Tag Archives: Charles Darwin

September 5, 1831 (a Monday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, after having spent the weekend in Cambridge, Charles Darwin rode to London and went to the Whitehall Admiralty building to speak with Robert FitzRoy. FitzRoy told Darwin that the person to whom he had offered the position of naturalist on board HMS Beagle had just turned it down five minutes ago (this might have been Harry Chester, a close friend of FitzRoy, and at the time a clerk in the Privy Council office across the street). He wanted to know if Darwin was still interested in the position. Interestingly, Darwin wrote in his autobiography:

Afterwards on becoming very intimate with Fitz-Roy, I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected, on account of the shape of my nose! He was an ardent disciple of Lavater, and was convinced that he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features; and he doubted whether anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely.

Of course, Charles enthusiastically accepted the offer and both men spent the next few hours going over the details of the voyage. Darwin learned that the sail date had been postponed until October 10, and that the voyage might extend longer than two years. Later that afternoon, Darwin took up lodgings at 17 Spring Gardens, just around the corner from Whitehall.

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September 2, 1831 (a Friday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

Early in the morning on this date, Charles Darwin rode out to Cambridge to speak with Revd. Henslow about his father’s approval of his voyage on the HMS Beagle. When he arrived, Darwin learned that Capt. FitzRoy might have already selected another person as naturalist for the voyage.

September 1, 1831 (a Thursday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

Early in the morning on this date, Charles Darwin woke up and, while out shooting pheasants on the Wedgwood estate, received word that his uncle Josiah wanted the two of them to return to Shrewsbury at once. Upon arriving at The Mount (home of the Darwins’), Charles found that his uncle’s letter had done the trick: his father would allow him to go on the voyage of the HMS Beagle and would support him in any way necessary.

August 30, 1831 (a Tuesday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin wrote to Revd. Henslow that his father would not allow him to go on the voyage of the HMS Beagle. At the same time, Darwin’s father wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, Josiah Wedgwood II, about the offer Darwin had been given, listing all the reasons why Darwin should not go on the voyage. Later that afternoon, Darwin rode out to Maer Hall (home of the Wedgwood’s) with his father’s letter for the start of the bird shooting season on September 1. Upon his arrival at Maer Hall, Darwin spoke to his uncle Josiah about the voyage and presented his father’s objections to it. After much discussion, Josiah sent a letter off to Darwin’s father, expressing his view that the voyage was a good idea.

August 29, 1831 (a Monday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On the evening of this date, upon returning from Northern Wales where Adam Sedgwick had given him a crash course in field geology, Charles Darwin found letters waiting for him from Revd. John Henslow and George Peacock. Darwin had been invited to be a naturalist for the unpaid position of gentleman’s companion to Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle. The ship was to set sail on September 25 on a two-year expedition (later extended to five years) to chart the coastline of South America. Darwin wanted to go but his father and sisters were totally against the idea, seeing it as a continuation of his long line of idle pursuits.

Darwin’s father objected to his proposed journey on several grounds:

  • Such a voyage would reflect badly on his future prospects as a member of the clergy.
  • The entire plan seemed adventurous and wild.
  • Why was a naturalist still being considered so close to the start of the voyage? Other people must have been considered. Why had they refused the offer?
  • Going on the voyage would prevent Charles from settling down to a real life.
  • The accommodations on the ship would be very poor.
  • The voyage would offer Charles another excuse to change his focus in life.
  • It would be a complete waste of his time.

However, his father’s refusal was not absolute; he told his son that if he could find a man with common sense who thought it was a good idea, then he would allow him to go.

August 23, 1769 (a Wednesday)

Georges Cuvier

On this date, Georges Cuvier was born at Montbéliard, France (then Mömpelgard in the duchy of Württemberg). Cuvier, who possessed one of the finest minds in history, was instrumental in establishing the fields of comparative anatomy and paleontology by comparing living animals with fossils.

At the opening of the National Institute of France in April in 1796, he read his first palaeontological paper. At the time, it was still widely believed that no species of animal had ever become extinct, because God’s creation had been perfect. In his paper, Cuvier analyzed skeletal remains of Indian and African elephants as well as mammoth fossils, demonstrating that African and Indian elephants were different species and that mammoths were not the same species as either African or Indian elephants and therefore must be extinct.

In the second paper he presented in 1796, Cuvier demonstrated that a large skeleton found in Paraguay, which he named “megatherium,” represented yet another extinct animal and, by comparing its skull with living species of tree dwelling sloths, that it was a kind of ground dwelling giant sloth. Together these two 1796 papers essentially ended what had been a long running debate about the reality of extinction.

Figure of the jaw of an Indian elephant and the fossil Jaw of a mammoth from Cuvier's 1798–99 paper on living and fossil elephants

Cuvier believed that organisms were functional wholes; their functional integration meant that each part of an organism, no matter how small, bore signs of the whole. In a 1798 paper on the fossil remains of an animal found in some plaster quarries near Paris, he wrote:

Today comparative anatomy has reached such a point of perfection that, after inspecting a single bone, one can often determine the class, and sometimes even the genus of the animal to which it belonged, above all if that bone belonged to the head or the limbs. … This is because the number, direction, and shape of the bones that compose each part of an animal’s body are always in a necessary relation to all the other parts, in such a way that – up to a point – one can infer the whole from any one of them and vice versa.

