EDM speaks to Paul Spencer Sochaczewski about his latest book: An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles, in which he travels with famous naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace.
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski: I’ve lived and worked in Southeast Asia for some 40 years, and when I was living in Indonesia in the 70s I realised that I had inadvertently been living and working in the places Wallace travelled... I started to read his books and the more I studied him, the more I realised what an interesting, complicated, complex character he was.
Alfred Russel Wallace was an eccentric English explorer, naturalist; he had unusual ideas and he wasn’t afraid to explain them. He suffered hardship and was remarkably productive – he collected 125,000 specimens. He had no institutional support; he had to finance the trip by selling what he called ‘natural productions’.
Wallace spoke out about the importance of women in social evolution. He spoke about how the so-called native societies were often more civilised than English society at the time. He predicted environmental destruction, and he blamed the terrible water and air pollution in England at the time on bad politicians and industrialists, remember this was the time of the Industrial Revolution in England.
He was terrified of the sea and small boats, but he spent most of his time running around on small boats on open oceans. Like a lot of great men, he was a complicated character and I found that interesting.
Tell us when and how you found out about Wallace and his books?
PS: There was no Eureka moment, but he seeped into my system, like malaria, and then you never get rid of it. So he entered my consciousness and he never left.
There’s been quite a few books written on Wallace, can you tell us what’s different about your book? What’s your angle and approach?
PS: I am probably the only writer who has spent a long time and worked in many of the places Wallace went, so I can add that element to the quest. I can bring in personal experiences and observations that build on Wallace’s way of looking at things.
I have a background in nature conservation, so I can put his experiences in context. It’s a book that’s not just a biography of Wallace, but it’s also a personal exploration. So it’s my story as much as Wallace’s story. And I like to think that I wrote it in a style that the other writers haven’t done; that makes it fun, and interesting, and maybe a little bit provocative, a little bit edgy and wacky.
How would you describe your form of storytelling, and how does it work in the book?
PS: It’s a new form of storytelling. I combine my personal tales with Wallace’s experiences and a lot of Wallace’s direct quotes. It’s his own writings plus my interpretation of his travels in the context of history, social changes, economic development, and colonialism.
There is this ongoing debate about how Wallace was deliberately sidelined by Darwin. What’s your take?
PS: There are two questions regarding the Wallace-Darwin relationship. One is the question of priority, and one is the question of plagiarism.
The first, what you mentioned: “sidelined”, is the question of priority. There is, for me, evidence that Darwin and his friends, notably Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, deliberately sidelined Wallace so that Darwin could take the credit for the theory of natural selection.
The other accusation of plagiarism is more serious and more difficult to prove, and that is open to the historians and conspiracy theorists. We do know that up to the point of the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin had not published one word about evolution, but he had been keeping extensive notebooks and done extensive research. We do not know, really, if Darwin had grasped the mechanism of natural selection, what later became known as the survival of the fittest.
Some people think that Wallace gave Darwin the clue that enabled Darwin to finish On the Origin of Species. Other people say Darwin had it all along, but he didn’t publish because he was collecting more evidence, and he was afraid of the British social system coming down hard on him for that.
So yes, I do think that Wallace was sidelined by Darwin and didn’t at the time get the credit he deserved. But Wallace never publicly claimed the credit. He was always happy to let Darwin do the heavy lifting. He was happy to let Darwin take the heat.
What or who does Wallace represent to you? If you could use just one word to describe him, would you say he was more of a mentor or a friend, even though you never met him?
PS: He’s a travel buddy.
What if your book was a movie, who would you choose to play Wallace?
PS: Harrison Ford. There’s this look about him that to me says, “What am I doing here? How did I get into this situation?” And he’s got a charm that I think Wallace might have had. Or maybe Lian Neeson or Daniel Day-Lewis. Or my good friend Bill Stone, who is not an actor but who resembles Wallace in various ways.
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About An Inordinate Fondness For Beetles
Part travelogue, part biography, An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles charts the discoveries of famous naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace. Born in 1823, Wallace devoted much time to fieldwork, first in the Amazon then in Asia. During his travels he identified what is known as the Wallace Line, which divides the flora and fauna of Asia from that which is a combination of both Australian and Asian origin. He is perhaps most famous for independently developing the theory of evolution due to natural selection.
Structured as "conversations around the campfire, based on common travel in the Malay archipelago", An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles skillfully interweaves tales of Wallace's travels and discoveries in with Paul Sochaczewski's own observations of the region. Offering unique insights into the magic of Southeast Asia, this book will appeal to armchair travellers and experienced globetrotters alike.
An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles is available in Singapore at Kinokuniya, MPH bookstores (mid-October), Times Newslink, Books Actually, in Indonesia at Periplus bookstores, and online on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
More information about Sochaczewski's book: An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles
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