Thursday 11 August 2022

Sternean Evolution?

 'To New Guinea I took an old edition of "Tristram Shandy" which I read about three times. It is an annoying & you will perhaps say a very gross book, but there are passages in it that have never been surpassed while the character of Uncle Toby has certainly never been equalled, except perhaps by that of Don Quixote...'
   Who is writing here? The clue is in the mention of New Guinea: it is the much travelled naturalist and collector Alfred Russel Wallace, he who independently of Darwin came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace is writing from Bacan in the Moluccas to his friend George Silk in London. The signature at the end of the letter is botched – 'PS A big spider fell close to my hand in the middle of my signature, which accounts for the hitch.' 
  The letter was written in the same year in which Wallace conceived his theory of natural selection – a theory that came to him in a flash when he combined the insights of a range of biologists (as we would now call them ) with Malthus's ideas on population growth. He was in the throes of the Genghis ague – malaria, as we now call it – and thrashing about on a sweat-soaked bed, his head splitting, his body racked with fever chills, when he had his light-bulb moment. Did his recent, repeated reading of "Tristram Shandy" play any part in its conception? The obvious answer is No, but there may be a Ph.D. thesis in it for someone...
  I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Russell, the 'nearly man' of evolutionary theory, the dauntless, prodigiously hard-working self-made commercial collector among all those gentlemen scientists (Darwin, Lyell, etc.), and I'm glad his star has risen again in recent years, thanks in part to the advocacy of that man of many parts Mr Bill Bailey. Wallace wrote a quite extraordinary account of an encounter with a butterfly – the one that came to be named Wallace's Golden Birdwing: 'The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause.' Oh, I don't know...

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