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A Moving Ode To The Father Of Natural Selection (Nope, Not Darwin)

We’ve all heard of Charles Darwin. Why haven’t we heard of A.R. Wallace?

A Moving Ode To The Father Of Natural Selection (Nope, Not Darwin)

The theory of natural selection might be the most famous scientific idea outside of e=mc². But unlike that stroke of singular insight, the theory of natural selection had two originators. One we all know: Charles Darwin. But you’ve probably never heard of the other guy: A.R. Wallace. Now, thanks to a gorgeously designed papercraft animation, we can rectify that omission.

According to the video, Alfred Russel Wallace was an ambitious amateur naturalist who got bored of picking through ferns and shrubs in his native Britain and went off to Brazil in search of more exotic flora and fauna to catalogue. He didn’t have any money or training–just enthusiasm and grit. He was more like a “backpacker,” the video’s narrator says, than a scientist.

Wallace’s Brazilian expedition nearly ended in tragedy when the ship he was sailing back to Britain sank–along with all his painstakingly gathered specimens and notes. Undaunted, he set off for Southeast Asia where he implemented the same “grab it, jot some notes about it, stuff it in a bag” method of biological classification. He collected more than 100,000 specimens this time, but it took a bout of delirium brought on by malarial fever to catalyze his brain into delivering the insight that would connect him to Charles Darwin: “that species changed one into another over time,” driven by a mechanism of constantly competing biological adaptations over limited resources (a.k.a., “survival of the fittest”).

Wallace sent the manuscript of his idea to Charles Darwin, who was known to be interested in evolution already. Darwin was shocked at how similar Wallace’s ideas were to his own, and it lit a fire under his ass. In 1858, he joined his notes on the theory of natural selection with Wallace’s into a hasty presentation to the Linnaean Society of London–crediting himself and Wallace. He left Wallace out of his famous volume On The Origin of Species, published the following year, but Wallace took it in stride. Still, the book was what cemented Darwin’s reputation as the “author” of the theory of natural selection–and that’s why no one has ever heard of A.R. Wallace… until now.

It’s a poignant story about an amateur who stumbled into near-famousness, which makes the homemade-looking papercraft designs a wonderful visual fit. (Diamond-perfect motion graphics wouldn’t really suit the tale of a guy who tramped through the rainforest with no training, hoping to bag a toucan for science.) But the delicacy of the paper–not to mention the tenderly rendered lighting effects that bring it to life–also convey a gentleness in this bittersweet tale of lost recognition. It’s as if, in resurrecting A.R. Wallace’s legacy, filmmakers Sharon Shattuck and Flora Lichtman wanted to hold it lightly in their hands like a wounded bird. It makes you wonder: how much else of the science we take for granted was brought into the world by people who’ve been forgotten?

[via NY Times Op-Docs]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.



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