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.

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.