33. Tansley and Ecology 1898-1911

By the end of the nineteenth century the whole of evolutionary biology was becalmed. There were no bright ideas of alternative mechanisms and most experiments came to nothing. Overall, there was a serious loss of faith in progress coinciding with talk of the decline of Empire, the fall of whole cultures of different social classes and families and even of some of these habits becoming extinct. Without the aim of eternity or some other utopia, many Edwardians became afraid that much of what they stood for and held so dear, was soon to be at risk. Furthermore, there was no confident group of charismatic scientists to consider the old Victorian thinking about evolution and decide what to hold on to and where progress might be made.

Lankester’s teaching colleagues at University College were having happier times pioneering excursions outside in the environment, especially with the innovations of a young lecturer called Arthur Tansley (1871-1955) who realised just how important the environment was. It was the missing part in the story of how and why each species existed: their unique environment explained the causes and reasons for its adaptation.

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As a junior lecturer in the Botany Department at University College Tansley became a popular figure within the Students’ Union. As its Vice-President in 1898 he often gave casual talks and one was quoted more than the others, The Origin of Death. It began with the simple observation that an Amoeba just splits into two new animals at the end of its life, so nothing ever dies and he pointed to other species that are part of some similarly mutually dependent system. Some in his audience wondered whether they were another manifestation of Jekyll’s split, part of a process that was sometimes creative, even defying death?

In his first formal lectures, Tansley helped out his two biology professors who both had star status as teachers at London’s university. Of course, one was Lankester who often returned to his old college in Gower Street and the other was Tansley’s mentor Professor Francis W. Oliver another environmental botanist, this one most interested in how plants could grow in unstable places like sand dunes. They knew it was going to be decades before the main processes would be understood because plant communities took time to become established, especially on new shingle and many of the processes that were involved weren’t even properly recognised. The length of time needed for complete studies of the natural processes became another reason why this kind of work was overshadowed by the quicker laboratory experiments giving data for the statistics and biometry. The softer ecology wasn’t going to provide a quick fix.


Earlier, Oliver had lectured beside Lankester to large and vociferous audiences of medical students. They were both concerned by the horrible unhealthy conditions in many London streets and they applied their research to look into the biology of the problems, Oliver on the effect of atmospheric coal dust on vegetation and Lankester on water-borne diseases on human health. The work introduced Tansley to look at the effects of salt spray on the plants which grow on sand dunes, shingle beaches and in salt marshes. He studied the interactions between the plants and these extreme environments which played a big part in enabling these formations to build up on the sea coast. They needed constant monitoring over many years so Oliver, Tansley and groups of their students made seasonal measurements on the north coast of Norfolk where the shingle beach system was continually being destroyed by storms and regenerated. They measured changes in geography and meteorology as well as the flora and fauna, making some of the earliest ecological experiments.

It was becoming clear to the young Tansley that the full impact of evolution’s cultural importance spread far from science, to religion, the arts and to politics. But biology was moving further away from the holism and unity that were common in mid-Victorian times. Polymaths like Darwin and Galton were becoming extinct as the twentieth century heralded specialisation and hard-nosed objectivity. In so much of the new research quantitative experiments were given priority.

Not only did they work together at this same time but Ray Lankester and Arthur Tansley were good friends, part of the new middle class following the old romantic tradition but with liberal attitudes. Though they both stuck fundamentally to the guidelines about natural selection laid down in the 1850s by Darwin they went in different directions to find an answer. At the beginning of the twentieth century Tansley lectured on phytogeography at Toynbee Hall, how plants behaved in changing environments. Lankester’s old German friend Haeckel had called these studies “oecology”, a word Tansley was to anglicise later to “ecology”.

This approach to the life sciences was something completely new and set itself aside from the traditional methods of examining specimens once they’d been collected or experimented with in the laboratory. It was more in the tradition of the romantic English naturalists like John Ray and Gilbert White, looking at the balance of nature out in the wild, getting cold and dirty but seeing it all got together, quietly working away at being alive. Studying this new ecology was just as important for understanding life as trying to know something about its inheritance and inner structure.

