17. Making Maps 1798-1840

On mainland Europe a budding Prussian surveyor called Alexander Humboldt (1769-1859) was desperate to explore some of the tropical forests in South America. The Bishop of Derry, Lord Bristol, had invited him to join a 1798 expedition up the Nile from Alexandria and so an enthusiastic Humboldt left home to join the crew. He went through Paris and to his surprise found that most of the people that he expected to be travelling with had vanished. The place was in turmoil because Napoleon had just entered Egypt and had taken most of Humboldt’s friends with him. They comprised 160 of the best scholars and scientists in France, including most of the natural scientists who had deserted Lord Bristol’s expedition for Napoleon. It meant that Humboldt had to cancel his plans, though with Lord Bristol involved, it would have been difficult for any crew to leave from France in any case.

Instead, the elderly Admiral Bourgainville (1729-1811), the first French navigator to sail round the world, invited Humboldt to be ship’s naturalist on another expedition, a five year circum-navigation.

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That trip also had to be abandoned because an imminent war with Austria was taking all the French navy’s money. Agitated with these frustrating obstacles Humboldt decided to go as a paying passenger with another of Bourgainville’s frustrated recruits, a naturalist called Aime Bonpland, 25 years old. The two men were so enthusiastic and yet short of money that they walked across the border into Spain and in May 1799 set off for Tenerife and Havana aboard the Pizarro.

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Humboldt – self portrait       Humboldt and Bonpland at Orinoco    Aime Bonpland

They were to be away from 1799 to 1804, hard yet productive years during which they saw natural catastrophes, rather than the international political disputes of the sort they were used to. They also saw human tragedies, with the first to happen shortly after leaving Tenerife. Their overcrowded ship entered the tropics and endured night-time temperatures of 36 degrees. With appalling sanitary conditions and bad diet it was not surprising that typhoid became an epidemic and several crew and passengers died, while others became delirious in the cramped stink. Unable to go as far as Havana, the Pizarro made port in the Orinoco Delta where, typical of the two explorers’ luck on this journey, it took days to find an anchorage. Eventually thankful for the chance to leave the ship after the horrible six week voyage, the unexpected destination gave good opportunities for their work, one of the most unexplored species-rich parts of the world.

Weighed down with their collections of animals and plants from the Orinoco Delta they went on at the turn of the century to Caracas, which then had only 40,000 inhabitants and was about to be devastated by the earthquake of 1812. All the while, their observations and their stimulating conversations set them thinking about how and why particular species inhabit particular regions. They collected animals and plants from tropical rain forests, from the great river plains of the Llanos and from the shores of lakes and the sea. On their journey they talked of migration, climatic ranges, restricted distribution, the strange species found only on some islands, and even the observation that closely related species often appeared together in these rich habitats. This reminded them of the talk of transmutation that they had heard in the Paris salons, memories that seemed so far away in culture as well as distance. And throughout, fear of the dangers they had avoided was at the front of their minds.

They returned to Paris in 1804 with their formidable baggage of 60,000 specimens of plants and animals and plans to work together to classify and write up the details of their discoveries. Humboldt’s first book was an Essay on Plant Geography, published in 1805, the first of 30 books in a series on their South America expedition. The complete work was not to be finished for another 30 years, with volumes on the botany, zoology, astronomy, meteorology and geology. They were the first comprehensive accounts of the natural history of a whole continent and were invaluable introductions and guides for future travelers like Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin.

Humboldt was more a surveyor than a biologist and so he measured how climate affects human activities as well as plant distribution. He expected botanists to go beyond the mere classification of plants and consider their whole welfare and geography and illustrated this in his book. A panoramic Tableau Physique showed what would be found at different elevations along the slopes of Mount Chimborazo in the Andes. He surveyed the elevation at which there is no perpetual snow, the distance at which one can see mountains from the sea, what crops can be cultivated and what animals might be found at various points.


The bad luck which Humboldt and Bonpland suffered on their journey to South America continued in Paris. Bonpland may have been brilliant in the field but he was inaccurate and unreliable at his desk, where the work was difficult in another sort of way. There was no help from the experience of others and many of the specimens were completely unknown. Even their structures were hard to examine without detailed dissection and examination, and with tens of thousands of such new species the piles of disorganized specimens must have been daunting. Bonpland didn’t know where to start, he delayed, made mistakes and fell behind the deadlines they had agreed, and because Humboldt was paying for it all from his own money, there were disagreements.

