This will be my sole contribution to Wallace Year, and, I suppose, an insubstantial but possibly humorous one.
In 2003, my friend friend Andrew Berry, a lecturer at Harvard, published a fine collection of Wallace’s writing: Infinite Tropics: An Alfred Russel Wallace Anthology. While he was putting it together, he told me that Steve Gould had agreed to write the preface. I instantly had a premonition of what Gould would contribute, guessing that he would use a baseball metaphor to emphasize Wallace’s “secondary” status as less prominent discoverer of natural selection. So, on June 15, 2001, I wrote a parody/prediction of Gould’s preface, emulating his style:
In the cathedral of baseball history, Roger Maris occupies only a small spandrel in comparison to the great—in both physical and athletic stature—George Herman Ruth. Indeed, Maris’s crewcut-topped visage has all but vanished from our memory, while the image of bandy-legged Yankee #3 remains undimmed. Yet in 1961 Maris surpassed the Babe’s record by poling a record sixty-one home runs out of American League parks.
Why do we remember the Great Bambino so vividly, while Maris has retreated to but a small nook of our cerebrum? Surely because the Babe was the first to reach the magic “sixty” mark. It is sad that precedence counts for so much in human history—perhaps as an evolutionary byproduct of male competitiveness. And in the scientific race to be first, there is no sadder story than that of The Man Who Came Second to Darwin: the profligate but neglected Alfred Russel Wallace.
On September 5 of that year, Gould sent Andrew his real preface, which was uncannily close to what I had produced. The main difference was in the baseball players chosen. This was what was published:
Perhaps all cultures do not judge in this unfair manner, but in our system, winning or being first takes all the kudos and wins all renown, whereas even the most honorable second place finish spells oblivion or, even worse, a grudging memory as an also-ran, even when your ranking did not reflect a true beating by the “winner,” but only recorded the happenstance of age or logistics. In my favorite American example, everyone knows Jackie Robinson as the first African-American player in Major League baseball (for the Brooklyn Dodgers of the national League). But who even recognizes the name of Larry Doby – a splendid ballplayer and human being – who entered the game just a few months later as the first black to play in the other division of the totality, the American League.
Wallace, as we all know – but we should know so much more about him! – devised the theory of natural selection, independently of Darwin in 1858, writing out his ideas feverishly (literally in the midst of a malarial attack) in a short paper, while doing field work in Indonesia. He sent the manuscript to Darwin, knowing about his senior colleague’s interest in evolution, but having no inkling that Darwin had devised effectively the identical theory long before in 1838, when Wallace was still a teenager. Darwin had then refined his ideas and collected data in privacy for 20 years (revealing the content only to a handful of most trusted friends), and had already written several hundred pages of a projected long book of several volumes on the subject (that Darwin would have called Natural Selection, had not Wallace’s prod spurred a decision to quicken the pace and produce the single-volumed, and still substantial, Origin of Species, published in 1859). Wallace therefore became the Larry Doby of biology, known and admired to all professionals, but effectively invisible in the public eye, except as a factoid or footnote.