In Pursuit Of Truth: Darwin Day And Alfred Russel Wallace

24/04/2017 13:22

It's widely acknowledged by all who think rationally that we are living in worrying times. I myself have taken to adopting a 'fight or flight' response to watching the news. Should I pull a 'three wise monkeys' and make out like everything is okay? Or do I sink into the breach and confront things head on?

Most of the time I confront things. And when I do, I find humour is essential.

But it's actually funny how unfunny people find certain things. Like religion. And within religion, the thorny issue of evolution.

The Pew Research Centre found in 2013 that 24 % of Americans still believe that a 'supreme being guided the evolution of living things' for the purpose of creating human beings. That's a third of the population.

Which makes the work of Jim Himes an uphill struggle in certain quarters. The Democratic Representative for Connecticut's 4th congressional district has assumed the role for promoting Darwinism in the House of Representatives. Himes believes that it's the type of legislation that is needed when there is increased scepticism about science.

Himes is now in charge of the legislative proposal on the commemoration of the birth of Charles Darwin - Darwin Day - which was previously the remit of New Jersey Representative Rush Holt. Himes stresses the need for facts and truth, both of which, as we know from our daily dose of legislative stupidity, are suffering under the Trump Administration.

An admirable man is Himes. And in Darwin there is a lot to be admired.

But let me tell you a little about someone else who is just as important to the theory of evolution. Someone whom I'm almost sure you haven't heard of but is essential to the story of this pivotal discovery - the one, no less, that finally allowed science to take over the narrative from religion about man's origins.

His name is Alfred Russel Wallace. And here is my case for Wallace Day.

Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin, was a man who combined intellectual curiosity and determination with sheer guts and a touch of recklessness. Unlike Darwin, who came from the privileged classes, he had no money, no official support and was self-taught. Yet at the turn of the 1850s he ventured off into Southeast Asia, without ever having been abroad before or speaking any foreign languages, and set about discovering many new species from beetles and butterflies to flying frogs.

According to adventurer and author Paul Spencer Sochaczewski, who physically retraced Wallace's footsteps across SE Asia and which he recounts in new Wallace biography 'An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles', the naturalist's life was a "grand and improbable hero's journey" while the man himself was a "skimmer" who contributed to many different scientific disciplines.

He is far from alone in his admiration. G.K Chesterton labelled Wallace as one of the two "most important and significant figure[s] of the nineteenth century", while academia feted him with awards.

But despite Wallace formulating his own theory of survival of the fittest by natural selection in 1858, set forth in the 'Ternate Paper', named after the island off Indonesia where it was penned, it's Darwin who got all the credit.

This is despite the fact, according to Sochaczewski, that prior to Wallace sending the paper to Darwin for his thoughts, Darwin had not published one word on the subject.

Yes, he'd been thinking about evolution ("as had many other folks," notes Sochaczewski), had opened a notebook in the 1830s on the subject, but nothing more. Wallace, by contrast, had already published in scientific journals at least two important papers about it.

Yet when the theory was put before their peers at the Linnean Society, it was described as a 'joint paper' between Darwin and Wallace, with Darwin getting top billing. Wallace didn't even know the meeting was taking place, being on the other side of the world.

There is even the suggestion, Sochaczewski told me, that Darwin may have plagarised his peer, or at the east used his own contacts to influence his claim for priority.

If that didn't seal things then Darwin's publication of 'On the Origin of Species' the following year certainly did. A bestseller, the book cemented in the public's mind that Darwin discovered evolution, with Wallace left on the sidelines.

Wallace, however, never complained. His genius came with equal humility and, in fact, he championed Darwin until his death in 1913.

"How could you not like that guy?" says Sochaczewski, and I have to concur. Here's a figure who like Darwin transformed the way we know the world, but who did it all by himself, overcoming huge barriers in the process. We admire Darwin, but can be inspired by Wallace.

I may not be in quite as a prestigious position as Representative Himes, but for these reasons I am happy to put forward a national Wallace Day any day of the week.