Oliver and Tansley wanted to bring these three parts of plant evolution together. Because they had to present the subject to critical audiences of medical students they were looking for a good story to liven up their lectures. They saw that changing environments played a major role in changing morphologies of the plants: here were several scenes that any good teacher would relish, let alone these biologists researching the latest advances in geological time, dynamic environments, and large groups of extinct organisms. In London at University College, Lankester had set them a high standard both in research and its teaching. Oliver thought physiology might account for some of the adaptations to the swampy environments that he found in his beloved Norfolk; Tansley linked these to growth in these same constantly changing environments; and one of Oliver’s other students, Marie Stopes, went on to study the same systems back in geological time when the coal measures were being formed in the warm and humid Carboniferous swamp forests. It was integrated science, all on the cutting edge, and the students loved it.

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Tansley was pivotal in yoking the concerns of professional botanists to the activities of naturalist societies in the national survey projects of the British Vegetation Committee that he co-founded in 1904. As the scope of these necessarily collaborative survey activities was broadened to include botanists from outside Britain, Tansley founded the International Phytogeographical Excursion, hosted first by the British botanists and subsequently by the Americans a few years later. To acquaint the non-British scientists with local vegetation, of which they knew virtually nothing, Tansley edited and wrote Types of British Vegetation, the first systematic account of British vegetation, and it immediately found a large home market besides the botanists who had joined that first Excursion.  In 1911 this British Vegetation Committee became the British Ecological Society, the world’s first ecological organization and Tansley was its first president.

Oliver, Tansley and Stopes wanted to link these three parts of plant evolution together. Because they were involved with presenting the subject to critical audiences of medical students they were looking for a good story to liven up their lectures. They saw that changing environments played a major role in changing morphologies of the plants: here were several scenes that any good teacher would relish, let alone these biologists researching the latest advances with geological time, dynamic environments, and large groups of extinct organisms. In London at University College Lankester had set them a high standard both in research and its teaching and these three successors rose to his challenge. Oliver thought physiology might account for some of the adaptations to the swampy environments that he found in his beloved Norfolk, Tansley linked these to growth in these same constantly changing environments and Stopes went on to study the same systems back in geological time when the coal measures were being formed in the warm and humid Carboniferous swamp forests. It was integrated science, all on the cutting edge of scientific knowledge at the time, and the students loved it.

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Stopes moved on with the same work to Manchester and Tansley went from London to a Cambridge lectureship in 1906. By then he was becoming famous for describing different kinds of habitats and their ecology, and infamous for not being able to remember the names of plants when he was out in the field. His ecology was all about a gradual succession to some stable climax for flora and fauna, and it was never placed at the front of scientific advances in evolutionary biology. No-one seemed to care then about adaptation to the environment or climate change or catastrophes like tsunamis or meteorites hitting the earth and causing havoc. Instead, ecology was seen as a tool the Empire could use to produce more food and other resources and Stopes’ studies of coal actually helped find the most productive form of energy readily available at the time.

1909 Tansley wrote to HG Wells with a preview of a lecture he was to give about over-population. “This cannot go on. Man must come to a limit. Then the real science will come in.” He wrote that human numbers were threatening to turn the world into a sort of formicarium or agaricarium, like an old cheese full of mites. Population had to be controlled – atomic motors and land reclamation from the deserts would be insufficient.

More academically involved with their contemporary ecology, Oliver and Tansley began to realise what important work on natural history was already being done out in the English countryside by groups of amateur enthusiasts. There were hundreds of small local societies made up of people who loved the animals and plants living out in the wild and Tansley brought them together and gave them high status as a British Vegetation Committee. In 1911 this became the British Ecological Society, in the same year his little book Types of British Vegetation set an international standard for descriptions of world environmental types. It was an important mission at the time to consider the world’s resources and to organise their management in economic plans of countries and Empires.

35. Ecology in South Africa 1924-1930

After the First World War, power shifted to the newly-confident states of the former European Empires such as South Africa and the USA, and the newly emerging Russian Empire of the Soviet Union.

In Europe most social structures were in tatters, and most people were searching for new meanings to their lives. But with the post-war revival of religious belief, and with no new evidence about evolution, evolutionary biologists were confused and low-key. The daily process of picking up the pieces was excruciatingly painful for ordinary people, who were not much interested in science, especially after the recent displays of science on battlefields all around the world. The mood encouraged biologists to react by developing popular topics about human race, plant breeding, and the control of population growth, all of which led to supporting new kinds of social and political extremism.

The former quiet researchers of biological science found themselves as the drivers of new distractions. They were feeding the minds of social reformers, economists and politicians with their own new agendas of psychology, racism, eugenics and agricultural reform. These were distractions away from the main line of evolutionary mechanisms, studies which had been so dull before the war that no-one really missed afterwards. Darwin’s name was rarely used and interest in evolution fell considerably, seeming to be remote from the task of urgently rebuilding a new western world. Instead, the main order of the day for scientists was to look in more detail at the chemistry and physics of molecules in inanimate objects rather than organic life.

