28. Degeneration 1882-1890

Charles Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey on April 26th 1882 And though he was very much a man finding his way in the fledgling middle class, Ray Lankester didn’t know where to look, even then. Not for the first time Lankester was thinking of his own future, reacting to the impact of Darwin’s life and fearful of where some of the ideas might lead. He was suddenly aware that he was living through the final throes of a passing age. Eight years earlier he had been appointed Jodrell Professor of Zoology at University College and was well-known as a star performer in the lecture theatre and as a precise observer of marine invertebrates. That year he was 35 years old and he was adding a lot of weight to his already large frame and round, flat face.

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Lankester also spent a lot of time thinking about how people were struggling with their different social circumstances at the end of the nineteenth century. Not only were they living through the mature stages of the industrial revolution, but also through the associated scientific and technological ones. He agreed with Darwin that soon it would be the turn of biology to have some impact on daily life styles, perhaps through some control of breeding or by adapting to psychological stresses. But if there really was going to be a successor to Darwin these applications had better come soon and it was hard for him to spot a likely candidate in that congregation. He looked at the rows of scientists in the nave for possible contenders: Hooker and Huxley were the obvious ones but they and all the others he could see were too old.

Could biologists ever breed new crops and healthier humans, with the same basic mechanisms involving genes and sexual recombination? Lankester was the first to speak of what happened in the early moments of a new embryo, the changes inside the cells that were starting to be discovered. He was well-aware of the similarities between the application of Darwin’s ideas to social progress and what his friend Karl Marx had in mind at that time for political change. In 1879 Lankester had lectured on what was known of this to the Sheffield meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Marx had also been interested in the idea that societies might degenerate, and argued that if a new embryo has to struggle with a new environment, then some new kind of society would have to do the same.

Lankester was positive about these links and spoke optimistically of what came from such natural interactions long ago, fossilised hallmarks and other remains of geological processes. It was there in the rocks, old sediments, reworked by erosion of old surfaces, formed at the bottom of shallow seas, forced by earthquakes into the bowels of the earth to be heated and pressurised into another form, a harder metamorphic rock. These same layers of ancient environments also preserved similar species of Lankester’s beloved marine animals, closely related but different as a result of the constant changes of the self-organised living systems from those different ages.

As though to confirm these expectations, the religious controversy that had so dominated the last two decades of Darwin’s life began to die down after his death, only to be replaced by these more political ones. Huxley still fought some remaining dissenters of the new attitude, especially laymen’s views of miracles. Gladstone and the Duke of Argyll were well-known antagonists but most scientists regarded the arguments as old hat and they soon stopped.

th-12 Gladstone             Duke of Argyll

That also meant that fewer articles about evolution got published in the papers and the topic had an air of yesterday’s news. For some intellectuals there was the prospect that the two greatest ideas of the last half of the nineteenth century, Darwin’s natural selection and Marx’s materialism, were united in hopes for a scientific utopia. But war about threats from dictatorships and religious revivals soon eclipsed these ambitions.

Ray Lankester was sharp and critical both socially and professionally. He had been admired for his attention to detail by Darwin himself when the two had exchanged letters about earthworms and other species. The introduction to the great biologist came from Ray’s teacher Thomas Huxley whose lectures at the Royal College of Science, now part of Imperial College, were inspiring many men of the next generation. And because he lived in one of the streets in St James, it was easy to call in to the Geological Society and the Linnean to hear lectures on his way home from school.

220px-Victoria_and_Albert_Museum_courtyard_frieze_detail  Royal College of Science th-13Huxley

With this background his own destiny was clear and the 27 year old biologist became Professor of Zoology at University College London in 1874. He was one of the growingly successful English middle class, without a fortune let alone land but his educated drive more than made up for that. He rented rooms on the ground floor of a house by Hyde Park and he shared a housekeeper with one of the other tenants. He travelled regularly to Oxford, Plymouth, Naples and places in France and Germany. On the other hand, such a life style became very lonely and made it harder to value people outside one particular circle, and it encouraged arrogance.

A year later he was at a ceremony to mark the founding of the Marine Biological Association, soon to have its own headquarters at Plymouth. It was modelled on the Stazione Zoologica in Naples where Lankester had worked in the early 1870s when his Fellowship at Exeter College allowed him to spend much of his time in Italy.

