Was Alfred Russel Wallace "..the greatest field biologist of the nineteenth century"?

By George Beccaloni PhD, August 2020

[A pdf of this article is available HERE, DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.32470.27209]

In this post I critique an article by Historian of Science John van Wyhe (University of Singapore) entitled "Wallace’s help: the many people who aided A. R. Wallace in the Malay Archipelago", which you can read HERE.

In his article van Wyhe attempts to document the many people who Alfred Russel Wallace (ARW) employed to help him as assistants, boatmen, porters, cooks and guides, during his famous nearly eight year long (1854-62) natural history collecting expedition to what he called the Malay Archipelago (modern day Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and East Timor). The list was compiled from ARW's own published and unpublished writings and van Wyhe concludes that "...at a minimum, 1,300 people, mostly residents of what is now Indonesia, helped Wallace achieve his great work of natural history, and given the incompleteness of the written record the true number could easily be more than twice this number. In any case, Wallace was not alone." This is unsurprising, as all travellers past and present need to draw upon a large network of people to transport, house and feed them, and if they are in the business of collecting natural history specimens on a grand scale like ARW, they will also need guides and assistants. The fact that van Wyhe has received help from thousands of people over his career who have provided food, accommodation, transport, and have done research for him, thus enabling him to produce his 14 books and many academic papers and articles, surely does not detract from his scholarly accomplishments?

The main aim of van Wyhe's paper, seems to be to suggest that because much of ARW's impressive collection ("...125,660 natural history specimens, which he later reckoned consisted of 310 Mammals, 100 Reptiles, 8,050 Birds, 7,500 Shells, 13,100 Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), 83,200 Coleoptera (beetles) and 13,400 other types of insects.") was collected by numerous assistants, that ARW cannot be considered to be "the greatest field biologist of the nineteenth century" as many have claimed. van Wyhe complains this comment is hagiographic - an ironic statment from the co-author of the most hagiographical of all works ever published in memory of any scientist1. He also quibbles that "Wallace was a Victorian specimen collector and naturalist, not a field biologist, which is a modern concept. They are not the same thing. Equally, it is erroneous to refer to him as a scientist, another term which connotes workers of a different age and culture." However, he seems to be incorrect on both counts, as the term biology in its modern sense appears to have been introduced independently by Thomas Beddoes (in 1799), Karl Friedrich Burdach (in 1800), Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus (in 1802) and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (also in 1802); while the term scientist was coined and used in the modern sense by William Whewell in 1833.

Wallace's Golden Birdwing Butterfly, from Bacan Island (now in Indonesia).

So is it even really ARW's collection? Many field collectors past and present, employ people to collect for them - it can increase productivity, but only certain groups of organisms can be successfully collected by untrained people. What makes the collection the property of the field collector is that they paid for the work of collecting the specimens. And the reason they get the credit for collecting species new to science is that was they who masterminded and paid for the expedition, had the specialist knowledge to select the specimens, preserve them, and ship them back home in good condition.

After a thorough trawl through ARW's records, van Wyhe concludes that ARW's primary (and by far his most skilled assistants [ARW had trained them]), Charles Allen and Ali, probably collected (with the assistance of others) about 51,000 of ARW's specimens (48,000, including 2,000 birds, may have been collected by Allen, and 3,000 were perhaps collected by Ali (all birds)). ARW's records indicate that ARW also purchased a number of specimens (probably a few hundred) from local people. Unsurprisingly, these were generally robust, large, showy insects, such as beetles, which are not easily damaged like many insects and were mostly brought to him alive. It is clear from ARW's published and unpublished writings that he focussed most of his own collecting efforts on insects and probably land snails, and that the collectors he employed were tasked with collecting vertebrates (mainly birds) for him. This was very sensible, as collecting birds and other vertebrates requires a lot of person hours to secure relatively few specimens. ARW's time was better spent on insects, which require specialist knowledge and equipment to collect successfully. The only one of ARW's assistants who collected an appreciable number of insects was Allen, who ARW had trained and equipped to do the job.

To summarise, ARW's team may have collected c. 47,000 insects and c. 5,000 birds, so ARW therefore probably personally collected c. 62,700 insects, perhaps a thousand or so birds, and probably the majority of the 7,500 shells (largely land shells). So he personally collected more than 50% of his 125,660 specimens! This is very impressive, especially considering that collecting is just one part of the work of a professional collector of natural history specimens. It is also worth noting that his collections included c. 5,000 species new to science, which was no happy accident.