Not all the new advances were in the physical sciences, and some became so involved with public and even political scrutiny that their scientific role got lost. Plant breeding, for example, was to be helped by an Imperial Botanical Conference in 1924, sharing ways to grow better crops and even protect the environment. The conference was held in London at Imperial College and it hosted the biologists as part of the victorious British Empire Exhibition. The colonial governments displayed their national heritages and many reconstructed bits of their most interesting natural environments from ecological surveys.

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There was economic and political pressure encouraging the Empire to grow more food, and leading specialists from around the Empire had been invited together to debate how to do this. With his military reputation, his new political role and his philosophy of holism Jan Smuts was in his element. It was also the first opportunity for Arthur Tansley to meet the great General.

Unsurprisingly, the two men didn’t hit it off. The big Boer soldier and the wiry intellectual cockney had only their love of plants to share, and that quickly became more of a battle than a balanced exchange. All the talk of botanical surveys left Tansley feeling penniless and without any other support while Smuts had money and fame as well as a free travel pass on the railways. Another of Tansley’s competitors, William Bateson, was also in attendance talking about his strange idea of a genetic map for all the plant resources available in the Empire. Just to finish off a bad month for Tansley, he failed to become the leader of the first botanical survey of the entire Empire.

The meeting had useful seminars on the production of rubber and sugar-cane, how to improve the breeding of apples and coconuts and other crop plants. To help improve expertise and communication it was decided to survey the natural plant and animal resources of every country in the Empire, their ecology and their commercial application. But the meeting didn’t help Tansley to improve this knowledge as he had hoped, while Smuts went away celebrating the lead that South Africa offered with results of their own six years survey of vegetational resources. The meeting had also forced Tansley onto the defensive when it came to decide which country should run the whole project, with South Africa so well ahead in expertise and plans for the future. There was even the slogan ‘holism and evolution’ to promote Smuts’ ecological ambitions, though no-one was aware then what that might involve.

Towards the end of the meeting Smuts invited all the participants to attend another conference that he was hosting in Cape Town two years later, the first overseas meeting of the British Association. It stimulated Smuts to write Holism and Evolution giving an overview of global ecology, “a recognition of the fact that all organisms feel the force and moulding effect of their environment as a whole.” He owed a debt to the American poet Walt Whitman for many of his ideas that nature was at harmony: it “is at bottom a friendly universe, in which organised tolerant co-existance is the rule and destructive warfare the exception.” Smuts then suggested that each animal and plant cell served as a balanced entity with their organism, co-operating with and serving the whole system. Smuts sent a copy of his new book to Winston Churchill who “peered with awe” at the philosophy of holism and ironically in return mailed a copy of his own book The World Crisis.

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But 1924 brought an apparently sudden change in direction for Smuts. He had been South Africa’s Prime Minister since 1919 and his party lost the 1924 general election. That gave him time to share the excitement growing within the large group of animal and plant ecologists in the country. There was also time for him to read the latest controversial theory from a German geologist, Alfred Wegener who had come up with the then outrageous suggestion that continents moved apart, their lighter rocks drifting over the heavier mantle beneath. He argued that this very slow movement caused a widening of the Atlantic Ocean because it meant that Africa was moving away from South America and Europe from North America. It was a model that explained the modern distribution of land masses and of the many groups of plants and animals that spread among them. There were also clear connections of geological strata from one side of the Atlantic to the other, but most people thought that Wegener’s idea was too far-fetched to be serious.

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This model of moving continents explained a lot of what many South African biologists had been thinking for some time, that their flora comprised species invading from the north and others, such as the Protea family, that were more like plants of Australia and South America. Wegener was suggesting that these regions as well as India had been part of a single continent, since called Gondwanaland, which began splitting up around two hundred million years ago. The migrations appealed to Smuts as well as his colleagues and he soon followed with an idea about human migrations into Africa. “Our Bushmen are nothing but living fossils whose ‘contemporaries’ disappeared from Europe many thousands of years ago. The little pigmy populations that hide in the tropical and sub-tropical forests are the representatives of the long-vanished human past.”


