29. Catastrophe and Mutation 1883-1895

 From June until October 1883 large parts of the Earth were shaded beneath dark clouds of smoke. More than half of the Indonesian island of Krakatau was thrown up into the atmosphere and tsunamis killed more than 36,000 people along the coast in Java and Sumatra, 40km away. The effects on climate and weather lasted for over a year and they were global.

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The island actually increased in size with new volcanic ash up to 80m thick and in effect the whole area had been sterilised so that animal and plant life ceased. The following year someone saw a single spider and “a few blades of grass”, then more plants and a few birds and insects arrived from the island of Sebesi, 12kms away. Slowly, life started to return to something like it was before. Within fifty years the entire surface was re-colonised with forest but the changing succession, the sequence of changes to return to the stable flora and fauna, continued for several decades. Arguably it is still going on, well over a hundred years later. But a sudden event such as an explosion followed by a hundred years recovery was just one trivial catastrophe on a geological time-scale. For biological evolution it was a small turn of the screw, just one more environmental change. The eruption advanced interest in catastrophic events in nature and biologists learnt a lot. For example, when things moved onward more rapidly than was normal, it showed that there were major consequences for the environment of the region and for its biodiversity.

The immediate concerns of the scientists involved were to improve their understanding of volcanic activities so that one day they might be predictable. Others were able to use the new virgin territory to monitor the whole process of re-colonisation of the new island’s species. With his recent field experience in the Himalayas the Royal Society appointed Richard Strachey to chair a group to investigate these scientific aspects of the eruption. For evolutionary biologists the sudden event also raised interest in Frances Galton’s recently aired beliefs that sudden changes in the physical environment might cause evolutionary change. Darwin remained in favour of gradual change, not catastrophic: Galton was opening the argument again with a new theory and the volcanic event at Krakatau helped him keep the debate alive even though most of the biologists in The Royal Society remained highly sceptical.

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Richard Strachey and his family – 1890s

To help understand catastrophism, Galton had raised the metaphor of a rough stone that would “tumble over into a new position of stability” an idea that first appeared publicly as an afterthought at the back of his earlier 1869 book Hereditary Genius.1.2

Now he had good discussions with Richard Strachey about Krakatau so he brought the same metaphor into the main argument of his second important book about evolution published in1889, Natural Inheritance. Galton liked gadgets and so this time he made a wooden model of the rough stone, a few centimetres in diameter with 64 surfaces. He took it with him to demonstrate at his lectures all around the country and he called it his “polyhedron”: tipping the model to tumble onto one stable surface after another, each tumble taking it to a new position of stability until the next catastrophe.

Steve Gould called it “evolution by jerks”.

Similar thoughts were going on in the minds of a different kind of life scientists, those few new biologists beginning to measure inside reproductive cells. But cells were vulnerable to their own kind of catastrophe otherwise known as mutation, a phenomenon noticed by one of Darwin’s acquaintances, the horticulturist Hugo de Vries. This Dutchman bred varieties of evening primrose and in 1889 he observed that a larger version than normal had appeared in an instant during his breeding programme and it was stable, surviving from one generation to another. Although the Cambridge plant and animal breeder, William Bateson, suspected it to be a hybrid rather than a new species he agreed that its sudden appearance was important and should be investigated further as a possible example of a new mutant. There was also the difficulty for these breeders about what these words meant: species, variety, hybrid and mutant.

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Were such instant new forms, de Vries and Galton wondered, compatible with the more gradual changes foreseen by Darwin? They noticed a lot of continuing support for change being cause by environmental changes, especially catastrophic ones rather than the familiar gradual trends. And there was still no sign of evidence to support any other kind of selection. There seemed to be a return to the idea of straight adaptation to a new environment, more like Lamarck’s continuous changes than Darwin’s selection of one or another.

Support for natural selection was reduced even more by a split between its two most fervent backers, Galton and Lankester, respectively the quantifier and the qualifier. Lankester’s limited powers in diplomacy were not going to help even though he understood both sides and tried to keep them together. For Galton, measuring seemed to be taking over from feeling, and instead Lankester stuck with the old methods to which slow hard work describing intricate new structures would eventually answer all the important questions. There was no new evidence to bring things together. Instead there was an unhappy set-back in 1895: the death of Thomas Huxley.  Lankester was devastated: “There has been no man or woman whom I have met on my journey through life, whom I have loved or regarded as I have him, and I feel that the world has shrunk and become a poor thing, now that his splendid spirit and delightful presence are gone from it. Ever since I was a little boy, he has been my ideal and my hero.”

The conflicts became obvious just after Huxley’s death but the foundations went back at least a decade and arguably much longer. Lankester began to notice the split showing up between his friends as their personalities and experiences took them in opposite directions. One group went outwards into space and time, keeping an open mind on how things worked; the other went inwards to the cell, looking for smaller and smaller units and expecting them to hold the key to it all. Lankester knew that studying evolutionary biology was one way to get down to the brass tacks about the meaning of life.

30. Statistics against Biometrics 1895-1906

Francis Galton was 25 years older than Ray Lankester and for some years they had lived nearby on the southern side of Hyde Park where they often talked about their different attitudes to science.

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Galton believed the answer to the question of life could be measured, yet his main problem was that he didn’t have much data. He offered a challenge to Lankester about his elaborate plans for an Anthropometric Laboratory, with which he was going to collect a lot of data and analyse them. The project was being set up just down the road in South Kensington to measure physical and behavioural features from visitors to the International Health Exhibition. It was a small roving exhibition and volunteers were measured for things like head size and shape, then the results were compared to social status and other factors. Galton was also collecting data about the intelligence of whole families, though a lot of the detail seemed even then to be of dubious social, let alone scientific, acceptability. One of his expectations was to devise an index to measure the range of human intelligence.

Interested and able to get involved with this kind of analysis was Carl Pearson, a student of marine biology and statistics who Lankester had encouraged to go to Naples with Weldon. Pearson was brought up in archetypal Victorian middle class family tradition. His domineering father was a successful hard-working barrister who paid no attention to his family during term-time. Holidays were for that kind of thing and it was then that the youngsters would be taken shooting and fishing, all strictly under his control.  Carl was sent to school at Rugby and then studied mathematics at Cambridge. In 1879 he got a First and was elected to the Fellowship of King’s College Cambridge. He hated anything compulsory and argued with his colleagues about the divinity classes that he had to attend with all the other Fellows.

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The freedom of the Cambridge life-style allowed Pearson to visit Berlin and Heidelberg regularly and he took an interest in the contemporary German philosophers who were so busy then. He admired the new left wing politics and JBS Haldane argued later that it was Marx’s influence that caused him to change his name from Carl to Karl. But statistical mathematics excited him most and the new data being accumulated by people like Francis Galton presented him with very attractive applications.

Statistical analysis is an advance from what he’d been doing with Raphael Weldon at the Marine Station in Naples a few years previously. Weldon had followed Lankester’s main interest in marine life and spent time at the Naples laboratory and later at Plymouth, but was more and more aware that evolution was a statistical problem. Then, a major challenge was to provide more data for analysis and Weldon obtained measurements of the death rates of crabs and snails. In 1889 he took Lankester’s job at University College where he became well known as a great teacher. He also continued Lankester’s fight to defend the independence of University College and King’s College against their amalgamation as a new Albert University. Lankester had left London for an unhappy decade at Oxford, leaving the young scientists to take over many of his projects. It also put them under the influence of Galton and enlisted them both in the programme for a statistical solution to the problems of heredity and evolution.

Earlier, while he was an undergraduate at Cambridge, Weldon had been friendly with William Bateson who strongly favoured mutation as the cause of most change in evolution. Bateson presented the idea as his theory of discontinuous evolution, showing it as two peaks in the population of an earlier single species. He explained it in detail in what he hoped would become a student bible, Materials for the Study of Variation published in 1894. But he over-emphasising the role of mutation and gave no place for environmental influences. With Lankester out of the way in Oxford there was peace between these four quantitative scientists and they teamed up as Galton and Pearson, Bateson and Weldon. The harmony was not going to last for very long.

None of them gave much attention to Darwin’s ideas on natural selection until Alfred Wallace was asked to review Bateson Materials book. The next day he had the good chance to bump into Weldon in London and they talked about Bateson’s dismissal of many ideas that Darwin had cherished. Sharing their anger after that initial exchange Wallace and Weldon went away intent on going public with their criticisms of the biased approach and they both gave bad notices for the book. What had been a strong friendship at Cambridge between Bateson and Weldon became a bitter and nasty battle in their later lives. Galton continued to support the book because it added to the cause of his own polyhedron model and was one in the eye for his cousin’s old-fashioned insistence on gradualism.

A rare defender of mainstream Victorian values, and Charles Darwin in particular, was Sir William Thistleton-Dyer, the new Director of Kew Gardens who took over from Hooker in 1885. He shared the need for stability of the mean and agreed with Weldon about Bateson’s neglect of outside influences on evolution. Dyer made that same point in 1895 when he suggested that different coloured varieties of the ornamental flowering plant Cineraria were hybrids and not random mutants.

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His observations were that the different colours formed gradually not suddenly, though whether that meant they weren’t mutants wasn’t very clear then. This intervention attracted the wrath of Bateson in the correspondence columns of Nature and Weldon soon joined in. Bateson took the criticism personally and from then on his Cambridge group, studying mutations in what became Mendelian Genetics, were at war with the London school of statistical biometrics.

Most biologists agreed that experiments were needed to settle these questions and that some statistical analysis of the results could be very useful. The argument about mutations had divided those with a quantitative outlook on evolution, leaving hapless observers like Lankester and Wallace on the side-lines, feeling useless relics of another age. Their interests in evolution were far away from the mathematical theory that had entered the discussions and they felt isolated from the young generation. A serious divide had been made much deeper and science was moving on faster all the time.

So with this in mind, over a working lunch at his club in 1893, Herbert Spencer entertained Galton, Weldon, Wallace and Lankester to a discussion about “conducting statistical enquiry into the variability of organisms.” They agreed that the statistical method was the only one by which Darwin’s hypothesis could be experimentally checked.

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Later this group became the Evolution Committee of the Royal Society, which confirmed to Lankester that he was one of the few biologists then who still wanted to look outside at the whole organism and then towards the physical environment. Most others were on the new mission to the smallest part of the cell, expecting to join with the chemists and physicists and find mathematically defined laws. It frightened him that both directions of study were so vast, suggesting that progress in understanding the biology of life was going to be very slow, however fast one part of the science might be moving.

Despite the attempts of Wallace and Weldon to bring the sides together, the last few years of the nineteenth century saw a rapid decline in support for natural selection, encouraged by the Bateson affair and the continuing absence of evidence for adaptation. Galton worried that he might die before the elusive agent of heredity was discovered and to add to that despair his wife did die in 1898. Accidentally, he was kept going by stumbling across some very exciting new data, the pedigree of a large family of Basset hounds with white and yellow patches and he was able to trace the heritage back several generations. He used the data to establish the distribution of each parent’s contribution going back four and more generations. Overjoyed with such good data for analysis, Karl Pearson described the patterns of inheritance for the white and yellow patches with a series of new equations. To cheer up his depressed boss he incorporated them into a Happy New Year card, and through Galton’s warm reaction it gave all the London biometricians a new lease of life for the next battle with Cambridge.

