In Darwin’s shadow

The world is celebrating the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth,but Alfred Russel Wallace,who co-discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection,has become a footnote in the history of science

Written by L A Times,Washington Post | Published:February 22, 2009 10:35 pm

It was in 1979,in an antiques shop in Arlington,Virginia,that a young law school graduate named Robert Heggestad noticed a lovely rosewood cabinet parked behind the counter. How much? Six hundred,the shopkeeper said. Sold,Heggestad said. The shopkeeper asked,“Don’t you want to know what’s in it?” Heggestad said,“Not really.”

It was,it turned out,a cabinet of wonders. It is now in Heggestad’s dining room. Open up the cabinet,and the world of 2009 vanishes,replaced by the world of a very meticulous,extraordinarily curious 19th-century naturalist.

There are butterflies and beetles,moths and shells. There’s a small bird. Flies. Bees. Praying mantises. Tarantulas. Seedpods. A hornet’s nest. This is the specimen collection of Alfred Russel Wallace.

Wallace was a field biologist who never cared about notoriety,which may explain why so few people know that he co-discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection. The world is celebrating the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth,but Wallace had the same idea that made Darwin famous,and he arrived at it independently while collecting insects in the Malay Archipelago. The tale of Darwin and Wallace,and how one became synonymous with evolution and the other a footnote,is one of the great dramas in the history of science.

Heggestad himself knew almost nothing about Wallace until two years ago. “I’d forgotten his name. I knew it was some important British biologist,” he said. “I didn’t appreciate what I had for many years. It was kind of a show-and-tell piece. It’s a beautiful piece of furniture.” Hoping to sell it,he then read popular books and magazine articles on Wallace. Soon,Heggestad’s research began to fill up his dining room.

Heggestad hired a handwriting expert to study the labels in the collection and in the only other Wallace collection,at the London museum,and she concluded that they matched. Heggestad won’t say how much he thinks the collection is now worth. “It’s very,very valuable. It’s priceless. There’s nothing like it in the world,” he said.

The cabinet has 26 drawers labelled A to Z,designed to hold a specimen collection. “I think it’s a fabulous thing,” said David Grimaldi,curator of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “I think it’s a national treasure,actually.”

Heggestad has been painstaking in its care,using flakes of mothballs to ensure that no invading creatures will eat up the 1,500-odd preserved insects in the collection.

The provenance of the cabinet becomes mysterious as the narrative moves back in time. Heggestad has documented that Anthony Juliano III of Drexel Galleries in Philadelphia bought the cabinet in 1964 at a sale of unclaimed baggage. Sold again at auction in 1973,the cabinet was described as being “of Empire Period,all drawers are dovetailed with specially made glass lids,which were originally hermetically sealed”. How it left Wallace’s possession is unknown. He may have sold it for income. Wallace was known to have travelled in the United States in 1886 and 1887,including a jaunt to Washington.

Wallace was a professional specimen collector,which meant that he spent much of his life far from civilisation,in remote jungles and isolated islands. During a malarial fever in February 1858,he had a revelation about a mechanism that could cause certain traits among species to be favoured over time—what would become known as the survival of the fittest. He jotted down his thoughts and mailed a paper outlining his theory to the foremost naturalist of his era: Charles Darwin.

Darwin was aghast. He had been developing his theory of evolution since the 1830s but never published it,fearing that it would cause a great public tumult and undoubtedly upset his extremely devout wife. Now he feared he had been scooped by an obscure bug collector.

Darwin’s friends came to his rescue. They arranged for a gathering of the Linnean Society of London,where they presented a “joint communication” by Darwin and Wallace,even as the latter was still on the other side of the world. A scientist read an unpublished essay and a private letter written by Darwin that outlined his theory. Then another scientist read Wallace’s paper. The event established evolution as a powerful scientific theory; it also established Darwin as having scientific priority.

With Wallace’s breeze at his back,Darwin quickly finished his masterpiece,On the Origin of Species,published in 1859.

Wallace never begrudged his fate,and he became Darwin’s friend,even using the term “Darwinism” to describe the theory of evolution. At the 50th-anniversary celebration of the 1858 joint communication,Wallace said Darwin deserved the glory. He noted that Darwin had spent two decades developing the theory,while Wallace had spent a week.

Wallace was a bit of an eccentric,dabbling in fringe science even after he had made his contribution to the revolutionary theory of evolution. Unlike Darwin,he did not believe that natural selection could explain human consciousness.

“Wallace was in the field all the time,suffering from malaria and all sorts of stuff. Wallace was also a real,broad naturalist,and Darwin would have specimens sent to him,” Grimaldi said. “I think in many respects Wallace was as talented,if not more talented,than Darwin.”

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