5537037862_9aa9f09534_b-300x200    The Citadel th-10

Then, as now, young scientists usually spent several years at the beginning of their career working hard at a substantial project. As well as experience and knowledge it built confidence and showed the world what the individual could do. Nowadays, this apprenticeship involves registering as a PhD student, but then you tended just to get on with it. Lankester special interest was in marine invertebrates, molluscs especially, and they grew in the Mediterranean, offshore Naples, where they could be collected in great profusion. He worked on Amphioxus, cuttlefish, several exotic worms and the electric eel was a special fascination. Darwin wrote to encourage him: “What ground work you did at Naples! I can clearly see that you will some day become our first star in Natural History.”th-11

The following year Lankester was in Naples again, pleased for the rare chance to be host to his mentor Thomas Huxley and show him the tanks of fish and other marine animals as well as some of the historical sites around the bay. But the eager young man became seriously ill with typhoid fever, common enough then for vulnerable Englishmen, and he took to his bed for several weeks. It meant that he missed another rare opportunity to see the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. All he could do was listen to the deep humming sound, though even inside his room the darkness and dust got everywhere.

In 1874 the Naples Station attracted two of Lankester’s young students from University College who had begun a collaborative project, Walter Weldon, a zoologist, and Karl Pearson, a mathematician. They were in Naples to make measurements of eleven different organs from hundreds of specimens of the shore crab. All the result distributed normally except one, the frontal breadth of the carapaces, and this became a distinguishing feature of different races of Carcinus moenas. Weldon ended their joint article: “It cannot be too strongly urged that the problem of animal evolution is essentially a statistical one.” Lankester was furious. It was another early sign of the new divide in understanding evolution: the qualitative and the quantitative. It was apparent between Lankester and Galton with their very different personalities. Although they both cultivated the image of an arrogant Victorian gentleman, the one was spontaneous and worked with feelings, while the other was calculating and difficult.

Everyone involved expected that observations from the more temperate oceans around the British Isles would prevail at the new Plymouth Marine Station, and the new building became operational in 1888. Equipped with boats and a stone building on the Citadel overlooking the naval dockyard, the young scientists had high hopes of finding more support for natural selection in the largely un-described marine realm. But to start with, work at the new laboratory gave evidence to support those who Lankester labelled the opposition. It was typical of many set-backs to promoting Darwin’s work at around that time and confirmed that the enthusiasm for natural selection did not lead to the conclusion that he was right.

Lankester thought that another set of confusing results came from observations of the pigmentation of the two surfaces of the flat-fish, whether it was right to assume that the pigmentation on the upper surface was inherited, or the result of light reacting from above or darkness from below. He was unhappy with a popular belief that science was to settle differences of this sort rather than to have both options. Comparisons between the young forms and the adults showed that prolonged exposure to light did stimulate pigmentation, and some patterns were inherited for sure. Like so many of the early experiments in biology these were observations in controlled conditions looking at either/or situations. Others expected it to be either pigmented or not, a star pattern or an arrowed one, light or dark, Darwin or Lamarck. Often, everyone was able to take away some argument for victory, and always there was some chance of ambiguity, uncertainty and need for more work. Of course we know now that the problems being considered were caused by physiological and developmental processes which involved many biochemical pathways. Then it was not at all clear on these issues and Lankester began to understand why Darwin couldn’t be proved right overnight. Without clear evidence all the options had to be left open, even if they were going to lead to frightening political difficulties.

Darwin’s ideas were declining in popularity through these years due to the continuing lack of any new evidence. Many cast around for some breakthrough in the many alternative explanations of life, all of which were dead-ends and false alerts. Try as he would, Lankester became more frustrated with his own failures to find useful clues in his classical observations of new species and he lost his temper with others who were equally unsuccessful looking elsewhere. But he was still determined to follow Darwin and Huxley with some faithful support and there were still plenty of places to seek it out. He was beginning to concentrate on the new studies in embryology and there were so many other new developments and disciplines in biology that helped him remain optimistic.

Just across the North Sea in Germany there was another way of seeing nature that looked back into The Enlightenment. The English liked to have a sense of purpose, an aim, something tangible, an object to strive for; on the other hand, many Germans saw life on earth as some vast transcendental process that changed under its own force. The generation of the 1870s which comprised men like Huxley and Norman Lockyer, the founding editor of Nature, believed from Goethe’s naturphilosophie that man and nature form a unity which can be studied and understood by the application of science.

240px-Lockyer-Norman  Lockyer  170px-Nature_cover,_November_4,_1869

All these men, and of course Ray Lankester as well, believed with Faust that nature and moral ideals intermingle within each individual: “I only really enjoy my life when I win it every day afresh”. Only then did passion become set against passion, the anger of one side was set against the scorn of the other and a glorious victor moved forward amidst the tragedy of the other. But these interactions all happened together at different places and at different levels and intensities. Like Faust, Lankester searched for the mysterious power which bound nature into the whole; they believed this was the right path, and though they often went astray, they always returned to it. This was their deep faith.