That came sooner than they expected because Bateson was the referee of the manuscript setting out Pearson’s equations, and though the mathematics may have been original, the biology was bad. Bateson took great delight in rejecting the manuscript. In anger, the London group decided to begin a journal of their own for such articles on topics crossing the boundaries of traditional disciplines. They called it Biometrika, a name like Pearson’s own, spelt with a k not a c (and which is still publishing high quality work). Even with this divided opposition, Lankester was side-lined in his defence of Darwin and the holistic view he still had for all of nature.

No-one would have guessed anything special was going to happen when William Bateson caught the train from Cambridge to London one morning in May 1900. He had been invited to give a lecture to the Royal Horticultural Society in Chelsea, about what was being called Galton’s Law. It came from the conclusions of Galton’s analysis of the white and yellow patches on Basset hounds that had just been published and stated that parents contributed equally to their offspring’s inherited matter. On the slow train journey Bateson happened to turn to some papers that he had bundled into his bag and there he found an unread reprint of an article published 34 years earlier. The author was Gregor Mendel.

Bateson realised that the characters that Mendel had counted over several generations of peas showed a pattern was carried from one generation to the other. Whatever this mechanism, Bateson thought the forty year old manuscript by Mendel had some important messages for plant breeders, a different kind of detail to Galton’s and that difference was important. Legend has it that before his train reached Liverpool Street Station in London he had decided to change his lecture and share Mendel’s work with his audience at the Chelsea Society. The audience remained silent, unaware of the importance of the monk’s breeding experiments, let alone why such dull work should be presented with such excitement. It was an uncanny repeat of the silence after the Darwin and Wallace paper was read out to the Linnean Society 42 years earlier.


Wanting to share his discovery further, Bateson wrote to alert Galton to the manuscript “in case you may miss it. Mendel’s work seems to me one of the most remarkable investigations yet made on heredity, and it is extraordinary that it should have got forgotten.” Like the audience in Chelsea, Galton did not respond and it took several years for the penny to drop in other peoples’ minds. To be fair to these observers, it was easy to miss the point from Mendel’s funny little experiments crossing different varieties of peas. For the uninitiated, and that was the vast majority, counts of which pea types had shown up in the next generation were a long way from finding Darwin’s missing units of inheritance.

Attracting hardly any interest, Bateson was left feeling that he had over-reacted to the Mendel article and that his own idea was best after all. It was six years since he had first suggested that hereditary features were transmitted by vibrations rather than by discrete particles. He became so pre-occupied with this hypothesis that he preferred to dismiss all other explanations of evolution out of hand. He summarised Darwin in one line: “Selection is a true phenomenon; but its function is to select, not to create”. He was convinced that Darwin had got it wrong and the London group around Galton and Pearson were beyond the pale.

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After all, there was still a possibility that his own theory of vibrating messages would show Mendelian ratios and that he had been right to get excited about the re-discovered manuscript. So with this always in his mind he never did accept the chromosomal account of inheritance.

Some people, like de Vries, saw mutation as hereditary change showing up as splitting one species into two, big evolutionary jumps, more dramatic than anything Darwin had anticipated in the world of gradual change. Later in the decade “mutation” became associated with smaller changes, encouraged by replacing the difficult expression “Mendelian Factor” with the simple term “gene”.

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These changes in single characters were usually happening within a species, one simple character controlled by one gene. Even Darwin had expected that mechanisms such as mutation might account for evolutionary change in addition to the more important process of natural selection. In the last sentence of the Introduction to the Origin he wrote: “I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.”

In all parts of the life sciences the quantitative approach was gaining ground. With this trend were Pearson and Weldon who used mathematics to test the validity of Mendel’s own data and whose results appeared to be too good to be true: there was nearly 100% validity, an unheard-of result that made them suspect that someone had fiddled the calculation. But who would want to do such a thing, and with what motive?  Bateson did not accept the criticism and saw Weldon’s questioning of Mendel’s conclusions as an over-reaction. Ever more determined, Weldon went on looking for evidence of adaptation in his snails and crabs, measuring their death rates, looking for signs of extinction of old species and origin of new ones. But he didn’t find any new evidence and blamed that on the complexity of the way his organisms showed their adaptation and selection. This was no way of gaining support from an already disillusioned group of Darwin supporters.

Bateson took an even stronger line against the London statisticians in Pearson’s circle and the bitter dispute about the nature of evolution and the value of the statistical method continued to rage. The battle over Mendel’s data reached its climax at the 1904 British Association meeting that happened to be in Cambridge where the audience was hostile to the London side. In response, a complacent Bateson was the proud host and felt confident that his students would give some good talks. In the event there was a series of dull displays of statistical analysis from the Londoners and the presentations of breeding experiments from Bateson’s Cambridge group were not much better. At the end, Pearson offered to bring the two sides together: the chairman looked around at the blank faces of the Cambridge audience and saw little enthusiasm for this: “But what I say is: let them fight it out!” The audience broke up into small groups, each wondering which side another was on, and many thinking that strong leadership could have led the scientists out of this hole. Instead, most of the positive work was being done miles away in New York and the English contribution was about to turn into tragedy.

Weldon was eager to accept the challenge from that meeting and his first chance for reconciliation came later in the year when the Royal Society asked him to referee a manuscript from one of Bateson’s supporters. It took data from the pedigrees of race horses and found what the author argued to be Mendelian ratios in the coat colours: bay and brown being dominant to the chestnut recessive. Weldon was unhappy with the author’s colour assignments, fearing they had been altered to give good results, and asked the author to clarify the methodology and the definition of his characters. The great row that inevitably followed ended in the work eventually being published, but with a brief footnote. It highlighted some of the changes that Weldon had demanded, but the fact that the article was published at all gave victory to Bateson’s group.

In despair at this outcome Weldon put all his energy into disproving the article’s results, and that meant him finding evidence of a chestnut mare, crossed with another chestnut, giving birth to a brown or a bay foal. He worked frantically, saying “I cannot leave this thing unsettled” and causing his good friend Pearson to measure the seriousness of the situation by observing that “he used stronger language than I have ever heard him use.” Eventually Weldon found the information he had hoped for and was persuaded to take a family holiday with the Pearsons. That was when the 45 year old Weldon caught a chest infection and he died a few weeks later. It was generally agreed this was from the exhaustion, worry and over-work.

All these incidents between London and Cambridge were based on uncertainty and the battles they created were really about their lack of belief in what Darwin or Mendel had been telling them. More particularly, Darwin’s theory was aggressively rejected by Bateson’s group and Mendel’s was not accepted by Weldon and his London friends. But neither group had anywhere else to turn, other than to the hope that somehow the numbers games would come up with something unexpected.

That was exactly what happened when new calculations laid another of Darwin’s ghosts to rest, the one about the age of the earth and the time that had most likely been available for animal and plant evolution to have happened. In 1904, during one of his public lectures, Rutherford announced his new radiometric dating techniques which measured the half-life of elements such as radium present in particular rocks. His first results suggested a much older age of the earth than had been advocated by Thomson.

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Afterwards, Rutherford is said to have described his shocked reaction to seeing Thomson in the audience as he began the lecture. “To my relief Thomson fell fast asleep, but as I came to the important part, I saw the old bird sit up, open an eye and cock a baleful glance at me. Then a sudden inspiration came, and I said Thomson had limited the age of the earth, provided no new source of heat was discovered. That prophetic utterance refers to what we are now considering tonight, radium!” Just as Thomson saw through Lyell’s shaky edifice of uniformity, Rutherford had seen through Thomson’s single-tracked thinking about the cooling planet earth: more than one thing was going on at once and that had clouded each process.

31. Uncertainty About Mendel 1904-1907

Useful though these biometric methods were to become, another fruitful line of enquiry was beginning in the United States. The mutations first described in plants by de Vries, and then recognised elsewhere by Bateson, were to be tackled really seriously by one of Lankester’s marine biology acquaintances, one who took delight in the switch from qualitative to quantitative outlooks. Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945) was to win a Nobel Prize for his “discoveries concerning the role played by the chromosome in heredity” particularly in fruit flies. Although the penny that dropped on Bateson’s train journey in 1900 was heard clearly by Morgan, it took until 1933 for the Prize to be awarded and full public approval to be granted.

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When Morgan was a student at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts he had been interested in the embryology of sea spiders, to find out whether they were crustaceans or arachnids. But when he followed the footsteps of Lankester in 1894 to the marine laboratory in Naples, he became more interested in the chemical and physical changes that happened as the little creatures developed. From then on, TH Morgan saw no need for natural selection and believed that species had no reality in the flow of nature. “It appears that new species are born; they are not made by Darwinian methods, and the theory of natural selection has nothing to do with the origin of species, but with the survival of already formed ones.”  To him, a “naturalist” was the opposite of a “scientist” and biology could be explained in terms of physics and chemistry. This was despite him knowing very little of either and at the same time insisting that “genetics can be studied without any reference to evolution”. These were purist views, typical of the way an enthusiast supports a new idea if only to get it across. But they also showed the power of reduction to the smallest detail and the growing popularity of the quantitative approach.

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Morgan’s view was a restatement of the old supporters of Lamarck who thought that selection could not create but only reject. They failed to see that it was through this rejection that new forms are created and it was to be three decades later that Morgan’s students realised this. They agreed that evolution worked at many levels, whether it was with the mathematics of molecules and populations of organisms, with the physics and chemistry of genes, the chemistry of physiology and with the influence of different environments. By change at any of these levels, biodiversity came from the splitting of lineages, by speciation, and that gave discontinuity in nature. But it was mutations that mattered most to Morgan because he thought they created new species immediately, despite the environment. They also occurred in single genes and would become extinct only if the change was harmful for all individuals.

From 1904 Morgan moved to New York aiming to find the commonly suspected patterns of change that seemed to be continuously passing from one generation to another. By then the talk of Mendel’s ratios validating the role of sudden mutations gave him new hope and he started to look for evidence of what might be in control of these hereditary characters. That was when he started to work with fruit flies, which were easy to use in his laboratory, or the ‘fly room’ as he called it.

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This was more than just a room, rather a very well-organised and well-led group of enthusiasts who were in at the beginning of experimental genetics. Drosophila flies were cheap, quick and easy to breed in milk bottles, and the features they inherited showed up very noticeably. They also had just four very large chromosomes that showed changes in shape and colour in different parts, ideal for examining chromosomal events during the sexual and asexual cycles of cell division, how they related to the structural features of the adult. Mutations came easily and bred true as variously coloured eyes, striped bodies, wings of different shapes and such like. But these techniques were going to need thousands of experiments before any trends emerged and even then the data were not going to be easy to analyse and interpret. Like the processes they were monitoring the experiments needed to be fully controlled and monitored.

In 1907 Bateson visited Yale and set out his post-Mendelian statement about genetics and evolution. He fought for the slow and gradual recombinations that Mendel’s work had described and for which he had proposed the word “genetics” two years earlier. But there was still no evidence that any particles on the chromosomes or anywhere else were the agents of inheritance. Bateson kept quiet then about his thoughts on the train in 1900 when he also remembered another article by a German cytologist Theodor Boveri. That was about structures inside the cell nuclei of sea urchin embryos, structures the author had called chromosomes. Could the recombined ratios, he wondered, come from a re-sorting of particles on these chromosomes during sexual reproduction, both in peas and sea urchins?