One of ARW's bird labels.

There is far more to being a professional collector of natural history specimens than to simply accumulate specimens indiscriminately. Doing so would soon result in bankruptcy. It would be fairly easy to obtain 110,000 insects through sweep netting etc. in a few days or weeks, but most would be damaged, relatively few species would be represented and probably few of these would be of interest to potential buyers. The skill of a professional collector like ARW, is to identify which specimens are going to be of interest to museums, taxonomists or the public (e.g. species which are probably new to science, or particular spectacular species which may delight amateur naturalists). Also he needed to determine how many specimens he should keep of each, so as not to waste resources in preserving them and shipping them to England, only to find that most don't sell. This all requires in-depth knowledge of not only taxonomy, but also about what species had already been collected by others in the past, and their likely current market value. None of ARW's assistants would have possessed such knowledge and most did not even have the skills and equipment to prepare the specimens in the correct way in order to preserve them. ARW taught these skills to just a few - Allen and Ali primarily. Even the process of killing insects without damaging them requires skill and expertise. Different groups (e.g. butterflies and beetles) require different techniques, and not only do you need to know the technique, but some techniques require a lot of practice to get right without damaging the specimen (e.g. pinching the thorax of a butterfly to kill it without damaging the wings or legs). Damaged specimens do not sell well, if at all. After they have been killed, the specimens need to be prepared and finally they have to be packed up in a special way and shipping back to England. ARW seems to have pinned and individually labelled the vast majority of the insects himself (he also personally labelled all the other specimens), and since insects made up the bulk of his collections this would have been a huge amount of work. Only Allen helped with the preparation and labelling of insects, but obviously only during the c. 3 years he worked for ARW (in fact it seems he may have only labelled specimens during the first half of his employment). For the first year or so he proved to be a frustration to his employer. In a letter to his sister Fanny dated 25 June 1855, ARW complained:

"Charles has now been with me more than a year & every day some such conversation as this ensues - 'Charles look at these butterflies that you set at yesterday' 'Yes sir' 'Look at that one, is it set out evenly' 'No Sir.' 'Put it right then & all the others that want it' In five minutes he brings me the box to look at. 'Have you put them all right' 'Yes sir.' - There’s one with the wings uneven. There’s another with the body on one side - Then another with the pin crooked. Set them all right this time. It most frequently happens that they have to go back a third time. Then all is right. If he puts up a bird, the head is on one side, there is a great lump of cotton on one side of the neck like a vein, the feet are twisted soles uppermost or something else - In every thing it is the same what ought to be straight is always put crooked. This after 12 months constant practice & constant teaching! And not the slightest sign of improvement. I believe he never will improve - Day after day I have to look over every thing he does & tell him of the same faults. Another with a similar incapacity would drive me mad. He never too by any chance puts any thing away after him. When done with, every thing is thrown on the floor. Every other day an hour is lost looking for knife, scissors, pliers, hammer, pins, or something he has mislaid. Yet out of doors he does very well - he collects insects well, & if I could get a neat & orderly person in the house I would keep him almost entirely at out of door work and at skinning which he does also well but cannot put into shape."

Pinning insects requires not only the correct equipment (pins, forceps, setting boards etc.), but knowledge of the correct techniques (e.g. where to insect the pin - butterflies through the centre of their thorax, beetles through the right wing case etc.) and considerable experience to do the work to the high standards demanded by buyers.

Page from one of ARW's collecting notebooks listing butterfly species he collected on the Aru Islands.