It was one of the first signs in public that Smuts was linking his ideas of plant ecology and holism with the origins of particular human races. Something had pushed his thinking about ecology out of the cosy philosophy of the academic’s arm-chair into a mainstream political policy of race. Not only was he going to use one to justify the other, but he was going to use the honourable reputations of particular scientists to help demonstrate theory behind a new racial policy. First he gathered support from the local scientists and then he used the British Association, which conveniently met in Cape Town in 1929, and the 1930 International Botanical Congress in Cambridge, to gather international support. It was there that Tansley observed with his own brand of understatement that the ideas were “certainly beset with many difficulties which practical ecologists would have to consider and discuss.”

At the Cape Town meeting Smuts had lined up an amazing collection of supporters to help him get across to his electorate and the rest of the world some of his ideas about the migration of human races. The by-then 70 year-old physiologist JS Haldane, Jack’s father, and King George V, were unexpected supporters, while large numbers of South African scientists were loudly approving. Diplomatically on the edge was Julian Huxley who declared “I cannot follow you all the way” while more decisively HG Wells said that black people were “being deprived of educational opportunity and political expression.”

Smuts was a shrewd political operator and he saw to it that the holism and eugenics issues were debated in public at the conference. Although the two ideas appeared at first to be very different, maybe there was something they had in common, and the South African leaders of the Empire botanical surveys wanted to emphasise that. So Smuts was confident that his argument would go down well with the Cape audience and insisted there should be a vociferous opposition to his campaign. Of course, it was so vociferous that the argument would persuade even more people to switch sides to his own cause. Smuts asked the newly appointed zoology professor at Cape Town University, Lancelot Hogben, to speak against his holistic applications. Hogben had just left Lankester’s old chair of zoology at University College London and was known to hold open house to militant black student leaders. He based his attack on Jack Haldane’s recent mathematical proof that natural selection pushes evolution forward gradually. Not only was Hogben highly numerate but he was a practiced experimenter with the toad Xenopus.

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This was a re-emergence of the old familiar argument about quality and quantity, the subjective and the objective. It was like what had come between Ray and Newton, Lankester and Galton, and now it was between Smuts and Hogben. But this time, there was a poisoned tag attached to the softer holistic side. At first it seemed their ideas of holism and ecology were certainly compatible and maybe very similar. But while Tansley was a professional academic and a full-time thinker, it seemed that Smuts had other motives. Tansley felt badly let down, deserted by one with whom he had agreed so much even though they had never worked closely. They had never really known one another’s minds.

Hogben was beginning to understand this position in which he found himself and he let rip. The holistic eugenicists should “be concerned with sterilising the instruments of research before undertaking surgical operations on the body politic.” Smuts replied that Hogben was merely a friend of Bertrand Russell. “Russell and I do not see eye to eye on philosophy. He is an atomist while I am a holist”. Hogben stuck it out in South Africa for another year and then returned to London where he found a job at the London School of Economics.

38. Eugenics Gets Serious 1925-1936

After that Great War, Europe was left stunned more than ever before. It was a major social catastrophe and it caused many people to change their lives dramatically. One who reacted with deep insight was the ecologist Arthur Tansley, apparently secure in academia after his recent election to The Royal Society. But still troubled by the war and the haunting dream, he decided to resign his lectureship at Cambridge and move to Vienna, with his family, for intensive psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud.

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That experience itself also had a profound impact on Tansley and he returned with new ideas for both psychology and ecology: “We must never conceal from ourselves that our concepts are creations of the human mind which we impose on the facts of nature.” Tansley was concerned at the high numbers of “feeble-minded” incarcerated in asylums to stop them contributing to national degeneracy by breeding. He had been particularly horrified by one young boy being detained for stealing a postal order and committed to a mental institution. Juvenile courts regularly institutionalised their charges for long periods and called them “morally defective”. He had a strong memory of Bloomsbury’s working class life and his rescue by the Great Ormond Street Working Men’s College.


Meanwhile, Tansley was working away quietly on gathering data from a few selected dynamic environments, listing the local movements of plant communities and checking changes in weather and species frequency. This went on to his idea of a complete “ecosystem” in the early 1920s though he didn’t coin the word until 1935. He was joining bits of his Vienna experiences of human community with his knowledge of plant communities, how separate individuals with independent powers of existence, lived together through different stages of growth and reproduction. Like Smuts’ holism, this eventually meant taking the basic laws of physics and chemistry into the realms of basic biology and then to the complexity of the human mind. They were adventures into the unknown that involved all of science and more beyond.

