Dodinga - Birthplace of Wallace's Theory of Natural Selection

By George Beccaloni, February 2018 (revised February 2019)

[A pdf is available HERE The DOI is: 10.13140/RG.2.2.16649.29289/1]

CLICK HERE for a short YouTube video I made in Dodinga about Wallace's epiphany.

It is widely known that the theory of evolution by natural selection came to Wallace "in a sudden flash of insight" whilst in the midst of a feverish fit (probably malaria). Given that his ground-breaking essay on the subject (which was published together with some notes on the subject by Charles Darwin in August 1858) was signed "Ternate, February, 1858" most people understandably think he made the discovery whilst on Ternate island (Indonesia). However, the available evidence shows that his epiphany in fact occurred in a small, little-known village called Dodinga (also known as Dojinga or Dodingo) situated directly east of Ternate on the large nearby island of Halmahera (which Wallace called Gilolo or Jilolo).

Gilolo and surrounding islands, with Dodinga marked. Taken from the larger map
showing Wallace's route from Volume 1 of The Malay Archipelago.

In his book of travels The Malay Archipelago, Wallace records that he arrived at Ternate [on the Dutch mail steamer Ambon] on the 8th January 1858, but he didn't stay there long. He says in his book: "Soon after my first arrival in Ternate I went to the island of Gilolo, accompanied by two sons of Mr. Duivenboden, and by a young Chinaman, a brother of my landlord, who lent us the boat and crew." At first he travelled to the village of Sedingole [Sidangoli], but stayed there only two days as he found it to be a poor collecting locality. He then moved to Dodinga, describing his visit there in his book as follows:

"[Dodinga is] situated at the head of a deep bay exactly opposite Ternate, and a short distance up a little stream which penetrates a few miles inland. The village is a small one, and is completely shut in by low hills. 

As soon as I arrived, I applied to the head man of the village for a house to live in, but all were occupied, and there was much difficulty in finding one. In the meantime I unloaded my baggage on the beach and made some tea, and afterwards discovered a small hut which the owner was willing to vacate if I would pay him five guilders for a month's rent. As this was something less than the fee-simple value of the dwelling, I agreed to give it him for the privilege of immediate occupation, only stipulating that he was to make the roof water-tight. This he agreed to do, and came every day to talk and look at me; and when I each time insisted upon his immediately mending the roof according to contract, all the answer I could get was, 'Ea nanti,' (Yes, wait a little.) However, when I threatened to deduct a quarter guilder from the rent for every day it was not done, and a guilder extra if any of my things were wetted, he condescended to work for half an hour, which did all that was absolutely necessary.

On the top of a bank, of about a hundred feet ascent from the water, stands the very small but substantial fort erected by the Portuguese [it was actually constructed by the Dutch according to de Clercq, 1890]. Its battlements and turrets have long since been overthrown by earthquakes, by which its massive structure has also been rent; but it cannot well be thrown down, being a solid mass of stonework, forming a platform about ten feet high, and perhaps forty feet square. It is approached by narrow steps under an archway, and is now surmounted by a row of thatched hovels, in which live the small garrison, consisting of a Dutch corporal and four Javanese soldiers, the sole representatives of the Netherlands Government in the island….I got some very nice insects here, though, owing to illness most of the time, my collection was a small one…"

The last remark is significant - as, of course, the idea of natural selection occurred to him whilst he was ill (and note that he never mentions being ill whilst in Ternate).

Location of Dodinga (red marker)

In his book Natural Selection and Tropical Nature, Wallace tells the story of his epiphany:

"After writing the preceding paper [i.e. the “Sarawak Law”, published in 1855] the question of how changes of species could have been brought about was rarely out of my mind, but no satisfactory conclusion was reached till February 1858. At that time I was suffering from a rather severe attack of intermittent fever...and one day while lying on my bed during the cold fit, wrapped in blankets, though the thermometer was at 88º F., the problem again presented itself to me, and something led me to think of the ‘positive checks’ described by Malthus in his ‘Essay on Population,’ a work I had read several years before, and which had made a deep and permanent impression on my mind. These checks - war, disease, famine and the like - must, it occurred to me, act on animals as well as on man. Then I thought of the enormously rapid multiplication of animals, causing these checks to be much more effective in them than in the case of man; and while pondering vaguely on this fact there suddenly flashed upon me the idea of the survival of the fittest - that the individuals removed by these checks must be on the whole inferior to those that survived. In the two hours that elapsed before my ague fit was over I had thought out almost the whole of the theory, and in the same evening I sketched the draft of my paper, and in the two succeeding evenings wrote it out in full, and sent it by the next post to Mr. Darwin."

Wallace’s unpublished 'Malay Field Journal' (click HERE to see it) in the Linnean Society of London (which he used as the source material for The Malay Archipelago) reveals he was on Halmahera during the whole of February 1858, only returning to Ternate on the 1st March. The relevant journal entries are as follows:

"After a fortnight in Ternate I determined to visit the island of Gilolo for a month & then return to prepare for a voyage to N. Guinea in one of Mr. Duivenbodens' vessels which was expected to leave about the middle of March…"

On the 1st. of March I returned to Ternate to await the return of Mr. Durvenboden's schooner from Macassar in which I had decided to make a voyage to N. Guinea."

Comfirmation that he returned to Ternate in March is given in his book The Malay Archipelago, where he says "AFTER my return from Gilolo to Ternate, in March 1858, I made arrangements for my long-wished-for voyage to the mainland of New Guinea..." (Wallace, 1869, MA vol. 2 p. 299).