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Humboldt – the current, and –                       – the statue outside his university in Berlin

For Bonpland there was also the distraction of post-revolutionary Paris. The five year expedition had made him famous, and soon he was asked to create a flower garden at the Empress Josephine’s country house at Malmaison. Josephine divorced Napoleon in 1810 and the good-looking and worldly Bonpland became her confidante until she died in 1814 at the age of 51. At this, Bonpland announced that he had stopped working on the South America collection altogether. He had been beckoned by his wanderlust to return to the Americas and there he had an eventful and hard life until he died in 1858 at the age of 85. For the last 38 years of his life he received a pension from the French Government and lived in a mud hut on the pampas in Uruguay, surrounded by “the society of my beloved plants”.

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Meanwhile, Humboldt published all thirty volumes of the South American expedition, at a time when there were many other brave explorers of world biodiversity. These were mostly by European explorers and scientists, doubling up as surveys for expanding Empires. Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, Huxley’s to Australia aboard HMS Rattlesnake from 1846-1850,

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The Beagle and Charles Darwin                      HMS Rattlesnake and Thomas Huxley

Hooker’s explorations in Van Dieman’s Land, as Tasmania was called, on HMS Erebus from 1839-1843, were just the best known of many others.

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HMS Erebus                                                 and Joseph Hooker


Inevitably a shared experience of sailing round the world brought these three men close together, having experienced the same exceptional feelings that were so hard to express verbally or in writing. Formality was the first convention that they ignored between themselves and a strong sense of trust and implicit understanding coloured their relationships and the important science they shared. Hooker’s letter to Darwin from Kerguelen’s Land, or Desolation Island as the French navigator Yves Kerguelen first called it, described the island’s unique cabbage, Pringlea antiscorbutica. It was only found there “on a spot upwards of 1,000 miles from any land where fresh vegetables can be obtained” and the sailors used it to help prevent scurvy. And Darwin’s response to Hooker’s excited account of this species was the famous admission: “I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable”.

Hooker went on to stay in Tasmania for three months from May 1840 and his report on that work, Flora Tasmaniae (1853–59), lists 150 new species. He was taken round the island by the chief gaoler Ronald Gunn, who had a passion for plants and who became an important collaborator with Hooker. Back home in 1846, for example, Hooker wrote to ask for specimens of a rare member of the family he was researching. “My dear Gunn you must sprawl on your hallowed belly on the top of the mountains and pick little things out of the ground for I still want analogies [to the genus Forstera] which your mountains must produce.”

Gunn (small)       TasHistory-header-image-sl        Thylacine

A more straightforward scientific project, one no less significant, had just been started on-shore at home in England by a mining surveyor called William Smith (1769-1839) and resulted in the publication of the first geological map in 1815. While being employed as a surveyor to build the canals in newly industrialized parts of England, he had an unequalled experience of the geology from the rock exposures being cut through the hills. He used the fossils which he found to be restricted to one particular bed, or perhaps a particular assemblage, to give it an identity. He was concerned with the sequence of these beds, how they always outcropped in a particular order, and the fossils were diagnostically useful. That was what Smith wanted from his fossils – he was a surveyor and map maker, not a biologist or environmentalist.

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Like many working-class heroes, Smith also suffered through bad luck, made worse by not having any support from friends or societies of the ruling class. Even worse, they may even have been the cause of his downfall, their envy at one from a different class who had succeeded where the rich had failed. Most successful naturalists were still those from backgrounds able to support a university education, which encouraged ordination and a good living in a rural parish. Smith should have moved to France after the revolution for that was where both state and scientists remained separate from the church and where naturalists were free to explore in their own right, free of the establishment, unlike Smith.

21. Darwin and The Origin 1830-1862

By 1842 Charles Darwin had a good draft of his evidence for natural selection, but he was far from convinced that it would stand up to the public scrutiny that he knew would be vicious. So he decided to look for more clues and to use them to test his theory further. But it was hard to chase the evasive biological changes and he became more and more frustrated. In 1858 he finished a manuscript of what he called The Big Species Book, in which he tried to set out the difficulties as well as the theory itself, but he was not happy with the work and so he kept it hidden away under the stairs. He already had a major literary achievement under his belt: his observations from the Beagle voyage ten years earlier, and that would have to be enough to present to the world.

