The island that forever changed science

Source: BBC News

By Theodora Sutcliffe

The Indonesian island of Ternate, like its neighbour Tidore, is almost all volcano. It sprouts from the sea, an almost-perfect, yet truncated cone, wreathed in steamy clouds and fringed with a narrow strip of flatlands and beach that house an airport, a city and an around-the-island road.

The theory of evolution through natural selection was outlined on Ternate island, Indonesia (Credit: Ali Trisno Pranoto/Getty)

The theory of evolution through natural selection was outlined on Ternate island, Indonesia (Credit: Ali Trisno Pranoto/Getty)

Even in the run-up to the tourist event of the millennium, the full solar eclipse of March 2016, Ternate felt a remote place: the sort of island where it’s hard for a foreigner to cover more than a few metres without being enlisted for a group selfie, and small children greet you, gender regardless, with cheery cries of ‘Hello Mister!’ It seems an implausible location, all in all, for one of science’s great eureka moments, when a Victorian naturalist put pen to paper and outlined the theory of evolution through natural selection.

It seems an implausible location, all in all, for one of science’s great eureka moments

When 35-year-old Alfred Russel Wallace arrived in Ternate in January 1858, he’d been exploring the vast and sprawling mass of islands he called the Malay Archipelago for almost four years. Travelling thousands of miles by steamer, sailing ships and native boats, on horseback and on foot, he and his assistants had killed, skinned or pinned tens of thousands of specimens, from orangutans to birds of paradise to the sloth-like marsupial known as the cuscus, not to mention thousands of species of beetle.

By then, Ternate’s glory days were over, swept away by colonisation. For millennia, cloves had grown only on Ternate, Tidore and a handful of nearby islands – and for more than 3,000 years they’d crossed continents in an elaborate web of barter and trade, gaining value with each transaction. Enriched by this precious traffic, the sultans of Ternate laid claim to an empire that stretched as far as the Philippines and Papua – and engaged in vicious rivalry with the sultans of equally tiny Tidore.

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