The Most Important Naturalist You Never Heard of

Bates was a nineteenth century naturalist who discovered and chronicled 14,000 species of South American insects, lived in Brazil’s Amazon River region for eleven years, wrote a book about his life and discoveries and was an official of a large scientific organization in later life.

       Few have heard of him. That’s because he lived in the same era as naturalists Charles Darwin, Joseph Banks, Alexander Von Humboldt and Ernst Dieffenbach. They received all the applause, all the critical acclaim and were the stars of all the scientific conventions. The hard-working Bates? Next to nothing.

     That has started to change. SK Films, of Toronto, Canada, made Amazon Adventure, a 45-minute-long feature film about the life of Bates, produced as a drama and not a traditional science documentary, filmed in the Amazon, and has been showing it in museums around the country during the past year, winning numerous awards. It is a big hit, particularly with high school science teachers, who see the movie, aimed at teenagers as well as adults, as a way to get teens interested in science. Thousands of high school students have filled cavernous theaters, cheering Bates and his butterflies, too, with their teachers from coast to coast.

     All of this acclaim is bound to bring Bates, as stiff and dry as one of his many insects, springing back into the public eye after all these years.

     The film tour finally hit the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West, in New York, where I caught up with it last week.

     Amazon Adventure is not a swashbuckling film with pirates and damsels in distress. Nobody is chased out on to the ledge of a mountain where they must fight for their life. The hero of the movie dos not wrestle any of the crocodiles that swim in the Amazon River. It is a slow, easy and lovely story of scientist Henry Bates, his friend Allan Wallace and the tale of how they conquered the jungle and re-discovered the world of insects and butterflies.

    It starts innocently enough with a shot of a small insect. Then the camera pans upward and you see the winding, majestic Amazon, the longest and most intoxicating river in the world.

      The film covers a lot of mid nineteenth century science and jungle history. Bates had never been in a rain forest prior to his arrival and the movie tells the story of his many excursions through the jungles, machete in one hand and specimen box in the other, cruises, some calm and some turbulent, down the river itself and his friendship with his guide and other natives of the area. You get a good look at riverfront life and how, in the 19th century, Brazilians conducted their bustling fishing business.

    The central discovery of Bates was finding out how animals change their appearance to look like other animals, “mimicking” each other. You see the start of this early in the film when it is explained that what you are sure is vicious snake hanging from a tree limb is actually a caterpillar that has transformed himself to make other animals think he is a dangerous snake to protect himself. Many, many animals do this, but it was not public knowledge until Bates, after years of work in the jungle, proved it.

     A highlight of the film, shown in the Lefrak Imax Theater at the museum, is its gorgeous cinematography. The slowly moving cameras along the riverbanks and inside the thick heavily forested jungles catch a luscious world of ecological wonder.

     The movie is only 45 minutes long and that is a shame because if leaves out a lot about Bates. Example: what about his love life for the eleven years he was in the jungle? How did his parents back in England react to his long disappearance? His colleagues? Friends? Neighbors? What about his many illnesses, that are just mentioned in the film?

    Bates was born in Leicester, England, in 1825 and developed a love of insects and butterflies that led him to Brazil. He and Wallace were uncertain what they would find, what the natives were like and how long they would be living on the oppressively hot river half a planet away from their homes.

     The pair first landed in what is today Belem. During their first years they collected birds and insects, lots of them. During the second year the men began collecting specimens of butterflies and then traveled up the Amazon to the city of Manaus and then further west. Bates’s base camp was set up in the town of Tefe, where he resided for four and a half years. Bates remained until 1859. He discovered several thousand species of birds, plants and insects, including 550 species of butterflies. One of the vicious boa constrictor snakes he discovered, Crallus Batesii, is named after him.

    Bates grew up and fell in love with insects, a love shared by Wallace in England. A businessman allowed them to pay their 1848 expedition bills by sending him specimens that he sold the pair headed for South America and scientific history.

     Charles Darwin said that Bates proof that one form of butterfly changed into another species over time proved his theory of evolution that man evolved from animals over the years, too.

      Calum Finlay is the star of the film as Bates and he does good work as a scientist trying to develop his collection and stay alive at the same time. He gets lots of help from a small cast. Director Mike Slee does a fine job in this small science classic and gives viewers a lot of story and a lot of entomology in just 45 minutes. The script by Wendy MacKeigan and Carl Knutson is admirably fast moving at times and lovingly slow at others. Together, they have all put together a warm chestnut of a movie set in one of the most exotic place in the world.

     It is appropriate that Amazon Adventure played the American Museum of Natural History because the museum is the national temple for naturalists. It has a large memorial room for President Theodore Roosevelt, the world’s most famous naturalist, who, during his nearly eight years in office, helped to get the U.S. government to preserve enormous parcels of land, upgrade old national parks and build new ones. He was a strong supporter of the movement to preserve species of animals.

    There are mentions of Roosevelt in different halls throughout the museum, but my favorite is the Hall of the Mammals of North America, that fabled collection of dioramas in which animals are shown in their natural habitats. The scenes created there are just wonderful. You stand on the other side of the glass from taxidermized animals of every size and variety. There are White Sheep and Big Horn Sheep, Caribou and jack rabbits. There is a vivid looking mountain goat with her baby, a black bear in a  thick, green southern Florida jungle,  cotton tailed rabbits, cougars perched on the dusty edge of the Grand Canyon, a bold wolf pack chasing a scared deer through the woods at nighttime,  a coyote from Yosemite Valley,  a mom and dad white tailed deer with their baby in Southern New York State,  a pair of huge Alaskan Brown Bears, one crawling and one standing (he seems 80 feet high),  hunting Salmon along a river.

     Roosevelt took several heavily publicized expeditions to the American west and into jungles. The jungle expeditions were just after he left office. One, in fact, was to the Amazon region. The fame he attracted on those trips helped to build his everlasting image as a conservationist.

      Upon his return to England, Bates was named assistant secretary of the Royal Geographical Society. He died in 1892

When he died, Wallace wrote in an obituary that Bates had a “remarkable and epoch making” life. 

  He certainly did, and now people have a chance to follow it.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card


Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.