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Bateson preferred to think that vibrations were the more likely agent: “In Mendelian analysis we have now, it is true, something comparable with the clue of chemistry, but there is little prospect of penetrating the obscurity which envelops the mechanical aspect of our phenomena.” Inheritance must be transmitted by a force from physics, vibration. “Patterns mechanically produced are of many and very diverse kinds. One of the most familiar examples, and one presenting some especially striking analogies to organic patterns, is that provided by the ripples of a mackerel sky, or those made in a flat sandy beach by the wind or the ebbing tide.”

It came as no surprise that Bateson and Morgan were very different kinds of people, and they did not get on. Morgan looked a bit like Weldon with a droopy moustache, and he had a casual and laid-back southern outlook on life. Bateson thought Morgan “rough”, “of no considerable account” and “dreadfully small” and even reported to his wife that “TH Morgan is a thickhead”. At first, in 1907, about the only thing they had in common was that chromosomes were not of much significance in genetics.

Both men had nothing to say about natural selection or Darwin or the link between his ideas and Mendel’s ratios of inheritance. Instead, based as much on envy as on reason, Bateson gave Morgan, and the audience at Yale, his own eccentric idea, but with no new evidence. Instead, because he couldn’t leave his vibration theory alone, he could only offer a sad and weak attempt to get the idea across. “I think we are entitled to the inference that in the formation of patterns in animals and plants mechanical forces are operating which ought to be, and will prove to be, capable of mathematical analysis.”

Bateson left America without changing anyone’s mind about the cause of evolution, let alone his own. Many of the different ways of explaining evolution were still possibilities though they all had different levels of support and very few people could appreciate how each idea might fit into the whole picture of a living system. There was some support for vibrations, and evidence for degeneration, a case for eugenics and mutation as well as for Darwin’s more gradual theory of natural selection. Without evidence from genetics, geological dating, biogeography, migration or ecology, no single theory or investigator stood out as the most acceptable. There was still all to play for in the game of trying to understand how life worked. Although new disciplines had begun in the four decades since the Origin was published, none had given any major new advance. What little seemed acceptable was split up, all in bits.

One thing was for sure, the way to understand Mendel’s results was going to be through some quantitative assessment, and Lankester organised a series of monthly dinners at his club to help find a way through. On such occasions there was a lot of talk about the biometric work coming from Galton’s laboratory and how it might inform those hoping for selective human breeding. Two mathematicians in the group, Whitehead and Russell, were preparing to work on their monumental Principia Mathematica, and they wanted to link Lankester’s descriptive biology to their own quantitative methods, but it was going to be difficult at first. th

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was best placed to link these topical issues because he was one of the few people who could understand both languages. As a philosopher with mathematical skills, he was in the right place at the right time. Together with Whitehead he advocated three requirements to explain the history of life: a concept of infinity, the flexibility of choice, and the desire to reduce explanations to the smallest component. This rigorous and optimistic programme was raising the stakes of biologists, pushing qualitative description to one side and claiming biometricians as heroes.

Even Lankester appreciated that this was the way things were going and was pleased to explain that the new methods relied on descriptive data. And all around in science there was a shortage of data; numbers were highly sought after and soon there were plenty of non-scientists interested in mathematics solely as a mental exercise. This was summed up by one presentation in Cambridge that attracted a large audience when Bertrand Russell teamed up with TS Eliot reciting the value of pi for ten minutes. There was then a period of meditation before they continued with another hundred or more decimal places of the constant’s value. It was going to be important for biologists to keep mathematics under control.

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What the old brigade of Wallace and Lankester saw as being even more difficult than describing life by equations was the link these mathematicians, outsiders to their classical biology, had with their philosopher friends in Vienna. It was the group that Rudolf Carnap was to lead for the next two decades and which at this early stage became known as the First Vienna Circle. These men met at the Cafe Central and had a very clear vision of where philosophy was going. They saw all knowledge coming together as a single language of science, becoming more and more precise and leading to a single truth, one Law of Life being verifiable by experiments and taken further by mathematical modelling.

Russell was never an inside member of this group and later went out of his way to distance himself, despite the excellent credentials that his three explanation of life gave him for membership. Instead, he experienced an incident that his Principia Mathematica could not account for and which would have been rejected as irrelevant by the First Vienna Circle. It was from a simple incident of seeing the pain felt by a lonely woman as she was growing old, all alone. “Having for years cared only for exactness and analysis, I found myself filled with semi-mystical feelings about beauty …. to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable.”

By then, measuring was seen to be an essential part of the scientific routine and few young biologists were sympathetic to Russell’s feelings about the old lady’s values of life: instead they searched for other explanations. One such person was in the same city of Vienna at the same time as the philosophers, Paul Kammerer (1880-1926), an experimental zoologist. He wanted to prove Lamarkian theories of evolution by breeding reptiles such as toads and salamanders. Kammerer’s first experiments involved breeding midwife toads in warm water and after several new generations he noticed the growth of black nuptial pads on the males’ feet to keep grip on the female.

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Other toad species also had these pads, and Kammerer explained them all as adaptations to the slippery conditions. This didn’t prove or disprove Lamarck, but it did help understand something about toad life-styles. Usually the males could grip their mate easily and didn’t slip on dry land, but in the moist conditions of Kammerer’s experiments they kept sliding around. The question people were asking was whether the pads came from the expression of an existing trait, inherited from a line of ancestral species that also mated in water, or whether the pads were from a new mutation. Kammerer himself was unsure of the answer when he began this work in 1906 and didn’t come to favour the explanation that they were from rapid mutations until after the war.

With the measured scientist and philosophers at the Cafe Central and experimentalists like Kammerer, Vienna was hardening into a place of scientific rigour for the twentieth century. Not least of importance was an ear-nose-and-throat doctor, Wilhelm Fliess, who also reckoned to have helped turn biology into a science describable by mathematics. For more than ten years he had gathered data from cyclical body patterns such as 28 day menstruation and an associated periodicity of 23 days. He compared these to times of nasal bleeding, and even dates of birth and death and concocted an arithmetic formula to account for many other bodily functions as well. Fliess’s best friend was Sigmund Freud who entrusted his own nose to Fliess’s surgery, despite another patient nearly dying from similar treatment. The surgery was thought to be a cure for Freud’s arrhythmic heart beat and was regarded as a great success. It was also at the time of Freud’s entrance into life science, when he began to link human psychology to evolutionary biology.

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(Rudolph Carnap)               (Central Cafe, Viena)                                           (Freud and Fliess 1895)

Francis Galton had already been thinking about this other ghost of Darwin, how study of the mammalian mind might fit in with evolutionary mechanisms. To open up his enquiries he began to subject some of the results from his Anthropometric Laboratory to his first statistical methods of analysis. He had the height measurements of thousands of parents and their children and plotted them out in different ways. Not surprisingly, taller parents tended to have taller children, but the children were rarely taller than the parents. Equally, shorter parents had only slighter shorter children. There was a tendency to revert back towards the average.

This way of measuring association between any two like-with-like variables, such as heights of parents with heights of children, helped Galton find a standard that he applied to other closely comparable data. Two variables are often closely associated for correlations as well as regressions, similarities as well as differences. They formed the basis of much more sophisticated biometric applications, weather forecasts, economic indicators and even public opinion polls. But in all cases the quality of the prediction was no better than the quality of the data used in the first place.

32. Early Eugenics 1903-1911

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In 1903 the Daily Chronicle carried a brief article under the headlines: “Our National Physique – Prospects of the British Race – Are We Degenerating?” It was written by Galton, just after The Royal Society awarded him the Darwin Medal, and urged that “a material improvement in our British breed is not so Utopian an object as it may seem”. The next year he wrote that “the aim of eugenics is to represent each class or sect by its best specimens; that done, to leave them to work out their own civilisation in their own way.”

If it had been written specially to niggle HG Wells (1866-1946) and his new friend Lankester then the trick had certainly worked. Their fury was just about balanced by the view that Galton had always so many balls in the air at once that none of them ever really hit their target with much force. In this case, for example, he had mixed up two different meanings of ‘degeneration’ and compared them to even more confused meanings of the word ‘race’, much more difficult to define socially and genetically. Wells responded immediately and publicly: ‘I believe … it is in the sterilisation of failure, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies.” He had hinted at these ideas a decade earlier in The Time Machine with its degenerate man-creatures.

Francis Galton was not to be silenced and when he addressed the new Sociological Society he made clear which characteristics he favoured: energy, ability, manliness, health and courteous disposition. He concluded that “what nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly and kindly. Galton was still analysing the data he had collected over the years about health and family backgrounds.

Karl Pearson was appointed as the first Galton Professor of Eugenics at University College. Statistical in 1911, some saying it was proof that racial degeneration was a threat to the Empire: improved health allowed genetically inferior people to survive; it stopped natural selection by “propagating unfitness. The right to live does not connote the right of each man to reproduce his kind. As we lessen the stringency of natural selection, and more and more of the weaklings and unfit survive, we must increase the standard, mental and physical, of parentage.” Pearson expected life to be a struggle and welcomed was as part of that struggle to survive by fitness. “National progress depends on racial fitness, and the supreme test of this fitness was war. When wars cease mankind will no longer progress for there will be nothing to check the fertility of inferior stock.”

Support came from a respectable source when Bertrand Russell first published on eugenics, applying Pearson’s statistical reasoning and the principles of Galton’s law of ancestral heredity. In conclusion, Russell advocated direct payments from the state to “desirable” parents, a plan he mooted again in the form of scholarships paid to qualifying parents while “undesirable” parents were to be discouraged from procreating and to receive no financial aid for their children from the State. He accepted the “dangers” of the so-called “differential birth rate” – the Edwardian concern that the poor sections of society reproduced much faster than the wealthy – that conditioned Russell’s understanding of parental desirability.

Only a few senior biologists rose up in protest at the even more threatening programme of legislation that was underway to restrict the breeding of the feebleminded. One who did protest was Ray Lankester who demanded that more should be known about the origin of the characteristics being controlled, whether they were inherited or learnt. He challenged what some of the terms meant, words such as “racial quality” and “improvement” meant different things to different people, and he called for a serious study of human races and their origin, before parliament intervened. Lankester made several appeals for these further considerations in his weekly Daily Telegraph column and they seemed to have a considerable effect on the public perception of the “intellectual eugenicists”. Like the spiritualists and magicians, they came across as people who could not be entirely trusted.

Galton also started to write a novel that he provisionally titled Kantsaywhere, about a eugenic utopia and its Eugenics College founded by Mr Neverwas. The college awarded diplomas for heritable gifts, physical and mental and encouraged graduates to marry one another by offering “appropriate social and material rewards” to “relieve the cost of nurturing the children.”. The professor of Vital Statistics arrived in the colony and met Miss Augusta Allfancy. Failures went to labour colonies “under conditions that were not onerous” but they had to work hard and remain celibate. Others received a certificate and could mate only “with reservations”. The plot told of what happened when the fragmentary pedigrees of immigrants caused trouble with the loves and desires of some of the new graduates of the college.

Galton was seen by his contemporaries as the founder of their “science” of eugenics in contrast to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote about the “religion of eugenics. He wrote that: “Society should in many cases actually prevent the act of procreating and may without any regard for rank and under certain circumstances have recourse to castration.”

