Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies, Vol 15, No 2 (2010)
In 1869, the Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace—co-founder with Darwin of the evolutionary theory of natural selection—published an account of the eight years he had spent in the Malay Archipelago. Just five years beforehand, in 1864, Wallace delivered a paper to the Anthropological Society of London, in which he declared that “the same great law of ‘the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life’” was resulting in “the inevitable extinction of all those low and mentally undeveloped populations with which Europeans come in contact”. The 1864 and 1867 documents paint a sinister scenario indeed, casting interracial relations as an “unequal” and violent “struggle for existence” between the superior European races and the non-European races, whose mental, moral, and physical degradation doomed them to extinction. Representative of prevailing scientific opinions at the time, these observations stand in sharp contrast to The Malay Archipelago’s observations of happy and harmonious interracial relations in the archipelago, not to mention its praise of the physical and moral attributes of the “savages” there.
For the humans of Wallace’s archipelago, life appears to be as Edenic as the natural environment they inhabit. The question I would like to address here is, why did Wallace emphasize the virtuous qualities of the very races he had described as lowly in almost every respect? And why did he concentrate on the interracial harmony in the region rather than the deadly interracial struggle he expressed belief in only a few years before?