In early 1858, on Ternate in Malaysia, a young specimen collector was tracking the island’s elusive birds of paradise when he was struck by malaria. ‘Every day, during the cold and succeeding hot fits, I had to lie down during which time I had nothing to do but to think over any subjects then particularly interesting me,’ he later recalled.
Thoughts of money or women might have filled lesser heads. Alfred Russel Wallace was made of different stuff, however. He began thinking about disease and famine; about how they kept human populations in check; and about recent discoveries indicating that the earth’s age was vast. How might these waves of death, repeated over aeons, influence the make-up of different species, he wondered?
Then the fever subsided – and inspiration struck. Fittest variations will survive longest and will eventually evolve into new species, he realised. Thus the theory of natural selection appeared, fever-like, in the mind of one of our greatest naturalists. Wallace wrote up his ideas and sent them to Charles Darwin, already a naturalist of some reputation. His paper arrived on 18 June, 1858 – 150 years ago last week – at Darwin’s estate in Downe, in Kent.
Darwin, in his own words, was ‘smashed’.
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