The other beetle-hunter

Today, July 1st, 150 years ago, the joint paper of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace was read to the Linnean Society of London: On the tendency of species to form varieties, and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection.”

Nature had a nice essay about Wallace, who tends to be overshadowed by Darwin.  Of modest origins, Wallace financed his tropical travels (with Henry Walter Bates) by selling specimens to museums and collectors.   His first trip to the Amazon ended in ruin–after four years of collecting he lost nearly all his specimens when the ship he was returning to England on caught fire. I don’t think any graduate student could ever be unmoved by his life story!

There’s a great deal of back and forth about who was *first* to articulate the theory of natural selection and evolution, and I’m not terribly interested in that. The reality of science is that there usually isn’t a single brilliant mind working in isolation, or a single author of an idea.  Wallace was, however, unquestionably the spur to Darwin’s plodding, methodical writing, and sped up the announcement of a radical idea about the Origin of Species.

Nature printed an excerpt from the text of Wallace’s speech accepting the first Darwin-Wallace awards from the Linnean Society of London in 1908:

“His speech on “Why did so many of the greatest intellects fail, while Darwin and myself hit upon the solution of this problem” is vintage Wallace; a mixture of self-deprecation and insight. His conclusion? ‘In early life both Darwin and myself became ardent beetle hunters.‘” {emphasis mine}

Why beetles? Beetles represent 20% of ALL species described. Lots of Ladybugs
25% of all ANIMAL species that we have identified are beetles. Simply put, there’s just a shitload of beetle species.
And right now, your brain is probably asking the same question Darwin’s and Wallace’s did:

WHY?? Why in the world are there so MANY kinds of beetles?

Tracing down the answer to that…that’s the spark that started the evolutionary fire.   Long may it rage.

Fun Beetle Sites:

Lovely Photo from Thomas Hawk

4 thoughts on “The other beetle-hunter

  1. Nice post on this important sesquicentennial, I hadn’t known they where both beetle hunters, entomologists Rock!.

    I noticed one small typo should be 20% instead of 25%.

  2. No, there is a difference between ALL species, and all ANIMAL species.

    I guess I need to make that clearer–I edited to change a bit.

  3. I was told an and interesting quote about beeltes, but I don’t think it was the ‘inordinate fondness’ one. It went something like this: an entomologist was on his deathbed, and a friend asked in a offhand manner what he thought God would look like. The old entomologist said ‘God will look like a great beetle, because that’s what he made the most of…” I wish I knew who said that. A few years after, I actually saw something very similar to it written, I think it was in book by Alan Watts, or it may have been in “Visit to a Small Planet”.

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