While in the field ARW was able to divide up the specimens he collected into morphospecies (groups of individuals believed to belong to the same species) and then assign a number to each species and list them by island in his collecting notebooks (see interview below). He had an in-depth knowledge of the taxonomy of birds, butterflies (especially Papilionidae and Pieridae), tiger beetles (Cicindelinae) and flower chaffer beetles (Cetoniinae) in particular and was often able to determine what species they were and whether they were probably new to science when he was in the field, an amazing achievement considering the wide range of different groups he was dealing with and his lack of literature for identifying them. All of this was done under extremely challenging conditions, where animals such as dogs and ants were continually trying to eat the specimens he was trying to preserve. He also had to decide how long to spend in any one island so he got the lion's share of the species there, and where next to travel to taking into account the weather patterns which varied around the region. And somehow despite doing all this, he found time to write a journal plus a series of brilliant observational and theoretical papers (including the theory of natural selection and establishing the science of evolutionary biogeography), something which very few naturalists have ever done whilst conducting fieldwork to my knowledge. I do not think that ARW's achievements have been equalled by any other collector (Henry Walter Bates perhaps coming the closest) and ARW is therefore in my opinion probably the greatest field biologist and natural history collector of the nineteenth century; perhaps of all time. As an experienced collector of insects myself, who has done fieldwork in several countries, I am perhaps in a better position to appreciate ARW's incredible achievements in this area than others who know little about what such work involves.


What follows is part of a interview I (GB) did in 2017 with Anna-Sophie Springer (AS) and Etienne Turpin (ET), which expands on some of the points above. It was published in Beccaloni, G. W., Springer, A.-S. & Turpin, E. 2017. Worlds after Wallace. pp. 68-83. In: Springer, A.-S. & Turpin, E. [Eds.]. Reverse Hallucinations in the Archipelago. Berlin: K. Verlag & Haus der Kulturen der Welt. [read pdf HERE]

AS Tell us more about how Wallace collected and identified his 125,660 specimens?

GB There are actually people who know very little about natural history who think that Wallace had an easy time, that he sort of just picked out the insects that flew into his hair as he wandered around. In reality, how Wallace went about collecting was an incredibly skilled practice that very few people in the world could do as well as him, even today. He was primarily collecting for his private collections. He always made that very clear, both in his work in the Amazon and in the Malay Archipelago. He was very interested in geographic distribution from early on, and wanted specimens of many species of insects and birds so that he could study them back in Britain. Whenever he collected a species for the first time, he would keep the first specimen or two for his private collection, and only when he had duplicate specimens would he sell them.

We know he didn’t collect many of the same species because it wouldn’t have made financial sense. He must have had an incredibly good memory, and not having a camera he had to remember each and every species he collected so he wouldn’t collect them over and over again. With birds, he was able to identify most of the species he collected using on a book he had with him: Lucien Bonaparte’s Conspectus Generum Avium. Rather incredibly, this book has no pictures in it, only brief Latin descriptions of the birds. Even today a top bird specialist would find it incredibly difficult to use a book like that to identify birds in the field. But Wallace obviously had a remarkable grasp of the distinguishing characteristics of birds, and using the brief descriptions in this book he was able to visualize exactly what the species looked like. Even if you have a modern bird book with photographs or illustrations, it is difficult enough to determine what you’ve seen. Yet we know that Wallace accurately identified many birds and realized which were yet unnamed species. He named and described a lot of the new species himself, and sent off others he believed were new with instructions for Stephens. Often Stephens would then contact the bird people at the museum and they would buy and name them.

Page from Conspectus Generum Avium.

For insects all he had was a book which described the known species of two families of butterflies: Pieridae and Papilionidae. It was in French and had no illustrations, yet as with his bird book he was able to identify most of the species of these butterflies he collected. With all the other insects, he memorized what they looked like when he collected them. I have a good memory for that too and can remember nearly all of the insects I have ever seen - the interesting ones at least!

Because Wallace had a photographic memory, he could remember all the species of insects from each island without having to assign scientific names to them. Since most of the insects he was collecting didn’t yet have scientific names anyway, Wallace would just need to know whether he had them yet or not. He assigned a number to each of the species he collected in a particular place and listed the numbers in his collecting notebooks, sometimes with a few notes about the species (two of these notebooks are in our museum here [the London Natural History Museum], and one in the Linnean Society's library).This would help him remember all the species from a particular place, so that he didn’t unnecessarily collect lots of duplicate specimens.

ET How would you describe Wallace’s reliance on local knowledge of the species he was collecting? In a way, he is completely out on his own, with one or two books to guide him; so, did he depend on knowledge from local inhabitants on the islands?