This idea is sometimes referred to as “Cuvier’s principle of correlation of parts.” Thus, Cuvier was able to use his deep knowledge of the comparative anatomy of living organisms to produce reconstructions of organisms from fragmentary fossils, many of which turned out to be strikingly accurate.

Ironically, Cuvier’s insistence on the functional integration of organisms prevented him from accepting biological evolution, for he believed that any change in an organism’s anatomy would have rendered it unable to survive. Since organisms were functional wholes, any change in one part would destroy their delicate balance. He also pointed out that Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt had retrieved animals mummified thousands of years previously that seemed no different from their modern counterparts.

To explain the discontinuities seen in the fossil record, Cuvier hypothesized that a vast number of species was originally created in the beginning and that, although the Earth was immensely old and for most of its history conditions had been more or less like those of the present, periodic “revolutions” had occurred, each causing the extinction of many species of animals. This view came to be known as “catastrophism.” Cuvier regarded these “revolutions” as events with natural causes, and considered their causes and natures to be an important geological problem. Although he was a lifelong Protestant, Cuvier did not explicitly identify any of these “revolutions” with Biblical or historical events. The species we see today, according to his hypothesis, are the species that were present at the beginning and whose unmodified descendants have survived all the later catastrophes. (Unfortunately for Cuvier, the lowest and oldest layers of sedimentary rock do not contain any fossils of present-day species that would be expected if his hypothesis was correct.)

The harshness of his criticism and the strength of his reputation continued to discourage naturalists from speculating about the transmutation of species, right up until Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species more than two decades after Cuvier’s death.

July 10, 1802 (a Saturday)

Robert Chambers

On this date, the Scottish author and publisher Robert Chambers was born. He was the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which was released in 1844. Literary anonymity was not uncommon at the time, especially in periodical journalism. However, in the science genre, anonymity was especially rare, due to the fact that science writers typically wanted to take credit for their work in order to claim priority for their findings. Chamber’s identity as the author of Vestiges was not officially revealed to the public until 1884, several years after his death.

During the 1830s, Chambers had become particularly interested in the then rapidly expanding field of geology — he was elected a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1840 and elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1844. He had taught himself the basics of geology and botany, and was strongly influenced by Lamarck and Buffon. Chambers’ motivation for writing Vestiges was in part to open up the question of evolution (at that time referred to as “development”) by natural law to serious scientific discussion. In a supplement to the Vestiges first published in 1845, entitled Explanations, he wrote of the Vestiges:

I said to myself: Let this book go forth to be received as truth, or to provoke others to a controversy which may result in establishing or overthrowing it…

Chambers had chosen anonymity in writing Vestges for a very pragmatic reason: he feared, and with reason, that the controversy over the book would hurt his publishing business. Vestiges began with an explanation of the nebular hypothesis of the formation of the Solar System, and went on from there to present a grand picture of the progressive evolution of life on Earth. By implying that God might not actively sustain the natural and social hierarchies, the book threatened the social order and could provide ammunition to Chartists and revolutionaries.

Anglican clergymen/naturalists attacked the book, with the geologist Adam Sedgwick predicting “ruin and confusion in such a creed” which if taken up by the working classes “will undermine the whole moral and social fabric” bringing “discord and deadly mischief in its train.” Physicist Sir David Brewster warned that Vestiges stood a “fair chance of poisoning the fountains of science, and sapping the foundations of religion.” Scottish journalist and geologist Hugh Miller, never a man to avoid an argument, published an entire book, Foot-Prints of the Creator, as a rebuttal to Vestiges. Thomas Henry Huxley penned one of the most venomous book reviews of all time: the book was a “once attractive and still notorious work of fiction” and its author one of “those who…indulge in science at second-hand and dispense totally with logic.”

In contrast, Vestiges was liked by many Quakers and Unitarians. The Unitarian physiologist William Carpenter called it “a very beautiful and a very interesting book”, and helped Chambers with correcting later editions.

Vestiges was undoubtedly a sensation. It sold remarkably well — over 20,000 copies in a decade — making it one of the best-sellers of its time. Not only many naturalists, like Charles Darwin, but also Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria read it; so did poets like Alfred Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, statesmen like William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, and philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and John Stuart Mill. Chambers’s book contained little that proved of lasting scientific value. However, Vestiges brought widespread discussion of evolution out of the streets and gutter presses and into the drawing rooms of respectable men and women.

July 4, 1831 (a Monday)

HMS Beagle

On this date, the HMS Beagle, which would later make history as the ship that carried Charles Darwin around the world, was commissioned under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy, with Lieutenants John Clements Wickham and Bartholomew James Sulivan.

FitzRoy was all too aware of the stress and loneliness of command on the high seas in that era. During the Beagle’s previous voyage, its captain, Pringle Stokes, became depressed and shot himself. FitzRoy feared he might be similarly predisposed, since his own uncle Viscount Castlereagh had committed suicide under stress of overwork. So he made inquiries to find a gentleman companion who shared his scientific interests and could dine with him as an equal (unlike his subordinates, lest it weaken his command), thereby enabling him to maintain a degree of normal life free from the pressures of the expedition.

Having captured four Fuegian savages on the previous Beagle voyage, FitzRoy had thought it only right to take them back to England to civilize them. His plan was to return them eventually to their homeland, where he hoped some of their newly acquired manners would rub off on the locals. FitzRoy soon regretted his ill-conceived plan, which brought criticism from his superiors, but he saw it as a matter of honor to return the three surviving Fuegians as promised (the fourth Fuegian had died in England). Returning the Fuegians was the main reason for FitzRoy’s seeking command of Beagle on her second voyage. His sense of honor and uncompromising morals were driving forces throughout FitzRoy’s life.

