I once met a hunter in British Columbia who could read a trapline as if it were a novel. Where others saw merely trees, scrub, and earth, he could interpret the wanderings of foxes, deer, and lynx. He was a man who did more than look. He could see.
Alfred Russel Wallace, the almost Darwin, was such a man. Without benefit of formal education, Wallace, a young English field biologist and collector of exotic species, described a theory of evolution that paralleled one Darwin had developed but hadn’t yet published. What lifted Wallace from the realm of the ordinary, points out David Quammen in this month’s story, was his extraordinary capacity to observe, a skill honed in his early days as a land surveyor, during long walks across the Welsh moors. It helped that Wallace, on his monumental expedition to the Malay Archipelago, collected specimens in multiples. One might construct a sentence from one golden birdwing butterfly. Given 50 golden birdwings, Wallace could construct a story. Another naturalist might not note ever-so-slight variations in size, color, and pattern. Wallace did. He not only saw, he meticulously recorded his findings, then connected the dots. Of such stuff is great science made.
“Learn to see,” said the eminent 19th-century physician William Osler. Before the advent of sophisticated medical imaging like MRIs, Osler could diagnose a complicated disease simply by noting subtle signs visible to the eye. To be able to see, not merely look, is the foundation of discovery.
Photo: Robert Clark; photographed at Sophia M. Sachs
Butterfly House, Missouri Botanical Garden