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One of Tansley’s acquaintances was Ronald Fisher, desperate to become his own master after the war. He rejected the suggestion of his hero Pearson that they worked together at University College and quickly found the right opportunity at Rothamsted Experimental Station. Population genetics, experimental genetics and the systematic description of species were topics that needed to be brought together, and Fisher attempted to join Darwin’s natural selection with Mendel’s genetic ratios, helped by the pre-war realisation that gene particles lined up on the chromosomes. Fisher considered all the mathematical and statistical support for that model and showed for the first time that selection was the only way in which the process could be explained. Evolution couldn’t just be driven from inside the organisms: it needed a push from outside in the environment, one that led to the kind of small-scale continuous variability that Mendel’s recombinations explained so well. That explanation also meant that selection happened on a huge scale, between every organism in all places at all times, persistently testing the way forward and each time choosing the best option

Fisher’s mathematical insight drew comparisons between this style of evolution and the second law of thermodynamics. “Both are properties of populations, or aggregates, true irrespective of the units which compose them; both are statistical laws; each requires the constant increase of a measurable quantity, in the one case the order of a physical system, and in the other the fitness …. of a biological population.” Malthus’s warnings a hundred years before were always at the back of his mind, and his mission after the war was to do something about that.

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This challenge led him to go too far and he spoiled his reputation in a book called The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. In the spirit of the time, and doing himself no long-lasting favours, Fisher used the last part of the book for a long justification of the eugenics practices that he favoured so strongly. “The deductions respecting Man are strictly inseparable from the more general chapters.” He believed that industrial society was in decline due to “social promotion of the relatively infertile” and that the higher reproductive rate of less worthy classes will swamp the superior classes. His chapters carried statistical evidence for that view and it continued to attract support throughout the decade.

Two years after Fisher’s work was published, JBS Haldane came along with The Causes of Evolution, an easier book to read in which all the mathematics was relegated to the appendix. Like Fisher’s story, Haldane’s showed the power of natural selection and he began in characteristic mood: “I can write of natural selection with authority because I am one of the three people who know most about its mathematical theory.” Presumably the other two were Ronald Fisher and Sewall Wright. So the study of population genetics began, the mathematics of patterns of change coming from large numbers of individuals living together in the same community. Many biologists didn’t understand the mathematics, but a main reason for the intellectual movement they had accidentally created was to bridge these differences.

Although Haldane strongly rejected Lamarckian trends he did leave open the space for some evolution to happen by means other than natural selection. Hybridisation and some large mutations could make new species and Haldane urged that other processes may explain even more. He had plenty of evidence that “degeneration is a far commoner phenomenon than progress” and is usually hard to spot because it leads to extinction. From the fossil record he noticed “at any given evolutionary level we generally find one or two lines leading up to it, and dozens leading down”.

This kind of division within the biological community, between the rigid fixers and the more artistic flexers, was to continue for many years and was going to get much wider before anyone spotted the difficulties. But both sides needed to gain more knowledge about themselves before they could share their similarities and find out that way just how evolution worked. The two World Wars also kept scientists on these separate tracks, rigid armaments relied on a strong force of hard-nosed mathematicians, physicists and chemists. The more vague environmental sciences such as the new ecology and palaeontology didn’t stand much of a chance. Tansley and Huxley would have to wait.

Eugenics gave a very different outlook for all life on the planet and Fisher was hell-bent on exploiting biology in that single direction. He likened natural selection to the working of a casino where the odds were set for its own success. In his game the losers were equivalent to an extinct species, and the far right were the winners, supporting the casino owner who was only too pleased to let science make up the rules. Never one for philosophy or history, Fisher believed there was little new “that would not stand if the world had been created in 4004BC”.

Already a government committee had been set up to recommend how to sterilise the ‘feeble-minded’ in England and Wales where a quarter of a million people were classified as ‘mental defectives’ and suggestions had been made that they were suitable candidates for voluntary sterilisation. Some members of the committee thought that “Broadly speaking stupid people will produce stupid children” though Haldane and Hogben explained there was no certainty about that and that environmental factors were also likely to be a cause. The committee rejected compulsory sterilisation though even Haldane agreed with their conclusions: “Biologists may legitimately demand that a proportion of mental defectives should be prevented from breeding”.

Another popular debate between the two world wars was stimulated by Arthur Keith’s proposition that humans would become extinct without competition, and that meant war was necessary. Keith was an anatomist and anthropologist and wrote articles in the popular press advocating physical struggle and conflict as a vital biological characteristic.

