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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