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Postcard from Borneo: For Wallace, Something Numinous in Nature

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If Alfred Russel Wallace's eight years in the Malay Archipelago taught him about people and their essential equality and innate capacities, it also taught him, of course, much about nature. Borneo, in particular, is an island exploding with natural diversity. Some have estimated that Borneo contains some 15,000 plant species, rivaling the whole continent of Africa. Roughly 5,000 species of its flowering plants are unique, found here and nowhere else. Wallace made note of the wide variety of forest trees in Borneo, and citing Professor Beccari, noted 200 species of orchids and 130 palms among others, a diversity "at its maximum in Borneo."

Wallace marveled at his insect collections here. At the Simunjon coal works (near Sarawak, present day Kuching) he gathered 2,000 different kinds of beetles, his greatest catch in all his eleven years of collecting both in this island chain and South America. Wallace noted over 170 species of mammals in the island region, and observed that of the 24 species of monkeys found in the Greater Sunda Islands, 13 could be found in Borneo. Wallace referred to Borneo as having an "almost continental fauna."

And what did all this natural diversity suggest to Wallace, the co-discoverer of modern evolutionary theory? The stunning beauty of plants and animals arrayed together he believed were "calculated at once to please and to refine mankind." There was for Wallace something numinous in nature because behind its diversity there were more than blind laws and chance effects, there was in his own words, The World of Life: A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose. Wallace witnessed it first-hand here in Borneo.