18. Fighting the Establishment 1820-1824

Two establishment geologists, both devout members of the Church of England, then came together at Oxford and explored the local landscape looking for fossils. William Buckland (1784-1856) and the Rev William Conybeare (1787-1856) were very interested in Smith’s local map and its implied sequence of strata. They went on to use another of Smith’s less detailed national maps to test their own observations of the rock sequences further afield, eventually going into mainland Europe.

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Throughout the 1820s Buckland tried to reconcile the state of geological knowledge of the early nineteenth century with contemporary Christian values. He argued that the Superficial Gravels which contained elephant remains were from a gentle marine inundation, rather than the tsunami-like roar proposed by de Luc. There were also some interesting teeth and bones from a quarry at Stonesfield but he put them in a box at the museum and left them unidentified. He also argued that Cuvier’s fossils of hoofed mammals that were thought to be related to cattle, had been divinely designed for human use, so they were proxy humans, alive with Noah at the time of the Flood, good proof of the biblical creation. This was Buckland’s so-called Diluvial Theory to explain the extinct mammals of the Superficial Gravels and stony clays near the earth’s surface as evidence for the Flood. It was also how he explained the specimens then in the Oxford museum that included the large femur collected from Oxfordshire in the seventeenth century by Robert Plot.

Smith’s map had helped the parson-geologist Conybeare find fossils of a marine reptile from clays of deep strata that the map showed to be Secondary or Jurassic. He called these Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus, now known to be extinct crocodile-like creatures, like those that Jules Verne dramatized in Journey to the Centre of the Earth. The links first made by Conybeare compared the fossils with not-so-very-different modern species. Cuvier and Buckland joined in this work with more detailed comparisons, not too happy about explaining such strange creatures from such deep rocks as victims of the deluge. But they held to their beliefs, fixed as they were to so much tradition and to so many powerful institutions, the church, the learned societies, the whole establishment. Really, it was only people like William Smith who were free to consider these very different causes.

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The strength of the conservatives encouraged another outsider to speak out with an unfashionable explanation of some fossil teeth he had found in deeper strata from Sussex. A Lewes doctor, Gideon Mantell (1790-1852) spent as much of his spare time as he could fossil-hunting, and around 1820 he had found the teeth scattered on the floor of a quarry just north of the Downs, along with really large animal bones and fossil plants of palms, cycads and giant ferns, though many of them were unfamiliar.  Some of the bones were like Conybeare’s reptiles but he had a number of teeth that he thought were certainly not: they were more like the worn teeth of a herbivore.

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In October 1821 Mantell had an unexpected visit from one of Buckland’s students, Charles Lyell (1792-1875), wanting to hear about the large fossils and suspicious that they may be similar to the Oxfordshire specimens that he had seen in the Oxford museum. Lyell had attended Buckland’s lectures while he was a student there, graduating in Classics in 1819 but always being more interested in geology. Now he was visiting Sussex training as a lawyer and was still more interested in Mantell’s fossils than in the legal proceedings in the court nearby.

The two men became good friends and Lyell encouraged Mantell to write about the unusual fossil teeth and their similarity with the Oxford specimens. Fossils of the South Downs was published in 1822 with a full account of the teeth, vertebrae and the other bones which Mantell attributed to “one or more gigantic animals of the lizard tribe”. Also understanding the new importance of getting the establishment on your side, the humble author, no doubt stimulated by the aristocratic Lyell, proudly announced at the head of the subscription list, that King George IV had asked for four copies. So it was with great confidence that Mantell went into the Geological Society to present his fossils and his publication to the membership. In the chair at the front sat Professor Buckland, with Conybeare by his side, and their frowns showed that they weren’t going to let him get away with it.

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They said the badly preserved fossil teeth either belonged to a large fish, perhaps a wolf-fish, or were from a mammal that lived over the last few thousand years. Furthermore, and with some justification at the time, the professional geologists couldn’t accept that the Sussex clays were of the kind of ancient deep strata that Mantell assumed. There was no evidence for the age of the deposits and that was the end of the matter. Buckland wouldn’t surrender his Diluvial Theory or his supremacy.

But Mantell was not one to give up easily even though he left London that day in 1822 full of despair and anger. His marriage was beginning to suffer from the long hours he spent with his fossils rather than his family. His medical practice suffered because the good doctor’s attention was obviously elsewhere and many of his patients moved to other physicians. He was running out of money, friends and energy. But again, quite unexpectedly, his friend Charles Lyell came along with a very good idea that lifted his spirits. Lyell was planning a trip to Paris and wanted to call on Cuvier with Mantell’s controversial teeth specimens. It would be interesting to know what the world’s leading expert had to say about them.

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Whatever happened next has become distorted through nearly two centuries of retelling, so we cannot be sure. Lyell did show the Sussex specimens to Cuvier and the reaction was bad news for Mantell. Some say that Cuvier looked at the specimens very quickly, identified one as the incisor of a rhinoceros and asked Lyell to leave. Many say that Buckland had briefed Cuvier about the claim and that it was wrong. Others say Cuvier later admitted the meeting had been “at an evening party”. Lyell didn’t have anything very nice to say about Cuvier, but he had something to observe about his office: “I got into Cuvier’s sanctum sanctorum yesterday, and it is truly characteristic of the man. .. It is a longish room comfortably furnished, lighted from above, with eleven desks to stand to like a public office for so many clerks. But all is for the one man, who multiplies himself as author, and admitting no-one into his room, moves as he finds necessary, of as fancy inclines him, from one occupation to another. Each desk is furnished with a complete establishment of inkstands, pens, etc. .. The collaborators are well chosen, find references, are rarely admitted to the study, receive orders and speak not.”

Mantell was only 32 years old when all this happened, still with enough energy and faith in himself to keep going with what he’d worked out for himself. He still had a reputation as a local collector and palaeontology has a popular pastime for the middle classes of Sussex. People still visited him to see his collections. He also carried on visiting new rock and clay exposures, still excited about what might turn up. By 1824 he had collected a range of new specimens of the teeth, many much better preserved, and all exciting enough to send to Cuvier again. By then, the verdict was different: “some of the great bones that you possess should belong to this animal which, at present, is unique of its kind.” It went on to be the first dinosaur to be recognized.

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.

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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.