Evolution. It is as real as gravity; as certain as death and taxes. And on Borneo, if you visit Semenggoh near Kuching, you can see into your own evolutionary past. Because when you look at the orang utan you’re really looking at yourself in deep, distant history. Not your direct ancestor, but a creature who’s also evolved from the same ancient great ape swinging from a tree. Meet the orang utan: your long lost cousin, twice removed.
[All these images were taken at Semenggoh, near Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia. None are cropped]
People remember (and creationists despise) the great Charles Darwin as the father of evolution. His defining work, “On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”, set out the basics:
As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form. (On the Origin of Species, 1859)
Over time, creatures or plants with these variations would emerge as a new species, entirely distinct from its forbears which did not possess the original advantageous variation: evolution.
But a man named Alfred Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin’s, also developed the theory of evolution, though he never attained Darwin’s lasting fame. While Darwin most famously voyaged to Galapagos on HMS Beagle and did some of his field research there (and that neat summary is just a fraction of the story*), Wallace made some of his key discoveries in South East Asia, and specifically on Borneo.
While studying the different wildlife and botany in Sumatra (western Indonesia), Borneo and what is now Papua New Guinea, he had a famous epiphany:
…it occurred to me to ask the question, why do some die and some live? And the answer was clearly, on the whole the best fitted live … and considering the amount of individual variation that my experience as a collector had shown me to exist, then it followed that all the changes necessary for the adaptation of the species to the changing conditions would be brought about … In this way every part of an animal’s organization could be modified exactly as required, and in the very process of this modification the unmodified would die out, and thus the definite characters and the clear isolation of each new species would be explained.
Much of his “experience as a collector” was derived in Borneo. And some of it came from hunting orang utans.
The Orang Utan
Orang utans are Great Apes, sharing that title with humans, bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas. The ancestor species of today’s orang utans and the other great apes diverged about 15-20 million years ago yet humans and orang utans share about 97 per cent of their DNA.
In The Malay Archipelago, Wallace describes the orang utan as only a Victorian gentleman explorer could do:
[I] will now give some account of my experience in hunting the Orangutan, or ‘Mias’, as it is called by the natives;…
It fell at the first shot, but did not seem much hurt…I fired, and it again fell, with a broken arm and a wound in the body. The two Dyaks [local people] now ran up to it, and each seized hold of a hand…[but] it was too strong for these young savages, drawing them up towards its mouth notwithstanding all their efforts, so that they were again obliged to leave go, or they would have been seriously bitten. It now began climbing up the tree again; and, to avoid trouble, I shot it through the heart.
But Wallace was, under it all, a scientist, not a big game hunter. After shooting several Mias for their skins and skeletons, he gives a good description of the orang utan:
[It] is known to inhabit Sumatra and Borneo, and there is every reason to believe that it is confined to these two great islands, in the former of which, however, it seems to be much more rare. …[According to the chief of the Balow Dyaks, it] has no enemies; no animals dare attack it but the crocodile and the python. He always kills the crocodile by main strength, standing upon it, pulling open its jaws, and ripping up its throat. If a python attacks a Mias, he seizes it with his hands, and then bites it, and soon kills it. The Mias is very strong; there is no animal in the jungle so strong as he.
Wallace was right about the range of the Orang Utan – Sumatra in Indonesia has an estimated 7,300 of the critically endangered Sumatran species; Borneo has between 45,000 and 69,000 of the endangered Borneo species, which is split into four identified sub-species (until 1996, the Sumatran and Bornean species were considered related sub-species).
What he couldn’t know was how dramatically the populations of both species would fall in the first decade of this century, an era when humans are supposedly more focused than ever on environmental issues (actually the 1990s was the real heyday – we’re all too cynical today because no-one understands the underlying data and because Al Gore is a big fat hypocrite…).
