Sunday, February 8, 2009


There is a moment when I wonder at the serendipity of it all, the sheer improbability of being at the right place at the right time in a chain of events that stretches over millions of years, and, at one level, begins with the death of a living creature some part of which is fossilized. As impressive as the very long odds against that fossilization occurring in the first place might be, what I find most striking that I am the one who first lays eyes on that fossil as it is unveiled as the shale is split or as it tumbles into the surf from the crumbling cliff side. What an amazing coming together of a vast string of probabilities (or, better, improbabilities).

I was reminded of this by an article, “The Work in Darwin’s Shadow,” that ran in today’s Washington Post (Sunday, February 08, 2009). It describes the rosewood cabinet purchased in 1979 by Robert Heggestad who was so taken by the appearance of the cabinet that he expressed no interest in what its 26 slender drawers contained. As beautiful as the cabinet is today, its contents take one’s breath away. Each drawer (one for each letter of the alphabet) is filled with insects, shells, and other specimens; over 1,500 insect specimens reside here. All of these specimens were collected and curated in this cabinet by the great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, the man who, independent of Charles Darwin, saw in natural selection the powerful engine of speciation. Amazingly, Heggestad cared for the cabinet and its contents for three decades, though, for much of that time, he had no idea of the treasure he was shepherding. That intersection of man and cabinet 30 years ago – so fortuitous, how easily these contents could have been lost.

I hope that in our rush to celebrate Darwin’s dual anniversaries this year, we don’t lose sight of Wallace’s genius. In 1858, Wallace sent his paper “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type” to Darwin who was staggered to discover someone else had had the scientific insights that he had been working on for years but had yet to publish. It moved him and his friends to act. As Loren Eiseley wrote in Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X: New Light on the Evolutionists, “If it had not been for the mere chance that Alfred Russel Wallace chose to dispatch the account of his discovery to Darwin, we might today be acclaiming him [Wallace] as the founder of modern biology.” (p. 14)


A couple of relevant websites:

* The Alfred Russel Wallace Page

* 30 Days Of Evolution Blogging In Honor Of Darwin Day

1 comment:

  1. Tony,

    Wow, that's a great story about Wallace's cabinet. It makes me want to know more. I have been a fan of Wallace ever since I read Song of the Dodo, which is one of the best natural history books of the last decade or so. Thanks also for your comments on my blog.


Nature Blog Network