In 1856, while hiking through the woods in Borneo, the English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace saw some movement in the trees. On a quest to hunt great apes, he didn’t waste time. The female orangutan that tumbled out of the tree turned out to be surprisingly hard to kill: Three shots were needed before she fell dead. It was then that Wallace found that she had been holding a small baby, not more than a foot long, in her arms. Wallace picked her up and adopted her.
Over the next few months he fed his “orphan baby” from a bottle and with biscuits soaked in water. He made a little cradle for her and a pillow from an old stocking, gave her baths, rubbed her dry, and even found a monkey playmate for her. In short, he did everything for her a human parent—or, given the expectations of the time, a human mother—would have done. (Perhaps with the exception of the monkey playmate.)
“There never was such a baby as my baby,” Wallace boasted in a letter to his sister Fanny. On one occasion, the little ape got hold of Wallace’s beard and whiskers, holding onto them with all her might, “cruelly tight,” as he complained.
Wallace’s sweet bonding experience with his orphan orang, his “dear little duck of a darling,” did not keep him from killing more members of her species. He dispatched 16 in all, by his own count. But his baby he pampered. He even made plans to take her back home with him. Sometimes, the little orang appeared to make efforts to learn to walk:
When laid upon the floor it would push itself along by its legs, or roll itself over, and thus make an unwieldy progression. When lying in the box it would lift itself up to the edge into almost an erect position, and once or twice succeeded in tumbling out.
Sadly, despite all that he did, Wallace’s little daughter of the woods did not survive. Rice water turned out to be a poor substitute for milk. Try as he might, Wallace, hairy whiskers and all, could not replace the long-haired “mad woman” he had shot—her real mother.
In this deeply absorbing book, James T. Costa seeks to establish Alfred Russel Wallace as the fully vested co-creator of what he feels we should once again call the “Darwin-Wallace Theory” of evolution by natural selection. That Wallace had a part in the history of evolutionary theory is, of course, well known. While he was collecting in Malaysia, the basic facts of natural selection occurred to him with the kind of beautiful clarity most of us experience only in dreams (and Wallace was indeed suffering from malaria at the time). He sent his account to Charles Darwin, catapulting the more senior naturalist into a period of frenzied writing, at the end of which stood the magnificent achievement of The Origin of Species (1859), a massive tome Darwin persisted in calling an “abstract” only.
The book’s appearance was heralded, the year before, by a mix of papers presented to the Linnean Society into which Darwin’s colleagues had cleverly incorporated Wallace’s letter—a smart move that saved Darwin from looking like a jerk in the eyes of posterity but also established him as the primary agent in the evolution business. For, as Andrew Berry points out in his lucid introduction to this study, even if you’re a Victorian gentleman, you want to be first. Since he was still in Southeast Asia, Wallace didn’t even know about the Linnean Society presentation, which, tragically, happened on the very same day that Darwin’s infant son Charles was buried. In later years, as Darwin reaped both the scorn and then, increasingly, the admiration of the rest of the world, Wallace watched from the sidelines, apparently without rancor. His own big book on species he never wrote.
But we have his field notes from those years, and we also have Professor Costa, editor of an annotated edition of Wallace’s “Species Notebook” and the best possible guide to Wallace’s meandering mind. Wallace’s notebook, now sitting on a shelf at the Linnean Society in London, traveled some 14,000 miles across Southeast Asia in the pockets of its author. Costa evokes it with poetic fervor, asking us to imagine wafting from its marbled boards and well-worn pages the lingering scent of “orangutan, durian, arrack, the spice islands, sago cakes, gunpowder, camphor, the spray of the Coral Sea.” For a moment, at least, Wallace’s poor little orphan orang and her jungle world come alive again, if only in our imagination.