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Postcard from Borneo: The People

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One doesn't have be in Malaysia long to realize that the region is a rich tapestry of peoples, religions and cultures. Alfred Russel Wallace experienced this first hand, visiting many groups formerly untouched by the influences of Western civilization. From the Dyaks, a people for whom Wallace formed considerable respect, to indigenous tribes living under the most primitive conditions, the Malay Archipelago became his ethnographic laboratory. The remote islands were a sort of school for Wallace, allowing him to graduate from the crude Eurocentric racial categorizations of his Victorian colleagues to a far deeper and more sophisticated appreciation of the attributes of all peoples. Commenting upon one particularly primitive group of "savages," Wallace remarked, "Yet they have all a decided love of fine arts, and spend their leisure time in executing works whose good taste and elegance would often be admired in our schools of design."

It was here among these islanders that Wallace saw first-hand a level of moral development exceeding the professed superiorities of his own English counterparts. With his "schooling" concluded, Wallace determined the following, as he expressed it in The Malay Archipelago.

I have lived with communities of savage in South America and the East, who have no laws or law courts but the public opinion of the village freely expressed. Each man scrupulously respects the right of his fellow, and any infraction of those rights rarely or never takes place. In such a community, all are nearly equal. There are none of those wide distinctions, of education and ignorance, wealth and poverty, master and servant, which are the product of our civilization; there is none of that widespread division of labour, which, while it increases wealth, produces also conflicting interests; there is not that severe competition and struggle for existence, or for wealth, which the dense population of civilized countries inevitably creates. All incitements to great crimes are thus wanting, and petty ones are repressed, partly by the influence of public opinion, but chiefly by that natural sense of justice and of his neighbor's right, which seems to be, in some degree, inherent in every race of man.

So the people of this diverse and extensive region 4,000 miles long and 1,300 miles wide taught Wallace much about man. Wallace would come to see in human beings something special, unique in the natural world, far and away qualitatively different from anything else in the animal kingdom. Indeed recognizing these "innate" attributes of creative and moral capacities would set him apart from most of his Victorian colleagues. It would lead him to conclude toward the end of his life that he could find "no marked superiority in any race or country." That was a conclusion he learned here in the Malay Archipelago -- if only his colleagues had learned as much!