I’ve always been a big fan of Charles Darwin. That’s probably true for most skeptics and science enthusiasts. I love the simplicity and elegance of the theory of natural selection, the particulars of which are largely unchanged and have only been built upon in the 150 years since On the Origin of Species was published, and Darwin’s chutzpah in (eventually) daring to introduce it to the world.
I love the anecdotes about him, like his making a list of pros and cons about whether to marry Emma, and the club he participated in that made a hobby of eating exotic animals. I love that he enlisted his butler to help him with his experiments around the house; there’s a P.G. Wodehouse-style comedy in that fact, if anyone wants to develop it. And in signing on for HMS Beagle’s five year mission around the world, he joined the grand tradition of 19th-century naturalist adventurers. Darwin was cool.
But the more I learn about Alfred Russel Wallace, who’s largely forgotten and is usually credited in footnotes, if at all, as the “co-discoverer” of the theory of natural selection, the more I think he must have been even cooler. Look at this great video, produced by Flora Lichtman, late of NPR, and animator Sharon Shattuck:
That video originally appeared, with accompanying text, in the New York Times in commemoration of the centennial of Wallace’s death on November 7, 1913, at age 90.
Like Darwin, Wallace in his youth went on peregrinations around the world, to South America and to Indonesia. Also like Darwin, his observations led him to develop the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, independently of Darwin.
Unlike Darwin, Wallace wasn’t wealthy; he struggled with money troubles most of his life. And he wasn’t Oxbridge educated, either; he was largely self-taught.
I wouldn’t seek to diminish Darwin’s achievement; if any one person should be named the father of natural selection, it should be Darwin. He definitely worked it all out earlier than Wallace did. But Wallace didn’t have the existential angst or caution which had caused Darwin to put off publication of his theory for quite a long time. Wallace was an in-your-face radical, in fact, unafraid of challenging the status quo. It was Darwin’s knowledge that Wallace was about to “scoop” him (the two were friendly and corresponded) that finally compelled him to publish his theory.
Wallace’s specialty was biogeography, which in evolutionary terms means that species living near each other will be more closely related than those living farther away, e.g. any two species of African monkey are taxonomically more similar than an African species and a South American species.
The most famous world feature in evidence of biogeography is Wallace’s greatest legacy: it’s the Wallace Line, which separates the distinctive animal types of Australia from the very different ones of Asia and most of Indonesia. The notional boundary was a literal one once: at the greatest extent of glaciers during the Ice Ages and the lowest ocean levels, a channel of water 22 miles wide still divided the two, so few species from one side were ever able to establish themselves on the other.
One species that was able to bridge that gap, nearly 50,000 years ago, was ours. The first Australians were clever enough to have used boats of some kind. Because humans are cool. Like Darwin and Wallace.
Anyway, I just wanted to share that video.