BOOK: Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon

Some of my readers may be interested in this new book:

Book Cover

John Hemming, Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2014), 368 pp.

Its author John Hemming, a former Director of the Royal Geographical Society in London, sent along this description:

It was an extraordinary coincidence that three young naturalists, who were destined to be the foremost British scientists in South America throughout the nineteenth century, went to Brazil together in 1848/49. Alfred Russel Wallace, Henry Bates and Richard Spruce had much in common. Each came from a modest provincial English family, each left school at thirteen or fourteen, each was self-taught to a remarkable standard, and each became a passionate and skilled naturalist. Although they decided to collect in different parts of the vast Amazon basin, they each spent many years there: Wallace four years followed by eight in South-east Asia; Bates eleven years; Spruce fifteen years (half of them in the western Amazon and Andes). They had many adventures; each explored and mapped a river; they did pioneering ethnographic work on rarely visited indigenous peoples and their rock art; they were in the forests and rivers every day; but they never hyped up dangers of the tropical forests which they described as a naturalist’s paradise. These were true explorers, too modest to realize how tough they were, and largely disinterested in their prodigious scientific research.

Wallace lost many of his collections on the shipwreck during his return voyage. But his years in Brazil taught him the skills and passions of collecting, preparing specimens, taxonomy, rainforest ecology, and how to operate in tropical rivers and forests. He started to develop theories of animal behaviour, species distribution, biogeography and evolution that led to his later successes in the Wallace Line and the paper on evolution by natural selection that he sent to Darwin in 1858 – although he never claimed primacy for the momentous theory. Bates collected almost 15,000 species, of which some 8,000 were new to science. He discovered Batesian Mimicry whereby innocuous creatures survive predation by mimicking inedible ones. Darwin was delighted that Bates – whose eleven years of fieldwork were unrivalled – immediately espoused his views on evolution. Darwin became a mentor to the young scientist, encouraging him to write his highly successful The Naturalist on the River Amazons, recommending him as the first paid chief executive of the Royal Geographical Society – a job that Bates did brilliantly for three decades – and maintaining a lifelong correspondence and friendship. Spruce, a consummate botanist, identified scores of genera and species, ranging from rainforest giants to tiny mosses and liverworts, and did pioneering work on hallucinogenic plants. Spruce’s herbarium collections are venerated in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and some of his botanical publications are still valid to this day. He was asked to try to get seeds and saplings of the species of Cinchona whose bark has the malaria-palliative quinine from the Andes for replanting in India. After two years of meticulous work, Spruce succeeded in this difficult and delicate task that would have defeated any other botanist. Richard Evans Schultes of Harvard, the finest Amazonian botanist of the twentieth century, wrote that Spruce was ‘undoubtedly one of the greatest explorers of all times’. The three subjects of this book Naturalists in Paradise each earned accolades, medals, and fame that dramatically belied their primary-school education and humble origins.

My first perusal of Hemming’s book shows a detailed narrative, handy reference maps of areas of the Amazon the naturalists worked in, and quality color photos throughout.

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