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But he was still afraid that his case was not convincing to many of the reasonable people who had criticised Chambers’ book, and he held back to find more arguments to support the theory of natural selection that he had already formulated. The story is well-known of how Darwin was forced into writing The Origin of Species after he had read a draft manuscript outlining the same idea, written out in Malaysia by the species collector Alfred Wallace. Darwin’s friends in the Royal Society wanted to protect what they thought was his right to claiming the well worked out theory as his own, and not some last-minute argument that had flashed into the mind of some unknown explorer. In that event Charles Darwin wrote his book in nine months, incorporating the support he had gathered from lots of scientific specialists throughout the world, making his own observations clear and presenting the argument so that both specialists and the public could understand. Meanwhile, Wallace was only too pleased to accept Darwin’s offers of co-authorship of the first formal announcement at the Linnean Society and his later friendship.

Less well-known is that Wallace confided with a wry smile to a friend that as long ago as 1831 a Mr Patrick Matthew “appears to have completely anticipated The Origin of Species”.

220px-Patrick_Matthew_1790    Patrick Matthew  1790-1874

Meanwhile, The Vestiges was believed to reflect the more open thinking about nature in Scotland, a place eager to throw off the control of the English intellectual establishment of Oxford and Cambridge. One view was that Chambers had formed his ideas about evolution after he had also heard talk of evolution from his fellow-Scot Patrick Matthew. He had suggested that his farming stock was improved by selection from within the orchard or the herd, and this meant that inheritance of new features for a changed environment was unnecessary: it happened before such change, within each population automatically, as a matter of course. Selection was happening continually, on his farm and in nature, and was only noticed when some environmental change made a particular form conspicuous. Matthew didn’t amplify this idea and only jotted a brief note in the appendix of his 1831 book Naval Timber and Arboriculture, a book that one of Chambers’ friends happened to read. It was another example of the feeling that Thomas Huxley shared forty years later: “it is such a wonderfully simple idea that I wonder I didn’t think of it myself”.

The concept was implicit in several documents written around that time, though their impact was lost by their brevity. Charles Darwin took the prize with his articulate approach to life, his unique experiences on the Beagle and at Down House, and with his beautiful writing. He was also such a likeable man that everyone he knew, except Richard Owen, wanted him to take the credit.


23. Just Visiting 1862-1870

It was soon clear to Wallace that he had returned to a land of confusion about how evolution worked and that publication of his and Darwin’s explanation had not settled any of the controversies. Instead of finding good experimental evidence for their theory of evolution by natural selection what he did find was something very different and unexpected: because progress was going to be slow a deep philosophical void had emerged. This placed more hope on measuring what was thought to be evolving, and more interest in how humans themselves had evolved. Wallace was confused by the new expectations of scientists and was understandably out of date from his long absences. At the peak of Empire these difficult homecomings were common.  th-6

He also lacked the refined social graces of his new London hosts but persisted in making a mark on science and its society. Within a few months of his return, he had visited all the main players on London’s life science network. Despite their different social classes he found much in common with Sir Richard Strachey, who had just returned from plant hunting in India, and Joseph Hooker, back from Tasmania.

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It didn’t help that the leader of that group of evolutionary biologists was beginning to lose touch with these objective requirements of modern science. Thomas Huxley had only two years of schooling and became what he called “a man of science” when he was 21 and served onboard HMS Rattlesnake as a humble assistant to the ship’s surgeon. He advanced quickly and soon become a witty debater and charismatic teacher, one of the old school with fastidious attention to all details and observations. In 1862 Wallace arrived at the Huxley home in St John’s Wood and found that the whole domestic tone of the house induced a sense of awe and inferiority.

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Two pictures of T Huxley  at the Normal School of Science (now Imperial College)     and Joseph Hooker at Kew Gardens

Whenever they spoke about evolution, Huxley’s superior knowledge of anatomy and physiology only added to his stiffness. He had cheered up when he heard Huxley’s famous reaction on first reading Darwin’s ideas about adaptation by natural selection: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that”. But Huxley never did understand natural selection to have the slow and uniform adaptations changes that Darwin and Wallace intended.

Nevertheless, Huxley had become Darwin’s loudest and most loyal supporter, a kind of Victorian public relations consultant, but privately he was worried that in The Origin Darwin had argued strongly that change should be gradual. He thought it was wrong to have so little to say about any revolutionary catastrophes: “You have loaded yourself with the unnecessary difficulty in adopting Natura non facit saltum so unreservedly”. Huxley knew from Lyell’s Principles of Geology published thirty years earlier that there was a big gap in the geological record between the top of the chalk and the base of the Eocene, the very time that reptiles and mammals showed major changes. Huxley was alone in having a hunch that this was a sign of some sudden environmental change, some catastrophe. [This is now known as the Terminal Cretaceous Event that caused the dinosaurs to become extinct

220px-Impact_event     220px-KT_boundary_054 The event was between the light and dark rocks.]

