Participating Faculty: Neil Clarke
Project Duration: Thursday, 27 September to Saturday, 6 October
Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin’s, is credited with independently discovering natural selection as a mechanism for the evolution of new species. Wallace made his discovery near the end of an eight-year period travelling throughout the Malay archipelago, collecting insects, mammal and birds for museums and private collectors. One of the factors contributing to Wallace’s thinking about evolution was the dramatic difference in animals seen in the western side of the archipelago from those on the eastern side; he was so struck by the differences between the nearby islands of Bali and Lombok that he drew a line between the two, demarcating the Indian/Asian side to the west (Bali) from the Australian/Oceanic side to the east (Lombok). This demarcation was apparent not only, or even most obviously, among mammals, but birds as well. Subsequent analyses with other groups of animals suggest, not surprisingly, that the precise boundaries of a demarcation between Asian and Australian fauna aren’t clear-cut; nevertheless, the differences that Wallace and others observed played an important role in the historical development of evolutionary thought.
In this course, students will re-trace some of the physical and intellectual steps of Wallace, starting in Singapore, onto Bali, and across the Lombok Strait. We will seek to find animals – birds, mammals, and even marine invertebrates – that are representative of distinct biogeographic domains. We will read from Wallace’s own writings, as well as other more recent naturalists in the primary scientific literature, to understand the complexity of biodiversity and ecological distributions, and to appreciate the insight that was required to filter out some of this complexity and discern the underlying patterns. We will examine as well some of the geological features of the archipelago that would have been apparent to Wallace and which can be observed today in Bali and Lombok (volcanic action and the evidence for uplift and subsidence) and those which he had no way of knowing (tectonic plates and the effects of collision and subduction).
Although incidental to the primary focus of the course, the readings in Wallace’s Malay Archipelago will inevitably expose students to some of the social and political history of the region.