Some historical narratives can be difficult to follow when they are punctuated by countless footnotes and bibliographic references, or broken by a frequent need to delve into appendices. Ian Burnet frees his work from these impediments. By seamlessly embedding his sources he has produced an almost conversational style. The result is an erudite narrative flow, free of distractions.
Where Australia Collides with Asia chronicles the reflections and discoveries of great minds and adventurous spirits. Both Darwin and Wallace who feature read Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equatorial regions of the New Continent. This work introduced the notion of a web of life where no single fact could be considered in isolation. Humboldt created a new genre in writing that eloquently described nature as part of this web of life. Ian’s book is firmly in such a tradition. It is not just a treatise on Alfred Russell Wallace any more than it is a static account of biogeography. He draws on his extensive knowledge of geology and his long engagement with the Indonesian archipelago to reveal a world shaped by tectonic dynamism producing countless variations and contrasts.
Plate movements create areas that are distinct yet often close to one another. Both the Galapagos islands and the Indonesian archipelago display such features. In these places, biogeographic contrasts and transformations are easily observed. We learn that it was the distinct differences in distribution of flora and fauna along the archipelago, abruptly changing between the islands of Bali and Lombok that so intrigued Wallace. Through his research, he established this as a biogeographic boundary between Asia and Australasia.
This work allows us to see the development of Wallace’s research to the point where he summarised all the main principles of Darwin’s ideas on species. When he received Wallace’s ‘Letter from Ternate’, in 1858, Darwin’s surprise was such that he was prompted to write: ‘I never saw a more striking coincidence, if Wallace had my manuscript sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract.’
Darwin’s fear of challenging the literalist account of creation in Genesis certainly placed a break on this desire to publish. Wallace’s work pressed him to finally publish in 1859. All of this is and the warm friendship that developed between the two men is well covered, so too is their subsequent collaboration.
The selection of photographs, maps and illustration in this publication not only add graphical power to the work but also display Ian Burnet’s meticulous patient gathering of archival material.