In Part one and Part two, I introduced New Guinea and discussed one of the recent field guides to its birds. In this part, I continue with the theme of how islands have been a source of inspiration for naturalists and popular science writers.
Islands which are great living laboratories for the study of evolutionary processes have long fascinated biologists. The most famous of such associations is that between Darwin and the Galapagos Islands. However, as Frank Sulloway has argued, the ‘eureka-like’ moment attributed to the effect of the Galapagos Islands on Darwin is a myth and Darwin at the time of his famous voyage on the Beagle failed to fully appreciate the evidence before him and to collect it. Darwin wrote about his failure to carefully collect and catalogue specimens which was read by Alfred Russell Wallace who is jointly credited with the theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace in his collecting and explorations in South America carefully noted what he collected and from where and noticed for example the changes in primate species which had been separated by physical boundaries such as rivers. As a result, Wallace is recognised as the father of biogeography. Wallace spent some time in the Aru Islands and the famous Wallace’s Line demarcates where the placental mammals of Southeast Asia are separated by the placental mammals of Australasia. The tourism in the Galapagos benefits from a certain element of intended or unintended marketing of the islands and their association with Darwin and evolution.
The island of New Guinea has a similarly strong connection with a few latter-day biologists whose time in New Guinea has been a strong influence on science. One of these was Ernst Mayr who was initially preparing to study medicine but switched to zoology or more specifically ornithology. In 1927, he was introduced by Erwin Stresemann to Lord Rothschild who was interested in sending an ornithologist to collect specimens of the Birds of Paradise. Mayr spent two years in New Guinea followed by a further year in the Solomon Islands in the Whitney South Sea Expedition. Upon his return, he found himself working up the collecting of bird skins which the American Museum of Natural History purchased from Lord Rothschild and the material from the Whitney expedition. Mayr described 29 species new to science. Mayr went on to address a big problem with the Darwinian evolution theory as to why species are distinct and not part of a gradual continuum. He propounded the biological species concept and made significant contributions to biological diversity and evolutionary biology.
In 2001, he co-authored a book, The Birds of Northern Melanesia: Speciation, Ecology and Biogeography with Jared Diamond. The latter too began first with a career in medicine having obtained a PhD. from Cambridge and then publishing research on cellular and molecular mechanisms across organs such as the gall bladder. In 1964 he visited New Guinea and in his own words, it changed his life. This led to him developing a parallel career as an ornithologist and evolutionary biologist. As a keen birder from a young age, the name Jared Diamond was familiar to me from a number of important ornithological papers. His papers also extended to the design of nature reserves drawing upon island biogeography. I remember my surprise at browsing through a copy of one of his international bestselling books and realising it was the same Jared Diamond who is the author of books such as Guns Germs and Steel, Collapse and the World until Yesterday. Diamond draws heavily on his experience in dealing with tribal people in New Guinea in his books as he explores anthropological and sociological topics in his international bestselling books.
Another famous author who also first carved a reputation for himself as a zoologist is Tim Flannery who went on to receive the accolade of Australasian of the Year thanks to his many contributions including being a champion on climate change. Like Mayr and Diamond, Flannery has also published a number of zoological books and papers. He is also an erudite essayist and columnist and I would highly recommend his book ‘An Explorer's Notebook: Essays on Life, History, and Climate’ which brings together a collection of topics from essays on climate change to book reviews to exciting tales of zoological exploration. Another of Flannery’s many books is ‘Throwim Way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums and Penis Gourds - on the Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea’. There are daring zoological adventures here as Flannery sleeps lightly whilst eavesdropping on tribesmen debating on whether to kill this member of the wildlife research clan. But yet he writes with tenderness and respect for the many tribespeople he has worked with. In all of these books by these great contemporary scientific explorers and writers, there comes across a sense of how different in value systems from the West, the tribespeople of New Guinea are. I find it easier to understand some of the points of view presented by Diamond having read Flannery and Vojtech Novotny. I am intrigued at how New Guinea has played such a large role in shaping Mayr and two of the greatest living popular science writers.
Read also Part Four