One of the stories Wallace heard on these visits told of a conversation between Huxley, Hooker and Darwin in which they “ran a tilt against species farther I believe than they are deliberately prepared to go.” It put Hooker, especially, in a difficult position, wanting to faithfully support his very close friend Charles, yet having lived the life of a plant taxonomist, naming and labeling specimens, and craving stability. He told the staff at Kew that these thoughts about evolution “should not influence our treatment of species, either as subjects of descriptive science, or … their dispersal and replacement in area.” For unlike Darwin or even Huxley, the people at Kew wanted a species to be a fixed entity defined by comparison to a single type specimen, many of which were preserved in the herbarium there. That was the job of the people at Kew, and their equivalent at other botanical and zoological gardens and museums throughout the world. The last thing any of these people wanted was for any of these species to change; their rules encouraged stability.

herbarium-specimens-awaiting-collection unsorted specimens at Kew     herbarium-finshed-mounts a stable catalogue

Later in 1862 Hooker talked to Wallace about this different approach and admitted that he wanted “to write a Darwinian book on botany” setting out classification, distribution and origin. But before that he felt his priority was to “work out all the species.” He spent the first ten years after he retired from Kew revising all the species of balsams in the genus Impatiens, so unfortunately he didn’t get round to writing the Darwin book.

If Hooker was more attracted to the idea of permanent species moving up the ladder without changing, one of Darwin’s first letters must have haunted him: “I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable. Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a ‘tendency to progressions,’ ‘adaptations from the slow willing of animals’ etc.! But the conclusions I am led to are not wholly different from his; though the means of change are wholly so. I think I have found out (here’s presumption) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends.” Both Wallace and Darwin expected natural selection at the level of the organism: Lamarck’s system of inheritance was at the level of a species or even higher. It was a view for which Hooker had some sympathy, for his life-long task had been to put plants into taxonomic categories and the more clearly defined the group the more complete was his work. Unfortunately for these taxonomists this kind of order was not necessarily what evolution provided.

Wallace was more comfortable with the senior member of Darwin’s circle though it was Lyell to whom Wallace had sent the manuscript in the Spring of 1858 setting out his own argument for natural selection. If there were still any hard feelings left from the presentation to the Linnean Society they were soon forgiven and apparently forgotten. Wallace’s visit was a great success and though Lady Lyell was patronizing, thinking that his manners were of an unacceptable standard.

Henry Bates, who had explored South America with Wallace had a less successful reunion with Lyell, despite their having met regularly at the Geological Society, and having once been Lyell’s guest at its Dining Club. Later, he bumped into Lyell beside the seal pond at London Zoo: “He was wriggling about in his usual way, with spy-glass raised by fits and starts to the eye” and began: “Mr Wallace. I believe – ah”. “My name’s Bates.” “Oh, I beg pardon. I always confound you two.” Once he had recognized who he was talking to Lyell was able to congratulate Bates about the value of his collections. But it was a frosty relationship and their joint interests in evolution could never bridge their different social classes: Lyell was from the Scottish aristocracy, Bates from a family of Leicester hosiery factory workers.

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Henry Bates                                                  Charles Lyell                                                    Joseph Hooker

Through all this time Lyell kept his belief in God, pleased to let in the advances of science, while still feeling some faith. His subtle argument in Principles was based on his acceptance of Lamarck’s theory of evolution and that in turn presented Darwin with the need to argue his alternative and for it to be listened to. It was only possible because Lyell persuaded his peers, men like Lubbock and Argyle, that their shift of emphasis away from Lamarck was possible, however slow and reluctant some of them were to make it.

Then there was another important man whom Wallace visited, the Derby railway engineer turned philosopher, Herbert Spencer, who made him realize for the first time that his ideas about natural selection had a wide and frightening political importance.

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Spencer was a man of many words, pleased to tell his visitor why he was so excited about individual organisms presenting different features to some new conditions in the environment. “Each individual shall be left to experience the effects of his own nature and consequent conduct. This would quickly clear away the degraded”. There was no opportunity for Wallace to intervene and point to the difficulties in this outlook.  It soon became clear that Spencer had his own programme of interests and wanted to use his own concept of natural selection to further those ends. He was to become a champion of capitalism and he made a lot of money himself by writing about his “scientific” justification of economics. Spencer went on to interpret Wallace and Darwin’s theory in his own way, no matter how much he failed properly to understand it. For Spencer had already embarked on a campaign of political philosophy and the slogan “survival of the fittest” was going to serve that very well, whatever Wallace might have said.

