Victoria’s Secret

27 Sep

Today I was listening to the BBC and the announcer was talking about a famous Victorian scientist, Albert Russel Wallace, who developed the theory of evolution at the same time Darwin did. Well, actually, he developed it later, but Darwin had been working out his theory for years, and Wallace discovered it in what the BBC called a “Eureka moment” while studying nature on some South Pacific island. Their two findings were published at the same time in a journal, but as deference was valued in Victorian society, Mr. Wallace always deferred thereafter to Mr. Darwin’s discovery in what might be called an excess of modesty (and one for which he was certainly not rewarded). If my recollection from working as a book editor on a volume about evolution, the history is even more convoluted than that, with hints that Erasmus Darwin, an earlier famous scientist who was C. Darwin’s grandfather, was starting to get inklings of this theory and that the general perception of evolution was developing through discussions among a number of scientifically-minded people. Of course, this knowledge has been, as my dear ex-boss Hope says, “composted.” We edited so many books so fast that one week it was microbiology, next week it was Europe Between 1500-1800, so vast amounts of knowledge would just be piled on top of others and only the fittest bits would survive. (hmm. . . .)

Anyway, one of the things that fascinates me about Albert Russell Wallace is of course that he is a Victorian. And the Victorians were far from the prissy, staid wrappers-of-piano-legs that we often consider them as. They were vigorous, exciting, often thrilling in their willingness to entertain new ideas. Another scientist that I admired greatly for his understanding of glacier science, among other things, is Louis Agassiz. But Agassiz was one of the last holdouts among respectable scientists against the idea of evolution. Someday I will write more about him.

Anyway, a little more about Albert Russel Wallace:

–born in 1823, eighth of nine children

–In 1845 he read Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers. This book made him think that evolution could be real—but did not explain why.

–In 1848, he and a friend went on a journey up the Amazon to collect animal specimens and try to figure out how evolution might work. He drew a map of the Rio Negro that was published by the Royal Geographical Society of London.

–In 1852, he returned to England, but the ship burned and sank, taking most of his collection and notes.

–In 1854, he started an eight years series of travels to Malaysia and Indonesia for eight years, collecting 110,00o insects, 7,500 shells, 8050 bird skins (I never think of birds having skin exactly, but I guess so) and a bunch of other stuff.  He wrote a very famous book called The Malay Archipelago.

–In 1856 he visited Charles Darwin and told him to publish quickly or someone would beat him to it (actually, he himself had written his “Sarawak Law” paper, which was getting close to the secret of evolution)—so it was an extraordinarily generous visit, in my opinion.

–In 1858, Wallace had his “eureka” moment in Indonesia when the idea of natural selection came to him. He wrote a detailed essay and sent it to Darwin.

–Darwin had actually already discovered the idea of natural selection, so he didn’t know what to do. So the Linnean Society’s journal published both Darwin’s and Wallace in its August 20 issue, with Darwin first. Darwin also quickly finished up On the Origin of Species.

Wallace continued to be an amazing collector and authority of the region. What he is most famous for now (and the BBC mentioned this), is the “Wallace Line.” This line is drawn between certain Southeast Asian Islands and it notes where Australian-type animals (such as marsupials) live on one side and Asian-style animals live on the other.

Wallace wrote 700 articles and 22 books. And when he returned to Britain, he was one of the most famous scientists of his day, and also had strongly humanitarian ideas as well.

So why should anyone care about Albert Russell Wallace? One reason is that as courageous and brilliant as Charles Darwin was (and he was), he didn’t come up with his ideas in a vacuum. As with every great idea or understanding, it comes partly from some kind of collective upwelling—from some kind of community of ideas. And secondly, I think that the kind of curiosity and hunger for knowledge that Wallace represented, his incredible diligence and thoroughness, is also worth celebrating. Because although he was celebrated in his day, he clearly did not do his work because he wanted to be famous. He did it because he had that very special drive in him that is beautifully impractical and magnificently human, just to learn something new.

For more information (I certainly got a lot here) check out

Prompt: What is one thing in the natural world you’d like to know more about?

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