The Making of a Theory: Darwin, Wallace, and Natural Selection – John Rubin – HHMI (2014)

This documentary does it right. The theory of evolution was co-discovered independently by two biologists that lived within the same time period. Darwin and Wallace were well known in their time but Wallace’s name gradually has been overshadowed by Darwin. Today we rarely (almost never) hear the name Alfred Russell Wallace. This documentary does a good job to revive Wallace’s name. Wallace was quite an impressive personality and his life most certainly was inspirational. He knew what “survival” really meant.

Produced by Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), The Making of a Theory tells biographies of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace and explores scientific discoveries made by the two naturalists. Together they overturned the long-held idea that life is static and unchanging. Further, they provided a mechanism for how life evolves.

Early in his career, Wallace partnered with another self-thought amateur naturalist Henry Walter Bates (well known for Batesian Mimicry in butterflies) who was mentorial for him. Both did not have the family financial resources that Darwin had, or the connections with academia. Being on a naval vessel to circumnavigate the World would be a dream for them. Nevertheless, they made their way to the Amazon on a commercial trading ship. Wallace’s bread and butter came from beetles and butterflies, moths and ants, birds. He collected and prepared hundreds of thousands of specimens and made a living by selling them to natural history museums. Wallace lost his entire collection of specimens on his return trip from the Amazons when his boat Helen caught fire and sank. He survived being shipwrecked in the Atlantic ocean. Not long after this ordeal he set sail again to Malay Archipelago where he began making outstanding observations. He was never afraid of starting from scratch.

Islands were truly eye opening for both Darwin and Wallace. Galapagos and Malay Archipelago formed the perfect setting for them to relate their observations with evolving species. Just like the Galapagos finches and tortoises gave clues to Darwin, distribution of many animals and plants including birdwing butterflies, mammals gave clues to Wallace. In his 1855 the ‘Sarawak law’ paper he states ‘the following law may be deduced from these [preceding] facts: Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.’

Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.
–Sarawak Law / A.R. Wallace

Wallace made 96 journeys among the islands and visited some again and again over the span of eight years. In May 1856, he took a Chinese schooner from Singapore to Bali, which he had no intention of visiting, but he figured he could find a way from there to Lombok and then on to Makassar on the island of Sulawesi. This accidental change in travel route gave Wallace the most important discovery of his expedition. He found the dividing line between the fauna of Asia and Australia known as the Wallace’s Line. Of course he didn’t know about concepts that will take hold much later such as the plate tectonics or continental drift but vecame the founder of the scientific discipline called biogeography. Wallace wrote 22 books in his life time and by far the most cited one is the Malay Archipelago where he discovered the Natural Selection idea.

A century after his death 2013 was a commemorative year for Wallace. Until then only a few documentaries focused on this extremely influential biologist of his time including Jacob Bronowski’s 1973 series The Ascent of Man and The Forgotten Voyage (1983) by Peter Crawford. In 2013 BBC also produced a two part documentary on Wallace called Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero.

 

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