Kinds of Original Thought


It is curious how we hit on the same idea.                        – Charles Darwin

There are and have been  more original thinkers in the world than are recorded in history. Original thinking is of there kinds or orders:

First order originality is when a person not only gets an idea for the first time, but also publishes it one way or another and gets full credit for it.

Second order originality is when although it be original to a person, someone else had the same idea and had published it earlier. But, thanks to historians, eventually one acquires some credit for it.

Third order originality is when the original  idea comes too late for being recognized by the world.

Consider the following example of first order originality. If we are asked  what name comes to mind when we hear the words natural selection and evolution, chances are most people would say Darwin.

But there is another name that deserves to be mentioned here: Alfred Russell Wallace (born: 8 January 1823) who famously wrote. “In my solitude I have pondered much on the incomprehensible subjects of space, eternity, life and death.”

In the early 1850s Wallace formulated the principle of natural selection. He wrote about a struggle for existence “in which the weakest and the least perfectly organized must always succumb.” In 1858, he sent his essay On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type to Charles Darwin. It was received and read with great admiration and some shock. “If Wallace had my manuscript sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract!” Darwin exclaimed.

When he was eighteen, he bought a book on botany to guide him in making a herbarium. The book drew him to a deeper study of nature. In order to explore plants and animals in distant lands he set sail for the Amazon in Brazil with his friend Henry Bates. He was overwhelmed by the plush richness of the rain forests; he followed remote rivers, encountered indigenous peoples, marveled at the variety and abundance of plants, trees and flowers, birds, reptiles and monkeys.

He became to reject the idea that species were fully formed when they first came to be. He was convinced that they arose as a result of physical laws, that they changed under external influences. He jotted down the details of whatever he saw and reflected upon. But he lost his notes in an accident on his way back home. In fact, he barely escaped when his ship caught fire.

The calamity at sea did not deter him from taking another long voyage, this time to the Indonesian archipelago, thousands of miles away. He was away once again from his native England, for eight years this time, studying the land and the people, the rocks and the life forms of those regions. He amassed information on  thousands of specimens: enough material for many scientific papers.

When Russell was exploring the Amazon little did he suspect that in less than a hundred and fifty years later, it would be in great peril, thanks largely to cattle and leather trade. Nor could he have known that the alarming deforestation will have grave consequences for humanity at large. And yet, already in the 1860s, Wallace was concerned about species extinction. He urged governments to do something for the preservation of various plants, trees and animals, warning that, if that were not done, “future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations.” How true even today! One shudders to think of what our current collective behavior will have on future generations.

Though not religious in a traditional sense, Wallace was attracted to spiritualism. He published a small book on the Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural. This shocked some of the naturalists like Charles Darwin and Darwin’s ardent supporter Thomas Huxley. They didn’t understand how this apostle of evolution could speak of the spirit. But then Faraday, Maxwell and many other outstanding creative contributors to science, were also deeply religious.

Wallace lived to the ripe old age of ninety, arguing for socialism and women’s rights in his later years.

When we talk about biological evolution and our role in affecting the ecosystem it is good to remember Alfred Wallace as well.

January 8, 2016

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