Posts Tagged ‘Origin of Species’

The flippin’ ship caught on fire, but he found more butterflies

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Continuing the Q2C Lectures, this afternoon Melle and I went to see “Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species” (not uploaded yet, but you can see it here:

The presenter was Sean B. Carroll, an author and biologist from the University of Wisonsin-Madison, and whose book of the same name was recently nominated for the 2009 National Book Award.

This lecture really was a love story. Carroll’s love for the adventures, lives and personal stories of three key people in the development of the Theory of Evolution and Origin of Species. We all know Darwin, of course, but perhaps just as intriguing is the role that two friends: Alfred Wallace and Henry Bates.

Darwin set out on the Beagle in 1831 for a 1-year voyage that turned into 5 years on the sea (apparently, the stalwart captain wanted to recheck some measurements so they crossed the ocean twice). Considering Darwin was horribly seasick for every day he was on the water, you can imagine the excruciating day-to-day he must have had. But even before he got very far, he uncovered “some bones” which turned out to be fossils, including an extinct mega-rodent-mammal now known as Mylodon Darwinii (whose desiccated poo we admired just recently at the ROM!).

According to Carroll, when Darwin arrived at the Galapagos, he was more than underwhelmed – just some weirdo aquatic lizards, some big turtles and a crapload of birds. He described it as “hell on earth”. However, he did his job and detailed the various mocking birds in the islands. It was on the second voyage (while the captain was measuring stuff) as he transcribed his journals that he had the first inklings of what would become his theory. But of course, if you know the story, he did not publish his thoughts until a good 15 years later, in 1859 AFTER the concept was briefly introduced alongside another little paper called “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type” in 1858. By none other than Alfred Wallace.

So let’s dial it back a few years – Darwin already knows why species differ but he hasn’t talked publicly about it yet. It’s 1848. The boys (Wallace and Bates) put together a scheme to get the hell out of England for parts exotic in the Amazon – where they hoped to collect specimens for themselves and sell some to other collectors, all well hunting for the “origin of species”, already a hot topic in the fecund scientific circles of Victorian England.

They made it to the Amazon but decided to part ways after about a year. Wallace made his way up the Rio Negro, and as well as collecting specimens (i.e. killing and pickling things), he amassed a collection of live animals to take with him back to Merry Old. After about 4 years, and a couple thousand kilometers up the Rio Negro, Wallace was dang tired and he decided to go home. He made it back to port and caught a ride on the Helen – a ship headed back to England.

Oopsie. There was a fire. On the ship. Where all of his specimens, writings and those poor live animals were loaded. He made it to a leaky emergency boat with nothing except a small box with some sketches of butterflies. Then he spent 12 days on the open ocean before he was rescued. After recovering for 18 months in England, the wingnut decided to go back on the seas – this time to the Malay Archipelago (Malayasia, Indonesia…). For the next 8 years he island-hopped, gathered more specimens and had some deep thoughts. Here’s what he noticed about the butterflies–some were noxious to birds, and some were not, and some that were not really LOOKED like the ones that were, so he wondered why that would be. Dunno, maybe SURVIVAL, of the um, FITTEST?

Another thought he had was that there’s an invisible line through the islands — one one side were species that were Australian in nature (marsupials, even if they were in the trees instead of on the ground), and on the other were species that were Asian in nature (mammalian). The Wallace Line as it’s still called today was early evidence for co-location of species and species variation (never mind the fact that the land masses used to be attached).

Somewhere along the way, he was still writing to Bates, and came into correspondence with Darwin (who was already known for treatises on things other than species differentiation). Leading up to that fateful day when he sends Darwin a letter basically laying out the exact thing that Darwin has been writing privately for 15 years. Had Wallace not sent this letter, more than likely we would not seen On Origin of Species until after Darwin’s death.

And what about Bates? Well, he soldiered on in the Amazon for a crazy 11 years. He discovered something like 8,000 species (not specimens, SPECIES) and continued to be close friends with Wallace and Darwin and many other scientific types in the day.

The impact of the presentation was enhanced by Carroll’s use of primary documents like journals and letters. Nothing beats reading/seeing the science come together through the everyday thoughts or unguarded life of its thinkers.

He also reminded me of one of my favourite professors who taught Victorian literature. Thanks to him, I’ve already had the privilege of reading Wallace and Darwin and Lyell and Paley in the originals. His idea was that you need to understand the culture to understand the literature. Dickens is different when you’re immersed in the thoughts of his contemporaries. So holla, Dr Hair!

I still have a few more lectures to go, if you still have the stamina to read about them afterward…