Wallace was particularly confused by the visit which he made with Bates whose social origins were very similar to those of Spencer: “Our thoughts were full of the great unsolved problem of the origin of life, and we looked to Spencer as the one man living who could give us some clue to it.” Instead, Spencer told them how he thought that humans would eventually breed a less aggressive and increasingly altruistic species. This was part of his own version of the Atlantis myth, his perfect society where no-one would give pain to another.

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[Atlantis Zuccarello.deviantart.com]

His long-winded System of Synthetic Philosophy written from 1862 to 1897, extended to ten volumes and was very successful in its time, especially in the United States. It sold more than a million copies, more than any other philosopher has ever achieved before or since, and was a reaction against the progressive scientists whom Wallace was meeting. The book was also suggesting a return to Lamarck’s escalating hierarchy, with its unscientific values that were too soft for Wallace to take seriously.

Spencer had taken his canon of philosophy to apply to economics after reading Adam Smith, one of the stars of the Scottish enlightenment for whom individual, not group, competition gave the best social order. Spencer reasoned that what held for human societies could also be good for natural selection among organisms, leading in both to the maximum division of labour and therefore to more sophisticated adaptation. Just as individuals strove against one another, so groups struggled against other groups. The products came from the struggles between each individual. Spencer believed in Smith’s saying that “the happiness of a people is made up of the happiness of single persons.”

Later, Spencer turned into a grumpy old man and became well-known for the devious ways he used to avoid talking. He had a pair of ivory ear-plugs, carved specially to fit his own ears as though he had planned to be isolated even though he sought the company of others. It became a way of keeping control on his own world, and often when he dined at his club, or read in the library there, he would put the plugs in his ears rather than listen to the conversation or be put off his concentration by the laughter.

24. Understanding Evolution in 1862

The meeting with Spencer had taught Wallace to be very cautious with another man who shared the same Lamarckian values. In the 1860s and 70s Richard Owen was a powerful figure at the British Museum where he used Cuvier’s methods to work out the meaning of vertebrate palaeontology.

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They both saw vertebrates as an archetype of design, a string of vertebrae variously making head, arms, ribs, pelvis and legs. Many more groups of animals and even plants conformed. Owen was a strange man, greatly troubled by his own past, having nightmares from his days as a surgeon’s apprentice in Lancaster jail. From those hard experiences in 1820 he had come a long way to become one of Queen Victoria’s advisors for the Great Exhibition thirty years later.  In that time he was Professor of Vertebrate Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons after winning notoriety with the Prince Consort and the Royal Society for his reconstructions of dinosaurs and the fossilized remains of an extinct flightless bird from New Zealand 4m high.

The Manchester Spectator reviewed one of his lectures in 1849 and gave a flavor of the man: “Richard Owen undertakes to demonstrate scientifically that the arms and legs of the human race are the later and higher developments of the ruder wings and fins of the vertebrate animals …. he concludes that God has not peopled the globe by successive creations, but by the operation of general laws.” He stuck to this same idea ten years later to the British Association in 1858, where he spoke glowingly of Lamarck and “the continuous operation of Creative Power”.

Few scientists have ever had a worse reputation in all recorded aspects of their lives than Richard Owen. Because so many scientists hated him, this often caused them to gang up and irritate him even more. Huxley shared his specialism in vertebrate palaeontology and after his famous public rebuke of Owen’s jealous reaction to The Origin, the two men didn’t exchange a civil word with one another. Huxley was powerful enough to encourage others to oppose Owen, who became a loner as well as an angry old man, always causing unnecessary trouble and resentment.

Mining in Belgium during the 1860s had yielded rich collections of Iguanodon fossils, and they showed clearly that the giant dinosaur had stood on its two hind legs. This stirred up the old argument between Owen and Mantell, proving both to have been wrong on some points. Mantell had died in 1852, missing the discoveries and a thin admission of defeat from Owen. More new dinosaur fossils were found in many of the rocks exposed by the surge in railway building when the American Civil War ended in 1865 and the palaeontologists ED Cope and OC Marsh took the work to another level by the end of the century with evolving lineages of different species of horses.

In the Summer of 1862 Wallace stayed with the Darwins in their home at Down House.

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It was the first time the two men had met and what could have been a difficult encounter turned out to be a pleasant weekend, politely sharing their many compatible experiences, though from very different backgrounds. Darwin enjoyed the chance to reflect on the time in 1836 when he also had returned to London, after four years away on the Beagle voyage. He had gained similar inspiration from the rich tropical forests, the vast grasslands and the colourful corals. He had also thought of the consequences of the writings by Malthus and Lyell and he had also written notes of these early ideas of evolution. Darwin scribbled his first famous drawing of a branched evolutionary tree in 1837 and wrote a draft essay about natural selection in the Spring of 1842 just before he and his wife Emma left London to live at the village of Downe in Kent. But he thought that he didn’t yet have a case and he put the writing to one side.

