ARTICLE: Going the whole orang: Darwin, Wallace and the natural history of orangutans

A new article in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (in press and free to download):

Going the whole orang: Darwin, Wallace and the natural history of orangutans

John van Wyhe and Peter C. Kjærgaard

Abstract This article surveys the European discovery and early ideas about orangutans followed by the contrasting experiences with these animals of the co-founders of evolution by natural selection, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. The first non-human great ape that both of them interacted with was the orangutan. They were both profoundly influenced by what they saw, but the contexts of their observations could hardly be more different. Darwin met orangutans in the Zoological Gardens in London while Wallace saw them in the wild in Borneo. In different ways these observations helped shape their views of human evolution and humanity’s place in nature. Their findings played a major role in shaping some of the key questions that were pursued in human evolutionary studies during the rest of the nineteenth century.

“Mammoth is Mopey,” a prehistoric ABC book, needs YOU!

My friend David (davidorogenic.com, Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs) and his wife Jennie have an Indiegogo campaign right now to raise funds to produce a neat children’s ABC book (and do an art show at a museum where they live).

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Mammoth is Mopey combines unique illustration with the language of emotions to introduce young readers – and their parents! – to a variety of prehistoric animals, including a lot of species most people are not familiar with.

I donated a little bit to their campaign – I hope you will, too! They’ve raised $3,500 so far, and their goal is to get to $10,000 in the next 30 days. Click here to donate. Thank you!

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

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

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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.

HMS Beagle to set sail for LEGO – only with your help!

Luis Peña has designed a LEGO set for HMS Beagle, complete with Charles Darwin and Captain Fitzroy minifigs, among others. He posted it to the LEGO Ideas website, in which set suggestions receive support and if they reach 10,000 supporters within a year of being posted, LEGO will consider making the set a reality.

I supported this set, and hope you will too. It’s necessary to create an account on the site in order to cast your support, but it’s quick and easy, and worth it, don’t you think?

Here are some images from Luis: