Thursday, February 12, 2009

Being There

Darwin Day. I like it. A science holiday! Even though no one stays home and there are no presents. It's ok, we'll work on that. It will evolve.

The only part that bugs me is the "Darwin". Evolution has two dads.

History and convenience have naturally selected Charles Darwin as the spokesmodel for natural selection. Which is fine. Darwin did a lot of good work and he did, technically, make the discovery. But then he sat around with it. One of the most important ideas in modern history languished in a notebook while Darwin refined data and fussed over numbers.

Meanwhile, Alfred Wallace wandered around the jungle taking notes. The guy was a dauntless adventurer and explorer. Extremely clever. David Quammen wrote a wonderful book called Song of the Dodo that tells the story better than I ever could, so I will simply point you in that direction for further edification, rather than trying to recount it all here. But Alfred Wallace figured out evolution too. Just by wandering around with it. Wallace decided to actually share the information with the world, and started writing up papers.

A mutual friend of Darwin and Wallace alerted Darwin that he was about to lose his precedence. At which point Darwin finally discovered natural selection for the rest of us. Bio-nerd facepalm. To be fair, he shared credit with Wallace. They had an amicable relationship and Wallace himself was a staunch defender of Darwin's work. I do not mean to imply that there was bad blood between them, or that you should dislike Charles Darwin.

But it's Darwin Day. If we're going to have a science holiday, it shouldn't be tainted with stolen credit. Science has enough of that already.

Charles Darwin may be evolution's dad, but Alfred Wallace was evolution's cool dad. We should be thanking both of them.

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