A Tale of Natural Selection (with Only One Survivor) ; Charles Darwin ('Man of the Millennium') Natural Historian Author of "On the Origin of Species' and the Most Lauded Scientist of All Time.Alfred Russel Wallace ('the Forgotten Genius') Impoverished Adventurer, Self Taught Naturalist and the Man Who (Almost) Pipped Darwin to the Post

By McCarthy, Michael | The Independent (London, England), May 8, 2001 | Go to article overview
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A Tale of Natural Selection (with Only One Survivor) ; Charles Darwin ('Man of the Millennium') Natural Historian Author of "On the Origin of Species' and the Most Lauded Scientist of All Time.Alfred Russel Wallace ('the Forgotten Genius') Impoverished Adventurer, Self Taught Naturalist and the Man Who (Almost) Pipped Darwin to the Post


McCarthy, Michael, The Independent (London, England)


One of the most fascinating corners of human nature is the striving for recognition, fame and glory, of leading scientists. It is fascinating because it is suppressed. Their culture does not allow its open avowal; the scientific purpose must at all times appear to be paramount, and woe betide the researchers who trumpet their stunning results at a press conference before they have been soberly peer-reviewed in a respectable journal: they are asking to end up as pariahs. Any hint of the wrong sort of publicity gives senior research scientists the shivers; when they speak to journalists of their work they are treading on eggshells. It is as if they had, in some way, excised from their souls that lust for distinction and celebrity, and all the goodies that go with them, that characterises so much of humanity.

Never believe it. Scientists are human like you and me, and, inside the straitjacket of their culture, fiercely ambitious hearts are beating. They are no more averse to a big bundle of goodies than we are; they are simply not allowed to say so. And such goodies, for the few who really succeed, who make the breakthroughs! For truly epoch-making discoveries such as Francis Crick and James Watson's unravelling of the nature of DNA, enduring world fame; for others, riches, or at least freedom from the scrabble for research funds; honours from learned institutions and from the state; and at the very least, that validation of purpose and personal identity which finally justifies the long lonely hours in the lab. If you make it. If it's your discovery. Not the other guy's. Come second, of course, and you get nothing.

So how d'you think it feels when for nearly 20 years you have been privately nurturing a radical scientific theory, one so radical and original it will entirely change the way the human race looks at itself, one which, when you publish it, will not only make you famous - world famous - it will make you one of the key figures in history, and some... some, what?... some... butterfly collector, for God's sake!, sends you a letter from some rain-soaked steaming tropical island the other side of Borneo, of all places!... and says, what d'you think of this? And there, unmistakable in his spidery scrawl, clearly articulated over 20 pages, is your very own Big Idea.

One can imagine Charles Darwin's head swimming as he read the letter from Alfred Russel Wallace at his home, Downe House in Kent, on the morning of Friday, 18 June 1858, and found to his utter disbelieving amazement that this impoverished, self-taught wandering naturalist, who was paying his way around the tropics by catching butterflies and birds for gentlemen collectors back in Britain, had beaten him to it. Stricken with malaria in a small hut on the island of Halmahera in the Moluccas, Wallace had not only worked out independently the theory of evolution, he had worked out, as had Darwin, the fulcrum on which it turned, the key mechanism by which species evolved into other species: natural selection.

In the great daily struggle for life, Wallace reasoned, everything is fiercely competing; in any species only those individuals who are fittest will survive, and the slight natural advantageous variations they embody, be it a longer horn, a sharper beak, a brighter feather, will be passed on and intensified from generation to generation until a whole new long- horned, sharp- beaked or bright-feathered species has evolved. It was a brilliant insight, and in one of the great coincidences of intellectual history, the idea had come to Wallace exactly as it had come to Darwin, sparked in a mind saturated with an image of natural history exemplified by the gloomy picture of life as struggle in Thomas Malthus's Essay on Population.

Darwin was aghast. For fully two decades as a well-off, well- bred, well- connected independent scientist he had been putting evolutionary theory and natural selection together, discussing it privately with a small number of senior colleagues, including Sir Charles Lyell, the leading geologist of the day, and Joseph Hooker, one of the leading botanists.

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A Tale of Natural Selection (with Only One Survivor) ; Charles Darwin ('Man of the Millennium') Natural Historian Author of "On the Origin of Species' and the Most Lauded Scientist of All Time.Alfred Russel Wallace ('the Forgotten Genius') Impoverished Adventurer, Self Taught Naturalist and the Man Who (Almost) Pipped Darwin to the Post
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