Ironically, FitzRoy committed suicide on April 30, 1865.

July 1, 1858 (a Thursday)

Charles Darwin, aged 51

On this date, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker presented papers by both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace on the theory of evolution by natural selection at a meeting of the Linnean Society in London, England. The so-called Darwin-Wallace 1858 Evolution Paper was later published in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society, Zoology, on August 20th of the same year.

The events that lead up to this momentous occasion had actually begun many years earlier:

After a voyage around the world aboard H.M.S. Beagle (1831 until 1836), Darwin had settled in Cambridge and London to process his specimens, to arrange for the description of his newly found plants and animals, to write about his voyage, and to marry (in 1839) his first cousin Emma Wedgwood. In 1837 he  began a “Notebook on Transmutation of Species”, and his 1838 reading of Thomas Malthus’ (1766-1834) Essay on the Principle of Population crystallized many of his ideas into a coherent hypothesis. The importance of the observations he made aboard the Beagle began to make an impact.

In 1842, while Wallace was studying botany, Darwin wrote a “Sketch” on natural selection which he revised and had copied in 1844 (and retitled “Essay”). In January 1847, Darwin handed his friend Joseph Hooker, a fellow naturalist, a copy of the 231 page manuscript to read and comment upon. Hooker was not  immediately impressed with Darwin’s hypothesis. He essentially made no comment. Hooker was the only naturalist to whom Darwin had shown a copy of his “Essay” and without Hooker’s full support, Darwin was unwilling to move forward, especially given the reactions to the anonymously published book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, written, we now know, by Robert Chambers.

Both sides of the Darwin-Wallace medal awarded to Wallace at a 1908 Linnean Society meeting celebrating the 50th anniversary of the reading of their paper on natural selection.

In 1848, Wallace sailed to the Amazon and in 1854, he traveled to the Malay Archipelago, where he looked specifically for evidence that related species found in both the Amazon Basin and on the Archipelago. If he could find evidence that closely related species were found in widely dispersed regions of the world, this might bring into question the idea that each species was created independently.

In 1855 Wallace published a cryptic note in guarded language entitled “On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species” in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History. Here he maintained that new species arose from related, pre-existing species. Darwin did not fully comprehend what Wallace was saying and considered him to be a “creationist” but the geologist Charles Lyell, another friend of Darwin’s, had realized what Wallace had in mind. When Lyell visited Darwin shortly thereafter, Darwin discussed his “Essay” and Lyell urged him, in May of 1856, to publish immediately to establish priority.

But Darwin ignored Lyell’s advice, instead continuing to work on his “Essay”. By March of 1858, Darwin’s manuscript consisted of ten chapters and amounted to some 250,000 words.

Meanwhile, in February of 1858, while on the island of Halmahera (then called “Gilolo”) in the Moluccas, Wallace was bed-ridden and suffering from an attack of malaria. Ill and fevered, he suddenly realized the importance of Malthus’ observations on populations, and drafted his ideas on “the survival of the fittest” during a single evening. He worked over the draft the next two evenings with the idea of sending it to Darwin. On 9 March 1858 he mailed his letter by mail-boat from the island of Ternate with the request that if Darwin thought the ideas worthy that he send the letter on to Lyell.

After receiving Wallace’s letter, Darwin began composing this now-famous letter to Lyell dated 18 June:

Some year or so ago, you recommended me to read a paper by Wallace in the Annals, which had interested you & as I was writing to him, I knew this would please him much, so I told him. He has to day sent me the enclosed & asked me to forward it to you. It seems to me well worth reading. Your words have come true with a vengeance that I shd. be forestalled. You said this when I explained to you here very briefly my views of “Natural Selection: depending on the Struggle for existence.-I never saw a more striking coincidence. if Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as heads of my Chapters.

Please return me the M.S. which he does not say he wishes me to publish; but I shall of course at once write & offer to send to any Journal. So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed. Though my Book, if it will ever have any value, will not be deteriorated; as all the labour consists in the application of the theory.

I hope you will approve of Wallace’s sketch, that I may tell him what you say.

In a subsequent letter to Lyell dated 25 June, Darwin noted that Hooker had seen his 1844 “Essay” and the American botanist, Asa Gray (1810-1888), had been sent a long abstract in 1857:

I am very sorry to trouble you, busy as you are, in so merely personal an affair. But if you will give me your deliberate opinion, you will do me as great a service, as ever man did, for I have entire confidence in your judgment & honour.-

I shd. not have sent off your letter without further reflexion [sic, reflection], for I am at present quite upset, but write now to get subject for time out of mind. But I confess it never did occur to me, as it ought, that Wallace could have made any use of your letter.

There is nothing in Wallace’s sketch which is not written out much fuller in my sketch copied in 1844, & read by Hooker some dozen years ago. About a year ago I sent a short sketch of which I have copy of my views (owing to correspondence on several points) to Asa Gray, so that I could most truly say and prove that I take nothing from Wallace. I should be extremely glad now to publish a sketch of my general views in about a dozen pages or so. But I cannot persuade myself that I can do so honourably. Wallace says nothing about publication, & I enclose his letter.-But as I had not intended to publish any sketch, can I do so honourably because Wallace has sent me an outline of his doctrine–I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man shd. think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit. Do you not think his having sent me this sketch ties my hands- I do not in least believe that that he originated his views from anything which I wrote to him.

