This ambitious, sweeping history surveys both the cataclysmic shifts of continents and also the lives of some of the world’s greatest scientist-explorers. The story, as told in the book’s Prologue, begins as the Australian land mass breaks away from Antarctica 50 million years ago – a gigantic raft of flora and fauna called Gondwanaland adrift on a slow-motion journey north towards the equator.
Though my personal bias leans more to historical, biographical and cultural rather scientific, I found the geological, zoological and botanical information in the first several chapters necessary to set the scene by describing the region’s physical world. Author Ian Burnet’s focus on the earth sciences reflect his background as a geologist. Burnet gives special attention to the birth of the Australian subcontinent, an extraordinary domain of marsupials, startling plant life, colorful parrots and exquisite songbirds that had evolved during its 30 million years of isolation. His precise, erudite and quietly exuberant writing is an expression of the obvious pride and wonder that he holds for his native land.
The human story gets underway with the arrival of the first trained naturalists in Australia in 1770. Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, on the ship Endeavour, were the first to record the subcontinent’s unique plants and animals. In the retelling of the experiences of these famous scientists, we come upon the first mention of Indonesian archipelago as the Endeavor pulls into Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies. After repairs and refitting, the ship embarks three months later, leaving behind the bodies of seven crew members who had died of tropical diseases.
Evolutionary theory as developed in the work of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace is a central and abiding theme in the book. Author Ian Burnet builds up a sense of drama as the emerging science is gradually developed during various stages of research aided by their sharp observations of the natural world. We learn how each man stumbled upon the first inklings of the origin of species and the evolutionary process, awakened to the fact that larger forces were at work.
Charles Darwin was a cautious man burdened with a bold idea. When Origin of Species was published in 1859, it sold out on the first day of publication. The book was a bombshell that revealed processes that flew in the face of the Church of England’s tradition of Natural Theology. Darwin’s theory meant that humans were part of the same tree of life as other organisms. Origin caused consternation in the scientific community, attacked and rebuked on every side by creationists as it is to this day. But the brilliant treatise assured that Darwin’s name will forever be linked to the theory of evolution by natural selection.
The chapters dealing with Wallace – the most famous scientist that you’ve never heard of – are the most revelatory. Wallace financed his first trip to the Amazon by selling specimens to museums and private collectors in England. After exploring South America, he became interested in South East Asia. He met Rajah Brooke of North Borneo who secured the help of the Royal Geographic Society for a free passage to Singapore, using the old colonial port as a springboard for his forays into the archipelago.
Not just a preeminent naturalist, Wallace was also an anthropologist who studiously observed the habits of native peoples he encountered. He recorded the vocabularies of 57 distinct regional languages in the islands. An endearing characteristic of Wallace was his boundless enthusiasm, even during the course of a terrifyingly difficult and life-threatening nine-month sea voyage to the eastern extremity of the archipelago on a Bugis perahu in which he faced disease, shipwrecks and raids by Maguindanao pirates from the Sulu Sea.
As a collector, Wallace shot and skinned 15 orangutans and wrote three scientific papers on the “Man of the Forest.” He was the first to capture the magnificent golden Birdwing butterfly, the first to sight birds of paradise in the wild and the first to bring live birds of paradise to the Western world. On a collecting trip to Halmahera Wallace fell ill with malaria. In a state of delirium, he independently conceived of the idea of the survival of the fittest. His famous ‘Letter from Ternate’ dispatched to Charles Darwin forced Darwin to finally publish his landmark work.
After an eight-year absence, the 39-year-old Wallace arrived back in England in 1862. In 1864, he began working on The Malay Archipelago. Based on field journals he had kept during his years traveling in Malaysia and Indonesia, the opus was published in 1869. Never out of print, written with simplicity, clarity and literary elegance, this wonderful book is both a travel journal and scientific work. To this day, it remains the greatest travel book on the region and one of the greatest of all time. The zoological demarcation between Asia and Australasia, called The Wallace Line, is today named in Wallace’s honor.
On every page of Where Australia Collides with Asia, the reader is embarking on yet another adventure – whether it be to the isolated Galapagos Islands, upriver on the wild Amazon, to the Land Down Under, to the deep interior of Borneo, to the remote islands of the Banda Sea or across the Argentine pampas while discovering surprising new worlds of landforms, animal and plant life and races of people. One can sense the author’s excitement and his desire to infect others with his love of nature.
Burnet has a knack for revealing the most beguiling personality traits and idiosyncrasies of historical figures – the vanity of scientist Joseph Banks, the puritanism of the landscape painter Sydney Parkinson, Darwin’s inordinate predilection for collecting and cataloging exotic insects and Wallace’s good nature and unbreakable fortitude even under the most trying of circumstances.
In my mind, the passages relating Darwin and Wallace, their epic voyages, nearly simultaneous discovery of the theory of evolution and their literary accomplishments are the most readable parts of the book. The frequent quotes – as many as three to a page – from the journals and letters of the main characters enable us to peer inside the minds of these great scientists to learn of their innermost doubts, jealousies, prejudices and secret pleasures. But above all this is an explorer’s book about the adventures of intrepid men with ample doses of science, anthropology and natural history thrown in for good measure.
Where Australia Collides with Asia: The Epic Voyages of Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and the Origin of On the Origin of Species by Ian Burnet, Rosenberg 2017, ISBN 978-152-525-8541, paperback, dimensions 18 cm X 24 cm.
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