There in Kent, the Darwin family settled into a busy but simple rhythm of Victorian country life, kindly and loving, and Charles decided to take his time building up support for natural selection before he submitted a manuscript for publication. He knew that some of his ideas needed experimental evidence, inheritance and migration for example being large issues. And he needed to build up his own confidence in those ideas, fearing the political and religious storms that his presentation was bound to cause. Nevertheless, he continued from 1854 until 1858 to write several versions of his argument, a 231 page sketch in 1844, and what his family called the Big Species Book. That was what he was writing when Wallace’s own manuscript arrived for Lyell to check through in June 1858. Now, Wallace was spending his first weekend at Downe and they were sharing the excitement of their work quite happily.

books    The Big Species Book – only recently published – by Cambridge University Press

No-one was more delighted about this than Wallace himself and that cheered-up Darwin immensely. The relief shows up in one of Charles’ early reactions, that “he rates me much too highly and himself much too lowly. What strikes me most about Wallace is the absence of jealousy towards me.” Wallace’s concurrent view of Darwin was of the quiet Englishman proud to be in the middle: socially, politically and philosophically.

Darwin had no such affiliation. He was out on his own, beholden to no-one, with his own investment income. He was a holistic thinker: had formally studied biology, medicine, theology and geology. He became experienced as an observer and explorer, a writer, a taxonomist, a pigeon-fancier and a plant physiologist. He remained interested in all these things and more. That was his strength, and to Wallace’s envy he had a loving family and a sense of humour. His Cambridge influences were showing through: the updated scientific methods being advocated there by the philosopher William Whewell and the desire to analyse the results, the intuition of his mathematical cousin Francis Galton. Their influence on biological problems was just beginning.

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Francis Galton                                                                                     William Whewell

Whewell (1794-1866) had gone against the trend toward specialization and prided himself in his wide range of interests, which included geology, physics, astronomy and economics, and had a hunch that together they would show him some general patterns. He had felt that Bacon’s deductive methods, reducing scientific issues to singular logic, were either too simplistic or too complicated to resolve. Useful though they had clearly turned out to be Whewell wanted more invention, sagacity and genius. He was afraid that scientists were losing sight of the soul inside the systems they studied and he thought that creativity could bring it back. Only pluralists like him, with really broad overviews, could create general scientific laws or even theories.

Darwin and Wallace both knew there was a new approach in biology that was a good example of the kind of thing Whewell had in mind, an interdisciplinary view of global biology to which Wallace was eminently attached. Now we call it biogeography, and in 1876 Wallace’s The Geographical Distribution of Animals was an early example. He was able to add a lot of new data from his travels in South America and East Asia and to test out some of the theories to explain the intercontinental migration of animals and plants.

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Darwin was famously skeptical of the land bridges being used to explain the movements first proposed by young Edward Forbes who had died in 1854. He thought there had only been the wide oceans, which was why he had spent so much time testing how long seeds could stay afloat in the currents. But Wallace had grander ideas, mapping the ranges of whole floras and faunas and suggesting climatic and migratory restrictions.

220px-Gideon_Mantell_engaged_in_battle_by_Edward_Forbes      Forbesfrontispiece These cartoons are by Edward Forbes, one of Gideon Mantell chasing flying dinosaurs (1830) and the other for his book Natural History of European Seas 1859.

Another of Wallace’s new acquaintances from his exploration of the London scientific community was secretary at the London Zoo, Philip Sclater, and they quickly established a good relationship. They had both noticed a similarity between mammals of Madagascar and mainland Africa, and wondered about the reality of invoking a lost continent in the southern hemisphere to account for it. Sclater even gave it a name, Lemuria, and the idea was soon picked up by the great German biologist Ernst Haeckel in his 1868 Natural History of Creation but there was no direct evidence. It turned out that this book was much more widely read than the Origin and went through 12 editions before Haeckel died in 1919. In those days, a lot of ideas that touched on scientific problems were not backed up by evidence, though for its place and time the book was a lively mix of myth, science and philosophy.