It fell to another young new Cambridge biologist to bring the London biometricians and Cambridge Mendelians together and to examine eugenic methods more seriously. Even before he graduated Ronald Fisher (1890-1962) got involved establishing a Cambridge University Eugenics Society with the advice of Maynard Keynes and Horace Darwin. It was intended that the group should be addressed by the leaders of mainstream eugenics organisations such as the Eugenics Education Society, but the eager young Fisher beat them to it and talked himself.

From the start Ronald Fisher was set for an unusual life at an extraordinary time. His family were partners in a firm of London art auctioneers and owned a big house in Hampstead. This intellectual background introduced him to the fashionable side of London society, but his happiness was rudely broken by his mother’s death and his father’s financial ruin. Fisher was still at Harrow School and buried himself in work. He won a scholarship for mathematics at Cambridge and from school, a prize of Darwin’s complete works.

In his short address to the small group at the Eugenics Education Society the very young Fisher had something good to say for both sides of the biometrics-Mendelian struggle, as well as something cautionary. Mendel had published unusually accurate results, conforming almost too much to the expected ratios, more like demonstrations than real results. Biometricians could be ambiguous, too, and they “could squeeze the truth out of the most inferior data”. As we shall see, Fisher did succeed in uniting these two factions of evolutionary biology but the specialists who recognised and described new species were still left out and the new specialists who looked at the environment were not even considered.

Later, Fisher reflected on his role as arbiter: “Each generation, perhaps, found in Mendel’s paper only what it expected to find; in the first period a repetition of the hybridization results commonly reported, in the second a discovery in inheritance supposedly difficult to reconcile with continuous evolution. Each generation, therefore, ignored what did not confirm its own expectations.” His generation of young men were more hard-minded than most, expecting that mathematics would be involved in any scientific problem. Physics and chemistry were going to be heavily involved in the forthcoming war and there was no time for soft bits of evolutionary biology.

Most of these Edwardians were intrigued by all the talk of eugenics, seeing that it joined three strands of late-Victorian science: a hereditary theory of population, the study of population statistics, and a theory of population regulation derived from population genetics. The popular belief behind the foundation of eugenics was the conviction that it was possible to scientifically intervene in the reproduction of human populations with the specific goal of biologically improving future generations.

The new century had got off to an eventful start. The new king, Edward VII, not only removed from sight Queen Victoria’s most symbolic belongings but happily strolled around Buckingham Palace with a huge cigar in his mouth. In Vienna, Sigmund Freud shocked middle class society with suggestions of unconscious sexual feelings during childhood. And in his new job as Director of the Natural History Museum, Ray Lankester felt attacked from all sides, academic and administrative, as though he could do nothing right. On one occasion he ordered a room to be repainted without consulting the Trustees. At their next meeting they severely censured him for going outside his powers: “We don’t like the new paint”, said the chairman, “and we must ask you to arrange to have it taken off.” “I thought you’d say that,” growled Lankester, “but it won’t come off.”

In his academic life there was no resolution to the struggles between nature and nurture, the endless debates between quality and quantity and the continuing confusion about whether units of inheritance had been found or not. In their different world the politicians were also unaware of similar forces acting at their more diplomatic level of the art of what was possible. But then, so little was under the direct control of both life scientists and politicians that they were all blindly walking headlong into the same great catastrophic event. 

33. Tansley and Ecology 1898-1911

By the end of the nineteenth century the whole of evolutionary biology was becalmed. There were no bright ideas of alternative mechanisms and most experiments came to nothing. Overall, there was a serious loss of faith in progress coinciding with talk of the decline of Empire, the fall of whole cultures of different social classes and families and even of some of these habits becoming extinct. Without the aim of eternity or some other utopia, many Edwardians became afraid that much of what they stood for and held so dear, was soon to be at risk. Furthermore, there was no confident group of charismatic scientists to consider the old Victorian thinking about evolution and decide what to hold on to and where progress might be made.

Lankester’s teaching colleagues at University College were having happier times pioneering excursions outside in the environment, especially with the innovations of a young lecturer called Arthur Tansley (1871-1955) who realised just how important the environment was. It was the missing part in the story of how and why each species existed: their unique environment explained the causes and reasons for its adaptation.

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As a junior lecturer in the Botany Department at University College Tansley became a popular figure within the Students’ Union. As its Vice-President in 1898 he often gave casual talks and one was quoted more than the others, The Origin of Death. It began with the simple observation that an Amoeba just splits into two new animals at the end of its life, so nothing ever dies and he pointed to other species that are part of some similarly mutually dependent system. Some in his audience wondered whether they were another manifestation of Jekyll’s split, part of a process that was sometimes creative, even defying death?

In his first formal lectures, Tansley helped out his two biology professors who both had star status as teachers at London’s university. Of course, one was Lankester who often returned to his old college in Gower Street and the other was Tansley’s mentor Professor Francis W. Oliver another environmental botanist, this one most interested in how plants could grow in unstable places like sand dunes. They knew it was going to be decades before the main processes would be understood because plant communities took time to become established, especially on new shingle and many of the processes that were involved weren’t even properly recognised. The length of time needed for complete studies of the natural processes became another reason why this kind of work was overshadowed by the quicker laboratory experiments giving data for the statistics and biometry. The softer ecology wasn’t going to provide a quick fix.


Earlier, Oliver had lectured beside Lankester to large and vociferous audiences of medical students. They were both concerned by the horrible unhealthy conditions in many London streets and they applied their research to look into the biology of the problems, Oliver on the effect of atmospheric coal dust on vegetation and Lankester on water-borne diseases on human health. The work introduced Tansley to look at the effects of salt spray on the plants which grow on sand dunes, shingle beaches and in salt marshes. He studied the interactions between the plants and these extreme environments which played a big part in enabling these formations to build up on the sea coast. They needed constant monitoring over many years so Oliver, Tansley and groups of their students made seasonal measurements on the north coast of Norfolk where the shingle beach system was continually being destroyed by storms and regenerated. They measured changes in geography and meteorology as well as the flora and fauna, making some of the earliest ecological experiments.

It was becoming clear to the young Tansley that the full impact of evolution’s cultural importance spread far from science, to religion, the arts and to politics. But biology was moving further away from the holism and unity that were common in mid-Victorian times. Polymaths like Darwin and Galton were becoming extinct as the twentieth century heralded specialisation and hard-nosed objectivity. In so much of the new research quantitative experiments were given priority.

Not only did they work together at this same time but Ray Lankester and Arthur Tansley were good friends, part of the new middle class following the old romantic tradition but with liberal attitudes. Though they both stuck fundamentally to the guidelines about natural selection laid down in the 1850s by Darwin they went in different directions to find an answer. At the beginning of the twentieth century Tansley lectured on phytogeography at Toynbee Hall, how plants behaved in changing environments. Lankester’s old German friend Haeckel had called these studies “oecology”, a word Tansley was to anglicise later to “ecology”.

This approach to the life sciences was something completely new and set itself aside from the traditional methods of examining specimens once they’d been collected or experimented with in the laboratory. It was more in the tradition of the romantic English naturalists like John Ray and Gilbert White, looking at the balance of nature out in the wild, getting cold and dirty but seeing it all got together, quietly working away at being alive. Studying this new ecology was just as important for understanding life as trying to know something about its inheritance and inner structure.

Oliver and Tansley wanted to bring these three parts of plant evolution together. Because they had to present the subject to critical audiences of medical students they were looking for a good story to liven up their lectures. They saw that changing environments played a major role in changing morphologies of the plants: here were several scenes that any good teacher would relish, let alone these biologists researching the latest advances in geological time, dynamic environments, and large groups of extinct organisms. In London at University College, Lankester had set them a high standard both in research and its teaching. Oliver thought physiology might account for some of the adaptations to the swampy environments that he found in his beloved Norfolk; Tansley linked these to growth in these same constantly changing environments; and one of Oliver’s other students, Marie Stopes, went on to study the same systems back in geological time when the coal measures were being formed in the warm and humid Carboniferous swamp forests. It was integrated science, all on the cutting edge, and the students loved it.

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Tansley was pivotal in yoking the concerns of professional botanists to the activities of naturalist societies in the national survey projects of the British Vegetation Committee that he co-founded in 1904. As the scope of these necessarily collaborative survey activities was broadened to include botanists from outside Britain, Tansley founded the International Phytogeographical Excursion, hosted first by the British botanists and subsequently by the Americans a few years later. To acquaint the non-British scientists with local vegetation, of which they knew virtually nothing, Tansley edited and wrote Types of British Vegetation, the first systematic account of British vegetation, and it immediately found a large home market besides the botanists who had joined that first Excursion.  In 1911 this British Vegetation Committee became the British Ecological Society, the world’s first ecological organization and Tansley was its first president.

Oliver, Tansley and Stopes wanted to link these three parts of plant evolution together. Because they were involved with presenting the subject to critical audiences of medical students they were looking for a good story to liven up their lectures. They saw that changing environments played a major role in changing morphologies of the plants: here were several scenes that any good teacher would relish, let alone these biologists researching the latest advances with geological time, dynamic environments, and large groups of extinct organisms. In London at University College Lankester had set them a high standard both in research and its teaching and these three successors rose to his challenge. Oliver thought physiology might account for some of the adaptations to the swampy environments that he found in his beloved Norfolk, Tansley linked these to growth in these same constantly changing environments and Stopes went on to study the same systems back in geological time when the coal measures were being formed in the warm and humid Carboniferous swamp forests. It was integrated science, all on the cutting edge of scientific knowledge at the time, and the students loved it.

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Stopes moved on with the same work to Manchester and Tansley went from London to a Cambridge lectureship in 1906. By then he was becoming famous for describing different kinds of habitats and their ecology, and infamous for not being able to remember the names of plants when he was out in the field. His ecology was all about a gradual succession to some stable climax for flora and fauna, and it was never placed at the front of scientific advances in evolutionary biology. No-one seemed to care then about adaptation to the environment or climate change or catastrophes like tsunamis or meteorites hitting the earth and causing havoc. Instead, ecology was seen as a tool the Empire could use to produce more food and other resources and Stopes’ studies of coal actually helped find the most productive form of energy readily available at the time.

1909 Tansley wrote to HG Wells with a preview of a lecture he was to give about over-population. “This cannot go on. Man must come to a limit. Then the real science will come in.” He wrote that human numbers were threatening to turn the world into a sort of formicarium or agaricarium, like an old cheese full of mites. Population had to be controlled – atomic motors and land reclamation from the deserts would be insufficient.

More academically involved with their contemporary ecology, Oliver and Tansley began to realise what important work on natural history was already being done out in the English countryside by groups of amateur enthusiasts. There were hundreds of small local societies made up of people who loved the animals and plants living out in the wild and Tansley brought them together and gave them high status as a British Vegetation Committee. In 1911 this became the British Ecological Society, in the same year his little book Types of British Vegetation set an international standard for descriptions of world environmental types. It was an important mission at the time to consider the world’s resources and to organise their management in economic plans of countries and Empires.

34. Five Men Go To War 1914-1918

The most promising ideas about evolutionary biology were kept alive by five brave men, and as with so many campaigns of those years tragedy came to many of their projects. But as well as some serious set-backs two of these men did help sort through the murky detail that had accumulated since Darwin’s death.

