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The Butterflies And Beetles Behind Evolution

The antique-hunter's fantasy is to discover something extraordinary, sitting unnoticed in the corner of a shop.

That fantasy came true for a lawyer who, 30 years ago, stumbled on a rosewood cabinet that contained a scientific treasure dating back a century and a half. The cabinet belonged to Alfred Russel Wallace, and this week it went on display in a New York City museum.

Wallace was a globe-trotting British naturalist who, in the mid-1800s, got the idea that living things evolve and diversify by passing on valuable traits to their offspring. Charles Darwin had the same idea and crafted his theory of evolution. Though their theories were originally presented jointly, Darwin's name went down in history, and Wallace got a pat on the back.

Fortune and fame eluded Wallace during his lifetime as well, says David Grimaldi of the American Museum of Natural History.

"He had to really support himself by collecting specimens and selling them to museums, and that supported him when he was in the field in Brazil and Indonesia and Malaysia," he says. "But he kept some of the specimens aside for himself. Beautiful specimens."

Wallace kept his personal collection — iridescent butterflies, enormous moths, seashells and hundreds of beetles — in a 24-drawer, rosewood cabinet of his own design.

It's unclear what became of the cabinet for many years. Then, in 1979, a young lawyer named Robert Heggestad wandered into a modest antique shop in Arlington, Va., looking for Chinese carpets.

"And I saw this beautiful cabinet behind the counter and asked if it was for sale," says Heggestad. The dealer said it was for sale for $600, and urged Heggestad to see what was inside.

"He described it as belonging to Alfred Russel Wallace and I of course had never heard of Alfred Russel Wallace," says Heggestad.

Nonetheless, he bought the cabinet on a payment plan: $100 a month for six months.

"And then I kind of lost interest and over the years basically used it as a show-and-tell case, you know, at parties."

But eventually Heggestad read enough about Wallace to get drawn in. He realized the cabinet's value to the history of science. So this week, it goes on display at the museum in New York. Now, amateur scientists and the curious public alike will be able to view some of the creatures that sparked one of the most revolutionary theories in science.

"Now I have a great big empty space in my dining room," says Heggestad with a laugh, "so now I've got to go shopping to find something to replace it."

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Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The antique-hunter's fantasy is to discover something extraordinary, sitting unnoticed in the corner of a shop. That fantasy came true for one young man 30 years ago. The man stumbled on a rosewood cabinet that contained a scientific treasure dating back a century and a half. This week, the cabinet went on display in a New York City museum.

NPR's Christopher Joyce has the story.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Alfred Russell Wallace was a globe-trotting British naturalist who, in the mid-1800s, got the idea that living things evolve and diversify by passing on valuable traits to their offspring. Charles Darwin had the same idea and crafted his theory of evolution. Wallace got a pat on the back.

According to David Grimaldi of the American Museum of Natural History, fortune and fame eluded Wallace.

Mr. DAVID GRIMALDI (Curator, American Museum of Natural History): He had to really support himself by collecting specimens and selling these to museums, and that supported him when he was in the field in Brazil and Indonesia and Malaysia, but he kept some of the specimens aside for himself, beautiful specimens.

JOYCE: Specimens he kept in a rosewood cabinet. Of his own design, the cabinet held 24 drawers full of iridescent butterflies, enormous moths, seashells and hundreds of beetles. Wallace believed it was the lowliest of creatures that led him and Darwin to the idea of evolution.

Mr. GRIMALDI: They were both beetle-hunters, and that gave them an appreciation for diversity and variation.

JOYCE: Fast-forward to 1979. The cabinet sits in a modest antique shop in Arlington, Virginia. A young lawyer named Robert Heggestad wanders in, looking for Chinese carpets.

Mr. ROBERT HEGGESTAD (Lawyer): And I saw this beautiful cabinet behind the counter and asked if it was for sale.

JOYCE: The dealer said yes.

Mr. HEGGESTAD: And I said how much? And he said $600. And he said, don't you want to see what's inside it? And I said no, not really.

JOYCE: And the dealer said you really should. This is no ordinary cabinet.

Mr. HEGGESTAD: He described it as belonging to Alfred Russell Wallace, and I, of course, had never heard of Alfred Russell Wallace.

JOYCE: Nonetheless, he bought the cabinet 100 bucks a month for six months.

Mr. HEGGESTAD: And then I kind of lost interest and over the years basically used it as a show-and-tell case, you know, at parties.

JOYCE: But eventually Heggestad read enough about Wallace to get drawn in. He realized the cabinet's value to the history of science. So this week, it goes on display at the museum in New York.

Mr. HEGGESTAD: Now, I have a great big empty space in my dining room, and I have to find - I have to go shopping to find something to replace it.

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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