On this day in 1935, Elvis Presley was born. I know what you’re thinking, “How could he not win the day?” After all, in that scene from Pulp Fiction where Mia Wallace asks, “Elvis or the Beatles?” Of course: Elvis. As she points out, I like the Beatles. But if I had to pick the collected works of one or the other, there is no question. I even wrote very fondly on the Elvis impersonator industry: Transubstantiation of Elvis.
So you will just have to forgive me for not picking Elvis today. For one thing, the competition was extreme. And the guy who won is really, really important. One song will never do it, but here he is doing “Viva Las Vegas”:
Singer Shirley Bassey is 77 today. Here she is doing “Goldfinger” live:
And David Bowie is 67. Here he is doing “Five Years” live:
Other birthdays: playwright Wilkie Collins (1824); landscape painter Albert Bierstadt (1830); Dutch academic painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836); publisher Frank Nelson Doubleday (1862); Russian avant-garde painter Pavel Filonov (1883); humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers (1902); actor Jose Ferrer (1912); comedian Soupy Sales (1926); concert promoter Bill Graham (1931); character actor Roy Kinnear (1934); creepy game show host Bob Eubanks (76); physicist Stephen Hawking (72); and professional racist Charles Murray (71).
The day, however, belongs to the great biologist Alfred Russel Wallace who was born on this day in 1823. He is my go-to man when talking about how the brilliant aren’t all that brilliant. Darwin came up with the idea of natural selection. And at the same time, so did Wallace. Actually, it would seem that Darwin came up with it first, but he didn’t publish and it was only when Wallace wrote to him about the same idea that he had come up with independently that the two of them published a joint paper explaining the idea.
This goes along with my idea that if any “great man” had not be around, someone else would have. If Newton had not come up with universal gravitation, someone else would have soon enough. In the case of Darwin, we know that’s the case: Wallace was right there. This is not to take away from the accomplishments of people like Darwin and Newton. Nor is it to put people like Wallace at a lower level. Basically, I think universal gravitation or natural selection require great minds and lots of luck—especially timing. We tend to think of Darwin as a somewhat greater biologist than we do Wallace. But had Wallace been born 15 years earlier and Darwin 15 years later, maybe we would think the opposite. Regardless, Wallace is one of the greatest biologists ever.
Happy birthday Alfred Russel Wallace!