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Historic collection of evolutionist Wallace goes online

08 October 2012

Left: Wallace spent eight years in Southeast Asia collecting birds and insects
Photo: G W Beccaloni

Right: Wallace's standard-wing is the new bird of paradise that the naturalist discovered

Dr van Wyhe presenting highlights from the new Wallace Online.

Charles Darwin has always been synonymous with the theory of evolution and natural selection. Less well-known is naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who also came up with the same scientific observation independently at the same time 154 years ago.

This disparity in recognition is set to change with the recent launch of the Wallace Online website, which came six years after the posting of his more famous counterpart. Both websites are the efforts of Dr John van Wyhe, a senior lecturer at NUS' Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of History.

Wallace Online represents the world's first comprehensive historic collection of Wallace's works. Funded by an anonymous grant from an American donor, the free site offers 28,000 pages of documents and 25,000 images. It traces the naturalist's discoveries while in Southeast Asia, a region of rich biodiversity that forms the cradle of evolution.

2013 will be the centenary of Wallace's death, so the website is timely for researchers to access his life's literature, illustrations and collections. One highlight is the first announcement of the theory of evolution in a London scientific meeting in 1858.

During his eight years in the archipelago, Wallace collected 125,000 specimens of animals. Noting a distinct geographical difference in the fauna, he proposed the existence of a dividing line between the Asian and Australian animals. Named The Wallace Line, the theory of plate tectonics now explains how the transition occurred millennia ago.

Dr van Wyhe said: "Wallace was one of the most influential scientists in history. But until now, it has been impossible to see all of his writings. For the first time, this collection allows anyone to search through his writings about Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, and see many of the birds and insects that he collected."

Dr van Wyhe founded the award-winning Darwin Online when he was at Cambridge University in England. He started on Wallace's project in earnest three years ago when he moved to Singapore to join NUS to be closer to the origin of the study.

He revealed that he is following up on projects such as a monograph on Wallace's travels, a volume of his letters from the voyage, and a scholarly edition of Wallace's notebooks.