03 June 2011

"Ardent Beetle-hunters"

I read an interesting paper from this book today. The book Natural Selection and Beyond: The Intellectual Legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace looks like a really great collection of papers. I feel like I know as much about Wallace as your average biologist but looking at the table of contents and reading the introduction shows me that there was a lot more to this man than what we often remember.

Thanks to the generosity of the author (Andrew Berry), I have read the first paper “Ardent Beetle-hunters”: Natural History, Collecting and the Theory of Evolution. The title of the paper comes from a speech that Wallace gave on the 1st July 1908 at a meeting of the Linnean Society. Wallace credited this commonality between he and Darwin as being key in their independent development of natural selection as the process driving evolution. The author points out that both of these scientist were more than just your typical naturalists. Wallace and Darwin were gifted and were able to learn to recognize an amazing breadth of biological diversity with great rapidity. Both naturalists also had the experience of learning a limited temporal fauna which could act as a framework for organizing the vast number of new species they would discover when they traveled. I think that Wallace makes an important point in his speech when he says that he and Darwin were “collectors ... of a speculative turn of mind...constantly led to think upon the why and the how of all this wonderful variety” This ability to ask the right question is so important in science. Often a groundbreaking research begins not as an amazing epiphany but an insightful question that you struggle to answer. That struggle which in the case of natural selection lasted for years with Darwin can then lead to an amazing epiphany.

Berry's conclusion is that it was the fortuitous combination of a natural gift, exposure to a diverse group organisms (beetle collecting) and an ability to synthesize information that led to the great discoveries of Darwin and Wallace. Berry also reminds us that this pattern is not unique it is the pattern of a number of great biologists like E.O. Wilson and Ernst Mayr.

Finally the paper includes a quote that I love. It is from T.H. Huxley who after reading Origin said “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” If a scientist like Huxley can feel that way then maybe I should feel a little better as I struggle to come up with an amazing groundbreaking dissertation topic.

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