11. The Lunar Society 1760-1790

Making regular visits from the Midlands to London and Slaughter’s Coffee House society was the potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795; and see Chapter 9 below). There he usually met up with his friends  Richard Edgeworth (1744-1817: below left), machine inventor and founder of the Royal Irish Academy, and

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Matthew Boulton (1728-1809: above, centre)), steam engine manufacturer and coin maker. These men came from the Black Country, the Staffordshire potteries, as did the big-hearted doctor and polymath Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802; above right). But Darwin hated London, and Slaughter’s in particular, so he avoided all parts of the city except The Royal Society.

This prominent group of entrepreneurs, Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men,  had new ideas about the meaning of life and they also started new industries in the English Midlands. They met more regularly in Birmingham, at every full moon, necessary to see their own separate ways home. Doing the rounds of his large medical practice acquainted Darwin with the landscape around Litchfield and Derby, allowing him to add to his rich knowledge of animals and plants. In the 1760s a canal company was making Harecastle Tunnel just north of Stoke on Trent to link Merseyside to Birmingham.th

Joseph Wedgwood regularly brought along fossils from the tunnel excavations to meetings of the Lunar Society, hoping that the doctor would be able to identify them: things like the tusks from ice-age mammoths and fern-like leaves from the underlying coal-measures. But these were difficult specimens for anyone to recognize, as they were undescribed and unknown from any living fauna and flora.

One whose work had influenced the Lunar Men was the Paris salonist and writer Denis Diderot (1713-1784) who had written several years before and was only just becoming known in 1770s England. In 1749 Diderot published a novel called A Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See about a blind scientist and an Anglican parson, in which the scientist saw nothing but swirling particles in an empty void. Only those animals survived whose “mechanism was not defective and who were able to support themselves” while the others perished. “Look at me” cried the scientist, “I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ, while the other has not?” He concluded to the parson: “My good friend, confess your ignorance.” This was natural selection in all but name and as a consequence Diderot was imprisoned in Vincennes for writing such an atheist tract.

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In the 1770s Diderot continued to tease the authorities and published The System of Nature which brought together the same arguments which he had discussed many times with his own group of friends, a supposedly atheistic group that met regularly in Rue Royale (above): “Nature … has always been self-existant; it is in her bosom that everything is operated; she is an immense laboratory.” Nevertheless Diderot told a friend: “I believe in God but I live very well with the atheists.” The friend replied: “we are forced to believe that there is in the universe, a substance of different nature, an active being to which movement must be attributed as to the First Cause, a Motor.”  Once again, argument involving ignorance and fear led to violence.

Another strong influence to the Lunar men was Linnaeus, whose work had inspired Erasmus Darwin to think about evolution, or what they then called “transmutation”. Many of their contemporaries sought an explanation of how one species changed into another very similar one, an adaptation to a slightly different kind of life. Erasmus Darwin started to write essays about their ideas, and added a lot of his own, but they were not to be published until 1794. He had not been idle, however, as nine years earlier he published his own classification of 1,444 plants in the 950 page System of Vegetables. In this he acknowledged the help of Joseph Banks and Dr Johnson, but the name of one botanist he knew was conspicuous by its absence: William Withering. They had had a big row.


Withering’s membership of the Lunar Society had always been controversial for he was not one for a good night out with the boys, and that was in part what those evenings were about. Instead Withering was stubborn, jealous and always over-serious. His credentials for joining the group were perfect, as he had compiled the best flora of British plants, nicely named Botanical Arrangements. He had also advised Joseph Banks at the new Kew Botanical Gardens as well as Buffon at the Paris Jardin de Plants. It wasn’t his botany that Darwin disliked, it was his sanctimonious prudery, not to be expected of one eighteenth century doctor by another. For the author’s fear of guiding his readers’ minds into bad territory, the flora had “entirely omitted Linnaeus’ sexual distinctions” and had toned down some of the words the author found offensive. So, for example, instead of “stamen” Withering had used “chive” and instead of “pistil” there was “pointal”.

Erasmus Darwin’s first biographer was his much more down-to-earth neighbour Anna Seward (1742-1809)


who had a mysterious love-hate relationship with her subject. Excitedly she told of when he was in his thirties and went with friends for a picnic by the river Trent they reached “a high state of vinous exhilaration”. Without warning, Erasmus jumped into the river and swam across to Nottinghamshire where a crowd had gathered to encourage him on this dangerous stunt. They were thanked with a flamboyant speech about hot topics of the day, the power of the industrial revolution and keeping in good health. Equally vividly she discussed his stammer and his warts and more tactfully, his women. Polly was his first wife and their son Robert became Charles Darwin’s father. th-8

After Polly’s death Erasmus eventually married Elizabeth. Their son Francis Galton was to become an important scientist in this saga.

Even in his thirties Erasmus Darwin’s fame as a thinker had spread into mainland Europe and in 1766 a philosopher from Geneva, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) visited him in Derbyshire where they went to Dovedale with David Hume. Rousseau’s novel Emile, about a woman for whom kindness was an extension of self-love, had just been published. The men enjoyed the walk, talking together about whether the conflicts in science and religion might provide a refuge from their narcissism. Tellingly, Rousseau admitted being unsure how to survive in societies where ambitions were corrupted. His novel embedded a message to listen to the metaphors of nature and not just to the directness of reason, a lesson the three men must have enacted as they walked through Dovedale.

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It was a difficult argument for Erasmus to adjudicate, and it must have been hard for him to stop the other two fighting. There was a common and popular argument, then and now, that science was too abstract, removed from feeling, experience and consciousness, difficult for many to connect to directly and even remotely. This made science divisive because so many wanted to understand it, but in vain. It was of the head and not of the heart, and heart was a more central factor in life for many people.

This problem did not exist for most of the early scientists because religion still knit the strands of science together, and most of the Lunar Men followed that path. One such was Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), a Presbyterian minister who spent time teaching the chemistry he loved: “I bless God that I was born a dissenter, not manacled by the chains of so debasing a system as that of the Church of England, and that I was not educated at Oxford or Cambridge”. He was as passionate about God as these established men he was escaping but his religion was based on a similar acceptance of science   hat had inspired Newton. Their faith was strengthened by the realization that it was driven by the forces which were being revealed by science.

Another well-known member of the Lunar Society was the artist Joseph Wright whose famous group paintings of science and industry in action used a theatrical style of focusing light to the main action on the stage.

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He also joined in this fashion of overseas exploration and in 1774 went to his beloved Naples through Paris. His French friends were anticipating a new political order, excited to challenge the rigid central control and to begin living for a new world of art and science. Later, just as Wright arrived in Naples, the volcano erupted, as though to show that Europe was moving out of its quiet decades for a new series of catastrophes in the years ahead.