The soldiers were JBS Haldane, Ronald Fisher, Jan Smuts and Julian Huxley, while Arthur Tansley worked in munitions. As a group they were never close and they didn’t meet together. Huxley was a polite diplomat and could have been a discrete host, for only he had a relationship with all the others. Instead, they mostly thought and worked alone, though Fisher and Haldane had strangely close and parallel lives. They had similar backgrounds, similar age, schools, Oxbridge, and ended up as biologists at University College London, one was a Christian right winger and the other an atheist and to the left. Fisher the Christian saw God as a benign casino owner with what he called a “design by chance” policy, challenging humanity to work together by self-discipline to save the planet. This made it easy for him to explain natural selection by probability theory. Fisher and Haldane always worked on separate projects, and despite their strong rivalry there are no well-known stories that they ever seriously fell out. However, they did argue incessantly, and when they worked in the same building during the 1920s they were heard to disagree about anything and everything every tea-time.

Of the five warriors only Huxley and Tansley had trained as biologists: Smuts was a lawyer, Haldane a classicist, and Fisher a mathematician. Such intellectual variety enabled them to imbibe rich evolutionary diets, and the violent times cut out a lot of the pre-war rubbish, confusion and personal bickering. It was the time to review the best of what remained and use that to rebuild with fresh plans and techniques.

JBS Haldane (1892-1964), also known as Jack, said he had a good war. As Lieutenant Haldane he raided the German lines at night by throwing grenades into their trenches. As part of an aristocratic family of Scottish baronets, he had been brought up to relish fear and how to work with it, skills that he enjoyed showing off to his uncle who was Minister of War. He was also influenced by his eccentric father, the Professor of Physiology at Oxford, and they often used their own bodies as experimental animals. His mother told how, when Jack was eleven, his pet guinea-pigs were killed by a friend’s dog the day before he came home from Eton. He hated school and had been bullied there from the day he started: then he broke an arm and he discovered that his only defence was his academic brilliance. The tragedy with his guinea-pigs was especially frustrating to him because he’d been counting the progeny to give him precious data so he could test his equations that modelled their breeding. Then his father soon came up with some other new challenges that involved quite dangerous tests breathing toxic gasses. After one decompression experiment he suffered a perforated ear drum which left him somewhat deaf: “one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment.”

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Jack Haldane couldn’t wait to finish his finals exams at Oxford because he was so looking forward to trying out some of his physiology experiments in the real battleground. He joined up as a soldier with the Black Watch as soon as he graduated and went off to the front in Belgium with equipment to monitor respiration and other bodily functions affected by poisonous gas. Before the battle of Aubers Ridge in 1915 Rajah the Bomb, as he was known by his men, wrote to his father: “I am enjoying life here very much. I have got a most ripping job as a bomb officer.”  For Haldane, the war seemed to make little difference to the way he lived and thought in normal life; it was just the kind of work that was new and the company different. What most people thought to be uncomfortable and frightening he didn’t seem to notice.

The same applied for different reasons to Haldane’s great rival Ronald Fisher (1890-1962) who left university for work as a statistician in the City of London. This was not an easy thing for an eager young man to do in that troubled decade but even his good record as a part-time officer in the Territorial Army couldn’t prove that his eyesight was good enough for the recruitment board. Reluctantly he settled for teaching physics and mathematics to cadets and rented a cottage out in the country with his 17 year old wife so they could help the war effort by farming. It also gave him an ideal opportunity to fulfil his own political ideals: if you believed strongly in eugenics, and if you and your mate were healthy and intelligent, you had a duty to society to have a lot of children. It might even begin to help make up for the very high number of officers being killed. th-3   th-2

The quiet country evenings allowed them to concentrate on their work and Fisher continued to try to solve the problem that had kept Cambridge and London apart, the difference between evidence from single characters such as genes and their mutations and evidence from questionnaires about things like height and intelligence. Fisher wrote an article attempting to reconcile the differences between Cambridge and London, focussing on the use of new methods to analyse the data.

Similarly stretched in those times, but from a very different culture, Jan Smuts (1870-1950) was an Afrikaner who had become enough of a professional soldier to live with the new conflict in Europe as his normal routine. Earlier he had led raids in the Boer War, became a Unionist politician hoping to unite the country, was elected to join the government and served as Education Minister. By the outbreak of the First World War he was a General and so he led the British Army to take German East Africa in 1916 while in his free time he pursued his hobby as a field botanist. Already he had become a specialist in South African grasses and had supported a big survey of plants in South Africa, finding great pleasure in looking at nature in the vast African landscape. It was an interest he had enjoyed as a law student at Cambridge in the 1890s, going off for long walks making field observations of wild life in the fens. It was one of his few pleasures in those lonely years, the beauty of nature starkly contrasting with his attraction to some political mission in his homeland. These two apparently extreme parts of his personality were brought together by his actively creative mind as he developed a grand idea he called holism and which he later adapted to controversial ends.

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In South Africa, botany had been a popular hobby for the white elite after the Boer War and Smuts wanted to share its wonder and variety as a national treasure. His vision was to compare his homeland’s great biodiversity with the range of human interests in culture and philosophy. It was what he called holism, and his hope as Education Minister was to bring that broad concept to unite all classes in the new nation. With an essay entitled An Inquiry into the Whole he argued against the tendency of most scientists to split things up into their component parts, preferring to see the system as a whole. It was an unpopular suggestion then, and with little very clear evidence that it might mean anything, so as with Fisher’s manuscript, another set of stiff referees agreed that it should not be published.

That was a pity because the manuscript contained some original ideas about uniting the ever-widening branches of the life sciences. He described these as “the external physical world of energy” and “the internal world of mind and spirit” and argued that these two parts of living systems were needed together, an indivisible unity of The Whole. It was a way of thinking that didn’t fit into war-torn Europe and so Smuts’ good ecological thoughts became lost in history. Something very much like them was to return almost a century later, too late to rescue the world’s natural environment.

Despite his unpopular manuscript, Smuts was a hero in Britain for very different reasons: not only for his military success in South West Africa but later in 1916 for his important advice to the war cabinet. Through those months he lived in the Savoy Hotel overlooking the Thames and the Palace of Westminster, but he found hotel life in the middle of a big city a “very severe strain”. It prevented him from “walking in the country in unity with nature and in quiet from human beings.” But the end of the war was in sight and he felt that Europe had had its day. With his belief that “Holism shall find healing in the Whole from the grievous wounds of the spirit, for the sick soul the Whole is the only Healer” he returned to South Africa as soon as he could. He wanted to promote his own version of holism and that was as good a place to do it as any other.

Meanwhile, the ecologist from Bloomsbury, Arthur Tansley, was 43 years old in 1914 and spent most of the war at the Ministry of Munitions in London. He also tried to keep tabs on the struggle between plants and their changing environment, and he monitored his long-term experiments near the Cambridge fenland that Smuts knew as a student. Tansley went further north to the Norfolk coast, and continued his surveys of woodlands and heath in other parts of Britain. He was doing something more than making static descriptions and lists of species that had become the normal way of conducting this field work. Instead he sought to compare these data alongside the physiological and genetic features of the organisms he saw, integrating as much as he could.

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But even at home, war-time life was a hard struggle and at times it got Tansley down. He was especially traumatised by what had happened to so many young men in the war and he began to have restless nights haunted by vivid dreams. One of these influenced him deeply, causing him to develop an interest in the young discipline of psychology.

I dreamed that I was in a sub-tropical country, separated from my friends, standing alone in a small shack or shed which was open on one side so that I looked out on a wide-open space surrounded by bush or scrub. In the edge of the bush I could see a number of savages armed with spears and the long pointed shields used by some South African native tribes. They occupied the whole extent of the bush-edge abutting on the open space, but they showed no sign of active hostility. I myself had a loaded rifle, but realized that I was quite unable to escape in face of the number of armed savages who blocked the way.

Then my wife appeared in the open space, dressed entirely in white, and advanced towards me quite unhindered by the savages, of whom she seemed unaware. Before she reached me the dream, which up to then had been singularly clear and vivid, became confused, and though there was some suggestion that I fired the rifle, but with no knowledge of who or what I fired at, I awoke.

After a lot of thought about its meaning, the dream inspired Tansley to read the new medical journals and sort through what he thought was the most important work being done in psychology. Then he decided to write about this new way of understanding the human mind and after the war his New Psychology and its Relation to Life soon became a standard introduction to the subject. It sold by the thousand and was read by even more. Inevitably he drew comparisons between his two interests, one attracting much more attention and praise than the other. Only a few specialist scientists read his ecological work in as much detail and the relatively poor response drew him away from ecology towards psychology. It was a challenge that kept attracting those many people still wanting to know what makes humans unique.


The fifth warrior, more an adjudicator, was the 1909 zoology graduate from Oxford, Julian Huxley (1887-1975). He was a much more relaxed and rounded character than the others and even at Eton he had a happy time. Haldane remembered the five-year-senior Huxley trying to cheer him up by giving him an apple, a rare act of kindness. In the spirit of his important grand-father TH Huxley, well-known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”, Julian studied zoology at Oxford and then stayed on to study water birds. With that pedigree and background he was soon invited to set up the biology department at Rice University in Texas. When he first arrived in America in 1912 Huxley visited Harvard and met Sewall Wright, a modest mathematician looking for evolutionary trends and working on guinea pig data.


Among the explanations for some of these was one that all the characters he had chosen were controlled by genes on the same chromosome. These concepts of genes as particles that coded for a character were pretty advanced breakthroughs for the times, and to find evidence for their location on one particular chromosome was even more staggering. But Wright was cautious as well and he wasn’t going to shout about that possibility until he was sure.  th-11     th-10

Likely as not Wright mentioned the new discoveries when Julian Huxley passed through on his way to Texas, but Huxley was also a tactful listener and he was hearing a lot of other exciting new ideas on that journey. The work there meant that he missed joining the war at first but the call to arms was strong and he came back to join the Intelligence Corps. He wrote of being pleased to feel physically fit and then: “In the spring we were sent to a camp at Upstreet, near Canterbury. I remember riding about the peaceful Kentish lanes, lined with white May bushes and pink-flowering horse-chestnuts, in strange contrast to the distant boom of heavy artillery from across the Channel.”

These different war-time experiences had similar effects on all these scientists, focussing their outlook on science to seek clearer and more objective targets. The pain of their friends’ deaths, their own guilt and loneliness as survivors was intense. Haldane and Smuts, the toughest of the group before the war, retained that aggression and arrogance, while Fisher became even more committed to eugenics with its even wider link to facism. They were all hardened by that war and all five of them had developed strong political aims that were to influence their work for the rest of their lives.

35. Ecology in South Africa 1924-1930

After the First World War, power shifted to the newly-confident states of the former European Empires such as South Africa and the USA, and the newly emerging Russian Empire of the Soviet Union.

In Europe most social structures were in tatters, and most people were searching for new meanings to their lives. But with the post-war revival of religious belief, and with no new evidence about evolution, evolutionary biologists were confused and low-key. The daily process of picking up the pieces was excruciatingly painful for ordinary people, who were not much interested in science, especially after the recent displays of science on battlefields all around the world. The mood encouraged biologists to react by developing popular topics about human race, plant breeding, and the control of population growth, all of which led to supporting new kinds of social and political extremism.

