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A Biogeographer's Construction of Tropical Lands: A.R. Wallace, Biogeographical Method and The Malay Archipelago

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Alfred Russel Wallace is closely associated with the Malay Archipelago. As a collector of biological specimens, he spent eight years in the region during the mid nineteenth-century. Wallace became one of the foremost natural historian-philosophers and a powerful voice in the emerging sub-discipline of biogeography following his return to the UK. He is perhaps best remembered by the Wallace's Line, which bisects the Malay Archipelago, marking an abrupt biogeographical disjunction that is most apparent for mammals and birds. The influence of Wallace's ideas on modern constructions of the Malay Archipelago in particular and the tropical world in general has been profound. Wallace's biogeography, with its reliance on reductionism, scientific taxonomy and the identification and mapping of “native” biota, has also influenced conservation theory and practice. In this paper, I argue that preconceived notions together with predominant values of scientific endeavour during the Victorian period strongly affected Wallace's constructions. The view of tropical environments that Wallace helped to construct is at odds with modern theories of environmental change, while his biogeographical distribution maps share many weaknesses with ethnographic studies of the colonial period. In conclusion, rather than static distribution patterns, the apparently continuous re-mixing of biota in low latitudes offers biogeographers much scope for study. The results of such studies, when combined with a greater awareness of indigenous perceptions and systems of knowledge, would appear to provide a much more secure basis upon which to found conservation thought and practice.

Document Type: Original Article


Affiliations: Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Publication date: 2000-03-01

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