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Haeckel’s enthusiasm for the similarities between the developmental changes in an embryo and some lineages of related species became well known as his Biogenetic Law, that embryology reflects phylogeny. He had series of pictures from mammals, birds and fish showing their embryo growing through phases similar to what may once have been mature creatures, now extinct. Humans had the longest lineage, from early life on earth starting as a single cell, dividing to a cup-shaped form similar to so many marine organisms, then to resemble an early fish with gills and finally mammals and humans.  The idea picked up a lot of support in the 1860s, especially in the United States, where Alpheus Hyatt had reconstructed pathways of fossils through geological time. One showed how snails may have evolved, examples about which he had corresponded with Darwin many times.


Hyatt and his supporters extended these embryological pathways of evolution, thinking they would have continued under their own control, away from environmental influence, until an unworkable form led to extinction of the lineage: a missing link too far, caused by some internally programmed trait. They used the theory to explain many very different trends that were showing up in some other kinds of fossils. For example, they thought this kind of runaway development might explain why the antlers of the Irish Elk became too long for the species’ survival, why the extended canines of sabre-toothed cats might have the same effect, and why the self-strangulation of the oyster Gryphea eventually killed the creature. Darwin was not impressed and the lack of further evidence for Hyatt‘s explanations lost what little support the work had.

Most interest in evolution at that time centred on how biodiversity increased through geological time. Haeckel, however, was considering the opposite as well, and he realized that if evolution can move one way so it can also go the other. As selection took place so individuals of the earlier species separated into either the more-progressive or the less-progressive forms. The less-progressive ones chose to settle on smaller territory as their numbers reduced if the environment stayed hostile, or as they recovered when often it didn’t. There was going to be more interest in this kind of negative progress later, when several biologists considered it as a common feature of evolution. They called it ‘degeneration’ and it was thought to explain variations of varieties or races within species.

26. Hard Times for Humans 1869-1871

Most of the public interest in the Origin had centred on what it said about the human species, especially the argument that Homo sapiens shared ancestors with all the other Primates. This was despite the author’s decision to avoid details of that topic in the book, knowing how difficult and controversial it was. Religious people were not the only ones who wanted to keep humans at the top of the tree of life, for nearly all Europeans took that place for granted, even expecting it to put them above other races. Darwin’s own values had been challenged in 1832 by his reaction to the Tierra del Fuego communities and with no clear evidence he was content to leave any debates about that matter until later.

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Tierra del Fuego about 1890

Instead, he put the basic things first and used the Origin to concentrate on the scheme of natural selection. What was more, its immediate positive reception showed that English society was ready for a mature assessment of the human place in evolution and who better to write it than Darwin himself. He was persuaded to write it by his publisher John Murray and they argued about the title before settling on The Descent of Man. That title, by the way, should surely have received a prize for the cleverest example of defence being the best form of attack. For Darwin, man was not necessarily at the point of highest ascent on the evolutionary mountain. The important thing was how species came to be alive in nature, not to make some judgment about values and morality.

Wallace’s skepticism about humans as just another species of primate grew. He seriously doubted that natural selection explained why the human brain was so big and assumed that intellectual capacity accounted for this larger size. Was this sufficient to increase the chance of human success or was there some other explanation, such as the selective force from a higher spiritual power? He wrote about these ideas in an 1869 book review of Lyell’s updated version of the Principles of Geology and Darwin, who was still writing The Descent of Man, replied angrily: “I groan over Man – you write like a metamorphosed (in retrograde direction) naturalist, and you the author of the best paper that ever appeared in the Anthropological Review! Eheu! Eheu! Eheu!” Instead, Darwin suggested that language accounted for the larger human brain, that it “depends on the external inheritances of civilization, rather than on the organic inheritances of the civilized man.”

The social class of scientists was becoming less elitist, it was the beginning of the end of the grand tradition of wealthy Oxbridge clerics studying natural history as amateur gentlemen. It was becoming more unusual for men of independent means like Darwin and Galton to excel in science, though plenty of parish priests and other professionals spent a lot of time with their passionate English culture of natural history. Most of the biologists from the professional classes, men like Huxley and Hooker, needed to earn money, and gradually, men from working class backgrounds, Wallace and Bates for example, were being accepted into the company of the intellectual aristocrats. This did not happen in the early nineteenth century as William Smith and even Gideon Mantell testified.

But when the socially elite were in decline so the specialist elite were rising. They knew something about the world that others did not. They cultivated masks of jargon to hide their skills and ignorance from other people and they had answers to awkward questions. These abilities gave the scientific specialists a kind of power, sometimes clouded by arrogance, which had a special place in the old societies of the European countries. But in the new world of North America they were treated like anyone else.