The former quiet researchers of biological science found themselves as the drivers of new distractions. They were feeding the minds of social reformers, economists and politicians with their own new agendas of psychology, racism, eugenics and agricultural reform. These were distractions away from the main line of evolutionary mechanisms, studies which had been so dull before the war that no-one really missed afterwards. Darwin’s name was rarely used and interest in evolution fell considerably, seeming to be remote from the task of urgently rebuilding a new western world. Instead, the main order of the day for scientists was to look in more detail at the chemistry and physics of molecules in inanimate objects rather than organic life.

Not all the new advances were in the physical sciences, and some became so involved with public and even political scrutiny that their scientific role got lost. Plant breeding, for example, was to be helped by an Imperial Botanical Conference in 1924, sharing ways to grow better crops and even protect the environment. The conference was held in London at Imperial College and it hosted the biologists as part of the victorious British Empire Exhibition. The colonial governments displayed their national heritages and many reconstructed bits of their most interesting natural environments from ecological surveys.

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There was economic and political pressure encouraging the Empire to grow more food, and leading specialists from around the Empire had been invited together to debate how to do this. With his military reputation, his new political role and his philosophy of holism Jan Smuts was in his element. It was also the first opportunity for Arthur Tansley to meet the great General.

Unsurprisingly, the two men didn’t hit it off. The big Boer soldier and the wiry intellectual cockney had only their love of plants to share, and that quickly became more of a battle than a balanced exchange. All the talk of botanical surveys left Tansley feeling penniless and without any other support while Smuts had money and fame as well as a free travel pass on the railways. Another of Tansley’s competitors, William Bateson, was also in attendance talking about his strange idea of a genetic map for all the plant resources available in the Empire. Just to finish off a bad month for Tansley, he failed to become the leader of the first botanical survey of the entire Empire.

The meeting had useful seminars on the production of rubber and sugar-cane, how to improve the breeding of apples and coconuts and other crop plants. To help improve expertise and communication it was decided to survey the natural plant and animal resources of every country in the Empire, their ecology and their commercial application. But the meeting didn’t help Tansley to improve this knowledge as he had hoped, while Smuts went away celebrating the lead that South Africa offered with results of their own six years survey of vegetational resources. The meeting had also forced Tansley onto the defensive when it came to decide which country should run the whole project, with South Africa so well ahead in expertise and plans for the future. There was even the slogan ‘holism and evolution’ to promote Smuts’ ecological ambitions, though no-one was aware then what that might involve.

Towards the end of the meeting Smuts invited all the participants to attend another conference that he was hosting in Cape Town two years later, the first overseas meeting of the British Association. It stimulated Smuts to write Holism and Evolution giving an overview of global ecology, “a recognition of the fact that all organisms feel the force and moulding effect of their environment as a whole.” He owed a debt to the American poet Walt Whitman for many of his ideas that nature was at harmony: it “is at bottom a friendly universe, in which organised tolerant co-existance is the rule and destructive warfare the exception.” Smuts then suggested that each animal and plant cell served as a balanced entity with their organism, co-operating with and serving the whole system. Smuts sent a copy of his new book to Winston Churchill who “peered with awe” at the philosophy of holism and ironically in return mailed a copy of his own book The World Crisis.

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But 1924 brought an apparently sudden change in direction for Smuts. He had been South Africa’s Prime Minister since 1919 and his party lost the 1924 general election. That gave him time to share the excitement growing within the large group of animal and plant ecologists in the country. There was also time for him to read the latest controversial theory from a German geologist, Alfred Wegener who had come up with the then outrageous suggestion that continents moved apart, their lighter rocks drifting over the heavier mantle beneath. He argued that this very slow movement caused a widening of the Atlantic Ocean because it meant that Africa was moving away from South America and Europe from North America. It was a model that explained the modern distribution of land masses and of the many groups of plants and animals that spread among them. There were also clear connections of geological strata from one side of the Atlantic to the other, but most people thought that Wegener’s idea was too far-fetched to be serious.

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This model of moving continents explained a lot of what many South African biologists had been thinking for some time, that their flora comprised species invading from the north and others, such as the Protea family, that were more like plants of Australia and South America. Wegener was suggesting that these regions as well as India had been part of a single continent, since called Gondwanaland, which began splitting up around two hundred million years ago. The migrations appealed to Smuts as well as his colleagues and he soon followed with an idea about human migrations into Africa. “Our Bushmen are nothing but living fossils whose ‘contemporaries’ disappeared from Europe many thousands of years ago. The little pigmy populations that hide in the tropical and sub-tropical forests are the representatives of the long-vanished human past.”


It was one of the first signs in public that Smuts was linking his ideas of plant ecology and holism with the origins of particular human races. Something had pushed his thinking about ecology out of the cosy philosophy of the academic’s arm-chair into a mainstream political policy of race. Not only was he going to use one to justify the other, but he was going to use the honourable reputations of particular scientists to help demonstrate theory behind a new racial policy. First he gathered support from the local scientists and then he used the British Association, which conveniently met in Cape Town in 1929, and the 1930 International Botanical Congress in Cambridge, to gather international support. It was there that Tansley observed with his own brand of understatement that the ideas were “certainly beset with many difficulties which practical ecologists would have to consider and discuss.”

At the Cape Town meeting Smuts had lined up an amazing collection of supporters to help him get across to his electorate and the rest of the world some of his ideas about the migration of human races. The by-then 70 year-old physiologist JS Haldane, Jack’s father, and King George V, were unexpected supporters, while large numbers of South African scientists were loudly approving. Diplomatically on the edge was Julian Huxley who declared “I cannot follow you all the way” while more decisively HG Wells said that black people were “being deprived of educational opportunity and political expression.”

Smuts was a shrewd political operator and he saw to it that the holism and eugenics issues were debated in public at the conference. Although the two ideas appeared at first to be very different, maybe there was something they had in common, and the South African leaders of the Empire botanical surveys wanted to emphasise that. So Smuts was confident that his argument would go down well with the Cape audience and insisted there should be a vociferous opposition to his campaign. Of course, it was so vociferous that the argument would persuade even more people to switch sides to his own cause. Smuts asked the newly appointed zoology professor at Cape Town University, Lancelot Hogben, to speak against his holistic applications. Hogben had just left Lankester’s old chair of zoology at University College London and was known to hold open house to militant black student leaders. He based his attack on Jack Haldane’s recent mathematical proof that natural selection pushes evolution forward gradually. Not only was Hogben highly numerate but he was a practiced experimenter with the toad Xenopus.

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This was a re-emergence of the old familiar argument about quality and quantity, the subjective and the objective. It was like what had come between Ray and Newton, Lankester and Galton, and now it was between Smuts and Hogben. But this time, there was a poisoned tag attached to the softer holistic side. At first it seemed their ideas of holism and ecology were certainly compatible and maybe very similar. But while Tansley was a professional academic and a full-time thinker, it seemed that Smuts had other motives. Tansley felt badly let down, deserted by one with whom he had agreed so much even though they had never worked closely. They had never really known one another’s minds.

Hogben was beginning to understand this position in which he found himself and he let rip. The holistic eugenicists should “be concerned with sterilising the instruments of research before undertaking surgical operations on the body politic.” Smuts replied that Hogben was merely a friend of Bertrand Russell. “Russell and I do not see eye to eye on philosophy. He is an atomist while I am a holist”. Hogben stuck it out in South Africa for another year and then returned to London where he found a job at the London School of Economics.

36. Evolution in the United States 1920-1930

While the battle for the meaning of holism and the outer side of life was being fought in Africa, the Americans and especially TH Morgan, were busy experimenting with clearer inner objectives. Mutations of all shapes and sizes were being selected and bred in a small range of laboratory-bred organisms such as fruit flies, which were much easier to use in experiments than guinea pigs or peas.

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By about 1920 Morgan and his group of geneticists in New York had made some important discoveries about basic biology. They had proved that genes line up in single rows on the chromosomes inside the cell, and were arranged in a definite order that changed for each individual of a single species. But what didn’t change were the particular features of each gene on the chromosomes. The group also came to think that the genes worked by controlling a chemical system of great complexity, sensitive to the changing conditions outside and regulating all the development and chemical work inside.

However, America was also the breeding ground for an alternative theory that would have an impact on the science of life. In the early 1920s, only sixty years after the American Civil War, the Creationist movement began to make great strides in the South.


Up in Canada, William Bateson had been lecturing on tour, trying to gain support for his non-particulate system of heredity that somehow involved physical vibrations. So different to Morgan’s theory, his words were music to the ears of the right-wing religious fundamentalists: “Less and less was heard about evolution in genetical circles, and now the topic is dropped. When students of other sciences ask us what is currently believed about the origin of species we have no clear answer to give. Faith has given place to agnosticism.” Bateson didn’t realise the strength of feeling about the impact of Darwin’s Origin on the value of Genesis that still existed in America.

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Three years later a criminal trial on the matter attracted so much attention that it was broadcast on national radio. A biology teacher in Tennessee called John Scopes was proud to explain to his students how natural selection played a role in building up biodiversity, and that there were still a lot of unanswered questions.

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He was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union to say that he taught these ideas of Charles Darwin intentionally, in the face of eager opposition from the World Christian Fundamentals Association. Scopes was found guilty and fined a hundred dollars but was acquitted by a legal technicality on appeal.

As was pointed out at the trial, there seemed to be no obvious way by which the mechanisms attributed to Darwin and Mendel could come together into a single theory. Even when Dobzhansky began work in New York in 1927 no-one expected fruit fly genetics to fit with any of the theories of evolution that were available to them. Morgan, their leader, even said that “genetics can be studied without any reference to evolution.” In reaction to this mood, Dobzhansky worked on the idea that evolution was about how species split up, how they were discontinuous. He had to explain how the continuous change in natural populations also explained the whole assortment of taxonomic diversity and that was still an impossible task.

In the national spirit of getting things done, hard-graft experimental work went on in the biology laboratories of the United States, starting in Manhattan with a group that some other biologists called the New York Mafia. One of the first was Hermann Muller (1890-1967) who was brought up in Harlem, founded a science club at his high-school and loved summers in the country.

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In 1910 he joined the students studying genetics at Morgan’s fly room at Columbia University and investigated some of the things that the linked genes of the fruit fly Drosophila had in common. He found evidence for the theory that bits of chromosomes broke off and crossed over to the other pair, in a different order. It meant that genes were stable units of inheritance and somehow passed the information from one generation to another on the chromosomes. Miller produced mutations of single genes and of larger parts of the chromosomes from X-radiation, opening up the possibility of measuring the effects of this genetic change. In the 1930s he left New York and spent good lengths of time working in Europe and the Soviet Union, enjoying the power that his newly awarded Nobel Prize had given him.

Another Drosophila geneticist settled in New York in the 1930s, pleased to be away from Hitler’s Germany. This was Richard Goldschmidt who first saw a sudden and quick change in the size of some fruit flies’ body parts, and was surprised that they were inherited by future generations as permanent characters. He called these unfortunate flies “hopeful monsters” but couldn’t prove why or how they came about, other than to say they were mutations that had happened within one generation.

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Goldschmidt’s 1940 book The Material Basis of Evolution proposed a new system of life: ‘evolution in single large steps on the basis of shifts in embryonic processes produced by one mutation.’ As an example he showed that the breed of bow-legged dogs, the dachshunds, were initially dismissed as monsters and were later cultivated to extract badgers from dens. He had other examples: gypsy moths with limbs on the wrong body segments; flatfish with both eyes routinely occurring on one side of the head; the joining of a bird’s tail vertebrae to form a fan-like arrangement of feathers. Because they didn’t fit in with any other kinds of mutant or inherited traits that were known at the time, Goldschmidt’s monsters were no more than text-book anomalies that most students jokingly dismissed. (About 70 years later Ed Lewis’s Nobel Prize was based on worked that revived their importance and explained their occurrence.)

