Why Wallace?

David Attenborough in the Museum with Wallace's Giant Bee

Sir David Attenborough in the Museum with Wallace’s Giant Bee

Sir David Attenborough is arguably the world’s most famous living naturalist and broadcaster. Here he sits in the Museum of Natural History, holding our priceless Wallace’s Giant Bee specimen. So why did a man as important (and busy!) as Attenborough take the time to pose for our photo? It’s because Attenborough, like thousands of other natural history enthusiasts, knows that Alfred Russel Wallace is one of the greatest naturalists, geographers and explorers of all time. So what’s so great about him? Why are we dedicating Wallace Week to celebrating his work?

Chris Jarvis, Education Officer, explain why he thinks Wallace is so special…

Chris at Sedgwick

Chris Jarvis at the Sedgwick Museum

Last week I gave a talk on Alfred Russel Wallace at the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge. I was asked ‘Why does Wallace deserve the statue next to Darwin’s, which he’s likely to get in London’s Natural History Museum?’ My answer was that ‘He deserves a statue as an inspiration on the importance of following your own interests, despite the barriers that may stand in your way’.

Unlike Darwin, Wallace was a largely self-made man. Born into a large family (he was the 8th of 9 children) that was always on the edge of financial disaster, Wallace was inspired by his love of the natural world around him and encouraged to explore it. Later he wrote that he could recall virtually every detail of the environment of the river Usk that was his playground but could hardly remember anything of his family, even faces, from that time! His love of the great outdoors led him to teach himself botany and entomology and how to collect, identify and preserve insects. Today, at a time when many children are being diagnosed as suffering from ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ Wallace is a particularly pertinent example of the benefits of exploring the natural world.

At school, Wallace described himself as a ‘dull, ignorant and uneducated person’. Lessons were basic and dry and he left school finally in 1837 aged 14. Ironically for the father of Biogeography it was Geography that he found the driest of subjects, after Latin grammar!

Young Wallace

Young Wallace

Despite this, Wallace was a voracious reader and seems to have sought out his own curriculum. His family, although poor in other ways, always had interesting books around the house and Alfred was introduced to libraries, museums and working men’s institutes from an early age. His favourite books as a child included ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and Mungo Park’s ‘Travels in West Africa’ and clearly fuelled the lust for adventure that led to his collecting trips in the tropics.

Wallace’s understanding of the importance of self-education and modest beginnings led him to be a firm supporter of the aphorism that ‘knowledge is power’ and he was involved in advising on setting up public libraries, museums and other free institutions that encouraged education throughout his life. His legacy, as important as all his discoveries and theories are, is surely as an inspiration to all of us to get out into nature, to read about what you find there and then share that knowledge with others, it may lead you to some amazing places and discoveries as it did Wallace!

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