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Behind the scenes

November 8, 2013

Last night I was one of the lucky few with a ticket to perhaps the most sought-after event in the Museum's calendar so far this year: Sir David Attenborough's lecture about Alfred Russel Wallace and their shared passion for birds of paradise.


It was the 10th and final event in our Wallace100 lecture series and came on the 100th anniversary of the death of Wallace, who co-discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection with Charles Darwin.


Sir David Attenborough celebrates the life of Alfred Russel Wallace and his passion for birds of paradise.


Sir David's lecture focused on Wallace's expedition to the Malay Archipelago in 1854-1862. It was during this time, while suffering from a fit of malarial fever, that Wallace independently conceived his theory of evolution. But the driving force behind the trip, Sir David explained, had been Wallace's ambition to see birds of paradise first hand:


He was driven by passion. Birds of paradise were his great obsession.


Wallace became the first European ever to see the magical displays of the birds of paradise. He called it 'the most beautiful of all the beautiful living forms that adorn the Earth', and being Wallace, and being down to earth, he also wrote 'the flesh is only to be eaten in necessity. It is dry and tasteless'.


He was fascinated by what he saw and it became my ambition to see it also.


During his eight-year Malay expedition, Wallace observed five different species of birds of paradise, more than any other European at the time. He said he considered the standardwing bird of paradise 'the greatest discovery I have yet made'.



The standardwing bird of paradise, identified by Wallace in 1858 and named Semioptera wallacii in his honour.
Coloured lithograph by John and Elizabeth Gould, 1840-1848.


Sir David Attenborough: 'Is there a more elegant cravat in shape or colour worn by any bird? I doubt it'


Wallace's book documenting his travels, The Malay Archipelago, published in two volumes in 1869, included the first accurate illustrations of birds of paradise.


In a time before Wallace, Sir David explained, birds of paradise had been thought to have no legs. According to the Papuans who traded them with neighbouring islands (and in turn European explorers) the birds spent their lives floating high in the sky, feeding on dew. That's how they got their name - they were birds of the gods, birds of paradise. It was only when they died that they fell to earth and could be collected.


The truth was that, because the birds were prized for their colourful and elaborate plumage, their legs were considered unimportant and were simply cut off. A legacy of the legless mythology survives to this day, thanks to the rules of species classification. When Carl Linnaeus first described the greater bird of paradise in 1758 for inclusion in his System Naturae, he gave it the official name Paradisaea apoda, which translates as legless bird of paradise.



Paradisaea apoda, the legless bird of paradise


Sir David closed the lecture by praising Wallace as 'a great scientist, a great man and a tough traveller beyond compare' and read a passage from The Malay Archipelago which he said he 'agreed with every syllable of':

'I thought of the long ages of the past during which the successive generations of these things of beauty had run their course. Year by year being born and living and dying amid these dark gloomy woods with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness, to all appearances such a wanton waste of beauty. It seems sad that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man, many of them have no relation to him, their happiness and enjoyments, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would seem to be immediately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone.'

Alfred Russel Wallace
The Malay Archipelago