"The Man Who Wasn’t Darwin" in National Geographic

David Quammen’s article on Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Man Who Wasn’t Darwin,” is in the December National Geographic. It’s available online, as well as a photo gallery.

LECTURE: In Darwin’s shadow n Alfred Wallace

From the Bozeman Daily Chroncile (11/7/08):

In Darwin’s shadow: Alfred Wallace
By GAIL SCHONTZLER Chronicle Staff Writer

Charles Darwin was shocked in 1858 when he received a manuscript describing the idea of evolution through natural selection, written by a younger English naturalist working in the wilds of the Malay Archipelago, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Darwin despaired that his own theory of evolution, nurtured and perfected in secret for 20 years, was about to be scooped. But scientific friends felt both men deserved credit and arranged for the joint presentation of their papers on evolution to a London scientific society.

Those papers received scant notice. It wasn’t until Darwin whipped out a fast and dirty book “The Origins of Species” in 1859 that the world was rocked by the new idea of evolution through natural selection. Today Wallace is famous among scientists for being unknown to the public.

It’s no coincidence that two people could arrive at the same scientific breakthrough at the same time, writer David Quammen told a sold-out audience of more than 200 people Wednesday at the Museum of the Rockies.

At least 148 major discoveries fit that pattern, Quammen said, citing “The Tipping Point” author Malcolm Gladwell. Discoveries of calculus, oxygen and sun spots are just a few examples, and they suggest that scientific discoveries must be in some sense inevitable, Quammen said.

“Scientific discoveries arise from preparatory circumstances and catalytic events,” he said.

Quammen, 60, of Bozeman, award-winning author of “The Song of the Dodo” and other books on science and nature, gave his fourth and last sold-out lecture as the Wallace Stegner distinguished professor of Western American studies at Montana State University. Quammen helped bring Jane Goodall to speak in Bozeman this year, and he said he hopes to bring writer Peter Matthiesen here next spring.

In the case of evolution, the ground was prepared for both Darwin and Wallace by centuries of global exploration and the explosion of knowledge about the world’s species n from aardvarks to penguins to kangaroos.

“The old story of divine creation seemed less and less adequate,” Quammen said, “and Noah’s Ark impossibly crowded.”

Thomas Malthus’ book on population, French naturalists’ suggestion that species may change, and even popular, quasi-scientific books influenced both men as well.

The catalysts for Darwin included his voyage on the Beagle and the weeks he spent investigating species in the Galapagos islands.

For Wallace, it was the years he spent in the Amazon and the Indonesian area, working as a commercial collector of thousands of beetles, butterflies and bird skins for museums and private collectors.

Wallace was a great “bootstrap” story, Quammen said. He came from a poor family, left school at 14, educated himself, worked as a surveyor and a teacher, taught himself to identify plants and read widely, including Darwin’s book about the Beagle voyage.

Wallace ended up in the Malay Archipelago for eight years, collecting thousands of species for the commercial market. As a result he recognized something obvious n that species include lots of individual variations. Other naturalists had failed to see this, Quammen said, because of the common belief that each species was created based on an essential ideal in the mind of God.

Wallace realized that variation is fundamental, and provides the leverage for competition and survival through natural selection, Quammen said. He noticed that different species of monkeys lived on different sides of a large river. If God had created monkeys based on some ideal plan, Wallace wondered, why not put the same monkey on both sides of the river?

The answers came to Wallace in a malarial fever — that only a fraction of offspring survive, setting the stage for adaptive change and evolution by natural selection, Quammen said.

Darwin and Wallace remained on friendly terms, though their ideas differed and Darwin received the credit and fame.

They disagreed on key questions about human beings, and whether the brain and hand were subject to evolution. Wallace, who embraced spiritualism and seances, endorsed explanations that included God, while Darwin did not, Quammen said.

Darwin once wrote Wallace a friendly note, saying, “’I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child,’” Quammen said.

Quammen said his account of Wallace’s contributions appears in the December issue of National Geographic, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the co-discovery of evolution.

Gail Schontzler is at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

David Quammen: "Contagious Cancer: The Evolution of a Killer"

From the Bozeman Daily Chronicle (3/31/08):

QUAMMEN IN HARPER’S — A report by Bozeman author David Quammen is the feature in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine. The article, “Contagious Cancer: The Evolution of a Killer,” looks at whether certain varieties of cancer can be passed from one person to another and whether that commutability is a natural evolution.

Quammen says the notion of cancer as an individual disease is one of the reasons it is so frightening and isolating: “But what makes it even more solitary for its victims is the idea, secretly comforting to others, that cancer is never contagious. … But there are exceptions.”

Quammen is the author of numerous books and articles. He currently holds the Wallace Stegner Chair at Montana State University.