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In 1927 he told the British Association that cultural differences provide a mental barrier to social groups, suggesting that territorial behavior is a strong force in human evolution. He saw scientific and political merit in his idea of an ‘in-group’ and the less favoured ‘out-group’.

That view had been expressed earlier by a Prussian General, Friedrich von Bernhardi, in 1912, and several biologists agreed that it might be a possibility. Herbert Spencer had promoted the idea with his phrase “the survival of the fittest” and many in Europe during the 1920s and 30s believed that war played a role in this kind of biological process. They believed that the individuals and communities that survived were fitter in an evolutionary sense than those who died. This argument got tied up with some of the views of the eugenicists, inevitable consequences of those frightened times.

A forceful opponent of Keith was Joseph Needham, an influential member of the Cambridge left. He deplored the way that phrases such as “the struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest” had become “the stock-in-trade of the man-in-the-street”, arguing that they were from old Victorian attitudes, then taken in by the public as part of their justification for joining-up to the armed forces. Keith continued with the idea that it was simply nature’s way of controlling populations, but the left-wing scientists would have none of that and instead sprang on to the offensive with their positive eugenics programme. Julian Huxley aimed for “the virtual elimination of the few lowest and most degenerate types” and he argued that biology should be the chief tool for rendering social politics.

The Huxley brothers called for some different thinking as part of a strategy towards the best interests of the planet earth and the human race. It involved a universal rhythm within earthly life, something they had been talking about for the last decade. As premier intellectuals they felt a responsibility to see to it that anything like the tragedy of the First World War did not happen again and that knowledge of the common features for all biodiversity might stop humanity being dragged down into the same mud. And from their family tradition, their grandfather’s smile beaming down on them constantly, Aldous and Julian had plenty more expected of them. Even those sceptical of Darwin’s ideas, broad minded men like Lawrence and Shaw, had their influence on Julian Huxley. More than most other scientists he was the cautious centrist, enjoying the foundations of Smuts’ holism very much within the fairness and functionalism of the English tradition. So prepared, Huxley went on to give another lecture that year in which once again he considered some of these wider aspects of his world view for our own species.

He called the lecture Eugenics and Society and repeated his call for a new Social Science to find ways to improve the living standards in the poorer parts of human communities, promote policies to favour more middle class babies and to discourage large families for the poor. But despite these hopes and concerns for a joined-up future it was hard in the 1930s to see any exciting new trends developing in biology and the evolution of life. Things were on hold, digesting the full impact of genetics, natural selection, cellular biochemistry and ecology as they became mixed together, waiting for their union to be approved and their significance understood. Krebs advances in biochemistry set an example against this pessimism that appealed to the Huxleys.

Meanwhile, even the attention of evolutionary biologists was directed to ways of trying to avoid war with the racist Nazis.  The League of Nations asked if “biology can end war?”, naïve in the view that war served some biological purpose. They thought that biologists still argued for some sort of “struggle for existence”, especially those who read Sir Arthur Keith’s regular articles in The Daily Mail, ostensibly about his subject, anthropology. He delighted his readers with his belief that Piltdown Man was a valid record of British supremacy and that it was important for humans to struggle to survive. Julian Huxley and many others tried to explain that there was no such scientific explanation, either of Piltdown Man or Nazi supremacy, but Keith held his ground against these scientists who he dismissed as left-wing extremists. It was a point well-made when Communist Party members such as the biologist Joseph Needham spoke publicly against Keith’s interpretations. “These men have deserted their heroes like Herbert Spencer and even Thomas Huxley” Keith argued, reminding his readers that in biology, both groups as well as individuals compete to be part of a healthy community: surely that validated war as part of the process of social evolution? Even Keith’s bitter enemy Haldane had urged in a lecture “that a proportion of mental defectives should be prevented from breeding”, while Sigmund Freud commented that violence was a character of the whole animal kingdom “from which men have no right to exclude themselves.”

These were still sensitive topics in those years when the Soviet experiment was just beginning and many biologists hoped that population might be controlled by eugenics. Some eugenicists even saw method in the madness of the First War that the weak were overtaken by the strong, but the large number of officers who died weakened their argument. By 1936 the support for voluntary sterilization of the less valuable members of society was on the wane and Pip Blacker, the Secretary of the Royal Zoological Society, thought it was all “a biological crisis unprecedented in the history of life”.