GB Yes, and no! He certainly depended on local people to collect specimens for him, and they often had valuable knowledge about the habits of the species they were collecting, especially if they were useful to them for food etc. However, the local people were obviously not scientists, and they certainly didn't know stuff like which species had so far been given scientific names. Wallace’s assistant, Ali, for example, was about as far from a scientist as one could get. He was illiterate and had no scientific education, so to say he discovered a species such as Wallace's standardwing bird-of-paradise is simply incorrect! Knowing that a species is new to science requires an in-depth knowledge of the published descriptions of the species in the group that have already been named, and these descriptions are often difficult to interpret, even for specialists. Ali had no knowledge of these and couldn't even read them because he couldn't read. When he collected the first specimen of the standardwing on Batchian island it was new to him, but he had no way of knowing whether or not it was new to science. Only Wallace knew that the species had not yet been described and named by ornithologists, so it was Wallace who discovered the species, not Ali. Local people must have discovered this bird hundreds of years ago, but we are talking here about discovery in the context of science, not personal discovery.

There’s a much more complicated relationship between the scientific descriptions and the species collected than might first appear to certain historians of science. Some tend to be rather politically correct these days and say that local assistants deserve much of the credit because they really understood the animals and they were key to the whole process. However, it’s a bit like saying that Darwin’s gardener deserves a share of the credit for Darwin’s great work on carnivorous plants because the gardener helped to grow the plants. John van Wyhe even says in his book Dispelling the Darkness that Wallace may have got his inspiration for the Wallace Line from a local person who he stayed with on Lombok. In reality, the local people really don’t have a clue about major biological patterns like that. So no, it was only Wallace, with his detailed scientific knowledge who would have seen the significance in species breaks and continuums across the islands of the region. He knew that cockatoo diversity was centred in Australia and that one species reached Lombok, but no further west; that marsupials were found to the east of Lombok, but not to the west; that tigers, elephants and rhinos were found to the west, but not to the east etc. Furthermore he realised what the likely explanation for these patterns was. What local person would have been able to draw that kind of conclusion?"


1. The book Darwin: a Companion. Here is an extract from the introduction:

This is the richest single-volume reference work on Charles Darwin ever created. It is essentially an encyclopaedia of Darwin, his life, publications, family, contemporaries, many other features his private and public life and his legacy. For example, nowhere else can one discover that 29 books were dedicated to Darwin (not 7 as previously thought), a list of all the scientific societies that elected him a member (92), charities that he supported, stamps, banknotes and coins depicting him (247), his finances, the names of his domestic staff, a photograph of his missing first coffin and details of hundreds of members of his extended family both ancestors and descendants. There is a list of more than 350 visitors that the Darwins entertained at their home over the years, making Darwin less of a recluse than often claimed. More than 150 recollections of Darwin and 38 theories to explain his illness are recorded. There is also the most detailed itinerary of Darwin’s whereabouts throughout his life (656 entries, Freeman 1978 gave 68). Other new findings first published in the book include the fact that more than 70 institutions, 92 ships, streets etc. and 130 monuments around the world have been named after him. The translation of his works into 64 languages is also recorded; Freeman was aware of 33 languages. No other man of science and perhaps no other person has had his publications translated into so many languages. Even more surprising is the revelation that his name has been given to species of animals and plants at least 700 times [GWB: This sounds incorrect. Needs to be confirmed by checking all the original descriptions!], which exceeds even Alexander von Humboldt (c.400).

Also first published in the book is the most complete iconography (list of portraits) of Darwin ever created. Freeman provided a list of about 50 in 1978. This edition reveals for the first time that over 1,000 unique works have been created to portray Darwin including at least 47 19th-century caricatures, more than 213 paintings and drawings, at least 50 photographs, more than 590 printed portraits (up to 1982 only) and over 240 sculpted works. Not just a list of portraits, detailed information is provided such as dates, artists, prices paid and quotations from Darwin or others about how a work was originally received. In addition to recording all known photographs of him (7 unknown photographs were discovered during research for this book), 227 printed variants have been identified and described and dated as far as possible. This iconography of Darwin is the most comprehensive ever created for any scientist, and quite possibly of any historical individual. While there is no possibility to provide reproductions of all of these, 300 representative, newly discovered and particularly interesting or outright bizarre illustrations accompany the iconography and list of caricatures. There are also the first ever iconographies of HMS Beagle, his wife Emma Darwin and Down House and grounds. These too contain many new discoveries. Over one million sources were consulted during the research for this volume, for example 16,880 references to Darwin in the British Newspaper Archive.

Wallace's Standardwing Bird-of-Paradise, from Bacan Island (now in Indonesia).

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