So given that he arrived on Ternate on the 8th January and spent about 14 days there, he must have departed for Halmahera on around the 21st January, returning about a month later on the 1st March. And given that his essay is dated "February" he must have been in Dodinga when he drafted it1, since he only spent two days at the first village he visited i.e. Sedingole [Sidangoli]. It is probable that he wrote “Ternate” on his essay (or at least on the accompanying letter) when he posted it to Charles Darwin (probably on the 9th March when the Dutch mail steamer arrived in Ternate) simply because this was the island where he had his base, and because it was his postal address. It is of course possible that he wrote a neater version of his essay after he returned to his relatively comfortable house on Ternate, which could also explain why he may have written "Ternate" on it.

Interestingly an entry on page 109 of Wallace's 'Species Notebook' headed "Plains in the tropics" is dated "Gilolo - Jan. 20th. 1858" (image below), showing that his use of  the word "fortnight" in the entry in his 'Malay Field Journal' was imprecise and that he travelled to Halmahera on or before January 20th. 

It is worth noting that his entry in the 'Species Notebook' mentions the grassy plains he observed around Sedingole, so it was probably written soon after he arrived there. In his book The Malay Archipelago he writes "On taking a walk into the country [around Sedingole], I saw at once that it was no place for me. For many miles extends a plain covered with coarse high grass, thickly dotted here and there with trees, the forest country only commencing at the hills a good way in the interior. Such a place would produce few birds and no insects, and we therefore arranged to stay only two days, and then go on to Dodinga, at the narrow central isthmus of Gilolo, whence my friends would return to Ternate." So if he stayed in Sedingole “two days” and arrived there on the morning of the 20th, he must have left for Dodinga on the evening of about the 22nd2,3.

All the primary documentary evidence available says that Wallace was on Halmahera in February 1858, so John van Wyhe's statements in his books Dispelling the Darkness and Letters from the Malay Archipelago that he was on Ternate during February and that he discovered natural selection there is simply incorrect. One of the lynchpins of van Wyhe's argument is that he says Wallace gives his stay on Halmahera as being "2 weeks?" in a manuscript note (WCP4432.7688) now in the Hope Entomological Library, Oxford University Museum of Natural History (see page 204 and endnote 604 in Dispelling the Darkness). This document (below) which reads "Gilolo March (2 weeks?) + Sep 1858 (2 weeks?)", is actually a list of Wallace's collecting localities written in pencil by E. B. Poulton, with annotations in pen by Wallace which were written in 1907, an extremely long time after Wallace's visit to Halmahera. Not only does it state "March" (rather than "February" as it should), but the "2 weeks" is queried. It can hardly be used to support the argument that Wallace was in Ternate for about two weeks in *February* - which is exactly what van Wyhe does! For example, in his book Letters from the Malay Archipelago (page 152) he writes "Instead, he [Wallace] stayed on Gilolo only for two weeks in February 1858, not for a month. When adjusting dates of his journey on a small document preserved in Oxford [the note just referred to], he noted that he stayed in Gilolo for two weeks." van Wyhe conveniently omits to mention that list stated "March" not February and that Wallace queried the "2 weeks".

A visit to Dodinga

I arranged to visit Dodinga with a group of clients during a SeaTrek cruise I led in January 2018, being to my knowledge only the third person especially interested in Wallace to have ever visited the village. We found the remains of the old fort that Wallace described on the hill above the village, though only one wall was partly visible. The local man who now owns the land which the fort is on said that four cannons were found there some years ago. Two (dated 1783) are now displayed outside the village hall (one is shown below) - the other two were apparently stolen. It is likely that these cannons are the only objects still in the village that Wallace probably saw - the small hut he stayed in having rotted away long ago.

Satellite picture of Dodinga village

Two views of the main part of Dodinga village. Copyright George Beccaloni.

Wall of the old fort (to the right). Copyright George Beccaloni.

One of the cannons. Copyright George Beccaloni.


Very many thanks to James Moore for his valuable comments on this article. Also thanks to Paul Whincup, who spotted Wallace's comment about returning to Ternate in March 1858 whilst reading The Malay Archipelago.


1. All scholars agree that Wallace wrote his essay after the mail steamer visited Ternate on around the 8th February, so he must have discovered natural selection between this date and 28th February. He returned to Ternate on 1st March and mentioned his theory to Frederick Bates in a letter (WCP367) dated 2nd March. Discussing camouflage in tiger beetles he says "Such facts as these puzzled me for a long time, but I have lately worked out a theory which accounts for them naturally." This is the earliest surviving mention of his theory.

2. The only dated item in Wallace's writings (published or unpublished) which seems to slightly complicate the story is an entry marked "Ternate. Jan. 25th." in a letter (WCP366) he sent to his friend Henry Walter Bates in 1858. In it he remarks that "In about a week I go for a month collecting there [to Halmahera]; & then return to prepare for a voyage to N. Guinea." If this date is correct (and it probably is as he made a transcript of this letter probably before posting it and gave the same date - see WCP366.3540) then he must have travelled back to Ternate from Dodinga on the 23rd, 24th or 25th January. Given that he said “In about a week I go for a month collecting there [Halmahera]”, he must have then returned to Dodinga on about the 31st Jan or 1st Feb. Interestingly, this letter to Henry Bates although completed on the 25th January 1858 was posted as an enclosure in a letter to his brother Frederick dated 2nd March 1858. A plausible reason why the letter to Henry Bates wasn't posted when the mail steamer called in to Ternate around the 8th February is that Wallace was in Halmahera then (no letters are known to have been posted by Wallace in February 1858).

3. An alternative scenario, is that this diary entry was incorectly dated, and it should have read "Jan 30th" rather than "20th". This would mean that he arrived at Sedingole on the morning of January 30th, and that he left for Dodinga on the evening of about February 2nd.

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