12. Natural History Gets Scientific 1775-1790

Normal English life in these times was warmly reported by Gilbert White (1720-1793) in his everyday correspondence about nature in the countryside, published as a little book in 1788 called The Natural History of Selborne. It is still in print and is said to have sold more copies than almost any other English language publication except The Bible and Shakespeare. The letters were to his friend the naturalist Thomas Pennant and a Welsh judge Daines Barrington and showed his strong love for the Hampshire countryside and for Selborne in particular.

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The essays have an easy conversational style and have come to be some of the most popular writings in the English language. This is because they are so common-place and ordinary while being tasteful and of their time. They talk of the weather, the time of planting and harvesting, and most caringly his observations of bird behaviour, their songs and the timing of their migration.

Although he was devoted to observing nature and recording what many then thought to be the obscure detail of what he saw, he lived away from other naturalists, sharing his ideas only by writing and using guide-books such as John Ray’s floras. But then, as well as being a relaxed and talented writer he became well-known locally for his innovative experiments. To find out whether bees could hear, he shouted at them through a trumpet. th-10

He tried to measure the speed of sound by timing echoes, and he often dissected animals to understand their life style and diet. To check whether cuckoos were structurally adapted to brood in nests of other species he exchanged them with their close relative the nightjar. Unfortunately, all these three series of experiments gave negative results.

From time to time Gilbert White strayed across county boundaries to make comparisons of the environment and the flora and fauna that had become attached to it. In the 1780s he wrote of one such pilgrimage to the “chain of majestic mountains”, now known more modestly as the South Downs, in Sussex.

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White wrote to Barrington with very enlightened questioning “was there ever a time when these immense masses of calcarious matter were thrown into fermentation by some adventitious moisture; were raised and leavened in to such shapes by some plastic power; and so made to swell and heave their broad backs into the sky so much above the less animated clay of the wild below”?

White became amused to hear of some of the so-called enlightened scientists being trapped in old traditions, for some still believed in old wives’ tales. Linnaeus, for example, believed that ‘in winter the swallows slept on the bottom of the lake’ and in1767 White responded: “A Swedish naturalist is so much persuaded of the fact that he talks in his calendar of Flora, as familiarly of the swallow’s going under water in the beginning of September, as he would of his poultry going to roost a little before sunset. Now it is likely that these poor little birds (which perhaps had not been hatched but a few weeks) should, at that late season of the year, and from so midland a county, attempt a voyage to Goree or Senegai, almost as far as the equator.”

Looking back at those times reveals many such explorations of natural history being on the gentler side of the Enlightenment, in contrast to many other attitudes to reform. The hard side was exemplified by attitudes such as David Hume’s cold distrust of human intentions. It was this practice of reducing complex issues to one single issue that characterised this distinctly British, some would say Scottish, outlook on life. A popular little story was told at the time and illustrated the harsher attitude. One night in 1759 Hume (1711-1776) was walking home across the bog left by draining the North Loch for the new Princes Street Gardens.

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He slipped and fell into the swamp and couldn’t get up. An old lady found him and recognized him with anger: “David Hume the Atheist!” she called out. Not wishing to give way from her powerful position she offered a bargain: “ye shall na get out o’ that till ye become a Christian yousell; and repeat the Lord’s prayer and the Belief.” Hume immediately agreed and the old lady held out her hand and pulled him up. This was what Hume’s enlightened spirit was about – a cold acceptance of both sides of the situation, followed by the desire to get out of adversity with reasonable seriousness. It was ignoble but it got results.

It was in this spirit that Hume’s Dialogues was published in 1779 emphasising the importance of opposites in a living system. For anything to exist there had to be a situation in which it did not exist, so that any evidence in favour had to be balanced by the evidence against. If the old lady in Princes Street Gardens was against, the members of the Oyster Club were certainly for the use of new ways and values.

burns-03 The club was popular with artists as well as a few of the new scientists who listened in awe of Robbie Burns’ poems “chiefly in the Scottish dialect.”

Although he didn’t drink whisky, James Hutton (1726-1797) a land-owning farmer and former doctor, did like oysters and so with the chemist Joseph Black and the economist and pin manufacturer Adam Smith, he started an Oyster Club. This met for lunch through the 1780s, and was attended by Edinburgh intellectuals as well as visiting thinkers. These included James Watt and Benjamin Franklin and, meeting in a different tavern every week, since the meetings were often a bit too sought after, they would convene to discuss art, architecture, philosophy, politics, geology and economics, each giving a brief update on their special projects which were “informal and amusing despite their great learning”. Hume was not a true member of the club for he was too set in the age of reason. Instead, the members were more liberal thinkers, good at explaining what had already changed, in contrast to those who were meeting then in Paris who called for changes to happen.

A Scottish landowner James Hutton began to travel around the British Isles a great deal and made observations of the landscape and the few rocks that were exposed by the new industrial excavations. Soon he developed a passion for the science that he realized lay behind these earthly structures and he started to read about some of the work coming out of mainland Europe in the 1770s. As we shall see, twenty years later he used this knowledge to make his own geotheory, well within the tradition of Hume’s empiricism.

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Not to be outdone by his fellow Scots in the Oyster Club the right-wing Hume often travelled south to see his friends, and joined Daniel Malthus when Rousseau was in town from Paris. These three were good friends and strong stalwarts of rigid functional living. They got on so well together that their discussions, often in ear-shot of Daniel’s son Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), usually went on to the early hours of the morning. Deeply influenced by what he had heard, the young man became a mathematician at Cambridge, where he followed the trend of his father’s early morning discussions and took holy orders when he was thirty years old. A year later, 1798, he published the first version of his famous essay, Principles of Population, in which he compared the geometric increase of a species’ population with the linear increase of its subsistence.   th-12

In that essay he wrote: “evil exists in the world not to create despair, but activity” and he seems to have preached even stronger support for society’s divisions. These were his solutions to the still-unsolved problem he identified, and led many to advocate human population control a century later. Before then, however, the Malthus essay was to have crucial influence on two major scientific figures who became active when Malthus was old, Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin.

More and more, life was being understood as one great machine, in which forward movements of nature and human society were seen to be made at every slight opportunity, rewarding curiosity and neglecting complacency. Economists like Malthus wanted action, Adam Smith wanted division of labour in the factories. Biologists like Linnaeus proposed working classification, the Lunar Men praised working machines and transmutation. These and others agreed that the way to understand living systems was first to work out its order.

13. Geotheories and Revolution 1750-1790

It was no coincidence that the next major advances in understanding life science happened in France where so much was being challenged at the end of the eighteenth century. Witty Voltaire was another to believe there was one big system of life and he summed it up by saying that if God didn’t exist there was a need to invent Him. In the 1780s it was one of Voltaire’s friends, Georges-Louis Compte de Buffon (1707-1788), who had the courage to offer the brave and revolutionary suggestion that some species were alive before humans.