If I could honourably publish I would state that I was induced now to publish a sketch (& I shd. be very glad to be permitted to say to follow your advice long ago given) from Wallace having sent me an outline of my general conclusions.-We differ only, that I was led to my views from what artificial selection has done for domestic animals. I could send Wallace a copy of my letter to Asa Gray to show him that I had not stolen his doctrine. But I cannot tell whether to publish noew would not be base & paltry: this was my first impression, & I shd. have certainly acted on it, had it not been for your letter.-

this is a trumpery affair to trouble you with; but you cannot tell how much obliged I shd. be for your advice.-

By the way would you object to send this & your answer to Hooker to be forwarded to me, for then I shall have the opinion of my two best & kindest friends.-This letter is miserably written & I write it now, that I may for time banish [the] whole subject. And I am worn out with musing.

I fear we have case of scarlet-fever in House with Baby.-Etty is weak but is recovering.-

My good dear friend forgive me.-This is a trumpery letter influenced by trumpery feelings.

The next day, Darwin added an extended postscript:

Forgive me for adding P.S. to make the case as strong as possible against myself. Wallace might say “you did not intend publishing an abstract of your views till you received my communication, is it fair to take advantage of my having freely, though unasked, communicated to you my ideas, & thus prevent me forestalling you-” The advantage which I should take being that I am induced to publish from privately knowing that Wallace is in the field. It seems hard on me that I should be thus compelled to lose my priority of many years standing, but I cannot feel at all sure that this alters the justice of the case. First impressions are generally right & I at first thought it wd. be dishonourable in me now to publish.- – I have always thought you would have made a first-rate Lord Chancellor; & I now appeal to you as a Lord Chancellor

Alfred Russel Wallace

Lyell and Hooker conferred. Lyell’s proposal was that some portion of Darwin’s past work be added to Wallace’s letter, and their contributions combined into a single publication. In view of Darwin’s own remarks about his “Essay” and letter to Gray, Hooker sent a note to Darwin asking for a copy of the Gray letter to which he proposed to add a section from Darwin’s “Essay.”

When the note from Hooker arrived the morning of the 29th, Darwin was in the midst of arranging to bury his son, Charles Waring Darwin, who had died from scarlet fever on the 28th. He wrote back immediately that he just could not “think” about the subject, but that same evening, Darwin wrote to Hooker again:

I have just read your letter, & see you want papers at once. I am quite prostrated & can do nothing but I send Wallace & my abstract of abstract of letter to Asa Gray, which gives most imperfectly only the means of change & does not touch on reasons for believing species do change. I daresay all is too late. I hardly care about it.-

But you are too generous to sacrifice so much time & kindness.-It is most generous, most kind, I send sketch of 1844 solely that you may see by your own handwriting that you did read it.-

I really cannot bear to look at it.-Do not waste much time. It is miserable in me to care at all about priority.-

The table of contents will show what it is. I would make a similar, but shorter & more accurate sketch for Linnean Journal.-I will do anything

God Bless you my dear kind friend. I can write no more. I send this by servant to Kew.

With Wallace’s and Gray’s letter and the 1844 “Essay” in hand, Lyell and Hooker wrote an introductory note on 30 June and arranged to have the paper read the following evening at a meeting of the Linnean Society. To thirty-some members of the Society, the Darwin-Wallace paper was read by under-secretary George Busk. Essentially no one was impressed even though both Lyell and Hooker were in attendance.

In fact, the then President of the Linnean Society later remarked that the meetings of 1858 had not “been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, [our] department of science.”

Years later, in 1887, Hooker provided a recollection of the meeting to Francis Darwin:

The interest excited was intense, but the subject was too novel and too ominous for the old school to enter the lists, before armouring [sic, armoring]. After the meeting it was talked over with bated breath: Lyell’s approval, and perhaps in a small way mine, as his lieutenant in the affair, rather overawed the Fellows, who would otherwise have flown out against the doctrine.

On 24 November 1859, The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin went on sale and sold out immediately. It was greeted by a variety of widely different opinions. While the year 1858 might not have “been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize” biology, the same can not be said of 1859.

Suggested reading:

June 30, 1817 (a Monday)

Joseph Hooker (seated, far left) and on the ground next to him, Asa Gray – 2 of the first 3 men to whom Darwin revealed his theory of evolution by natural selection (July, 1877 U.S. Geological Survey at La Veta Pass, CO)

On this date, the physician, botanist, and biogeographer Joseph Dalton Hooker was born in Halesworth in the county of Suffolk, England. He trained as a doctor in Edinburgh, but his principal interest was in botany.

Joseph Hooker (1896)

Hooker was a close friend and supporter of Charles Darwin. When he realized that Alfred Russel Wallace was about to present his findings on evolution to the public which were similar to Darwin’s, he helped arrange for the shared presentation of Darwin ‘s and Wallace’s papers to the Linnaean Society of London in 1858.

Hooker came to America in 1877 to explore the flora of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. He traveled to Pueblo, Colorado with a group of colleagues including Asa Gray. Later, Hooker traveled to La Veta Pass, CO and camped with a group of naturalists and explorers. The group later traveled to the Sangre de Cristo range where Hooker and Gray conducted a plant survey and wrote a manuscript about their experience, The Vegetation of the Rocky Mountain Region and a comparison with that of other parts of the World (1880).

