The Malay Archipelago, by Alfred Russel Wallace
Despite our obvious differences regarding evolution , Alfred Russel Wallace is an easy person to feel sympathetic towards. In stark contrast to the aristocratic Darwin, Wallace made immense contributions to the study of human and animal (and even plant) life of Southeast Asia on a modest budget, forcing him to collect plants and lead a fairly meager and dangerous existence in search of scientific achievement as well as survival through research.
Wallace’s views of human and plant and animal life are reasonable (even given the general savage spirit of his times, including his immense slaughter of native populations of birds of paradise and insects–he sent back over 100,000 speciments to London, many of which are in British natural history museums today, finding hundreds of new species, some of which were justly named after him), and even enlightened. In addition, he seems to have been a phlegmatic person with a particularly ironic sense of humor and a surprisingly biblical sense of moral ethics. He’s a sympathetic person, enough so to make reading his 450 page work on his many years in Southeast Asia (mostly in what is now Indonesia) a very worthwhile read.
The book is not organized in a chronological fashion, but in a west to east fashion that begins with an account of Singapore and Malacca where rhinos and tigers were still found and continues to the savage and then unexplored western reaches of New Guinea. Included are trenchant observations as to the laziness of the local population (sometimes the accounts reminded me of the students I teach), the difficulties in finding adequate lodging (people today among the hill tribes of Northern Thailand, including the students I teach, still build the bamboo homes described here) as well as transportation and suitable samples.
What is most tragicomical about the book is the fact that Alfred Wallace, as a sympathetic and fair-minded Westerner, was of a type of personality that would remain incomprehensible to the people he was around, who simply could not understand why he wanted to look at birds and bugs all the time and why he was singularly disinclined to scam other people in trade as was the general fashion of the time (and remains so today). His scholarly inclinations, which if directed to a different goal than my own, are fairly similar in their lack of mercenary interests, are completely unknowable to the general population of Southeast Asia today, just as they were 150 years ago when he visited the area between Malaysia and New Guinea.
Just as similar, sadly, is the downtrodden nature of much of the local population (including in East Timor, where the author makes some biting but accurate comments of the ruinous nature of life there), as well as the way in which many of the local Malay population (including the innumerable stray dogs, which are a huge problem here in Thai cities and villages today) would howl and scream at seeing a Westerner. He at least had a beard–I do not–and yet in 2012 my mere presence can make babies and small children cry and drive feral animals to a rage of howling. Like Wallace, I don’t find this amusing, being a person who is friendly and dryly humorous (if intense and often gravely serious).
What is different, and is definitely tragic, is the fact that plant and animal life is immeasurably poorer now than it was in his times. Rhinos abounded in Sumatra, and now they are nearly extinct. The destruction of the rainforest in Papua New Guinea and Borneo threatens the extinction of the many hundreds of species of beetles and birds and larger animals that Wallace saw and collected so assiduously. There is an irony in this, and a tension between Wallace’s instincts as a preservationist and the evolutionary paradigm that he helped create. On the one hand he viewed nature as being possessed of creative facilities through natural selection and variation to fill any gap within life, but on the other he commented on the fact that modern civilization tended to eradicate plant and animal and human life, often through destruction of habitat (of which he was a personal eyewitness in viewing the plantations developing in the Dutch East Indies even then). Somehow, even in his most “evolutionary” period, he recognized the damage that development was doing to plants animals, and humans, replacing the vibrancy of creation with a dull plantation monoculture to serve the needs of man. He correctly notes that not everything was created for the benefit of the man, but often for its own purposes. We ought not to think that the world revolves around us, for we have a poor idea of how to preserve the earth in our greed for wealth. Wallace’s pointed comments on that subject, which appear at the end of his book, are valid in showing how our greed and inequality are in fact savage and barbarous, and that the level of civilization for a society is not dependent on the state of the few at top, but on the lives of the many. Wallace is spot on there.
 Truth be told, though, he did change in these views toward the end of his long and immensely productive life.