Buffon had nearly lost out on his family inheritance and was forced to leave his mathematics studies at the University of Angers when he was in his early twenties.  A few years later he turned up in Paris where he worked as a timber specialist and in his early thirties he started to work at the Jardin des Plantes. After ten years experience studying plants in Paris, Buffon began his own serial Histoire Naturelle in 1749 and finished in 1789! That was also the year that Denis Diderot began  L’Encyclopedie based on his three perspectives of memory, reason and imagination.

Setting things out like this, all at around the same time, made the natural order of nature stand out like a sore thumb. Where earlier there was nothing but chaos, Buffon’s next job was to look back into geological time to see which species lived before humans.

The obvious place to look for any available clues was in a compilation of the grand theories of the earth, and what had gone before needed to be brought up to date with the new sense of order. Such information had started to be available a hundred years before when Thomas Burnet made his own disclosures about the state of the earth from his imaginative interpretations from the bible. Now, in the 1740s, Buffon set about putting together a lot of new data that he found from real observations, and tried to make grand theories that could explain the way the earth works. He thought the time was right to explain fossils, sediments and formations like the Alps and Fingal’s cave, all as one single system. There was plenty of exploration going on around him, not only of nature on a world scale, but of the earth’s features on a local one. Close by, for example, the Swiss explorer Horace-Benedict de Saussure was climbing Mont Blanc.

Moreover, Buffon raised new issues about transmutation: he was interested in finding out the scale of geological time, he saw limits to the geographical distribution of species and communities, and he saw themes in body structures.

th-6 By 1760 he ran both the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle  and the Jardin du Roi, powerful jobs that helped him set the theme for the topical genre of geotheories, earthly explanations of environmental change that were necessary to account for the existence of dynamic life and all biology. This was associated with his Histoire Naturelle, which was eventually to become a 35 volume encyclopaedia published serially throughout Buffon’s career, and which also set the foundations for many of the biological sciences such as the study of biogeography.

Most authors of the geotheories also knew one another and the integration of their thoughts was important though never organised. They all recognized that the earth and its living systems were constantly changing, different bits forming at different rates. Some change was imperceptible or even static while at other times it moved forwards catastrophically and with no clear cause. Every theory considered physical and biological factors, and covered all the mountains and plains, earthquakes and volcanoes, and how these things influenced living and fossil creatures. Suppositions that were yet to be proved, such as the Flood and the miracles, were based on known natural processes. And all this complexity continued from the past, through the present to the future.

Geotheory 1

Buffon began to write about his ideas for the first geotheory in 1749 without a shred of evidence. But to be fair, all he intended was to stimulate debate and in this he succeeded handsomely. He had been the Director of the Jardin du Roi and the Museum long enough to wield considerable authority, so his announcement of a new theory of life was a loud warning shot across the bow of the church and encouraged other geologists to offer their own slightly different ideas. The geotheory started at the very beginning when the earth had been at its hottest, just formed as a molten sphere. Since then it was constantly cooling, going through long periods of gentle change, steady states, each in dynamic equilibrium to give life through constant smooth processes of erosion and deposition.

Questions about the history of the earth inevitably led to further questions about the history of life. What caused growth? What organised the internal processes of living organisms and the reproduction of new generations? How do the chemicals that are involved interact? Buffon suggested there was a “moule interieur” similar to the natural cycles that kept something like a forest community going.


What grew inside one organism was taken as food by another or became broken up into its former constituents after death only to be recycled in another form. The process could be a self-controlled materialist way of continuing to produce more of the same. There was even talk that if something changed, say the temperature, then the cycle might change to another rhythm, using this other combination of the ingredients. They were saying that within a living system there may be something that programmed life forwards, a driving force like the mimicry that the Cambridge naturalist Martin Lister (1639-1712) had called a “plastick virtue” a century before.

Geotheory 2

The geologist and aristocrat Jean Andre De Luc, the son in a Swiss family of outdoor enthusiasts, had talked a lot with Buffon and others about Buffon’s geotheory and they encouraged him to propose an alternative with a topical twist.

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When he was working as science advisor to Queen Charlotte at Windsor Castle in 1778, he explained his idea in letters that he wrote regularly as part of his job and they were collected and published together.

He argued that granite underlay all things on the earth as the Primary Rock, and on that lay the softer sediments of Secondary Rocks which included the fossils, sea and soil. The formation of the Primary Rock type changed into a phase of the Secondary ones by a catastrophic event that he called Revolutionary, which was as sudden and significant as the political events that were happening in France. De Luc was able to view the changes from the safety of Windsor and Geneva, in July 1789 quickly travelling through Paris where he could properly appreciate the meaning of fear.

Geotheory 3

The same theme came to dominate a third geotheory, that of the Prussian explorer Peter Pallas. He had travelled across the Urals into greater Siberia in the 1770s, paid to search for minerals and came back with exciting ideas about the origin of that vast landmass.

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Like de Luc, Pallas’s had a royal commissioner, the Empress Catherine who wanted to assess the value of her kingdom. Also like de Luc, Pallas favoured a primary granitic layer of underlying rocks, the core of the Urals, then metamorphic schist without fossils and finally the fossiliferous sediments from beneath an old sea that was revealed by falling sea level.

Geotheory 4

De Luc’s friend Horace-Benedict de Saussure (1740-1799) had proposed this fourth geotheory from his explorations of the Alps around the same time. He had just written the first account of the Alpine range seen from the summit of Mont Blanc and very tentatively opened the possibility that these massive structures, extending for hundreds of kilometers, took many more hundreds of years to form than the simple story of the Flood allowed.


De Luc was the only one of these explorers still explaining this change in sea level in terms of the Flood though he was without much field experience. For the first time the alpinists were able to see the scale of the physical structures and found them daunting. They were also the first to think of the kind of processes and events necessary to give rise to the upper sedimentary rocks and the apparently disorganized surface deposits, with bits of animals and plants and other debris strewn around on the surface and on the side of mountains. This was a catastrophe on a huge scale, lasting thousands of years and making the bible stories appear to be relatively modest. It was a good story and it spread across Europe like the waves across the very seas they were hypothesizing.

250px-Descent_from_Mont-Blanc_in_1787  1787 Descent from Mont Blanc Teylers Museum Haarlem

Meanwhile in Switzerland, Saussure was putting the other geotheorists to shame with a much more spectacular demonstration of how to understand the earth. He joined with a group of 20 men climbing Mont Blanc in 1787, roped together crossing crevasses and glaciers, running short of breath as they dug in for the night, afraid of freezing to death while they slept more than 3km above sea level: “No living being was to be seen there, no trace of vegetation; it is a realm of cold and silence.”  But the geologist was most terrified by the beauty and the excitement knowing that what they saw confirmed his earlier drawings of the mountain chains that he had worked out himself from his lake-side dwelling. The scale and remoteness of that view from near the top of the mountain was one of the great experiences of his life and it influenced the way he saw the world. Geology had become a passion, the centre of any realistic belief about life with its emphasis on other factors such as silence, deep time, catastrophe, space and the cold. All of these senses hit him there, up the mountain, in his face.