June 18, 1858 (a Friday)

Map from *The Malay Archipelago* by Wallace, showing the physical geography of the Archipelago and his travels. (The thin black lines indicate where Wallace traveled, and the red lines indicate chains of volcanoes.)

On this date, Charles Darwin received a paper from Alfred Russel Wallace, who was still at the Malay Archipelago. The paper was titled: “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type.”

Darwin was shocked! Wallace had come up with a theory of natural selection that was very similar to his own. The paper contained concepts like “the struggle for existence,” and “the transmutation of species.” Upon further examination Darwin saw that Wallace had some ideas about natural selection that he did not agree with. For one thing, Wallace tried to mix social morality with natural selection, proposing an upward evolution of human morals which would eventually lead to a socialist utopia (Darwin’s natural selection had no goal). What’s more, Wallace believed that cooperation in groups aided in the progress of mankind (Darwin saw natural selection as being influenced by competition). Finally, Wallace’s natural selection was guided by a higher spiritual power (there was no divine intervention in Darwin’s version).

June 17, 1825 (a Friday)

Shrewsbury School

On this date, Charles Darwin left Shrewsbury School. He went on to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, as he remarked in his autobiography:

Towards the close of my [Shrewsbury] school life, my brother worked hard at chemistry, and made a fair laboratory with proper apparatus in the tool-house in the garden, and I was allowed to aid him as a servant in most of his experiments. He made all the gases and many compounds, and I read with great care several books on chemistry, such as Henry and Parkes’ Chemical Catechism. The subject interested me greatly, and we often used to go on working till rather late at night. This was the best part of my education at school, for it showed me practically the meaning of experimental science. The fact that we worked at chemistry somehow got known at school, and as it was an unprecedented fact, I was nicknamed “Gas.” I was also once publicly rebuked by the head-master, Dr. Butler, for thus wasting my time on such useless subjects; and he called me very unjustly a “poco curante”, and as I did not understand what he meant, it seemed to me a fearful reproach.

As I was doing no good at school, my father wisely took me away at a rather earlier age than usual, and sent me (Oct. 1825) to Edinburgh University with my brother, where I stayed for two years or sessions.

June 15, 1829 (a Monday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin had records of insects published in Stephen’s Illustrations of British Entomology.

While he was an undergraduate at Cambridge, Darwin had sent records of insects that he had captured to James Francis Stephens, and some of these were published in Illustrations of British Entomology. He refers to the pleasure that he got from seeing his name in print against his records of beetles in his autobiography (Life and Letters, Vol. I, p. 51) although he gets both the title of the work and the method of citation wrong:

But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow. I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.

I was very successful in collecting and invented two new methods; I employed a labourer to scrape during the winter, moss off old trees and place [it] in a large bag, and likewise to collect the rubbish at the bottom of the barges in which reeds are brought from the fens, and thus I got some very rare species. No poet ever felt more delight at seeing his first poem published than I did at seeing in Stephen’s Illustrations of British Insects the magic words, “captured by C. Darwin, Esq.”

Stephens’ classic work was published in parts between 1 May 1827 and November 1845, with a supplement in August 1846. The following is a short description of it:

Illustrations of British Entomology; or, a synopsis of indigenous insects etc. 8vo, 245 mm, 11 vols, 80 coloured plates, Baldwin and Cradock for the author, London [1827-]1828-1835[-1845]; supplement, vi + 32 pp, 15 coloured plates, 1846.

Stephens, J. F. 1829-1832. Illustrations of British Entomology, or, a Synopsis of Indigenous Insects.

The main work is divided into four volumes of Haustellata and seven of Mandibulata. The beetles occur in the first five volumes of the latter, and there are about thirty records bearing Darwin’s name, the earliest being in an appendix to Volume II, which is dated June 15, 1829. The localities include Cambridge, North Wales and Shrewsbury. There is one further record which is earlier than this. In Haustellata, Volume II, p. 200, Darwin records the occurrence of the common noctuid moth Graphiphora plecta at ‘Cambridge’, and the date of this part is June 1, 1829. The modern scientific name of this moth is Ochropleura plecta (L.), and its common name the flame shoulder. In most cases these records are given in quotation marks, and therefore represent the earliest genuine publications by Darwin in a book.

June 13, 1863 (a Saturday)

On this date, “Darwin Among the Machines” appeared as the heading of an article published in The Press newspaper in Christchurch, New Zealand. Written by Samuel Butler but signed Cellarius, the article raised the possibility that machines were a kind of “mechanical life” undergoing constant evolution, and that eventually machines might supplant humans as the dominant species:

We refer to the question: What sort of creature man’s next successor in the supremacy of the earth is likely to be. We have often heard this debated; but it appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race.

(…)

Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

The article ended by urging that “war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race.” This article, along with later writings by Butler on “machine evolution”, was arguably satirical in intent, although he may have been using these fanciful writings to explore some real philosophical issues like the question of whether biological life and evolution can be explained in purely mechanical terms.

An artificial intelligence with attitude.

Butler developed this and subsequent articles into The Book of the Machines, which consisted of three chapters in his novel entitled Erewhon, published anonymously in 1872. The Erewhonian society envisioned by Butler was one that had long ago undergone a revolution in which most mechanical inventions had been destroyed, and the narrator of the story finds a book detailing the reasons for this revolution, which he translates for the reader.

