The Forgotten Naturalist

By Joykrit Mitra
BU News Service

Alfred Russel Wallace
Alfred Russel Wallace

At the time of his death in 1913, Alfred Russel Wallace was the most famous scientist in the world. He was acknowledged as the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, along with Darwin. He’d travelled the world, discovered thousands of new species, collected countless natural specimens and hobnobbed with natives closer than any Victorian gentleman would deem proper. But in today’s world, a scientist’s life rarely resembles an adventure story, and few remember him.

Some ideas we associate with Darwin were actually Wallace’s. Darwin’s trumpeters shoulder some blame for Wallace becoming a mere footnote, but so do common misconceptions about the 19th century.

Wallace was one of the most progressive men of his time, yet he attended séances and advocated phrenology, a pseudoscience that co-related intelligence with skull shape. Wallace seems a man of contradictions to modern eyes. Yet, a picture of Wallace that is surprisingly reconcilable with current ideas emerges when we examine the history of the idea of natural selection.

These days, the term natural history is less widely known than it was in its heyday in the 19th century. DNA had not been discovered, and biologists still looked for answers beyond the microscope.

In Victorian England there wasn’t much variety among organisms and fruits. Poets still thought that nature had arranged everything for the convenience of man. But Darwin and Wallace left their comfort zones and entered the wild. Here, man was intruder and nature was hostile. Both men encountered new species and other races. While they reached the same conclusion in one regard, they interpreted some observations differently.

Darwin resolved the conundrum of why males in certain bird species were highly ornamented— it increased their visibility to predators— by arguing that the males were selected to be bright and showy to affect female choice. But Wallace countered that brightness was the default state and females were the ones selected to be drab, for sake of camouflage, since they were sitting on the nests.

‘Survival of the fittest’ wasn’t Darwin’s idea either. Darwin thought male butterflies chose the most beautiful females via an innate aesthetic sense. Wallace argued that choice had nothing to do with aesthetics but that females were simply choosing stronger and healthier males.

“In his copy of Darwin’s writing, Wallace goes through and crosses out ‘natural selection’ and writes the term he prefers to use – Herbert Spencer’s term ‘survival of the fittest’,” says Wallace historian Andrew Berry.  “Wallace thought Darwin’s term implied an artificial selector who was influencing natural selection.”

Wallace was one of the rare non-racists of his time. Darwin experienced the Beagle voyage from a gentleman’s cabin, but Wallace’s working class upbringing had etched in him fewer inhibitions. His day-to-day interactions with “savages” convinced him they were not inferior, and could be schooled in the arts of civilization. But it also led him to propose something radical about the human brain, which resulted in a major break with Darwin.

Wallace proposed that once natural selection had honed the human body it moved on to the brain. But natural selection only endows traits that are immediately useful for survival. The “savages” he encountered were quick learners, despite the fact that nothing in their barbaric state could give rise to the mental faculties necessary.  Wallace concluded that the human brain was over-engineered, with innate faculties that were useless to man in a state of barbarism, but could be called into use later.

“What Wallace saw was that your local ‘savage’ had the same sized brain and equal mental capacities to that of a naturalist in Britain,” says George Beccaloni, curator of the Wallace Collection at Natural History Museum, London. “So how could it be that the human brain evolved to such complexity, more than is actually needed? How did this organ arise?”

Wallace’s answer did not please the Victorian scientific establishment. He declared a supernatural force had intervened, and was branded a heretic.

Wallace was a true renaissance man. He went on to earn praise from John Stuart Mill for a treatise on political economics, and founded the field of astrobiology.  His work ‘Man’s Place in the Universe’ was the first to speculate on conditions necessary for life on other planets. Today, he is recognized as the father of biogeography – the study of how different species are distributed in relation to land – and as one of the earliest conservationists.

“Wallace is seen more as a dilettante,” says Berry. “Darwin consolidated on his theory, kept publishing things in support of previous ideas. But for Wallace, it was just this one thing he did, and moved on.”

Wallace remained a materialist until very late in life. He continued to believe that everything in nature—apart from the human mind— could be explained by natural laws. Yet he never questioned the existence of a spirit world. Perhaps the reason Wallace is forgotten is that it makes us uncomfortable that a man of genius could comfortably straddle, what seems to us, such incongruent subjects.

Commentary: Telling History in the Future

Roll over image for audio. (Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Belarussian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography)

By Megan Turchi
BU News Service

Thomas Jefferson told John Adams: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” But, the future and the past cannot be thought of as separate acts – in order to progress into the future, the past must never be forgotten.

The oldest know Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, died last week at 110. Her death is a reminder of the dwindling numbers of Holocaust survivors, and how the history will be remembered in the future.

The registry at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., has approximately 195,000 names of survivors and family members, but there is no way to know an exact number. The museum notes that survivors who registered in the past 15 years may now be deceased.

In addition to measuring the number of survivors, just defining them can be difficult. In a 2011 article titled “Caring for Aging Holocaust Survivors and Subsequent Generations,” published in journal American Imago, Dr. Michael Grodin, paints a broad definition.

“The term ‘survivor’ in reference to the Holocaust broadly refers to any Jew threatened by the Nazi occupation during the second World War,” Grodin writes. ”But the level and type of victimization and the terrors and atrocities experienced and witnessed vary from person to person.”

Age is also an important aspect to consider when examining the experiences of survivors. At this point, most survivors that are left were children during the Holocaust and would have had different experiences than their parents.