Initially no one took Goldschmidt seriously in America. Only now has he become an important scientist for the value he attached to the role of mutation in evolution, and he is fast becoming known as the father of a new multidisciplinary group interested in evolutionary development. In his theory, mutations occur within a single generation, and the altered creatures that survive follow the pattern of Mendel’s predicted ratios of inheritance. Modifications that happen in this way can become permanent features of the new species and manifest themselves on large and small scales.

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Another of the New York group was Ernst Mayr, a very different character with a similar background to Goldschmidt, and who was appointed in 1931 as a curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History. The museum had just purchased a large collection of bird skins from the banker Walter Rothschild, with whom Mayr had worked in England. Rothschild was both a collector and a benefactor and pressed Mayr’s supporters that his appointment would benefit the growth of ornithology in New York. As a teenager in Northern Bavaria Mayr loved bird-watching and impressed the local experts by reporting the first Red-Crested Pochard to be spotted in the region since 1845. For that his mother gave him his treasured pair of binoculars and he was invited to do voluntary work at the local museum: “It was as if someone had given me the key to heaven”.

Rothschild met him again in 1927 at the International Zoological Congress and invited him to take part in an expedition to New Guinea where he proved himself to be a gifted observer and a successful collector. Back in Germany with some of his most choice specimens from the trip, he described 26 new species of birds and 38 orchids. The work made him think seriously about the scientific value of what he was doing, for although the challenge of making a new species had been faced millions of times by almost as many people, no-one was very sure about what a species actually was. It was Mayr who then clarified the matter by insisting that a species was a group that could breed among themselves and with no others: it was not just a question of likeness.

Just a few blocks away from the museum at Columbia University was Theo Dobhzansky, the all-round Russian biologist who also decided to stay on in New York. In 1937 he summarised the importance of experimental genetics to the evolution of species in Genetics and the Origin of Species. This gathered all the empirical evidence available from that area and found it corroborated the mathematical framework set by people like Wright and Haldane. Although Dobhzansky hadn’t understood the mathematics, his conclusions were the same: that Mendel’s genetic recombinations could lead to evolution by natural selection. The book also extended the influence of Mendel on Darwin beyond where the maths had reached by saying more about the concept of species.

Dobhzansky’s fears of mathematics were balanced by his ease of understanding for Sewall Wright’s fitness landscapes, showing that when populations of the same species become isolated they adapt to any slightly different conditions they encounter. As an example Wright compared populations from the same species at the tops of neighbouring mountains and found slight differences. With this, Dobhzansky became confident enough to understand his neighbour Sewall Wright and argue across the Atlantic with Haldane and Fisher about their previously mysterious mathematics.  

There, also, HG Wells had his own views about these matters and he shared some with Julian Huxley in 1928. “My last talk with Bateson was in N.Y. and he has a schoolboy pleasure in making trouble and a Samuel Butler-like hatred for Darwin. Any fool can play the negative game and no doubt some of the young fools will go on with it.” Huxley pointed out that in his early work Bateson had over-rated large mutations as cause of immediate evolutionary change, but eventually came to accept Darwin’s position of slow genetic combinations, including occasional mutations.

200px-Theodosius_Dobzhansky,   It was at this confused time in history that Theodosius Dobzhansky had begun his career in Russia where experimental Mendelian genetics was merged with traditional taxonomy and natural history. He had become a specialist in ladybird beetles as well as a skilled Drosophila experimentalist. In New York, these were two separate and largely hostile worlds, not even able to agree about what it was that was evolving. Was it a group, a species or an even larger grouping, or maybe something smaller like an individual or a cell or something more microscopic? Dobzhansky noticed regional varieties of the flies had more genetical similarity with one another than with flies from elsewhere. Once again it was becoming clear that as well as searching inwards for the smallest unit of inheritance it was also necessary to look outside the organism into the environment to find some kind of trigger. And the complex detail that was involved in both directions turned out to be vast. Clearly, there was still a need for the influence of an holistic multi-disciplinary outlook.

This was a frustration feared by the few surviving great Victorian polymaths, realising that their kind would not survive in the new age of so much specialist detail. Even the first hopeful signs that appeared for biology in Russia after the revolution were short-lived. Back in 1917 Lankester saw it as “a new spring of time” but within ten years was told by his friend Wells that Lenin, the “dreamer in the Kremlin” had little more than an emergency government. In 1926, two years before he died Lankester sent a post card to Wells, one from the Natural History Museum with the picture of a huge carnivorous dinosaur on one side and on the other: “an ancestor of the Bolsheviks”. Dobzhansky was not the only biologist to have agreed.

37. Evolution in Soviet Russia 1928-1937

In 1928 there was another conflict about how the science of life was applied, when Jack Haldane was invited by the plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov to visit some of the biological laboratories of the new Soviet Union. Not only was he impressed by the standard of work being undertaken at the new genetical institute run by Vavilov, but he was asked to help organise more experiments to use Mendel’s concepts of gene recognition to breed new varieties of crops. Soviet agriculture had special problems due to the prolonged cold over much of the vast country and Vavilov thought that Morgan’s Mendelian methods that had been developed in New York might help breed new forms.

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Out in the Republics, too, many exciting genetical experiments were underway and they heard that one of them was run by a young agriculture graduate called Trofim Lysenko. When he was 30 years old he had discovered a method to fertilize fields without using the usual fertilizers or minerals. Pravda was excited that a winter crop of peas could be grown in Azerbaijan, “turning the barren fields of the Transcaucasus green in winter, so that cattle will not perish from poor feeding, and the peasant Turk will live through the winter without trembling for tomorrow.”

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Haldane expected that this might even be a mutation that fulfilled one of his mathematical expressions for an unusually rapid rate of evolutionary change. What he didn’t realise was that some of the Soviet political leaders didn’t like to have the support of western biologists because they interpreted facts in very different ways. It was acceptable for them to argue between themselves about the meaning of Mendel and Morgan’s work, but it was an unacceptable basis for an important new research programme in the Soviet Union. Instead, that kind of individualism was to give way to group systems of social organisation with one agreed policy. It was why these Soviet politicians were impressed by the arguments that Lysenko presented, ones that assigned a major role in evolution to the whole population out in the harsh environment. There was particular problem with the Russian environment, much of it being too cold to grow more crops. It also helped promote the well-known claims by Kammerer about the inheritance of acquired characters in midwife toads, to become acceptable again.

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In 1926 it was leaked that the toads Kammerer had taken around Europe and America before the war, to demonstrate a Lamarckian acquisition of pads for mating, were shown to be fakes. These same informants showed that Indian Ink had been injected into the toads to simulate the mating pads. It meant that what were reputedly new adaptations were in fact a hoax. Six weeks later Kammerer committed suicide in Germany.

Inside the Soviet Union this faking of the pads and the way in which Kammerer died were told differently. The Soviet Commissar for Education, Lenin’s old comrade Anatoli Lunacharsky, was excited by the possibilities that Lamarck may have been right all along and Mendelian genetics wrong. It was a good argument against the bourgeois inventions from the west and in favour of comrade Lysenko’s theory, the kind of thing coming from the new Soviet system. Lunacharsky wrote the screenplay for a film glorifying Kammerer and blamed the faking on the reactionary elements in western science.

Later, Arthur Koestler argued this was a Nazi plot to discredit Kammerer’s popular socialism: “the Hakenkreuzler, the swastika-wearers, as the Austrian Nazis of the early days were called, were growing in power. One center of ferment was the University of Vienna where, on the traditional Saturday morning student parades, bloody battles were fought. Kammerer was known by his public lectures and newspaper articles as an ardent pacifist and Socialist; it was also known that he was going to build an institute in Soviet Russia. An act of sabotage in Kammerer’s laboratory would have been in keeping with the climate of those days.”

Through the 1930s the Soviet Union became more isolated from western scientists, but some contact was made. Huxley had known Herman Muller since 1915 when they had worked together in Texas on genetic mutations. They were good memories, so in 1934 they encouraged Huxley to introduce him once again to a new job, this time to help strengthen Nikolai Vavilov’s team at the Institute of Genetics in the Soviet Union. It was a hard, if not challenging, move for the street-wise New Yorker, though Stalin had not yet quite made up his mind how far to encourage Lysenko. At the institute they were working on a very important project, breeding new crops that could better survive the harsh Russian winters. Muller went to the Institute in Leningrad for three half-year terms, brought new mutants from New York and became deeply involved in the work of the institute. It was not easy to bring the latest ideas of western genetics into that group, because of the conflicting support for Mendel and Darwin on one hand and for the opposing views of Bateson on the other. But their differences were insignificant compared to the arguments in Russia between Vavilov and Lysenko. All the time, Lysenko was gaining more power from Moscow, denying proven genetic breeding practices and promising another way to achieve a much more rapid increase in yield than did Mendelism. His theory of mass selection was based on the Lamarckian idea that environments act directly on heredity to cause adaptation, instead of indirectly by selection. He knew that Stalin favoured Lamarck over Darwin.

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Muller suspected that Lysenko’s crosses were hybrids between two varieties, differing in several genes containing a range of new recombinations. If the best of these could be isolated and purified by selection then the new progeny would breed true and succeed. There was nothing he could say to the institute staff that would enable them to change their interpretations and it was becoming clear that the usual exchange of ideas about science was becoming impossible.

One sign that something unusual was afoot came from the sudden cancellation of one of the frequent celebrations of Charles Darwin’s life by different Soviet agencies. Supporters of Vavilov and others at the Academy of Sciences regularly organised ceremonies and meetings to mark some anniversary of the great man’s birth. The hidden agenda of the presentations was that each of the organising groups would be seen giving public declarations of their support of a theory that had strong official approval. Darwin’s self-organised system of natural selection appealed to many in the Party who were promoting the virtues of dialectical materialism, and they argued that it gave a more theoretical underpinning to justify their agricultural policy.

After this cancellation in 1935 came the first public accusations that Vavilov and Muller’s Mendelian breeding experiments were bad science, or in the code of the times “idealist”. Muller himself was in Russia the following year when the authorities cancelled the 7th International Congress of Genetics. He was puzzled by the cancellation because the Party had first toyed with the idea of allowing it to be held. But they insisted that all presentations on evolution and human genetics be omitted from the programme, in spite of the fact that many foreign geneticists had intended to attack the Nazi racist doctrines. Suddenly, evolutionary biology had become a dangerous political issue.

By then, Lysenko had the approval of the authorities to take control and he took full advantage. His methods involved cross-breeding forms from very different habitats. “The nature of crosses, particularly in the first generation, is usually unstable” but then he went on to say that stronger progeny began to develop. Huxley reported that at one of his lectures Lysenko had said: “We know from our own persons that assimilation (or digestion) is not always complete. When that is so, what happens? We belch. Segregation is Nature’s belching; unassimilated hereditary material is belched out.” Huxley couldn’t quite believe that these extraordinary comments came from such a powerful man. He also realised that Lysenko’s “illiteracy” made it impossible to discuss matters scientifically: sometimes Lysenko appeared ignorant of the scientific facts and principles. Sometimes he misunderstood them as in another lecture he said: “There is no organ of heredity; there is no hereditary matter separate from the soma. There are organs of reproduction but no organs of heredity.”

