Biology’s Sherlock Holmes

by Andrew Berry
Guest contributor

This month, Andrew Berry, evolutionary biologist and historian of science in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, shares with us the strange case of the evolutionary biologist and the highest mountain in the world.

In 1875, Captain J. A. Lawson published Wanderings in New Guinea detailing his journeys through one of the least known parts of the planet. Setting off from the south coast, Lawson crossed New Guinea at its widest part, coming to within 25 miles of the north coast before retracing his steps. Of the five local men who accompanied him, only two survived.

Even in an era when books of exploration, discovery, and macho derring-do were commonplace, this one created a stir. One claim in particular stood out: Lawson had discovered the highest mountain in the world. He called it Mount Hercules and gauged it to be 32,783 feet high (Mt. Everest is a feeble 29,029 feet); he even tried to climb it, but turned back at 25,314 feet so as not to miss dinner at base camp.

Mt. Hercules, as illustrated in Wanderings in New Guinea

Mt. Hercules, as illustrated in Wanderings in New Guinea

Now, with Google Earth, it is easy to dismiss Lawson’s claim as ridiculous, but, in 1875, the interior of New Guinea truly was terra incognita for Europeans, and independent witnesses were hard to come by. Dismissing (or corroborating) such a claim was tricky. Lawson’s publisher, Chapman & Hall, after all, was respectable, and people tended to believe him. As late as 1895, atlases were listing Mount Hercules as the world’s highest mountain.

For “Lawson” —the author’s real identity remains unknown, and the motives behind the stunt are accordingly obscure— plausibility was the watchword. The novelist Henry James noted in his review that Lawson got plenty of things right: “his manner of narration seemed most plausible, he gave, first and last, a good deal of detail.” If, for example, Lawson had claimed to have sauntered to the top of Mt. Hercules, a mountain twice as high as Mt. Blanc (15,778 feet), then considered the ultimate in mountaineering achievement, his credibility would instantly have been questioned. But he resisted the temptation to make so grand a claim.

Chris Ballard has recently pointed out that Lawson was rhetorically convincing in his impersonation of an explorer. For example, he emphasized the ennui of travel – trekking across “exactly the same kind of country as yesterday” – and, also, he went overboard in his descriptions of new species. Lawson’s Victorian audience was familiar with this tendency of scientific travelers – Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace, Henry Bates – to indulge their passion for detailed natural history in their writings. This, after all, was their way of establishing their credibility and authority.

Lawson was also the master of assertive bluster, appreciating that, when the facts are inaccessible, pure dogmatism can take you a long way. James wondered about Lawson’s response to the rumors about the book’s validity, noting that Lawson was “keeping quiet, either because his case is hopelessly bad, or because he desires to annihilate all his critics at a single stroke.” James may have preferred the first explanation, but the second proved more accurate. Lawson came out swinging:

My ascent of Mount Hercules has, also, provoked something more than mere astonishment in the minds of the delicate city gentlemen and podgy professors who are in the habit of ascending Mont Blanc, with the aid of sherry and sandwiches, and half-a-dozen greasy, garlic-fed guides, and then devoting a quarto volume to an account of their exploits.

Given both the inherent difficulty of directly confirming or refuting Lawson’s claims and his cleverness in creating and defending the fraud, how could a Victorian reviewer demonstrate that Lawson’s account was fiction not fact?

By biological sleuthing is the answer. And Alfred Russel Wallace was the sleuth.

Wallace (1823-1923) is best known as the co-discoverer, with Charles Darwin, of the theory of evolution by natural selection. But Wallace was much more than Darwin’s sidekick: he was on his own merits a member of the Victorian scientific elite. His special expertise was biogeography, the study of the factors affecting the geographical distribution of species.

During the eight years he spent traveling through South East Asia, he identified what would come to be called “Wallace’s Line,” the discontinuity between the Australasian plants and animals, and the Asian ones. Wallace noticed it first in comparing two neighboring islands, Bali and Lombok. We now know that this biological disconnect is the product of plate tectonic processes: Bali and Lombok are on different plates with very different histories. Bali, to the west, has been associated with Borneo and the rest of Asia; Lombok, to the east, with New Guinea and Australia. For organisms, this is a huge difference. For example, monkeys, which are placental mammals, are a feature of Asian forests, but are absent from Australasian ones, where marsupial possums and tree kangaroos are their ecological equivalents. Lawson’s book came out in 1875, just when Wallace was finishing his comprehensive analysis of global biogeography, Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876).