Butler was the first to write about the possibility that machines might develop consciousness by a kind of Darwinian selection. Although many dismissed this as a joke, Butler wrote in the preface to the second edition of Erewhon that he had no intention of satirizing Darwin’s evolutionary theory:

I regret that reviewers have in some cases been inclined to treat the chapters on Machines as an attempt to reduce Mr. Darwin’s theory to an absurdity. Nothing could be further from my intention, and few things would be more distasteful to me than any attempt to laugh at Mr. Darwin; but I must own that I have myself to thank for the misconception, for I felt sure that my intention would be missed, but preferred not to weaken the chapters by explanation, and knew very well that Mr. Darwin’s theory would take no harm. The only question in my mind was how far I could afford to be misrepresented as laughing at that for which I have the most profound admiration.

As Alan Turing (1951) observed, “once the machine thinking method has started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers. … At some stage therefore we should have to expect the machines to take control, in the way that is mentioned in Samuel Butler’s ‘Erewhon'”. Turing shared Butler’s view that the consequences of such greater-than-human intelligence will be profound, and conceivably dire for humanity as we know it.

References:

June 7, 1893 (a Wednesday)

Mohandas Gandhi (right) with his brother Laxmidas in 1886.

On this date, Mohandas K. Gandhi, a young Indian lawyer working in South Africa, refused to comply with racial segregation rules on a South African train and was forcibly ejected at Pietermaritzburg.

Gandhi was born in Porbandar in the present state of Gujarat on October 2, 1869, and educated in law at University College, London. In 1891, after having been admitted to the British bar, Gandhi returned to India and attempted to establish a law practice in Bombay, with little success. Two years later an Indian firm with interests in South Africa retained him as legal adviser under a one-year contract in its office in Durban, SA. Here he was subjected to racism and South African laws that restricted the rights of Indian laborers.

Gandhi later recalled one such incident as his moment of truth. While traveling by train to Pretoria, a white man objected to Gandhi’s presence in a first-class carriage. Despite having a first-class ticket, Gandhi was asked to move to the van compartment at the end of the train. He refused and was thrown off the train at Pietermaritzburg station. There he spent the night in the waiting room and it is there he decided he would stay in South Africa to fight against racial discrimination. It was Gandhi’s first act of civil disobedience. From thereon, he decided to fight injustice and defend his rights as an Indian and a man.

Known as Mahatma, or “the great soul,” during his lifetime, Gandhi’s persuasive methods of civil disobedience influenced leaders of civil rights movements around the world, especially Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States.

[My favorite Gandhi quote – Ed.:]

A time is coming when those, who are in the mad rush today of multiplying their wants, vainly thinking that they add to the real substance, real knowledge of the world, will retrace their steps and say: ‘What have we done?’

Civilizations have come and gone, and in spite of all our vaunted progress, I am tempted to ask again and again, ‘To what purpose?’ Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin, has said the same thing. Fifty years of brilliant inventions and discoveries, he has said, have not added one inch to the moral height of mankind. So said a dreamer and visionary if you will–Tolstoy. So said Jesus, and the Buddha, and Mahomed, whose religion is being denied and falsified in my own country today.

[Source: Mahatma (D.G. Tendulkar) Vol. 2; 2nd edn.(1960), Publications Division; p. 29.]

April 26, 1831 (a Tuesday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin graduated from Christ’s College, Cambridge with a B.A. degree.

April 5, 1859 (a Tuesday)

Charles Darwin, aged 51

On this date, Charles Darwin sent his publishers the first three chapters of The Origin of Species, which became one of the most influential books ever published.

March 27, 1827 (a Tuesday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin read papers on original research on the biology of tiny marine organisms found along the Scottish coast to the Plinian Society at Edinburgh University.

March 25, 1833 (a Monday)

Jenkin

On this date, the English physical scientist and engineer Henry (Charles) Fleeming [pronounced “flemming”] Jenkin was born. No other attack on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has drawn more attention than Jenkin’s. Nearly every book in the history of evolution recounts the tale. It began in June, 1867 with Mr. Jenkin’s review of The Origin of Species in The North British Review (46: 277-318).

References:

  • Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1991) 340 -353.
  • Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance ( Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1982) 512.

March 19, 1827 (a Monday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin made his earliest scientific discovery, at age 18. He dissected some specimens of a barnacle-like marine organism, the polyzoan Flustra. Thus he began what became a lifelong interest in natural history.

March 13, 1720

Charles Bonnet

On this date, Charles Bonnet, a Swiss naturalist and philosophical writer, was born at Geneva, of a French family driven into Switzerland by the religious persecution in the 16th century. He made law his profession, but his favorite pursuit was the study of natural science.

Bonnet’s first published work appeared in 1745, entitled Traité d’insectologie, in which were collected his various discoveries regarding insects, along with a preface on the development of germs and the scale of organized beings. Botany, particularly the leaves of plants, next attracted his attention; and after several years of diligent study, rendered irksome by the increasing weakness of his eyesight, he published in 1754 one of the most original and interesting of his works, Recherches sur l’usage des feuilles dans les plantes; in which among other things he advances many considerations tending to show (as was later done by Francis Darwin) that plants are endowed with powers of sensation and discernment. Bonnet also studied photosynthesis in plants and noted the emission of bubbles by a submerged illuminated leaf (but see Jan Ingenhousz, who is also given credit for this observation). This very visible production of oxygen by an illuminated leaf is still used regularly in school laboratories as a way of investigating rates of photosynthesis.

