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March 06, 2004

Wallace on the Papuans

While reading Alfred Russel Wallace's classic book The Malay Archipelago, I was interested to see the following passage:

"The moral characteristics of the Papuan appear to me to distinguish him as distinctly from the Malay as do his form and features... Of the intellect of this race it is very difficult to judge, but I am inclined to rate it somewhat higher than that of the Malays, notwithstanding the fact that the Papuans have never yet made any advance towards civilization. It must be remembered, however, that for centuries the Malays have been influenced by Hindoo, Chinese and Arabic immigration... The Papuan has much more vital energy, which would certainly greatly assist his intellectual development. Papuan slaves show no inferiority of intellect compared with Malays, but rather the contrary; and in the Mollucas they are often promoted to places of considerable trust..."

(Dover edition, p. 449-50; 1st edition 1869.)

By 'Malays' Wallace means not just the inhabitants of what is now Malaysia, but all those of similar race and language throughout the region (in Java, Sumatra, Borneo, etc.), whereas by 'Papuans' he means the Melanesians, including the inhabitants of New Guinea.

It is interesting to compare Wallace's assessment with the comments of Jared Diamond, who considered the New Guinea tribesmen of his acquaintance to be as intelligent as Europeans. Diamond concluded from this that there is no innate difference in intelligence between different 'races', whereas his hereditarian critics have concluded that he must be mistaken about the New Guinea tribesmen.

Wallace's comments suggest a third possibility: namely, that there are intellectual differences between different 'races', but that the 'Papuans' happen to be among the more intelligent.

I am expressing no opinion on which view is correct.

Posted by David B at 07:55 AM