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.

th-6 Darwin 1809-1882       th-2 Wallace 1823-1913

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.


22. Wallace Returns 1862

“Paradise-bird plumes might recover their now forgotten value as ornaments for the hats of our fair countrywomen.”

th-6  (Commons Getty Collection)

It was Spring-time in 1862 and the Saturday Review was appealing to the fashion-conscious ladies of Victorian England with this welcome for Alfred Wallace (1823-1913), back home from Singapore with just two surviving Birds of Paradise that he’d carefully brought with him to England.

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The professional collector of tropical animals and plants had been away for five years and felt very uncertain about the reception he was going to receive. The Saturday Review was not interested in the real source of his reticence, that scientific presentation given in his name and Charles Darwin’s announcing their theory of natural selection. It had been given to the Linnean Society in his absence and without his knowledge four years earlier. Now that Wallace was in England he was expecting to be challenged directly and he was afraid of the peoples’ reactions. In particular, how were Darwin and his all-powerful friends going to treat him?

Like the author of the great geological map William Smith fifty years before, Wallace had come up the hard way, five years as an apprentice surveyor stimulating his interest in the environment, its geology and biodiversity. As a professional collector, Wallace was skilled at observing and distinguishing biological features in the animals and plants. He was particularly proud of his observations of the location of species and their geographical range in south-east Asia where he identified two regions separated by what became known as the Wallace Line.

th    The Wallace Line

This divided the region into two distinct parts, one in which species closely related to those of Australia are common, and one in which they are largely of Asian origin. It was an area of great diversity where so much seemed to be crammed into each zone, using all the natural resources to their limit. That knowledge gave him sufficient know-how to react to Malthus’ famous essay on how a species coped with its particular sustainable limits. It made Wallace even more confident that individuals had to compete for resources such as food, space and light, as well as mates.

In his frequent lectures about evolution Wallace used a metaphor from the industrial revolution to help describe natural selection: “The action of this principle is exactly like that of the centrifugal governor of the steam engine, which checks and corrects any irregularities almost before they become evident; and in like manner no unbalanced deficiency in the animal kingdom can ever reach any conspicuous magnitude, because it would make itself felt at the very first step, by rendering existence difficult and extinction almost sure soon to follow.” Those traits that survived different levels and kinds of catastrophe were inherited throughout the population and became adapted by his proposed mechanism of natural selection.

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From his field station in the Far East he had sent Charles Lyell the whole of his draft manuscript for that presentation, asking if he would read through it first. He had sent it to Darwin first, hoping to share these latest reactions to that great range of biodiversity in the tropical rain forests of South East Asia. He was close to the end of two long stretches in the tropics, the first from 1848 to 1852 in the Amazon with his old friend from Leicester in the English Midlands Henry Bates and then from 1854 in SE Asia. Altogether they had collected 125,000 specimens, more than a thousand of which were new species.

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The great explorer arrived back home with his colourful birds and more professional credibility than anyone could wish for. It had been a hard life in the tropics but preferable to the stresses of life in London, especially with all the public fuss that was made over his coloured birds in the zoo. The collections from explorations of tropical biodiversity like his were essential in understanding nature in all its general beauty and in its origin in particular. This provided the stimulus for many others at home, taxonomists, experimentalists and philosophers who were desperately searching for evidence of evolution by natural selection. Little did they know that it was going to take both subjective and objective scientific work over another century before the idea was gradually proven, but it was adventurous naturalists like Wallace, Huxley, Hooker and Darwin who started the work, and they had all travelled as global explorers when they were young men.

th-3   250px-Batesplate_ArM Bates collected insects

Then it was 1862 and Wallace was 39 years old and unmarried, without friends or a job. After five years living in tropical jungle he suddenly found himself in the middle of London, where he had never lived and where he was confronted with the demands of highly sophisticated social habits. He was also entering the company of a formidable group of leading scientists, all very much aware that he had made them look very foolish. They had bullied him into publishing with Darwin and that had forced him to conform to their plan and allow their friend the credit. It could have been argued they were taking from him Wallace’s own right for public acclaim and his ownership of one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time.

Wallace was surprised at his own celebrity status and at how he was so much sought after as a dinner guest, unaware that one reason may have been to quell the guilt of his hosts and to help them find out where they stood. They also wanted to get to know him and gain from his experience and scientific expertise. He certainly wanted to make good friends in this lonely city, and he needed help from them, because he had arrived without plans for his future or even much money. Within a few months he had visited Huxley, Hooker, Lyell, Spencer and Darwin, only to learn how very difficult it was for them all to understand, let alone agree, with what Wallace and Darwin thought out.

It was soon clear to Wallace that these four men had worked out different ideas about evolution to suit their own particular needs. This was the last thing that he had expected and it took some time for him to work out the landscape of this particular London society: which of them had which outlook on the theory, and how this was determined by their different interests. Hooker was the Director of a botanical garden, Huxley a professor of zoology, Lyell of geology, all with different purposes for their observations and interpretations. At least, Wallace was relieved that none of them used the quantitative methods of experimental analysis that Francis Galton and others were beginning to think were necessary for other objective purposes.

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.

th-1     th-3      th  A Wallace / R Strachey / J Hooker

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.

th-3Richard Owen    220px-Herbert_SpencerHerbert Spencer

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!”