The Borneo orang utan has been in decline for many decades from hunting and habitat reduction, but new deforestation for palm oil plantations (some of the oil destined for biodiesel production) has devastated their range since 2000. The population is estimated to be just 14 per cent of what it was in the 1950s. Some estimates foresee the complete extinction of wild orang utans in just a few decades.
The Descent of Man
Watching the orang utans, it seems clear as day that there is abundant commonality between them and humans. Creationists hate the very notion that humans evolved from an ancestor shared with gorillas, chimps and orang utans. They deceptively claim that evolution says “humans descended from monkeys”, as though if you dig far enough back in your family tree there will be a picture of a chimpanzee in tails and a top hat.
The truth is far more remarkable: chimps, gorillas and orang utans are not our ancestors – they’re our distant relatives. Our cousins, many times removed.
Wallace, for all his dramatic accounts of shooting orang utans, and for all his clear-headed scientific analysis of the specimens he gathered, was not immune to the singular cuteness of infant great apes and their seemingly so obvious similarities to humans. Shooting an adult female, he discovered he had orphaned a baby, so he set about raising it and caring for it as best he could:
Unfortunately, I had no milk to give it…[so gave] it rice-water from a bottle…This was a very meagre diet, and the little creature did not thrive well on it…When I put my finger in its mouth it sucked with great vigour, drawing in its cheeks with all its might in the vain effort to extract some milk, and only after persevering a long time would it give up in disgust, and set up a scream very like that of a baby in similar circumstances. …
I soon found it necessary to wash the little Mias as well. After I had done so a few times, it came to like the operation, and as soon as it was dirty would begin crying and not leave off until I took it out and carried it to the spout, when it immediately became quiet, although it would wince a little at the first rush of the cold water and make ridiculously wry faces while the stream was running over its head. …
Well-soaked biscuit mixed with a little egg and sugar, and sometimes sweet potatoes, were readily eaten; and it was a never-failing amusement to observe the curious changes of countenance by which it would express its approval or dislike of what was given to it. The poor little thing would lick its lips, draw in its cheeks, and turn up its eyes with an expression of the most supreme satisfaction when it had a mouthful particularly to its taste. On the other hand, [if it didn’t like the food], it would set up a scream and kick about violently, exactly like a baby in a passion. …
When left dirty, or hungry, or otherwise neglected, it would scream violently…If no one was in the house, or its cries were not attended to, it would be quiet after a little while, but the moment it heard a footstep it would begin again harder than ever.
To his great regret, Wallace’s little orphan Mias grew sick and died. Ever the scientist, Wallace preserved its skin and skeleton. Is it impossible to believe he saw something of his own evolutionary forebears in that cute little pet?
In 1859, Darwin’s “Origin of Species” had given the barest clue that humans had also evolved, saying only that through his theory “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”. Writing in 1869, two years before Darwin put the whole idea on the line in “The Descent of Man” – the first of his books to even use the word “evolution” in its first edition** – Wallace similarly foreshadowed the idea that humans and the great apes came from the same stock:
When we consider, further, that almost all other animals have in earlier ages been represented by allied yet distinct forms – that, in the latter part of the tertiary period, Europe was inhabited by bears, deer, wolves and cats; Australia by kangaroos and other marsupials; South America by gigantic sloths and ant-eaters; all different from any now existing, though intimately allied to them – we have every reason to believe that the Orangutan, the Chimpanzee, and the Gorilla have also had their forerunners. With what interest must every naturalist look forward to the time when the caves and tertiary deposits of the tropics may be thoroughly examined, and the past history and earliest appearance of the great man-like apes be made known at length.
* The February 2009 National Geographic has a great article on Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, noting that he did much of his pivotal field collecting earlier on the journey on the coast of Argentina, with fossils, and that the finches he famously studied were less important to his initial thinking than commonly believed.
** Darwin added “evolution” to the 6th edition of “On the Origin of Species”, released in 1872, a year after the publication of “The Descent of Man”.