Affected by his observation of the aphid, Bonnet argued, in Considérations sur les corps organisés (1762; “Considerations on Organized Bodies”), that each female organism contains within its germ cells (i.e., eggs) an infinite series of preformed individuals (Theory of Preformation), leading to an immortality and immutability of species. In his Contemplation de la nature (Amsterdam, 1764–1765; translated into Italian, German, English and Dutch), one of his most popular and delightful works, he sets forth, in eloquent language, the theory that all the beings in nature form a gradual scale rising from lowest to highest (scala natura), without any break in its continuity.

In order to explain the fossil findings of extinct species, Bonnet, in his work La Palingénésie philosophique (1769; “The Philosophical Revival”), advocated the view that Earth is periodically struck by global disasters. In these disasters most organisms die and the survivors climb the scala natura to reach new heights. According to this, mankind, the peak of evolution, would develop into angels after the next disaster, when plants would become animals, animals would become intelligent beings, and minerals would become plants. This disaster theory to explain evolution strongly influenced Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) grandfather. This makes Charles Bonnet one of the first biologists to use the term evolution in a biological context. However, he was stuck in the preformation theory, which implied the immutability of species and precluded biological evolution.

March 13, 1832 (a Tuesday)

Rev. John Thomas Gulick

On this date, the American evolutionary biologist Rev. John Thomas Gulick was born. John Gulick continued a family tradition by attending theological school and then did missionary work in China and Japan for over thirty-five years. But he also carried on a parallel career as a naturalist and Darwinian evolutionist. Gulick had collected land snails since his teen years, and became a convert to evolutionary thinking even before reading The Origin of Species. An acute observer, he noticed that many species and varieties of snails were often restricted to very geographically-limited ranges and, as his son Addison later wrote (Scientific Monthly 18 (January 1924): 89), Gulick came

to place great emphasis upon every form of isolation or prevention of mingling, and also to emphasize the great significance for evolution of many factors that are of internal origin, such as the unknown intricacies of the process of heredity, and the effects of new choices made by the evolving creatures…

A plate of Hawaiian land snails from Addison Gulick’s book, Evolutionist and Missionary: John Thomas Gulick (1932).

In 1872, Gulick became the first person to advance the thesis that much evolutionary change is simply a result of chance variation; in other words, variation that has no effect whatsoever on survival and reproductive success can persist in a species. He came to this conclusion when observing the incredible diversity of local populations of Hawaiian land snails (Achatinella) and their seemingly random variation under apparently identical environmental conditions.

Darwin's illustration of an evolutionary tree, from The Origin of Species (1859).

In 1888, Gulick introduced terms for the two patterns of evolution that are observed: the term monotypic evolution (previously called transformation) – what today we define as “the change in gene frequencies within populations over generations” – and the term polytypic evolution (previously called diversification) – simultaneous processes, like the multiplication of species, manifested by different populations and incipient species. Darwin had been far more interested in diversification, particularly during the early years of his career. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, in contrast, had been almost exclusively interested in transformational evolution. He stressed change in time, emphasizing transformation from what was commonly called the lower to the more perfect groups, but his mechanism – “use and disuse” and the “inheritance of acquired characteristics” – was, it turned out, erroneous.

Monotypic (left) v. polytypic evolution.

George Romanes later (1897) adopted Gulick’s terminology, distinguishing between monotypic evolution as “transformation in time” and polytypic evolution as “transformation in space.” In other words, monotypic evolution deals with the “vertical” (usually adaptive) component of change in time, while polytypic evolution deals with the “horizontal” component of change. [Today, monotypic evolution is also known as “nonbranching” evolution, or anagenesis, and polytypic evolution is also known as “branching” evolution, or cladogenesis.] This insight was largely forgotten again after 1897, until it was revived during development of the synthetic theory of evolution in the 1940s.

Gulick extended his ideas to societal evolution in human beings, which he thought was dependent on altruistic motives and a spirit of cooperation.

References:

March 7, 1854 (a Tuesday)

Charles Darwin (1855)

On this date, Charles Darwin was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London.

February 24, 1871 (a Friday)

Charles Darwin

On this date, the first edition of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex was published in two volumes. The word “evolution” appeared for the first time in any of his works. This first issue was of 2,500 copies.

February 22, 1830 (a Monday)

Geoffroy aged about 70

On this date, the historical debate that took place at the French Academy of Sciences between Georges Cuvier and Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire began.

The zoologist and historian of science E.R. Russell summed up the great biological controversy of the first half of the nineteenth century: “Is function the mechanical result of form, or is form merely the manifestation of function or activity? What is the essence of life — organization or activity?” While Cuvier founded the “functionalist” school of organismal biology, with his insistence on animals as functionally integrated wholes, Geoffroy continued the more “formalist” tradition of biology that had started with Buffon and was being continued by Goethe, Lamarck, and others.

Cuvier viewed every part of an animal as having been designed by the Creator to contribute to the animal’s functional integrity. Thus, similarities between organisms could only result from similar functions, writing in 1828, “If there are resemblances between the organs of fishes and those of the other vertebrate classes, it is only insofar as there are resemblances between their functions.” Cuvier argued that all animals could be subdivided into four and only four distinct embranchements: vertebrates, molluscs, articulates (insects and crustaceans), and radiates.