 Geotheory 5

Pleased about such a positive response to his theorising 25 years earlier, Buffon decided to change his mind about the first geotheory. With the benefit both of experience and advancing knowledge, though some considered it is was better to say he had “adapted” his mind, he began thinking about the role of catastrophic change in nature as well as in French politics. Revolution was in the air, starting with the 1776 financial crisis, food prices escalating and the high cost of the American Civil War for the French forces. The authority of the church and the nobility were too much for the people, and they rose up.

Buffon had been involved with the discovery of the fossils from the Paris region, in particular from the secondary sediments at the top of the chalk and at the base of the softer and younger clays which lay above. The differences appeared to be great and Buffon was persuaded that a rare catastrophe could account for it. He took that event further to suggest seven epochs through the full history of the earth, each separated by one of these catastrophic events. He also expected that the earth was much older than previously thought since it would take millions of years for sufficient erosion to happen.

Throughout this time Buffon was close to the king and the government, and that meant he was less afraid of the theologians in the church and the Sorbonne than they were of him. But of course he was a clever diplomat and was well aware that anything he proposed, even from a lot of this idle theorising, had better go down well with the conservative French establishment. So having got away with extravagant progress in his implied explanation of life, he retracted any sign of revolutionary tendencies with a vigorous defense of the immutability of species. For him, all that talk of transmutation was not supported with any evidence and its supporters couldn’t be trusted with their new-fangled ideas.

But one other thing did worry him genuinely. The old enigma of the age of the earth still eluded them all and it was tempting to find a more objective way than Ussher’s arithmetic derived from biblical chronologies. So in 1776 Buffon looked at the rates of cooling for each planet in the solar system, based on their different sizes. He worked out that the earth was 93,291 years old, time enough, he argued, for shales to be laid down first and then the limestones and clays above. But it was armchair deductive reasoning and though the church gave no strong criticism – most people in France were preoccupied with political worries – Buffon’s younger field geologist colleagues did ridicule the naivity of his approach.

Geotheory 6

Meanwhile the English biologists were idling in the pleasures of nights out under the full moon and reading the observations of Gilbert White. But up in Scotland, James Hutton gave a lecture in 1785 to the new Royal Society of Edinburgh about his own geotheory, following the style of the genre set by Buffon, Saussure and the other Europeans. His theory of the earth reviewed the “laws observable in the composition, dissolution and restoration of land upon the globe.” He spoke of how sediments formed at the bottom of the sea and that marine animals were included in that debris. Much later that rock was itself eroded or weathered away in a cyclic routine. The resulting particles were once again laid down in new layers at different angles to what remained of the shifted older strata underneath. Hutton considered it all to have happened very slowly over much longer intervals of time than anyone had ever considered.

Although it was many years later (the opinion was still apt) the novelist RL Stevenson saw Henry Raeburn’s 1790 portrait of Hutton and was heard to say:  “the geologist, in quakerish raiment, looks altogether trim and narrow, as if he cared more about fossils than young ladies.” But Hutton would have been flattered by his fellow Scot’s comment about his priorities and Raeburn would have been pleased to have hit the right note with his subject. Hutton took his responsibilities seriously, primarily as a businessman and a farmer. His friends in these non-scientific worlds encouraged him to travel around in Scotland and England to look at farming techniques, soils and the underlying rocks. He found that they were all liable to change in cycles, being part of the earth as an active working system, seeing the soil as part of a cyclic process of growth and burial, seeing living things in that same continuous theme. It was a scheme not unlike the cyclical changes visualized by Buffon in Paris, but Hutton was more interested in the connection between the practical and topical unity of all these things. That brought him support from members of the Scottish Enlightenment and they were pleased to have Hutton’s originality in their group, pleased to be taken away from the objectivity of Scottish Presbyterianism. But at the same time they had to realize that the new geological observations were going to challenge one of their church’s important assumptions. Hutton’s geotheory meant that the earth would have to be millions of years old, not just a few thousand.

Revolution in Hoxton

Maybe it was because of the war in France and the catastrophe of the Revolution that led to England’s isolation, but the London naturalists and scientists interested in transmutation were complacent in their observations and debate, let alone backward in their creativity. One such palaeontologist was James Parkinson, a professional apothecary in cockney Hoxton and amateur fossil enthusiast and collector, still living with a clear trust in the doctrine of Genesis. He escaped from attending to the horrors of urban poverty by going off into the countryside looking for fossils in the open landscapes of Somerset and Lancashire.

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Then he was content to relax into the small scale of his collections and made drawings and reconstructions of the pre-historic landscapes in traditional biblical settings with an ark and a rainbow, as though there had been no new thoughts for centuries. His 1804 book was called Organic Remains of a Former World and had drawings of frightening storms in the biblical flood, throwing up ammonites and snails high onto the beaches. The book gave dreary accounts of coal measure plants interpreted as relics of the biblical flood in the “antediluvian world”. Some said “the author hasn’t wandered further than the sound of Bow Bells.”

In stark contrast, the same year, Ernst von Schlotheim in Gothingen published another account of very similar coal measure plants from Germany and interpreted them as ferns from the tropics: “Enigmatic Documents of a Distinctive Earlier Creation”. Schlotheim didn’t even rule out extinction to explain their presence deep in the limestone strata, something that Parkinson would see as likely to attract a charge of sedition, rebelling against the authority of the state. For Parkinson, Bacon’s influence was ignored, Steno and Ray were just collectors and Burnet was plain wrong. Parkinson would have agreed with Carlyle’s words, written five years after he died in 1824 “Men have lost their belief in the invisible”. Not for Parkinson David Hume’s functional acceptance of both extremes. Yet even Hume would have found it difficult to compromise between the cockney and the German.

Like the swallows, the English had become pre-occupied with moving from the countryside. After living on the land they went to work in the factories. Employees and employers alike, they all believed in God. Of those who cared about such things, just a few dissenters were naturalists, more convinced that fossils were organic and the Flood was a natural event. So for these people of the Enlightenment nature was a resource principally designed for the benefit of humans.  th-1  (www.dur.ac.uk)

These were sentiments most famously taken into the nineteenth century by William Paley in his Natural Theology (1802) arguing that everything is intended for the advantage of man, the consequences of a single system of grand design.

14. Revolution in France – Fear in England 1794-1797

 May 8th 1794 was a bad day for 36 years old Marie-Anne Paulze. First her father, then her husband, walked up the scaffold in Place de la Concorde to be guillotined.

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They had upset the revolutionaries by defending the old attitudes and ways of conducting their tax-collecting business. More important had been the unfortunate status of Marie-Anne’s husband, Antoine Lavoisier.