Whenever he was in Germany Lankester liked to visit the leading biologist there, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), Charles Darwin’s fervent young supporter who visited him in 1866. He was also inspired by Goethe’s way of looking at biology, and the two had allowed him to think of a particular process in embryology which they called recapitulation. They had noticed that a growing embryo passed through stages corresponding to the sequence of adult forms in its species’ evolutionary history. Lankester had been interested in these apparently similar processes from his student days. th-9      th-1

Lankester explained why he and others of his times were so excited about the stages of early development in the embryo. They saw some connections in the embryos of lizards, birds and elephants which appeared to bear little resemblance to one another as adults. Although the youngest embryos in a related group usually look different, they then grow to look very similar, then become different again. In this hourglass shape, the middle waist was when the body plan was laid down, a time of minimal anatomical divergence. No wonder these late Victorian biologists thought there was some relationship between the way an embryo developed and the way it evolved, that ontogeny followed the same path as phylogeny.

th-5   th-6     th-4    Haeckel was a talented artist.

Meanwhile, back at University College in London at the end of the 1870s, Lankester’s alternative ideas of degeneration became more sophisticated, especially following the discussions he had had in Italy and Germany with his friend there Carl Dohrn (1806-1892) whose 1875 book gave Lankester more support for his own observations of embryo development. He began to formulate his own version of how degeneration might account for some evolutionary changes. After Darwin’s death these thoughts were set against growing support for environment-influenced along straight Lamarckian pathways.


Degeneration: a chapter in Darwinism was the title both of Lankester’s Presidential Address to the Zoology Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Sheffield in 1879 and of a short book, based on that lecture, which he published afterwards. Heavily based on Haeckel’s ideas of recapitulation, it differed in avoiding a linear pathway of evolution. Lankester gave lots of examples of species with unused organs, domestic ducks with smaller wings, blind cave animals and even rare families of humans with extraordinary musical talents. Not only did he risk being labelled a Lamarckian but the very mention of humans brought him face to face with political groups accusing him of destroying the structure of society with pornography and other decadent threats.

Could humans degenerate to a simpler form of society? Evolution was normally seen to turn the primitive into the advanced and civilised. Alternatively, instead of seeing evolution as progress Lankester was arguing the opposite. Could it sometimes return to the form of an earlier generation? Could this even explain different racial and even specific characters? Instead of representing progress and reform maybe evolution could also represent regression and decline. Quickly, this idea caught on with others who saw it as a possible explanation of the new tendencies in the arts, Dandyism, naturalism and mysticism.

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Others had it explain how some races had evolved less far than European ones while others had developed into decadence: the hourglass observations meant it may even be genetically controlled rather than socially.

Lankester joked that he saw this kind of degeneration in many men when they inherit a fortune.  But his idea backfired seriously when it was taken up by conservatives who cherished evolution as the Creator’s domain. They still argued in the 1880s that God had put humans at the top of a mountain of complexity, the argument that Lamarck had begun in 1809. If the respectable Dr Jekyll created the damnable young Mr Hyde, so other top humans could control lower forms by Lankester’s device of degeneration. The idea encouraged well-known Victorian thinkers such as Herbert Spencer and Samuel Butler to turn against Darwin’s words and twist them to their own ends. Humans do have some control over parts of the environment though the full consequences of this were not clear to anyone in their day.

There was also much that angered Lankester about the fashionable pursuit of spiritualism that swept Britain and North America through the 1870s and 1880s. The very assumption of contacting the dead, let alone the process and practice of communicating with them was too much for a scientist to take seriously. And certainly this process was serious for millions of people then, sitting at cloth-covered tables, in heavily curtained dim drawing rooms, where every sound was heard with suspicion and hope. To Lankester’s mind it was a proposition that was there only to be falsified, and that is what he set out to do.


An event in 1876 gave him a wonderful opportunity and stimulated him to challenge some of those involved. It was a remarkable address given to the British Association by none other than Alfred Wallace who spoke in support of spiritualism as a scientifically valid process. That evening, Lankester wrote a letter to The Times complaining that the lecture had brought the Association and science into disrepute. The rumpus that followed attracted the full glare of publicity and involved Lankester prosecuting one of Wallace’s spiritualist friends for fraud. The hearing at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court lasted several weeks and attracted huge public interest. Wallace spoke in the defendant’s favour, as did Arthur Conan Doyle, while a professional illusionist showed how the trick could have been performed. Wallace’s friend was found guilty under the Vagrancy Act and after an Appeal he went back to the United States. The whole affair made séances far less fashionable and Ray Lankester became the most well-known professor in the country. But it didn’t do Alfred Wallace any good at all.

Lankester was a man of contradictions, not one to be taken in by any over-simplification of the complex systems of biology. He strongly believed that arguments were a necessary part of the way human intellect worked things out, and of how they are in nature. So although he strongly disagreed with a lot of the new criticism of natural selection, he did have secret admiration for some of the protagonists.

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