WASHINGTON – It was in 1979, in an antiques shop in Arlington, Va., 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, Dont you want to know whats in it? Heggestad said, Not really.
It was, it turned out, a cabinet of wonders. It is now in Heggestads dining room in his Washington apartment. 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. Theres a small bird. Flies. Bees. Praying mantises. Tarantulas. Seedpods. A hornets nest.
This is the specimen collection of Alfred Russel Wallace.
There is no shame in failing to recognize the name. Wallace was a field biologist who never cared about fame, which may explain why so few people know that he co-discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection.
On Thursday, the world will celebrate the bicentennial of Charles Darwins 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.
Wallace was a professional specimen collector, which meant that he spent much of his life far from civilization, 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 favored 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 devout wife. Now he feared he had been scooped by an obscure bug collector.
Darwins 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 A scientist read an unpublished essay and a private letter written by Darwin that outlined his theory.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 Wallaces paper. The event established evolution as a powerful scientific theory; it also established Darwin as having scientific priority.
With Wallaces 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 Darwins 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.
I was then, as often since, the young man in a hurry; he, the painstaking and patient student, seeking ever the full demonstration of the truth that he had discovered, rather than to achieve immediate personal fame, Wallace said.
Wallace was a bit of an eccentric, dabbling in fringe science even after he had made his signal contribution to the revolutionary theory of evolution. Unlike Darwin, he did not believe that natural selection could explain human consciousness. By the end of his life, he was sometimes dismissed as an oddball; only in recent years have scholars come to appreciate his achievements and his centrality in the discovery of evolution.
The cabinet in Heggestads home offers a glimpse into Wallaces thinking. This is as close as a modern scientist can get to looking at the world through Wallaces eyes. David Grimaldi, curator of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, doesnt sign on to the notion making the rounds in some precincts that Darwin lifted aspects of Wallaces theory and effectively stole Wallaces glory. But he does think Wallace deserves greater acclaim.
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.