He was Europe’s leading chemist and a prominent aristocrat. No-one seemed too sure what he had done wrong but in the end that didn’t really matter; he was just on the wrong side, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In England, that same month, the first volume of Zoonomia or the laws of organic life, which Erasmus Darwin had been working on for several years, was eventually published. The 586 quarto pages weighed 2 kilos and contained 200,000 words. th-9

It had very useful data about the kinds of illnesses that medical practitioners could expect to examine through their daily rounds, an invaluable daily guidebook. But the devil was in the detail, hidden at the end as Chapter 39, and unnoticed for almost a year, was Erasmus Darwin’s flawed but poignant case for transmutation.

This was the first and final time that he wrote about his theory in any detail though he often spoke about it in private. That was because it was just a hunch, a clever idea without any evidence and he knew it lacked credibility until some evidence was found. The theory was that all life was descended from a single source, a simple group of cells. Furthermore, he thought there may be a link between this early group of cells and the cluster of cells found in living embryos. It was a lot for most people to absorb and understand as the first full account of evolution.

But there was serious trouble for some in Erasmus Darwin’s circle of enlightened thinkers. There was suspicion that their activities might lead to a French style Reign of Terror in England and the government took the rumours seriously enough to institute imprisonment without trial. In 1794, ten of these likely revolutionaries were arrested and thrown into the Tower of London.


Meanwhile, members of the Lunar Society felt highly vulnerable, for as reformers they were associated with Napoleon and thus seen as potential traitors. Already, Priestley had migrated to Pennsylvania, James Watts’ son had gone into hiding after associating with some of the Paris revolutionaries and Erasmus Darwin’s writing made him a target of suspicion as well. These were not good times for challenging the church or the state: it would have been ironic for Erasmus Darwin to have been transported to Botany Bay but there was a distinct possibility of this at the time, especially during the trial of the ten prisoners in the Tower.

When the trial was over the press and then the public turned their attention to Chapter 39 of Zoonomia, Darwin’s ideas of how animals had evolved. They were still very sketchy but they were wisely chosen reasons to explain how animals changed to become new species, ideas firmly based on his lifetime’s experience as a doctor and as an astute observer of nature. He may have discussed transmutation at the Lunar Society meetings but there are no detailed accounts of how his thoughts developed. There’s no telling either whether he ever read Diderot’s 1749 novel Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See, the only other concise writing about evolution and adaptation to the environment that came before Zoonomia’s Chapter 39.

In Darwin’s 55 pages were several examples of variation within single species, how animal and plant varieties changed by controlled breeding, and how some freshly acquired features were transmitted from one generation to another as newly stable characters. One of his most sophisticated suggestions was posed as a very good question that his grandson was soon going to answer:  “Would it be too bold to imagine – that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament? – with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end?” In promoting his ideas about how living species change Chapter 39 clearly described Erasmus Darwin’s ideas about sexual selection and gave examples of adaptation to changing environments.

These developments near the end of the eighteenth century came together as another clear event in the history of how we understood the evolution of life systems. By then, geologists had models of the earth and how it changed, naturalists had indexed the flora and fauna of temperate climates and were exploring beyond. There were still countless philosophical and political problems with biblical interpretation and how that sat beside scientific results. The Flood, the age of the earth and living things, the length of geological time scales, whether or not species became extinct and how they originated: all these questions still went unanswered. The arguments and fierce debates continued, scientific discoveries increased and political and social changes exacerbated the ferment: revolutionary times, indeed.

Paris was a slightly less dangerous place inJanuary 1796, though memories of the reign of terror from two years before were still felt on the streets and revolution was still in the air. But the cafes were places where plenty of new and stimulating thoughts were being tossed about, made all the more exciting by the danger of what might happen with the new authorities. At least the work of the Enlightenment thinkers now had a good chance to break through some of the assumptions that came with a strict interpretation of Genesis. The new observations were being treated scientifically, the collections from expeditions curated, results from experiments logged. But this was still driven, directly and indirectly, by fear.

One of the new ideas was based on a remarkable piece of scientific evidence about life’s history, evidence to show that species could become extinct. George Cuvier (1769-1832) lectured that month at the National Institute of Sciences and Arts On the Species of Living and Fossil Elephants. It was a triumphant inaugural lecture for the 27 year old zoologist about the latest discoveries of more mammoth bones from rock outcrops near Paris and he gave such a dramatic conclusion that immediately he became a well-known figure in post-revolutionary France. Some people thought he went too far, in danger eventually of becoming one of the kind whom the terror had targetted.

In his lecture Cuvier challenged the work of Buffon, the earlier Director of the Museum who had died eight years before under the old regime. Cuvier had examined several new specimens and was able to make better reconstructions, explaining his outrageous suggestion that the Paris mammoth was a distinct fossils species and not, as Buffon always insisted, one whose fossil bones were those of an undiscovered living species.

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If the mammoth were a living species it would have been discovered by now from somewhere with a Siberian climate. Since this had not happened, it meant that extinction was part of the evolutionary process and that the old environments of the former world had also disappeared. It meant that back in deep time, before the existence of humans, the world had been a very different sort of place.

It was a fitting time to be talking about catastrophe and extinction. As if to offer themselves to the sacrifice, the old Jardin du Roi and the Cabinet du Roi, institutions implicitly covering the study of living and dead organisms, had just been reconstituted as the Museum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle. The staff were looking forward to more productive studies of natural history after years of just putting labels on the specimens and trying different ways of sorting them.

The experts at the museum led the way for most other Parisians to be cautiously optimistic that new technology and exploration would improve their lives. The scientists at the museum didn’t have to wait long, for soon they were to get more excitement than any museum had ever experienced. Cuvier’s lecture marked the start of several decades during which their little group was leading the world into important new ways of understanding biodiversity and its transmutation, how the meaning of life changed through many different scales of time.

Cuvier was born near Stuttgart in a small Lutherian francophone enclave. At the start of the revolution, when he was twenty years old, he had lived in Normandy working as tutor to a Protestant family, work which gave him sufficient time for his passionate interest in natural history, especially the anatomy of mammals. He saw some of the mob violence in Caen and had the good sense to keep a low profile. Eager for higher things, he took advantage of the optimistic times and in 1795 he found himself a post at the new National Museum. There, he was just the kind of bright young man from a lower class that the revolution attracted to academic work. So he was easily recruited and worked well alongside another young man who was in charge of the mammals, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844). They quickly became close friends, and shared living accommodation in the grounds of the museum.

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The elephant lecture had made Cuvier well-known, partly through his beautiful and detailed reconstructions of large mammal skeletons from the newly discovered fossils. They were on display in the museum with fossil bones that had also been discovered from the Netherlands, Ohio and Siberia. By the end of 1797, with some help from Geoffroy he had assembled five species, and to what looked very much like a modern elephant they added a mammoth, a giant sloth that Cuvier named Megatherium,


a bear and a rhino, all carefully described anatomically and all showing different features from any of the modern relatives that were then known. Cuvier suspected they were all extinct and had lived just before something like a major environmental event, or “revolution” as he called it: one of Buffon’s catastrophes. But he couldn’t be completely sure that the animals weren’t still roaming around in some unexplored corner of the world, so he was very careful about what he said in public. More positively, he looked to the geologists for evidence of any events which could explain how the extinctions may have led to the modern species. The geotheory models that De Luc and Pallas had proposed a few years before, in 1778, gave him support to fit his work to their theory that one or more revolutionary events caused the extinctions.