Cuvier’s viewpoint is diametrically opposed to Geoffroy’s view, which stressed the primacy of structure over function; Geoffroy wrote in 1829: “Animals have no habits but those that result from the structure of their organs; if the latter varies, there vary in the same manner all their springs of action, all their faculties and all their actions.”

Geoffrey said that unity of plan could be identified by the relative positions and spatial interrelationships of elements, rather than primarily by their shape or size. Parts may expand and contract according to their function, but topology remains unaltered, and the archetype can be traced by an unvarying spatial pattern.  He called this the principle of connections. (This is still a favored basis for recognizing anatomical homologies.)

Geoffroy wrote in 1807 (see Appel, 1987, p. 89):

It is known that nature works constantly with the same materials. She is ingenious to vary only the forms…One sees her tend always to cause the same elements to reappear, in the same number, in the same circumstances, and with the same connections.

As Charles Darwin described his work in 1859, in The Origin of Species:

What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include the same bones, in the same relative positions? Geoffroy St. Hilaire has insisted strongly on the high importance of relative connexion in homologous organs: the parts may change to almost any extent in form and size, and yet they always remain connected together in the same order.

In 1822, Geoffroy had dissected a lobster and placed it in an inverted position with respect to the ground. In this upside down orientation the lobster’s normally ventral nerve cord was located above the digestive tract, which in turn was placed above the heart. In his own words: “What was my surprise, and I add, my admiration, in perceiving an ordering that placed under my eyes all the organic systems of this lobster in the order in which they are arranged in mammals?” Geoffroy went on to argue that there was a unity of plan, or unity of composition, among animals, so that the dorsal side of the vertebrates was homologous to the ventral side of the arthropods. In 1822, he wrote that “insects formed another class of vertebrated animals, and that they were, consequently, brought under the common law of uniformity of organization”.

Thus, Geoffroy and his followers argued that all animals, vertebrates and invertebrates alike, were built on the same basic plan. Therefore, animal life could be strung into a more or less continuous, related series, rather than broken into discrete “divisions”, as Cuvier had claimed. This series implied that the history of each organism, rising in complexity from starfish to humans, could be interpreted in an evolutionary manner.

Matters between Cuvier and Geoffry came to a head in 1830, when two young naturalists, Meyranx and Laurencet, presented a comparison of the anatomy of vertebrates and cephalopods (squids, cuttlefish, and octopi), claiming that they were based on the same basic structural plan. Geoffroy enthusiastically adopted this claim as proof of the unity of plan shared by all animals; Cuvier could not reconcile it with the results of his careful anatomical research. Thus was set up one of the most famous debates in the history of biology: eight public debates between Cuvier and Geoffroy, from February to April 1830. In these debates, Cuvier showed convincingly that many of Geoffroy’s supposed examples of unity of structure were not accurate; the similarities between vertebrates and cephalopods were contrived and superficial.

Generalized protostome and chordate body plans illustrating inversion in the two lineages.

Generalized protostome and chordate body plans illustrating inversion in the two lineages.

Remarkably, Geoffroy’s idea today is supported by a growing body of molecular developmental evidence. Holley et al (1995) have demonstrated that not only do the fruit fly and frog have homologous genes that promote dorsoventral patterning, but the homologous genes have opposite effects within each animal. In fact, the genes are functionally interchangeable –- even though the product of sog ventralizes fly embryos, it dorsalizes frog embryos just like its homologue in the frog, chordin.

It would be an error to call Geoffroy an evolutionary biologist in anything like the modern sense. Archetypes were abstractions, not once-living ancestors; shared archetypal form did not necessarily indicate common ancestry. Geoffrey used the term “homologous” in its anatomical sense, meaning those parts in different animals which were “essentially” the same, even though the parts might have different shapes and functions. However, later in his career, Geoffroy published some ideas that resemble the theory of evolution by natural selection. The following quote from “Influence du monde ambiant pour modifier les formes animales” (1833) shows that Geoffroy considered that heritable changes in an organism might be selected for or against by the environment, and thus that present-day species might have arisen from antediluvian (before the Biblical Flood) species:

The external world is all-powerful in alteration of the form of organized bodies.. . these [modifications] are inherited, and they influence all the rest of the organization of the animal, because if these modifications lead to injurious effects, the animals which exhibit them perish and are replaced by others of a somewhat different form, a form changed so as to be adapted to the new environment.

But these ideas apparently were never a key part of Geoffroy’s thought. Geoffroy believed that there were limits to how far an organism might evolve, and he never developed his ideas into a complete theory, as Darwin later did.

Part of the power of modern evolutionary biology comes from its ability to synthesize elements from both schools of thought. Organismal lineages change with time, in response to changing environments, and their form constrains the functions that they can take on; at the same time, it is the ability of organisms to function in their environments that is a major component of evolutionary fitness, and form is often altered to fit a particular function. Cuvier and Geoffroy had grasped separate parts of a more complex reality.

References:

  • Toby A. Appel. The Cuvier-Geoffrey Debate: French Biology in the Decades before Darwin (Oxford University Press, 1987).
  • Stephen J. Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Harvard University Press, 2002) pp. 298-312.
  • S.A. Holley, P.D. Jackson, Y. Sasal, B. Lu, E.M. De Robertis, F.M. Hoffmann, and E.L. Ferguson.  A conserved system for dorsal-ventral patterning in insects and vertebrates involving sog and chordin, Nature 376: 249-253 (1995).
  • Ernst Mayr. The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution and Inheritance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982) p 262.