A Critique of "Collection and Discovery: Indigenous Guides and Alfred Russel Wallace in Southeast Asia, 1854-1862"

I have just read a recently published article by Carey McCormack entitled "Collection and Discovery: Indigenous Guides and Alfred Russel Wallace in Southeast Asia, 1854-1862". Sadly her knowledge about biology, natural history collecting and taxonomy seems to be low. Here is a selection of some the statements she made in her article (my comments follow in []):

"…these historians failed to problematize the adoption by naturalists of the Linnaean system of classification that gave all flora and fauna Latin names and categorized them according to genus, species and sub-species. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) excluded non-Western indigenous terms for plants and animals because he deemed them to be too difficult for Europeans to pronounce or remember. The Linnaean system is thus an example of Western scientific appropriation and codification of non-European knowledge into “European” science." [Oh, really, what evidence is there that Linnaeus deliberately did not use indigenous terms? None most likely! He may well have based scientific names on native names if he had known them, but they were almost certainly not recorded (it is a real effort to record such names and mistakes are very easy to make unless you have expertise in languages etc). In any case why bother using native names - we are talking about names for use by Western scientists, not an attempt to please some local group of people. In the case of many species, their distributions would have encompassed many different human groups, perhaps with different languages. Which name to choose then - selecting a word from one language might annoy those who speak the other languages! And most importantly - Linnaeus was certainly NOT 'appropriating' knowledge from local people - he and other Western naturalists did not in any way depend on the knowledge of local people to characterise species. They used their own system to decide what is or isn't a species - a system that often did not correspond to the classifications used by local people.]

"…Schiebinger demonstrated that while European botanists successfully transplanted the Caribbean peacock flower (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) to Europe, where it became a favoured ornamental in many gardens, they failed to transfer to Europe the knowledge that slave women in the West Indies used it as an abortive. This, she argued, represented “agnotology,” the purposeful suppression in Western science of non-European knowledge." [Schiebinger clearly doesn't have much of an idea how scientists operate. Why should a horticulturalist interested in a pretty garden flower bother to attempt to inform fellow horticulturalists about it's use as an abortive in the West Indies! Bizarre. And what about the many scientists who have made a big effort to documenting the ethnobotanical knowledge of local peoples?]

"Wallace, like many other leading naturalists before and after him, devalued his European assistants in the field, although they were critical to the success of his ventures." [Hold on - he only ever had one European assistant, Charles Allen, who was extremely clumsy and careless, at least at the beginning of Wallace's expedition. Surely, any employer of such a poor assistant would have felt the same as Wallace did? Or isn't it politically correct to criticise anyone for poor work these days?]

"Wallace often complained that guides purposefully misled him in order to prevent him from access to some local flora and fauna. For instance, when he failed to see an elephant or a rhinoceros even though he could hear them in the jungle, he thought that his guides were purposefully drawing him away from animals he wanted to shoot, skin and sell in London." [Really! Need some evidence to back up this statement and none was provided. In any case Wallace only went to one place which had either elephants or rhinos - Mt Ophir in Malaysia, and he would certainly not have been able to kill either animal with the guns he carried…]

"It is notable that Wallace never hired indigenous women whose knowledge, particularly of flora, would have been acute." [The author formerly explained that Wallace wasn't interested in collecting plants, so why employ individuals who are skilled at ethnobotany? Wallace wanted hunters and it was the men who were hunters. If the women had been I'm pretty sure Wallace would have hired them!]

"Wallace wrote that one “hunter brought me a specimen of the green gaper (Calyptomena viridis), which is like a cock-of-the-rock, but entirely of the most vivid green, delicately marked on the wings with black bars.” Wallace never named the hunter and claimed this new species, or possibly subspecies, as his own finding." [Yes, that's because it was Wallace who identified it as being something new in the context of Western science, so he deserves the credit. The hunter was no taxonomist and definitely didn't realise that the species/subspecies was new to Western scientists. However, he was no doubt happy with the sum Wallace paid him for the specimen.]

"It was customary that specimens collected by assistants be listed as the discovery of their employers. Moreover, despite the contribution of local people, Wallace ignored indigenous languages when naming species. Nor did he name any after Allen, his European assistant. Indeed, most nineteenth-century scientists, particularly naturalists and botanists, named new species after European men (including themselves) in order to preserve the fame of patrons for posterity." [Oh really? 1) Why should Wallace have used names from local languages to name species? He was naming them for the use of Western scientists, not local people (they had their own names). 2) Perhaps it would have been nice to name one after Allen - but perhaps he did. 3) No, very few people have ever named species after themselves as it is seen as extremely narcissistic. And it is very sensible indeed to name species after one's patrons in order to keep them 'sweet'!]

"This article seeks to complicate Wallace’s literary representation of himself as a solitary traveller, discovering new species and furthering scientific knowledge. In common with other nineteenth-century naturalists active in Southeast Asia, Wallace claimed that scientific “discovery” could only be the work of professional scientists." [Wallace was completely correct and the fact that the author of this paper queries this shows that she has a poor understanding of science.]

" By contrast, indigenous peoples who assisted in, and were essential to, the work of European botanists in the extra-European world were totally excluded from any claim to the production of the scientific knowledge gleaned by Europeans. For example, while many local men and women possessed a profound knowledge of indigenous flora and fauna, and performed many of the same tasks as Wallace, he denied them any claim to the production of knowledge because of their inability to classify their knowledge according to the Linnaean tradition." [he knowledge of the local people was NOT scientific knowledge - but mostly practical knowledge about the use of species - which are edible, poisonous etc]

"Wallace’s work in Southeast Asia relied on a vast network of encounters, exchanges and assistance with indigenous peoples who he excluded from claims to the act of discovery and production of scientific knowledge." [This clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of Western science.]

The author of this paper doesn't seem to appreciate that Western science is a discipline developed by Westerners in order to enable them to investigate and understand the natural world. It was not developed to somehow benefit local peoples... This is similar in some ways to a language developed by a group in order to facilitate communication within that group. The language was not developed for the benefit of other groups, but these other groups could, of course, learn the language if they so desired.

Note that Wallace's collecting enterprise was very, very similar to how people (like myself) go about collecting today. I strongly suggest that historians of science participate as observers on such collecting trips in order to gain a better understand the process of collecting before writing uninformed and inaccurate articles like the one under discussion. They should also get a much better understanding of biology and taxonomy before attempting to write about these subjects.

McCormack's article can be downloaded here:jiows.mcgill.ca/article/download/22/18

Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith