24 June 2008

'I am afraid the ship's on fire', or why this isn't The Helen Project. (Repost)

Originally posted March 3rd, 2007 on our old site.

During his voyages abroad in the 19th century, a young, well-educated Englishman observed a world full of astonishing biological diversity. He developed an insatiable need to make sense of it all, so he kept meticulous records and stockpiled his specimens for further study back home. He drew inspiration from Charles Lyell, Alexander von Humboldt and Thomas Malthus. The combination of these experiences sparked his conception of natural selection as a mechanism for evolution.

His name was Alfred Russel Wallace and his ship was the brig Helen.

In 1848 at the age of 25, the year of this photograph, Wallace set out across the seas to do some naturalizing (as one did). After four years in the Amazon basin, he boarded the Helen with his specimens, and after three weeks at sea, the captain approached Wallace and calmly announced, 'I am afraid the ship's on fire. Come and see what you think of it.'

Though Wallace and the crew were rescued, Wallace's specimens were lost. Not to be put off, he trotted off on a second voyage, this time to the Malay Archipelago. It was here that he established himself as the "grandfather of biogeography" when he published his observations on the geographical line, later called the "Wallace Line" in his honor, that divides the fauna of Asia and Australasia. He also began to pull together a theory that explained the origin of the variety of species that he so energetically collected and recorded.

In the meantime, back in England, one Charles Darwin was sitting on the same theory, which he had hit on twenty years earlier but was keeping secret until he could amass the overwhelming amount of evidence he thought necessary to go public with such a blasphemous theory. When he received a letter from Wallace seeking his advice on publishing his (nearly identical) ideas on evolution, Darwin was spurred into action. In an admirable instance of scientific collegiality, Darwin and Wallace shared the limelight: their joint paper was presented at the Linnaean Society in the summer of 1858.

The paper was met with resounding silence. Though it is true that the president of the society wrote in his annual report that the year had not been marked by any discoveries which "revolutionize science", and some have interpreted this to mean that the paper had had little to no impact, there was in fact a detectable buzz. All of this changed That buzz, though, crescendoed to a roar in late 1859 when Darwin lit a public firestorm by publishing his eminently readable (if not readably titled) book On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. Wallace, on the other hand, shrank into relative obscurity, partly the result of his far-from-scientific dabblings in spiritualism which earned the disdain of "serious" scientists.

In other words, if it hadn't been for Darwin's stellar ability to communicate science to the masses, Wallace's penchant for for the supernatural, and a flaming shipwreck off the coast of Brazil, this might have been The Helen Project.

For more on Alfred Russel Wallace, visit the Wallace Collection website at the Natural History Museum in London and learn a bit more about the man who might have been Darwin.


George Beccaloni (aka Wallace's Rottweiler) said...

Well I guess it falls to me as 'Wallace's Rottweiler' (sigh!) to point out that there were a few small errors in your account, the main one being that there was a lot more reaction to the 1858 paper in 1858 and 1859 than is commonly supposed. For more information see the following page of my website (about half way down): http://wallacefund.info/faqs-myths-misconceptions

Karen James said...

Thanks, George, I'm somewhat embarrassed not to have corrected this since I wrote the original post, especially since in the interim you personally disabused me of this very misconception! I have made the correction above, including a link to your excellent site as a peace offering.