Who was that other guy who discovered evolution? A few extra things to remember and celebrate as Darwin turns 200

Tips for a wild and rowdy celebration of Darwin's 200th birthday.

Posted Feb 13, 2009

Just to be clear from the onset, I must confess a preference for underdogs. I love to watch nervous audience members stump distinguished scientists with tough questions. When I watch the Olympics, I secretly root for discus throwers from Lithuania and tennis players from Togo. Thus, on this special day, an incredibly special day, this celebration of Darwin's 200th birthday, I am reminded of the forgotten.

Let us pity the young, white, and well-behaved Alfred Russell Wallace. Science is a brutally competitive arena of politics and egos. But not little Alfred. He was in awe of Darwin's wide range of knowledge. After all, in the mid-1800's, following his magic carpet ride on the Beagle, Darwin was king of the red carpet. He was writing about the volcanoes of Tahiti, forests of Tierra del Fuego, and iguanas of the Galapagos Islands (the Bo Jackson of the intellectual elite). With such deep wisdom, Alfred didn't hesitate to send Darwin a manuscript in the hope, just the hope, that he might be given feedback on his blasphemous idea. It was heresy to suggest that something other than God was responsible for life and death and in a nutshell, Alfred told Darwin that environmental stress might explain why some insect and animal species outlive others. Darwin was petrified (maybe?). Alfred had stumbled upon the same ideas that Darwin had been scribbling away at for nearly 20 years. To avoid being scooped, exactly one year after this correspondence, Darwin wrote the book that would change the world. The awkwardly titled, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. Now other people had written about evolution but what nobody seemed to grasp was how evolution worked. Darwin nailed it. Then again, so did Alfred.

Darwin always, always recognized Alfred's work but Darwin's friends were powerful and they made sure credit was given to him. Him alone. Over time, history kept this nice, simple storyline about one man and his idea.  History mirrors our own desire to keep things nice and simple. Often too simple. Just the same, history mirrors our own preference for the status quo (when we're part of the powerful majority). Thus, like many others before and after, Alfred tends to be forgotten. But more than Alfred's byline in history, an important lesson was lost: great ideas require the collaboration of great minds. Darwin needed Alfred. Alfred inspired Darwin, because if two people independently arrived at this idea, maybe it wasn't so crazy after all. In a weird way, Alfred provided the support that Darwin needed for his explorations into forbidden territory.

Each of us needs to surround ourselves with people who support, rather than hinder or belittle, our passionate pursuits. On this day, I celebrate a simple, modest idea of how one species changes into another, eradicating the need for superstition and magical explanation. I celebrate the need for curiosity and the willingness to explore new, uncertain terrain. Without these enduring strengths, we might survive, but we won't evolve. I celebrate Darwin. Finally, I celebrate Alfred Russell Wallace and the often forgotten teammates that play a role in discoveries, big and small, throughout history. Sometimes simplicity and certainty should take a backseat to the full story. Only with the details, can we replicate such great feats in our own lives.