Friday 8 January 2016


Any fule kno that Charles Darwin dreamed up the theory of evolution by natural selection from his experiences studying differences in the genitalia of barnacles, pigeons with feathered feet, the pollination antics of orchids, deaf cats, and watching chimpanzees Pan troglodytes  in the zoo.  I say 'dreamed up' this great explanatory theory, but really it was an insight based on deep knowledge of his biological material.  He found that different species are not all completely different, but gradedly different: we look shockin' similar to our parents, have common traits that mark us as human, are clearly more similar to chimps than either of us are to dogs or horses. If you can access biochemical rather than just anatomical information then you find striking similarities between us and yeast or even bacteria. Darwin's insight was to come up with a coherent theory that explained how this gradation of similarity might have come about.  Darwin was well-heeled and came from money, and he married Emma the Potter's Daughter and her fortune, so there was no need for him to earn a living hewing coal or driving a train.

My fatal flaw as a scientist is 'finish', when I've solved the latest puzzle to my own satisfaction, I'm all jitzy to start on the next thing rather than writing everything up and submitting it to a journal so that the rest of the world can see what we've discovered . . . and possibly call "rubbish!" and do their own parallel experiments. Darwin's Big Idea was worked out in its essentials in his unpublished First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837) less that a year after returning from his round-the-world trip in HMS Beagle 27/Dec/1831-02/Oct/1836.  It lay there festering/gestating/fermenting for more than 20 years until he was galvanised into writing it up formally and submitting it for peer-review. Where it would have been a shoo-in because Darwin was so well connected in the scientific world. The event which evoked the galvanic response and forced Darwin to expose his theory to the public was a letter from Alfred Russell Wallace.  Who? What? Where?

Wallace's family had far less money than the Darwin-Wedgwood's, although neither did he grow up in a cardboard box eating maggots. Far from going to Cambridge University, however, a further slump in the Wallace fortune required him to leave school at 14 and start earning his keep. He trained as a surveyor and worked at a variety of jobs until at the age of 25 he shipped out to Brazil with his pal Henry Bates to see if they could make a fortune hunting exotic beetles and butterflies for sale to collectors and institutions back in England. From there, after adventures that today's youth only experiences on-line, He travelled to the Dutch East Indies to continue bug-hunting and paying deep attention to the natural world in all its tropical mind-jangling diversity.
His parallel and independent theory of natural selection did in fact come to him in a dream as he sweated through another bout of malaria on the island of Halmahera [map above] halfway between Sulawesi/Celebes and New Guinea. Shortly thereafter he mailed "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type" a summary of his new ideas to Darwin with catalytic results at the other end. Halmahera is also one of three small islands where Semioptera wallacii Wallace's standardwing bird-of-paradise [Picture L], which he discovered and described in the same momentous year of 1858. He felt that was his notable contribution to science.  But as a collector at the geographical frontier of science, numerous species are named after him: fungi, plants, lice, snails, dragonflies, loads of butterflies, dozens of beetles, at least 20 birds and three mammals: a marsupial Myoictis wallacei, a primate Tarsius wallacei, and Wallace's stripe-faced fruit bat Styloctenium wallacei. Today is Wallace's birthday (8th Jan 1823), so it's a nice place to stop his story at the height of his scientific success.  Scientists subsequently saw fit to drum him out of the boy's club because he continued to be 'out there' with his ideas about things that all scientists now agree upon aka any fule kno.
More islands, including the one (Cocos)
where Darwin had another of his great ideas.

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