“What constitutes historical truth is a problem in its own right,” Grodin said in an interview at the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University. ”What I would argue is if you interview a survivor, you become a witness. As you go on it becomes more problematic to chronicle and witness.”

Grodin is the Director of the Medical Ethics and Human Rights Programs at Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health and Director of the Project on Medicine and the Holocaust at the Wiesel Center.

Grodin said that video and audio can play an important role in keeping history alive. Steven Spielburg’s Shoah Visual History Foundation, created in 1994 after the making of the movie Schindler’s List, gathers video testimonies from Holocaust survivors and other witnesses. They currently have 51,696 audio-visual testimonies from 56 countries in 32 languages.

But, primary source audio-video is not the only way to remember Holocaust victims and survivors. Memorials across the world are physical reminders of the past.

One such memorial is located in Boston. “The memorial itself was started by survivors and they organized funding and petitioned the city to get it built where it is now,” said Emily Reichman, manager of the New England Holocaust Memorial. “For survivors, it’s a place to mourn those they lost during the Holocaust as most victims did not have a proper burial.”

Memorials can also have an influence upon visitors who have no personal connection to the Holocaust.

“For other people it is a way to come face-to-face with what happened,” Reichman said. ”There are a lot of elements to the memorial and I always say it uses all of your senses to experience it properly and it can be overwhelming – everyone has a unique experience”
The memorial, in downtown Boston near Faneuil Hall, is made of six 54-foot tall glass towers representing 6 million Jews killed, the names of six main death camps, and the six years (1939-45) during which Adolph Hitler’s “Final Solution” was carried out.
There are quotes to read, smoke that rises from the ground, and shadows that reflect on each visitor as he or she walks through.
“It is a very tangible way for people to come to terms with what happened,” Reichman said.

(Note: Due to a production error an unedited version of this story was published.)

Print Your Own Museum

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

If you were ever one of those kids who wanted a dinosaur (me!) or an airplane growing up, you may just get your wish after all. Last week, the Smithsonian Institution launched the Smithsonian X 3D Explorer, a new tool that will one day allow the public to print scale models of any one of the museum’s 137 million artifacts that are otherwise hidden away in the archives. Some artifacts that are currently available for printing include a fossilized woolly mammoth, a supernova, and Abraham Lincoln’s face.

The Smithsonian began 3D scanning its collection in February and so far has only documented 20 items in its collection. Some artifacts are harder to scan than others are because of their size and intricacy. The woolly mammoth, for example, had to be scanned from 60 different perspectives so every bone and angle was captured. Günter Waibel, director of the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, said that even if they were able to digitize one object per minute, it would take 270 years of working 24/7 to scan the entire archive. Their current goal is to document 13 million items, but partnerships with other institutions could increase that number.

Overall, the project is an effort to make museums more interactive and science more accessible to research scientists, curators, educators, and the public. And with the increasing popularity and decreasing cost of 3D printers (they now cost around $1,000; cheaper than a MacBook), it’s possible to print yourself a fossilized dolphin skull. The Smithsonian not only hopes this gives people who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to visit their museums a chance to experience its wonders virtually, but they also hope 3D printed artifacts will become learning aids in the classroom.

While you contemplate investing in a 3D printer, check out this interactive scan of the aforementioned woolly mammoth!

Credit: Smithsonian/Autodesk

Embalming, Abraham Lincoln, and Exploding Caskets

Lincoln's Funeral Train. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Lincoln’s Funeral Train. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

By: Sara Knight
BU News Service

Frequently when researching an article I find really cool tidbits of information that don’t make it into the final draft, usually in the name of word count or for the righteous goal of avoiding tangents. So for my first BUNS Science blog post I wanted to relate some interesting historical information I came across while researching embalming for my natural burial op-ed.

When Abraham Lincoln comes up, most Americans probably think of his Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, stove-pipe hats, or even potential hazards of attending a theatre production. Unbeknownst to many, Lincoln also played a major role in popularizing the practice of embalming our dead.

It all began with a bang. Well, several bangs. “Exploding casket syndrome” was a macabre predicament facing train operators responsible for transporting Union cadavers from the bloody Southern battlefields back to their familial burial plots up North. In the hot summer months, the stacked caskets in the trains’ boxcars had a troubling tendency to explode from the build-up of microbial gases, a normal part of bodily decomposition.

Abraham Lincoln, along with many locomotive engineers and northern bereaved, was greatly troubled by exploding casket syndrome. He also happened to be a proponent of embalming – a practice many Americans viewed with disgust and disdain. At that time, it was decidedly un-Christian and indecently pagan to fiddle about with a corpse – even as a means of preservation.

Despite its unpopularity Lincoln advocated embalming, eventually putting the official POTUS seal of approval on the practice for all soldiers killed on Civil War battlefields.

Still, the practice probably would not have caught on as quickly if it had not been for Lincoln’s post-mortem request. He ordered his corpse embalmed and taken on a 1,654-mile railcar tour from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, IL, stopping at many towns in between to exhibit the wonders of bodily preservation. At that time, the average person could only hope to see paintings, drawings, or the odd fuzzy black-and-white photo of their Commander-in-chief, so the Lincoln body tour was quite the somber sensation.

Lincoln’s preserved remains drew thousands of mourners throughout the 180 city tour. Afterwards the practice of embalming was no longer popularly associated with paganism, but rather with the great American virtue of pragmatism and the great American man who held the Union together.

This historical research site has a detailed route of the Lincoln funeral train, map included.

Visit the 2015 Lincoln Funeral Train site for more information about a planned recreation of the trip.