Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Bates and Wallace in Leicester

The most famous natural historian I associated with Leicester until recently was David Attenborough. But last week I caught a bit of George Beccaloni on BBC Natural History Heroes talking about Alfred Russel Wallace and how he met Henry Walter Bates in Leicester (!) when Wallace was a teacher at the Collegiate School. I've always been interested in ideas about species evolution and the history of evolutionary theory, but I never knew of Leicester's role in the events. Wallace and Bates in planned their Amazon trip here and probably spent lots of time here discussing the origin of species.

Darwin of course published On the Origin of Species where he proposed the theory that evolution proceeds through natural selection, which revolutionized the way we view biological systems and paved the way for an ecology as a discipline. But scientific discoveries always occur in a broader context of scientific discussions and arguments (and often lots of petty competitition) within scientific communities. Wallace and Bates were Darwin's peers who pushed the thinking on evolutionary theory forward through their observations of variations within and among species. Wallace came to the same conclusions as Darwin had regarding the mechanism that drives evolution, and his ideas about natural selection were initially published together with Darwin's findings, prompting Darwin to wrap up the longer monograph he'd been working on for more than a decade and get it out before anyone else (namely Wallace) could.

Bates' contributions to evolutionary theory came mainly from long hours observing species interactions in the biologically diverse Amazon. He was the first to observe that some species imitate the markings of another poisonous or dangerous species to avoid being eaten, known as "Batesian mimicry". His work with Wallace helped set the stage for biogeography, or the study of the spatial distribution of organisms and their variation. I'm glad to know we can "claim" him as a Leicester export.

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