27. The Dissolving Spectre of Darwinism 1872-1887

With the reluctance of evidence for natural selection to come forward, Darwin began to fear that his main aim in life was coming off the rails. The Descent of Man had found a different public reaction to that of The Origin and it was going to be difficult this time for the Huxley publicity machine to make much of an impact. A major change in the reaction came from the influence of the two observers Herbert Spencer and Samuel Butler, who had just returned from New Zealand. Butler wanted a change in Victorian values but was not so anxious to reject the past quite as quickly as Huxley. More important, he was not a scientist and that made it easier for him to get closer to the feelings of ordinary people: he could connect with language that most people could understand.

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Butler’s outlook was most crucial, just back in Europe after five years sheep farming out in the open where the different life style had made an impact on how he understood life. He thought that a species changed because it wanted to change, and that it was designed for the ability to fulfill its own desires. They were thoughts more compatible with those who continued to support Lamarck, people with some of Haeckel’s new ideas, in which the emphasis on evolutionary change was from inside the organism. Both were different to Darwin’s emphasis on the selection of some chance adaptation to an external change. It meant that once again the trend of thinking in the 1870s was going towards innate creativity from an inner life force, not from the outer environment.

Haeckel also thought about incorporating internal forces into some alternative explanation of evolution. For this he looked into the cell, just as Darwin and Galton had done with the blood of rabbits and their search for the particle they called gemmules. Haeckel was also looking for particles in the cells, things he called plastidules, hypothetical structures that brought memory into the growth of structures, linking evolutionary force in the mind to explain how life began.

Nearly all the scientists around him were aware that support for natural selection was on the decline and would remain so without the support of direct evidence. A new generation was looking forward to alternative theories with support from repeatable experimental results, and the world of biology was so vast that new subject-areas within it were starting up from scratch. Physiology and biochemistry were adding exciting new outlooks to the stuffy old anatomy and morphology of the previous generations and would surely have some clues about evolutionary processes. These young people were also scorning Victorian attitudes, hypocrisy and the class struggle associated with Empire.

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What Haeckel still had to say about evolutionary biology and biodiversity was at the very centre of so many different aspects of political life, economics, Empire and morality, so inevitably Darwin was coming to be the fall-guy for many social changes. Just as he had argued that natural selection is driven by selection between two individuals with different adaptations, so interactions between members of different social groups were driving unprecedented political changes. The quiet albeit controlled world familiar to John Ray in the early eighteenth century had given way to struggle and argument throughout Europe and the Empires.

So it was timely that in 1872 Samuel Butler anonymously published Erewhon, a satirical novel that became an instant success. It was a story about the direction Victorian society appeared to be taking, another utopia in which machines become evolving body parts and money an hereditary force. Erewhon was nowhere backwards, except for the two letters wh, or some may have preferred two separate words, now here, just as Butler’s view of Victorian Europe. Instead, Butler saw limitations in these apparently integrated wholes, flawed entities in a complex system that instead needed symbiosis and energy from outside.

A decade after his return to England, Wallace had come to realise that the work he had published with Darwin on natural selection, was by no means an accepted theory. There were difficult questions still to ask: the level in the taxonomic hierarchy at which evolution happened; whether it was gradual or catastrophic; what was the agent of heredity; how did the mechanism of sexual reproduction benefit progeny better than asexual methods; how did the environment influence adaptation; the scale of geological time, how stable was a species? The list went on, with ever more questions than answers.

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In those days, scientists still couldn’t say whether inheritance was derived from biology or by learning: without knowing anything about inheritance it was genuinely impossible to prove. Such a vacuum encouraged alternative ways of understanding biological complexity. The most popular was a new wave of support for the old eighteenth century ideas of Lamarck. Samuel Butler had been excited at first by the possibility that The Origin might at last shift rigid social conventions, but without any direct evidence for the cause of inheritance he also found it difficult, and so he took a lot of the detail with a pinch of salt. Lamarck had shown another way through this dilemma that had the benefit of allowing him to keep God.

In 1879 Butler explained these thoughts in a little book called Evolution Old and New in which he decided to rejected Darwin’s main thesis and for the first time in Britain gave strong support to Lamarck’s old view of inheritance by use. What’s more, he did so in the name of innovation, updating the earlier scheme of design or teleology as the way evolution works. His revisions enabled the process coming from within the organism itself and not, as was believed earlier, outside from the Creator. Now, God was working from within.

One of the first biologists in Germany to read Butler’s book was August Weismann who continued to admire Darwin and was not to be shifted in that resolve. He is still best known for his 1888 experiments attempting to disprove Lamarck by cutting off mouse tails and monitoring their occurrence in future generations. At the time, another German biologist, Gustav Eimer (1843-1898), was strongly against Weismann’s enthusiasm for these evolutionary channels, and instead suggested they were controlled from inside the cells of each organism’s reproductive structures, the germ cells.

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1.      A Weismann                   2.    G Eimer                                            3.      R Lankester

Support was increasing for non-selective inheritance, looking for a clear connection with environmental change and Eimer had evidence from Capri, with its lizards and coloured patterns on butterfly wings. He saw individuals in groups like bees in hives and offered to explain these structural and behavioural traits by some kind of link between cells and the natural environment. He speculated that such an outside stimulus might control some receptive mechanism inside the cells, established by some process involving natural selection or use and disuse. However, he was found to admit that he didn’t know and didn’t really care which way the traits came about, or who proposed which way things worked. What mattered was that selection eliminated the unfit and what he proposed channelled trends.

Ray Lankester was the charismatic Professor of Zoology at University College at this time and observed embryological trends in marine organisms. Horrified at Eimer’s unscientific arguments his own campaign promoting degeneration troubled Weismann because he thought it supported a Lamarckian process: use and disuse were central to Lamarck and disuse led to the degeneration of a character. Weismann expected all organs to be actively maintained by selection that involved the elimination of any substandard parts. He followed Haeckel in promoting the importance of germ cells in the struggle for existence.

In response to Weismann’s neo-Darwinism, Butler wrote: “To state this doctrine is to arouse instinctive loathing: it is my fortunate task to maintain that such a nightmare of waste and death is as baseless as it is repulsive.” Butler spoke without any kind of experience of scientific work and strengthened a tradition of criticism from laymen of the wide world of evolutionary biology. But it made him isolated and vulnerable to criticism himself with rapid rejection by establishment figure such as Lankester and his friends.

Throughout the 1880s in the United States there was popular support for Butler’s views that in turn revived an interest in Lamarck. Leading this new attack on Darwin was Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897), a vertebrate palaeontologist and explorer of geological territory of the Wild West. He rejected Spencer’s notion of “survival of the fittest” and was convinced that Darwin’s natural selection was wrong. Instead species were “conceived by the Creator, according to a plan of his own, according to His pleasure.” th-4

In 1887 Cope published The Origin of the Fittest with a set of arguments strongly supporting Eimer’s ideas that the environment stimulates the cellular processes of evolution. His fossils from different environments would have been directly stimulated to evolve different forms, on straight Lamarckian lines. There was no need for competition or extinction, but there were clear regional and therefore environmental distinctions. Cope also looked for some way that early growth in the embryo might speed up evolutionary change, giving some kind of “terminal addition” to development. Without this impetus, or facility, Cope argued, any new forms would degenerate when environment changed.

It appeared to some observers that Lankester’s campaign to continue supporting Darwin’s ideas about natural selection was backfiring. Maybe evolution really did work through some other process.