Have you ever seen a Victorian naturalist's collections cabinet? I have such a cabinet, purchased years ago, at my house. Using a kit, I also put together a more modern-day version way back in the 1970's. Maybe you have a similar container? Or at some point you might have collected pressed flowers, leaves, shells, rocks or other favorite gathered objects.
The piece I wish to show you today, however, stands out from all the rest. It's the long-lost collections cabinet reportedly designed and belonging to Alfred Russel Wallace (1832-1913), the British naturalist who independently proposed a theory of natural selection. Wallace's work influenced that of Charles Darwin, who published his own theory shortly thereafter.
(The rosewood cabinet of specimens that belonged to Alfred Russel Wallace. Credit: D. Finnin/AMNH)
Today marks the 150th anniversary of Darwin's seminal work, On the Origin of Species by the Means of Natural Selection. It is therefore fitting that the American Museum of Natural History has just unveiled Wallace's cabinet, which is now on display in the museum's Grand Gallery. It's a stunning piece, made of fine-crafted rosewood. The exterior, however, is no match for the interior. Nearly two thousand sorted and labeled beetles, moths and plants fill its drawers.
"When you see how and what specimens are laid out in this cabinet, the organizing mind of one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century is revealed," said David Grimaldi, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the AMNH. "Wallace had a passion for collecting that helped him come to appreciate the variation within a species, an observation that helped both him and Darwin understand that unequal survival of offspring can lead to changes in populations over time, which is evolution."
Michael Novacek, provost of science at the museum, added, "This beautiful collection provides an extraordinary picture of the kind of painstaking collecting, documentation, and study at the root of great scientific ideas like the theory of evolution through natural selection. The collection also brings to light the excitement of discovery of the world of nature that laid the groundwork for a scientific revolution through the Victorian Age."
Let's look inside Wallace's cabinet…
(A drawer of tropical butterflies that includes a swallowtail (Papilio agamemnon- 4th row, 2nd down), a species common throughout Asia and Australia. Wallace wrote that this species exemplified how local variation leads to new species. Credit for all of the following images: R. Heggestad.)
Please click on any image for a larger view.
(A drawer of British butterflies that includes a species common in Europe but now extinct in Britain, the black-veined white (Pieris crataegi-4th row, 3rd down).)
(A drawer of beetles and other insects, including green jeweled beetles. Wallace attributed his co-discovery of natural selection with Darwin to the fact that both were "ardent beetle-hunters.")
(A drawer of moths.)
(A drawer of shells.)
(A drawer of tropical pods and botanical specimens collected from South America.)
It's thought that the collection was assembled for instructional purposes. "Wallace came to the theory of natural selection by thinking about protective and warning coloration in animals, and by trying to understand the variation in geographical distributions of animals while in Indonesia," Grimaldi concluded. "I think that Wallace organized the specimens taxonomically and to display similar color patterns."
For a brief summary of Wallace's career, please visit this How Stuff Works page. To celebrate today's anniversary, I also invite you to watch a video concerning Charles Darwin's life and his theory of evolution.