Cuvier offered the most topical explanation as the driver of evolutionary change: revolution. It was with that level of real excitement that he described the environmental events that his geological observations suggested would change a species’ life-style and maybe even make it extinct. Working very carefully, putting together the fossil bones of large mammals being collected from the younger clays of the Paris basin and from the chalk around Maastricht, the function of each part was always at the centre of Cuvier’s mind. This was because he was primarily an anatomist with great insight into the beauty and use of the structures he observed. There was a big difference between the mammals from the clays and the few small ones just below the chalk. Their limbs suggested very different gait and the jaws tackled food with other movements and pressures. It made him think there had been a great natural catastrophe between the two strata and he tentatively suggested that an age of reptiles had preceeded the age of mammals.

15. Lamarck springs back 1794-1809

Little did Cuvier know where this work with mammals was going to lead. For during those early days in the 1790s, when they were getting to know one another and their way round the collections in their new departments, a much older museum man was trying out his secretly rehearsed theory of evolution, but this time on some other unfamiliar collections. He had just been ousted from his old work by Geoffroy and so he was trying out his ideas on what he was soon to name the Invertebrata.  He was the fifty year old Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) and in the re-organisation of the museum after the revolution he had been promoted from an obscure job in the herbarium to be Professor of Insects and Worms. He was ranked equally with the twenty one year old Geoffroy who was in charge of the much more favoured and higher ranking mammals, and Lamarck’s jealousy meant that their relationship was troubled.

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Over the next decade these three men worked hard to clarify their thinking about the evolution of life and their many differences stimulated one another academically, socially and psychologically. But even then their ideas were far from clear or stable. The men and the things they had to say were so different in so many ways that it was difficult to work out whether life in the museum during those years was great fun or sheer horror. Lamarck’s theory was far too old-fashioned for Cuvier’s exact anatomy, which exhibited a logic more associated with the physics of Laplace and others. Lamarck also had a different idea of the time scale involved in life’s history, finding biblical time scales quite acceptable; Cuvier and the geotheorists wanted much more time for their reconstructions of events and the intervening quiet periods.

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Georges Cuvier                                                        Lamarck                                                                      th-1  Geoffroy

Of the arguments between the three that are recorded, some were constructive, some trivial. Their different motives were either political or intellectual, and their relationships both loving and hating. Above all there was uncertainty and that brought out elements of distrust. Geoffroy was the only one to look at the development of species, and he seemed to agree with Lamarck about evolutionary change. That started unpleasant arguments with his friend Cuvier and their relationship began to sour. Jean-Baptiste-Pierre-Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck, for that was his full name, had held traditional beliefs that all species were fixed entities. That was until his inaugural lecture on May 11th 1800 when he announced his entirely new theory of evolution. He argued that there were two forces at work to enable evolution by acquisition of new characters. One was a causal flow from environment to organism and another the continuous and spontaneous generation of new life from the chemical constituents. It linked the environment and an animal’s or plant’s physiology; it was how characters were acquired. No wonder the new generation of objective scientists disowned Lamarck so strongly. In 1802 Lamarck published his System of Invertebrate Animals and later, in 1809, he presented his famous evolutionary theory in a bigger book entitled Zoological Philosophy. There he gave examples of the environmental adaptations for which he became well-known, that the giraffe lived “in places where the soil is nearly always barren” and this meant that its neck was “lengthened to such a degree that the giraffe … attains a height of six metres.”

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Lamarck’s second major statement concerned the hierarchical level at which the main evolutionary change took place. The main groups were phyla or perhaps families and were the permanent steps up the ladder on which he suggested evolution happened.

th-4 The 14 rungs of the animal ladder – straight not hierarchical.

Only the frills were changed at the species level leading to diversification but to no major new ladder, or side-branch. Lamarck thought that most evolution happened on these side branches of the big tree, on the steps of the ladder which comprised species and genera. Lamarck also made the unusual suggestion that species lacked a clear identity and merged into one another. This was why he used the old ladder of life analogy for large groups of organisms, lineages merging from one species to another, driven by quick environmental changes, not needing anything to become extinct, just for slightly different species to acquire new ways of living as circumstances required. It was more like an escalator than a ladder, with new families or phyla constantly riding up higher to more complex levels. If species and individuals changed then it was on one of these moving steps. Because there was no evidence for any modification to a species, Cuvier rejected Lamarck’s theory of gradual change just as he rejected the idea of evolution generally. Species did not originate, they were created by God as stable designs and once on earth they became victims of the changing environment. Cuvier assumed that climate change was caused by the regular natural revolutions, and the first reaction of a species to stress was to migrate. If that was still intolerable then the species would die out and become extinct, leaving space for a more tolerant form to take its place. It was an elegant and simple idea and it fitted a lot of the evidence. But the origins remained elusive and new species kept springing up. There was no clear explanation of how they came to be.


After the terror, there were some people in French, German and English academic societies who were exhausted, tired of change and pleased to rest a little. They found Lamarck’s suggestion for slow and gradual changes timely, fitting in well with the idea of a steady-state earth on which the boundaries of land and sea stayed the same. It meant that the earth did not have a history, except for the Flood. But this did not apply to species because Lamarck saw them constantly merging, one to the other, up his ladder. In fact, they were in a constant state of flux and never really existed as stable entities. One consequence of this was that geological time-scales had no importance; for him and “for nature, time is nothing”. These ideas were not as silly as they first sounded, though it wasn’t clear whether Lamarck had been quietly working them out through the years or whether they came suddenly, by chance. Lamarck did have a reputation for short preparation before he reached a conclusion in his work, as had happened over the failure of his method of weather predicting. “I am not submitting an opinion, but announcing a fact. I am indicating an order of things that anyone can verify through observation.”  Napoleon himself had refused a copy of Philosophie zoologique thinking it was Lamarck’s book about weather forecasting. That was not all, for Lamarck’s reputation was seriously damaged by the criticisms leveled at his science by Cuvier and Geoffroy. In France these doubts were based on the topical scientific values of time, extinction, catastrophic events, and how species related to one another in nature. In Germany, by contrast the reaction was more philosophical. The critics thought that Lamarck was being too objective without much evidence, and was not thinking about any grand scheme for the whole animal and plant kingdoms. In Britain the objections to Lamarck took into account his lack of evidence, and how he seemed to ignore Genesis altogether. He had nothing significant to say about the Flood and all the topical concern about how to explain the large mammal fossils from the Superficial Gravels. As we shall see it was not until after the Origin of Species was published that Lamarck’s views became popular with some biologists, and then as an alternative to natural selection. Strong arguments and opinion usually attract strong reactions. From then on to the end of his life Lamarck’s thin reputation declined and he became isolated, with no friends, no money and bad health. Cuvier’s reputation grew stronger and his work on birds and mammals was published from the 1800s onwards. The German writer and polymath Johann Goethe (1749-1832) became a regular visitor to the Paris museum and though he was proudly representative of the Duchy of Weimar he became fond of airing his views in the less hostile salons of post-revolutionary Paris. He took the opposite line to Cuvier’s objective focus and thought that for far too long it was the physical sciences that had moved on, while the understanding of life’s transmutation (or “evolution” as it was becoming known) was left very much in limbo. In Paris of the early eighteen hundreds it was the turn of the life sciences to impress their own formality and they benefited from this dose of French style administered by a German romantic. th-3    1566-645749