These events were all the more disturbing in the memory of those who had been working in Leningrad ten years earlier, when Darwin’s ideas of evolution and Mendel’s gene recombinations spread across the whole of biology. This was the kind of biology being studied by Vavilov, who contributed a chapter to a later compendium that Huxley called The New Systematics about these earlier applications of plant breeding in the USSR. Just as the book came out in 1940 Vavilov was arrested by the KGB, tried, found guilty of sabotage and sentenced to death. He died of malnutrition in prison in 1943.         220px-Lysenko_with_Stalin     220px-Vavilov_in_prison

That chapter in Huxley’s collection became a fitting memorial to those tragic times. It was a small spark of light in a dark movement that challenged the honesty of scientific method. The catastrophic event of world war was to continue for some time yet and problems wouldn’t be resolved until more fundamental obstacles still facing evolution and the new genetics had been overcome.

38. Eugenics Gets Serious 1925-1936

After that Great War, Europe was left stunned more than ever before. It was a major social catastrophe and it caused many people to change their lives dramatically. One who reacted with deep insight was the ecologist Arthur Tansley, apparently secure in academia after his recent election to The Royal Society. But still troubled by the war and the haunting dream, he decided to resign his lectureship at Cambridge and move to Vienna, with his family, for intensive psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud.

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That experience itself also had a profound impact on Tansley and he returned with new ideas for both psychology and ecology: “We must never conceal from ourselves that our concepts are creations of the human mind which we impose on the facts of nature.” Tansley was concerned at the high numbers of “feeble-minded” incarcerated in asylums to stop them contributing to national degeneracy by breeding. He had been particularly horrified by one young boy being detained for stealing a postal order and committed to a mental institution. Juvenile courts regularly institutionalised their charges for long periods and called them “morally defective”. He had a strong memory of Bloomsbury’s working class life and his rescue by the Great Ormond Street Working Men’s College.


Meanwhile, Tansley was working away quietly on gathering data from a few selected dynamic environments, listing the local movements of plant communities and checking changes in weather and species frequency. This went on to his idea of a complete “ecosystem” in the early 1920s though he didn’t coin the word until 1935. He was joining bits of his Vienna experiences of human community with his knowledge of plant communities, how separate individuals with independent powers of existence, lived together through different stages of growth and reproduction. Like Smuts’ holism, this eventually meant taking the basic laws of physics and chemistry into the realms of basic biology and then to the complexity of the human mind. They were adventures into the unknown that involved all of science and more beyond.

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One of Tansley’s acquaintances was Ronald Fisher, desperate to become his own master after the war. He rejected the suggestion of his hero Pearson that they worked together at University College and quickly found the right opportunity at Rothamsted Experimental Station. Population genetics, experimental genetics and the systematic description of species were topics that needed to be brought together, and Fisher attempted to join Darwin’s natural selection with Mendel’s genetic ratios, helped by the pre-war realisation that gene particles lined up on the chromosomes. Fisher considered all the mathematical and statistical support for that model and showed for the first time that selection was the only way in which the process could be explained. Evolution couldn’t just be driven from inside the organisms: it needed a push from outside in the environment, one that led to the kind of small-scale continuous variability that Mendel’s recombinations explained so well. That explanation also meant that selection happened on a huge scale, between every organism in all places at all times, persistently testing the way forward and each time choosing the best option

Fisher’s mathematical insight drew comparisons between this style of evolution and the second law of thermodynamics. “Both are properties of populations, or aggregates, true irrespective of the units which compose them; both are statistical laws; each requires the constant increase of a measurable quantity, in the one case the order of a physical system, and in the other the fitness …. of a biological population.” Malthus’s warnings a hundred years before were always at the back of his mind, and his mission after the war was to do something about that.

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This challenge led him to go too far and he spoiled his reputation in a book called The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. In the spirit of the time, and doing himself no long-lasting favours, Fisher used the last part of the book for a long justification of the eugenics practices that he favoured so strongly. “The deductions respecting Man are strictly inseparable from the more general chapters.” He believed that industrial society was in decline due to “social promotion of the relatively infertile” and that the higher reproductive rate of less worthy classes will swamp the superior classes. His chapters carried statistical evidence for that view and it continued to attract support throughout the decade.

Two years after Fisher’s work was published, JBS Haldane came along with The Causes of Evolution, an easier book to read in which all the mathematics was relegated to the appendix. Like Fisher’s story, Haldane’s showed the power of natural selection and he began in characteristic mood: “I can write of natural selection with authority because I am one of the three people who know most about its mathematical theory.” Presumably the other two were Ronald Fisher and Sewall Wright. So the study of population genetics began, the mathematics of patterns of change coming from large numbers of individuals living together in the same community. Many biologists didn’t understand the mathematics, but a main reason for the intellectual movement they had accidentally created was to bridge these differences.

Although Haldane strongly rejected Lamarckian trends he did leave open the space for some evolution to happen by means other than natural selection. Hybridisation and some large mutations could make new species and Haldane urged that other processes may explain even more. He had plenty of evidence that “degeneration is a far commoner phenomenon than progress” and is usually hard to spot because it leads to extinction. From the fossil record he noticed “at any given evolutionary level we generally find one or two lines leading up to it, and dozens leading down”.

This kind of division within the biological community, between the rigid fixers and the more artistic flexers, was to continue for many years and was going to get much wider before anyone spotted the difficulties. But both sides needed to gain more knowledge about themselves before they could share their similarities and find out that way just how evolution worked. The two World Wars also kept scientists on these separate tracks, rigid armaments relied on a strong force of hard-nosed mathematicians, physicists and chemists. The more vague environmental sciences such as the new ecology and palaeontology didn’t stand much of a chance. Tansley and Huxley would have to wait.

Eugenics gave a very different outlook for all life on the planet and Fisher was hell-bent on exploiting biology in that single direction. He likened natural selection to the working of a casino where the odds were set for its own success. In his game the losers were equivalent to an extinct species, and the far right were the winners, supporting the casino owner who was only too pleased to let science make up the rules. Never one for philosophy or history, Fisher believed there was little new “that would not stand if the world had been created in 4004BC”.

Already a government committee had been set up to recommend how to sterilise the ‘feeble-minded’ in England and Wales where a quarter of a million people were classified as ‘mental defectives’ and suggestions had been made that they were suitable candidates for voluntary sterilisation. Some members of the committee thought that “Broadly speaking stupid people will produce stupid children” though Haldane and Hogben explained there was no certainty about that and that environmental factors were also likely to be a cause. The committee rejected compulsory sterilisation though even Haldane agreed with their conclusions: “Biologists may legitimately demand that a proportion of mental defectives should be prevented from breeding”.

Another popular debate between the two world wars was stimulated by Arthur Keith’s proposition that humans would become extinct without competition, and that meant war was necessary. Keith was an anatomist and anthropologist and wrote articles in the popular press advocating physical struggle and conflict as a vital biological characteristic.

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In 1927 he told the British Association that cultural differences provide a mental barrier to social groups, suggesting that territorial behavior is a strong force in human evolution. He saw scientific and political merit in his idea of an ‘in-group’ and the less favoured ‘out-group’.

That view had been expressed earlier by a Prussian General, Friedrich von Bernhardi, in 1912, and several biologists agreed that it might be a possibility. Herbert Spencer had promoted the idea with his phrase “the survival of the fittest” and many in Europe during the 1920s and 30s believed that war played a role in this kind of biological process. They believed that the individuals and communities that survived were fitter in an evolutionary sense than those who died. This argument got tied up with some of the views of the eugenicists, inevitable consequences of those frightened times.

A forceful opponent of Keith was Joseph Needham, an influential member of the Cambridge left. He deplored the way that phrases such as “the struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest” had become “the stock-in-trade of the man-in-the-street”, arguing that they were from old Victorian attitudes, then taken in by the public as part of their justification for joining-up to the armed forces. Keith continued with the idea that it was simply nature’s way of controlling populations, but the left-wing scientists would have none of that and instead sprang on to the offensive with their positive eugenics programme. Julian Huxley aimed for “the virtual elimination of the few lowest and most degenerate types” and he argued that biology should be the chief tool for rendering social politics.

The Huxley brothers called for some different thinking as part of a strategy towards the best interests of the planet earth and the human race. It involved a universal rhythm within earthly life, something they had been talking about for the last decade. As premier intellectuals they felt a responsibility to see to it that anything like the tragedy of the First World War did not happen again and that knowledge of the common features for all biodiversity might stop humanity being dragged down into the same mud. And from their family tradition, their grandfather’s smile beaming down on them constantly, Aldous and Julian had plenty more expected of them. Even those sceptical of Darwin’s ideas, broad minded men like Lawrence and Shaw, had their influence on Julian Huxley. More than most other scientists he was the cautious centrist, enjoying the foundations of Smuts’ holism very much within the fairness and functionalism of the English tradition. So prepared, Huxley went on to give another lecture that year in which once again he considered some of these wider aspects of his world view for our own species.

He called the lecture Eugenics and Society and repeated his call for a new Social Science to find ways to improve the living standards in the poorer parts of human communities, promote policies to favour more middle class babies and to discourage large families for the poor. But despite these hopes and concerns for a joined-up future it was hard in the 1930s to see any exciting new trends developing in biology and the evolution of life. Things were on hold, digesting the full impact of genetics, natural selection, cellular biochemistry and ecology as they became mixed together, waiting for their union to be approved and their significance understood. Krebs advances in biochemistry set an example against this pessimism that appealed to the Huxleys.

Meanwhile, even the attention of evolutionary biologists was directed to ways of trying to avoid war with the racist Nazis.  The League of Nations asked if “biology can end war?”, naïve in the view that war served some biological purpose. They thought that biologists still argued for some sort of “struggle for existence”, especially those who read Sir Arthur Keith’s regular articles in The Daily Mail, ostensibly about his subject, anthropology. He delighted his readers with his belief that Piltdown Man was a valid record of British supremacy and that it was important for humans to struggle to survive. Julian Huxley and many others tried to explain that there was no such scientific explanation, either of Piltdown Man or Nazi supremacy, but Keith held his ground against these scientists who he dismissed as left-wing extremists. It was a point well-made when Communist Party members such as the biologist Joseph Needham spoke publicly against Keith’s interpretations. “These men have deserted their heroes like Herbert Spencer and even Thomas Huxley” Keith argued, reminding his readers that in biology, both groups as well as individuals compete to be part of a healthy community: surely that validated war as part of the process of social evolution? Even Keith’s bitter enemy Haldane had urged in a lecture “that a proportion of mental defectives should be prevented from breeding”, while Sigmund Freud commented that violence was a character of the whole animal kingdom “from which men have no right to exclude themselves.”

These were still sensitive topics in those years when the Soviet experiment was just beginning and many biologists hoped that population might be controlled by eugenics. Some eugenicists even saw method in the madness of the First War that the weak were overtaken by the strong, but the large number of officers who died weakened their argument. By 1936 the support for voluntary sterilization of the less valuable members of society was on the wane and Pip Blacker, the Secretary of the Royal Zoological Society, thought it was all “a biological crisis unprecedented in the history of life”.