quietly dreading Billy Bailey’s Jungle Hero, his programme on the forgotten co-discoverer of Evolution by Natural Selection, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Few things are as tired or as tedious as watching yet another so say comic being hilariously mismatched with an incongruous topic, and sent off in search of an exotic location to use as a pointless backdrop.

Happily, this was very much the exception to that rule. Which was principally down to Bailey’s unmistakable and genuine enthusiasm for his subject, and their joint area of interest.

Alfred Russel Wallace was an amateur scientist in the classically Victorian mould. He spent his life trying to make sense of the animal kingdom and our place in it. And he funded his quest by travelling to the farthest corners of the globe, collecting exotic specimens that he was able to send back home and sell in London.

located-in-southeast-asia-in-the-malay-archipelago-indonesia-indonesia+1152_12987332687-tpfil02aw-18651These twin pursuits, of knowledge, and of collecting insects – and discovering new ones –  are clearly shared by Bailey. And there really was only way for him to tell us about Wallace and his discoveries. Which was to take us with him on the journey that the latter made in the 1850s.

Bailey and his fellow film makers got everything just about right in this programme. The explanations of how Russel arrived at the idea of natural selection, and of why it was that it happened there, in the Malay Archipelago were clear and simple without ever being over simplified. And they were interspersed with just about the right amount of local colour and personal anecdote.

There was a political slant to the programme too. Wallace is the forgotten figure in the story of evolution by natural selection. We only ever remember the first person to discover anything, and society and the scientific establishment chose to celebrate the well-bred Darwin and not the lowly Wallace, despite the fact that their papers were presented together.

Indeed, Darwin was only moved to publish at all because of what Wallace had sent him. When to his horror, he discovered that his life’s work was in danger of being eclipsed by this amateur enthusiast on the other side of the world.

BillBaileyAll of which is true. But Darwin had been working on his theories for nearly 20 years before Wallace had his eureka moment. But he understood how explosive an idea natural selection would prove to be, and he wanted to gather as much evidence as he could before publishing anything.

And there were other reasons why the scientific world forgot Wallace. Like his proselytising of Spiritualism, and his credulous championing of séances, both of which he insisted on seeing in a “scientific” light.

Nonetheless, he deserves to be more fully celebrated, and Bailey is demonstrably the perfect man for the job. The concluding episode is on this weekend on BBC2.

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Comments

  1. Well, arguably, Darwin was also an “amateur”. They both considered themselves naturalists — the term “scientist” was only invented in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century. The field was then known as Natural Philosophy or Natural Science. Even today “scientists” is used in its old sense of “learned man” in non-English languages.

    As far as Wallace’s spiritualism, I think you are right that he was disregarded for this reason, but there was reason to think in the nineteenth century that spiritualism had a scientific basis. This had to do with the discovery of non-Euclidian geometry, which led even serious people to entertain the notion that there might be “other dimensions”. Albert Einstein’s theories put an end to this.

    • Anthony O'Keeffe says:

      Harold! What a spectacularly erudite adjunct to my slightly slender piece. You’re right of course about spiritualism. But seances… Anyway, great – genuinely – to hear from you. Anthony.

  2. Anthony O'Keeffe says:

    Harold! What a spectacularly erudite adjunct to my slightly slender piece. You’re right of course about spiritualism. But seances… Anyway, great – genuinely – to hear from you. Anthony.

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