Nature asked Wallace to review Wanderings in New Guinea because he was one of the very few naturalists to have spent time there. Wallace visited Manokwari on the NW coast for a few frustrating months in 1858. He had been sick; one of his hired professional hunters had died of disease; and he had been unable to get into the kind of species-rich forest he had hoped to collect in. He never had the opportunity to travel into the interior so he was not in a position to directly contradict or confirm Lawson’s claims.

But Wallace was able to draw on a far more powerful argument than any based on mere personal experience. The robustness of his biogeographic analysis of the region was by then well established: New Guinea’s mammals were marsupials. Lawson however claimed to have seen a region dominated by placental mammals. Wallace’s disdain is palpable:

It may be premised, for the benefit of non-zoological readers, that New Guinea belongs to the Australian region, and that with the exception of bats and a wild pig, all the known mammalia are marsupials, four species of kangaroos, several species of Cuscus (an animal somewhat like an opossum), and some smaller marsupial forms being known. The coasts have been visited for centuries, and considerable excursions have been made in the interior of the northern part of the island, while the southern portions have also been several times visited by our various surveying parties. The islands all round it agree in this exclusion of all mammalia but marsupials. But Capt. Lawson tells us quite a different tale. He met with no solitary kangaroo or Cuscus all through New Guinea, but he everywhere encountered deer of several species, wild buffaloes, wild goats, wild cattle of a new species, hares, foxes, a wonderful new tiger, long-tailed monkeys, and huge man-like apes!

Lawson had made a fatal error, naively (and wrongly) assuming that versions of the mammals he was familiar with from the northern hemisphere would inhabit New Guinea. He insisted for example that he had seen “an immense herd of buffalo, which must have numbered at least ten thousand individuals.” Wallace dismisses his claims as “absurd.” For Wallace it is “a duty to inform our readers that it is wholly fictitious. It is not even a clever fiction…”

Biogeographic facts had triumphed: there was no longer any question that Mt. Hercules, like the supposed herd of buffalo roaming New Guinea’s supposed interior prairies, was anything more than the figment of an inventive yet strangely fevered imagination.

© Science Whys, 2015

8 thoughts on “Biology’s Sherlock Holmes

  1. Sarina Tcherepnin

    I love that you brought in the literary reference with Henry James. Lawson’s quote about “podgy professors… ascending Mont Blanc, with the aid of sherry and sandwiches…” is a comical image! This Lawson fellow had quite an imagination! This is a great story in the history of science. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Talaya Delaney

    Fascinating! And wonderful to include the link to Lawson’s text as well. Exciting to see a piece that integrates the historical, literary, and scientific perspective in this way.

  3. Jordan

    This piece is very timely – in politics, for example, it’s hard to know who is telling the truth and who is telling a “tall” tale, like this one.

  4. Lou Jost

    Excellent story about Wallace, one of my heroes. For another incredible story investigated by Wallace, see his last chapter in Richard Spruce’s Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes (available online free of charge). There he discusses perhaps the greatest treasure legend in the world, the vast treasure of the last Inca ruler, Atahualpa. Richard Spruce, one of the greatest Victorian explorer/naturalists, had uncovered a document written by someone named Valverde on his deathbed in Spain. Valverde had lived in Ecuador and claimed to have learned of the treasure’s location in the Llanganates Mountains. His document explained to the Spanish king how to get to the treasure.

    Unlike Lawson, Valverde got all the biology right, and both Spruce and Wallace became convinced that this document was genuine. In fact, unbeknownst to Wallace or Spruce, a Quechua plant name in Valverde’s document, “Sangurima”, referred to a very distinctive plant (genus Espeletia) that was not discovered in the Llanganates until the 1930s (Spruce guessed incorrectly that the word might refer to a white-leaved cecropia tree). So Valverde’s story was not only scientifically accurate at the time it was written, it even had predictive value.

  5. Michael Roberts

    Interesting! wallace rules OK! Enjoy your 3104 ft mountain next August. I will ensure you make it to the summit 🙂

  6. Avi Sirlin

    Fabulous story. What a remarkable era, with discoveries still being made on such a grand scale — and perfectly ripe opportunities for wild claims of all colour. Seems there’s an interesting tale behind this unidentified “Lawson” fellow…

    And yet another fine contribution by Alfred Wallace, who himself hardly lacked for colour. Much is made of Wallace’s inclination to gullibility — the Flat Earth Challenge and Spiritualism being prime examples. Yet, who could match the man’s attention to scientific detail and, in particular, his authority on the topic of geographic distribution of species?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *