"I like the purple flowers that overtook the wildflower garden," emails Dan Adams. The local chicory community, a frequenter of waste places, has moved en masse to the chic new address in town for plants who garden, Dan's experimental "Flowers at the Industrial Edge," untended behind its chain-link enclosure since being soil-enriched and seeded a year ago. Chicory's flower heads (x 1.8 above) are not the corolla of petals they appear to be. Instead, they are a composite of ray florets that look like single petals, each designed to produce a single seed that will parachute away in the wind when mature. Think dandelion to get a mental image.
"Those who aren't aware of these grand concepts are culturally deprived," writes Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society of London, referring to Darwin's theory of natural selection, promulgated before the Linnean Society 150 years ago today. Only it isn't just Darwin anymore. In fact, it never was just Darwin — nor did Darwin claim it was — as evolutionary biologist/entomologist George Beccaloni, guest blogging at The Beagle Project Blog, explains:
Today we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first public announcement of what Richard Dawkins has called "… the most momentous idea ever to occur to a human mind." He was of course referring to the theory of natural selection, the primary mechanism driving the evolution of life on our planet; an idea actually discovered independently by two minds, not just one. Whilst the owner of one of these brains, Charles Darwin, is rather well known, the possessor of the other, Alfred Russel Wallace, is not exactly the household name he once was. So who was Wallace and how did he come to be the co-discoverer of what is probably the most revered (and reviled) idea in human history?
A European native that long ago escaped cultivation on these shores, Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is grown for its edible leaves [radicchio] or for the roots, which are "baked, ground, and used as a coffee substitute and additive," most famously in New Orleans's "French Market" Coffee & Chicory. AKA blue sailors, succory and coffeeweed, it is a member of Compositae or Asteraceae, the largest family of flowering plants, including asters, daisies and sunflowers.
Beccaloni reveals how Darwin's friends Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker finessed events to assure the lion's share of credit for the theory would go to him:
Unbeknownst to Wallace, Darwin had of course discovered natural selection many years earlier. He was therefore horrified when he received Wallace's letter and immediately appealed to his friends Lyell and Joseph Hooker for advice on what to do. They famously decided to present Wallace's essay (without first asking his permission!), along with two unpublished excerpts from Darwin's writings on the subject, to a meeting of the Linnean Society of London on July 1st 1858. These documents were published together in the Society's journal a month later as the paper "On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; And On the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection" …
This unfortunate episode prompted Darwin to abandon writing his big book on evolution and instead, he rushed to produce an "abstract" of what he had written up until that point.
"The flower heads consist of 10-20 spreading ray florets that are light blue, fading to white — they are about 1–1½" across. For each ray floret, there is a light [dark?] blue stamen, terminating in a blue [bilabiate] anther. There are five small teeth at the tip of each ray floret. The flower heads bloom during the morning, and close up later in the day unless the skies are cloudy."
The result was the publication fifteen months later of On the Origin of Species, "a book which Wallace remarked would '… live as long as the Principia of Newton,'" notes Beccaloni. Speaking of Newton, "In terms of sheer IQ, Newton was — frankly — way ahead — offscale — an utterly singular intellect," admits Royal Society President Rees in his tribute referenced above:
First, at the old-fashioned school that Darwin and I went to, it was drummed into us that character was more important than brains. Darwin was an engaging and admirable character. He had a fulfilled life: adventurous early on; five years of voyages on the Beagle; and then serene and productive decades among his family in Down House.
In contrast, Newton wasn't a man you'd want to meet: he was solitary and unbalanced when young — vain and vindictive in his later years.
Darwin's second attraction is the accessibility of his ideas. Newton wrote in Latin, and his maths was a challenge to the greatest scholars of his time. Darwin in contrast, is neither arcane nor impenetrable.
His work, like all great science, is based on hard slog and a focus on detail. But it's distilled into a broad vision, conveyed in elegant prose.
Lord Monboddo was unavailable for comment [thanks to Tuck for the thought].