The youngest of the three Paris naturalists, Etienne Geoffroy Saint- Hilaire was a romantic much influenced by the Naturphilosophie of Goethe and his fellow naturalists, looking for general patterns of morphology rather than the particular detail of each species that interested Cuvier. He was a formalist and came up with a ground plan that the Germans called an archetype. He also disagreed with Lamarck’s ladder of life with its single determination to move upwards to greater complexity, with man at the top. Geoffroy looked the other way as well, at embryos, and inside the bodies at organs where he hoped to find some internal clue to the direction of development.

16. With God, Is Priestley Safe? 1789-1802

The storming of the Bastille in July 1789 was celebrated by the English literati with more than a hint of envy. William Blake wrote: “The fire is falling! Look up! Look up! O citizens of London, enlarge thy countenance.”

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote: “No fetter vile the mud shall show, and eloquence shall fearless know.” William Wordsworth supported with his feet and went to Paris. It was a reaction that wasn’t shared by very many and when Joseph Priestley preached support for the progress across the Channel, the Birmingham mob burnt down his house, forcing him to go on the run. But most English men and women had hardly realized there had been a revolution going on just across the English Channel.th-1

Priestley was one who thought deeply about life’s meaning and its process. He had been taught his chemistry in the English provinces during the 1750s when some of the spirits of alchemy were still around yet the Enlightenment spread far enough to have reached the school where he taught and preached. Caught with his allegiances astride these different paradigms, Priestley settled his reputation on the strength of science in general and experimentation in particular, for this could purify God’s ingredients for a better synthesis of reality. He held that his chemistry laboratory produced results with God’s blessing. This was in contrast to Lavoisier’s different view from across the English Channel that scientific experiments just revealed another dimension of nature, from a deeper level for sure, but just adding detail, not a new and different kind of world.

Priestley had uncovered a very different level of knowledge from anything that had been experienced before. One of his experiments measured how long a candle stayed alight inside a bell jar. When he put a mouse inside the same closed system, the flame lasted less time, but with a plant instead the flame burnt longer. The respiring mouse took up more oxygen leaving less for the flame while the green leaves of the plant photosynthesized to produce more oxygen. Within his lifetime Priestley had come a long way, from his teachers’ alchemy which had failed to make any precious elements, to the first outline of cellular biochemistry.

Priestley went away to live the rest of his life in North America to escape the uncertainty in England, where the rigours of the State and the control of the Church were making things so intolerable for him. In England he felt that the monarchy and its hereditary succession prevented him and others from extending the human mission, begun by studying the bible and now being extended by scientific experimentation. It meant that he was fighting the English, where many people questioned the existence of God and others the value of science. The French had been freed of those constraints and they could use science freely. So for Priestley, if this were not the case in England, then he would try America: at least they wouldn’t burn his house down.

Another to envy the French was Coleridge, who like Priestley, had found inspiration from Erasmus Darwin.

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Coleridge and Wordsworth published Lyrical Ballads in 1798, just after the political trouble with Zoonomia from which Darwin never really recovered his earlier reputation. Lyrical Ballads contains some powerful poems including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written with a rhythm and story-telling style so familiar in Erasmus Darwin’s poems that it could have been his work. But this 1798 collection marked a new age, the start of the Romantic movement, with shorter and more natural writing. It was to leave precise narrative to the scientists so the poets could get on with what they felt inside themselves. Darwin’s poetry was very eighteenth century, over-formal and very well- mannered. Indeed, from then on Erasmus Darwin really was left behind by Wordsworth and the other romantic poets. His work came from his head while theirs came from their hearts: science and the arts were moving away from one another.

In 1801 the poet Robert Southey wrote to Coleridge saying that: “experimental philosophy always deadens the feelings; and these men who botanise upon their mothers’ graves may retort and say that cherished feelings deaden our usefulness.”


Southey was convinced that science and art were different ways to approach life and attracted different sensibilities, different personalities.

The common response to this was celebrated the following year by Sir Humphrey Davy, whose lectures at the Royal Institution had gained an unsurpassed notoriety.

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The lectures guided Coleridge and Wordsworth to where poetry and art were leading. They were all looking at a scientific revolution effecting the “impressions which we habitually receive” and setting a new level of perception and understanding to life. It was not only thoughts that Coleridge enjoyed sharing for some have suggested that he found Banks, still President of the Royal Society, to be “a reliable source of new exotic and experimental drugs such as Indian hemp, ‘Bang’ and cannabis.”

As a foreword to the third version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Coleridge quoted the brave Cambridge revolutionary Thomas Burnet from 1692: “I can easily believe .. the image of a greater and better world; lest the intellect, habituated to the trivia of daily life, may contract itself too much, and wholly sink into trifles. But at the same time we must be vigilant for truth, and maintain proportion, that we may distinguish certain from uncertain, day from night.”

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The impact of the violence in France during the revolution was considerable and there was real fear that it would spread across Europe. For many it was a time to reflect and withdraw from revolutionary thoughts, to leave science to the technocrats with their chemistry and electricity. In England there was even a small religious revival, one of whose reflective thinkers was yet another man from East Anglia. William Paley (1743-1805) was born in Peterborough, studied at Christ’s College Cambridge


and became Archdeacon at cathedrals in Durham, Lincoln and Carlisle. In Natural Theology, published in 1802, Paley used a memorable metaphor: as a watch needed a maker so did life. It explained how, when all the different parts of the watch were put together properly, they achieved much more than when they were separate or put together wrongly. It depended on a designer to orchestrate the parts. Paley then argued that the organs and tissues of a living organism, or even the individual components of an ecosystem, only worked when they were together in an active system.