So began the biological contributions to the dialectic form of mid-nineteenth century intellectual debate, the inevitable consequence of the perpetual motion of self-conscious reason found in any large society. They were ideas first put into historical context by the philosopher Georg Hegel’s Berlin lectures back in 1823, and later used by Engels to find a goal in history. Engels and Marx were later to apply this same philosophy to communist politics, but at first Engels was more concerned with its relevance to nature and its large systems of apparent chaos.

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GWF Hegel 1770-1831              F Engels 1820-1895                             K Marx 1818-1883

In the final decades of the nineteenth century the life sciences were struggling to resolve four important issues. One was the difference between De Condolle and Galton, the argument they stimulated about nature and nurture. Galton also stimulated the debate about whether evolution was gradual or sudden and the changing view about the age of the earth. A third big debate was beginning, in ignorance of Mendel’s premature answer, about whether inheritance was transmitted by vibrations, particles or something else. Fourthly, there was the debate about whether humans were just another species, this involving Galton and his adversary Wallace.

In England. Galton’s 1869 Hereditary Genius was one of a series of books published then about human evolution as part of the debate stimulated by the Origin. Talk of human evolution, whether by natural selection or something else, was all the rage in the 1860s and there was a flurry of books on the subject. It was not unlike the publishing storm over geotheories a hundred years before when a different set of extrovert thinkers wanted to turn the very different topical issues to their own advantage. Over that century, science had been slowly getting a grip on the same big question; it had shifted from being about the origin of the earth to the origin of humans. Lyell’s book on The Antiquity of Man was the first out, in February 1863, quickly followed by Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature. Wallace wrote a substantial article on the Origin of Human Races the following year and then Darwin’s Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871. Few people had any doubts about the validity of biological evolution by natural selection, this was not the main issue when man came into the sequence of evolutionary progression. The central issue then was whether humans were like other animals. Huxley and Darwin both argued that humans and other primates were obviously and clearly related; they had no doubts that all were from the same branch.

Through the 1870s and up to the 90s the growing interest in human evolution became inextricably mixed up with the nature and nurture debate which was where Galton’s heavy emphasis on the distribution of human intelligence was leading.

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Lyell and Wallace were holding out for man as a special case. Wanting to do a favour to a friend short of money, in 1872 Lyell commissioned Wallace to correct his manuscript for a new edition of the Antiquity of Man. He was pleased to have a like-minded editor check the argument and also hoped it would be seen as a good way of showing his appreciation for the 1869 review of the new edition of Principles that had so disappointed Darwin. The gesture could also be seen as the mastery of Lyell and his close friends over Wallace, the social outsider, who was not going to threaten their world after all.

Darwin’s book took a lot of space to address Wallace’s vexed issues of the large human brain and it speculated on what might have filled the brain to make it so much larger. There were no easy answers because supposedly human faculties such as moral reasoning, sympathy for others, appreciation of beauty and music could be found in smaller degree in some other mammals such as dogs and apes. Darwin had referred to psychology at the end of the Origin and he talked later to Wallace about how the sexual displays by his birds of paradise might have their equivalent in human selection. “Among savages the most powerful men will have the pick of the women, and they will generally leave the most descendants.” Wallace was not too sure since “every race has its own style of beauty” and we cannot put our human values on other species. Then, of course, there was the question of whether different human “races” were distinct “species”. Although everyone agreed that both these concepts were very difficult, some agreement was emerging that all living humans were the same species.

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Cookshop London 1870,     The Paris Commune 1871,  (goldenagepaintings.blogspot)

The Descent of Man was published in May 1871 just as groups of extremists took over L’Hotel de Ville in Paris and set up the Paris Commune. In London The Times condemned these Communards and made an interesting link to the new book: from a man who incurred “a grave responsibility when, with the authority of a well-earned reputation, he advances at such a time the disintegrating speculations of this book.” But there was to be even more criticism of this kind, derived from other experiences that Darwin and Wallace had had in South America, influenced by the culture of the enlightenment in which they had been brought up and was then dying away. This was their attitude to slavery, which some inevitably linked to how they saw the boundaries of our own species.

Not only was The Times horrified at the lack of defense in the capital but Haeckel’s professor at Munich, the anthropologist Rudolf Virchow rebuked him: “We cannot teach, we cannot maintain as a discovery of science that man has descended from apes or any other animals.” Haeckel was very upset by this onslaught, and Huxley wrote to encourage his spirits: “May your shadow never be less, and may all your enemies, unbelieving dogs who resist the Prophet of Evolution, be defiled by the sitting of jackasses upon their grandmothers’ graves!”