Paley’s book was a great success and he became a well-known national figure. There was support for his explanation of adaptation by God’s design for it appeared to be an antidote to the extremists, and extremism was not popular in Britain especially just a few years after the French revolution. The English were well-aware that Napoleon was on the rampage. Paley wanted to connect the physical environment of nature to a functional design provided by God, but he, also, had no evidence, let alone suggestions of how experiments were to be performed to obtain any. Instead, all he had were the same old examples of static skeletons and buried bones. He was looking backwards.

th-2   h_davy_lHumphry Davy

Despite that impasse, the competitive scientists Faraday and Davy, representing the authority of the Royal Society, gave Paley public support, though Davy may have thought differently in private: they both knew the issue was a powerful political tool as well as a philosophical minefield. They were both physical scientists and it was up to the biologists to find the evidence for the origin of plant and animal structures. On the other hand, there were plenty of well-known artists who wanted to make links with science and who had put God, or more importantly the institution of the church, to one side.

17. Making Maps 1798-1840

On mainland Europe a budding Prussian surveyor called Alexander Humboldt (1769-1859) was desperate to explore some of the tropical forests in South America. The Bishop of Derry, Lord Bristol, had invited him to join a 1798 expedition up the Nile from Alexandria and so an enthusiastic Humboldt left home to join the crew. He went through Paris and to his surprise found that most of the people that he expected to be travelling with had vanished. The place was in turmoil because Napoleon had just entered Egypt and had taken most of Humboldt’s friends with him. They comprised 160 of the best scholars and scientists in France, including most of the natural scientists who had deserted Lord Bristol’s expedition for Napoleon. It meant that Humboldt had to cancel his plans, though with Lord Bristol involved, it would have been difficult for any crew to leave from France in any case.

Instead, the elderly Admiral Bourgainville (1729-1811), the first French navigator to sail round the world, invited Humboldt to be ship’s naturalist on another expedition, a five year circum-navigation.

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That trip also had to be abandoned because an imminent war with Austria was taking all the French navy’s money. Agitated with these frustrating obstacles Humboldt decided to go as a paying passenger with another of Bourgainville’s frustrated recruits, a naturalist called Aime Bonpland, 25 years old. The two men were so enthusiastic and yet short of money that they walked across the border into Spain and in May 1799 set off for Tenerife and Havana aboard the Pizarro.

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Humboldt – self portrait       Humboldt and Bonpland at Orinoco    Aime Bonpland

They were to be away from 1799 to 1804, hard yet productive years during which they saw natural catastrophes, rather than the international political disputes of the sort they were used to. They also saw human tragedies, with the first to happen shortly after leaving Tenerife. Their overcrowded ship entered the tropics and endured night-time temperatures of 36 degrees. With appalling sanitary conditions and bad diet it was not surprising that typhoid became an epidemic and several crew and passengers died, while others became delirious in the cramped stink. Unable to go as far as Havana, the Pizarro made port in the Orinoco Delta where, typical of the two explorers’ luck on this journey, it took days to find an anchorage. Eventually thankful for the chance to leave the ship after the horrible six week voyage, the unexpected destination gave good opportunities for their work, one of the most unexplored species-rich parts of the world.

Weighed down with their collections of animals and plants from the Orinoco Delta they went on at the turn of the century to Caracas, which then had only 40,000 inhabitants and was about to be devastated by the earthquake of 1812. All the while, their observations and their stimulating conversations set them thinking about how and why particular species inhabit particular regions. They collected animals and plants from tropical rain forests, from the great river plains of the Llanos and from the shores of lakes and the sea. On their journey they talked of migration, climatic ranges, restricted distribution, the strange species found only on some islands, and even the observation that closely related species often appeared together in these rich habitats. This reminded them of the talk of transmutation that they had heard in the Paris salons, memories that seemed so far away in culture as well as distance. And throughout, fear of the dangers they had avoided was at the front of their minds.

They returned to Paris in 1804 with their formidable baggage of 60,000 specimens of plants and animals and plans to work together to classify and write up the details of their discoveries. Humboldt’s first book was an Essay on Plant Geography, published in 1805, the first of 30 books in a series on their South America expedition. The complete work was not to be finished for another 30 years, with volumes on the botany, zoology, astronomy, meteorology and geology. They were the first comprehensive accounts of the natural history of a whole continent and were invaluable introductions and guides for future travelers like Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin.

Humboldt was more a surveyor than a biologist and so he measured how climate affects human activities as well as plant distribution. He expected botanists to go beyond the mere classification of plants and consider their whole welfare and geography and illustrated this in his book. A panoramic Tableau Physique showed what would be found at different elevations along the slopes of Mount Chimborazo in the Andes. He surveyed the elevation at which there is no perpetual snow, the distance at which one can see mountains from the sea, what crops can be cultivated and what animals might be found at various points.


The bad luck which Humboldt and Bonpland suffered on their journey to South America continued in Paris. Bonpland may have been brilliant in the field but he was inaccurate and unreliable at his desk, where the work was difficult in another sort of way. There was no help from the experience of others and many of the specimens were completely unknown. Even their structures were hard to examine without detailed dissection and examination, and with tens of thousands of such new species the piles of disorganized specimens must have been daunting. Bonpland didn’t know where to start, he delayed, made mistakes and fell behind the deadlines they had agreed, and because Humboldt was paying for it all from his own money, there were disagreements.

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Humboldt – the current, and –                       – the statue outside his university in Berlin

For Bonpland there was also the distraction of post-revolutionary Paris. The five year expedition had made him famous, and soon he was asked to create a flower garden at the Empress Josephine’s country house at Malmaison. Josephine divorced Napoleon in 1810 and the good-looking and worldly Bonpland became her confidante until she died in 1814 at the age of 51. At this, Bonpland announced that he had stopped working on the South America collection altogether. He had been beckoned by his wanderlust to return to the Americas and there he had an eventful and hard life until he died in 1858 at the age of 85. For the last 38 years of his life he received a pension from the French Government and lived in a mud hut on the pampas in Uruguay, surrounded by “the society of my beloved plants”.

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Meanwhile, Humboldt published all thirty volumes of the South American expedition, at a time when there were many other brave explorers of world biodiversity. These were mostly by European explorers and scientists, doubling up as surveys for expanding Empires. Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, Huxley’s to Australia aboard HMS Rattlesnake from 1846-1850,

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The Beagle and Charles Darwin                      HMS Rattlesnake and Thomas Huxley

Hooker’s explorations in Van Dieman’s Land, as Tasmania was called, on HMS Erebus from 1839-1843, were just the best known of many others.

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HMS Erebus                                                 and Joseph Hooker


Inevitably a shared experience of sailing round the world brought these three men close together, having experienced the same exceptional feelings that were so hard to express verbally or in writing. Formality was the first convention that they ignored between themselves and a strong sense of trust and implicit understanding coloured their relationships and the important science they shared. Hooker’s letter to Darwin from Kerguelen’s Land, or Desolation Island as the French navigator Yves Kerguelen first called it, described the island’s unique cabbage, Pringlea antiscorbutica. It was only found there “on a spot upwards of 1,000 miles from any land where fresh vegetables can be obtained” and the sailors used it to help prevent scurvy. And Darwin’s response to Hooker’s excited account of this species was the famous admission: “I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable”.

Hooker went on to stay in Tasmania for three months from May 1840 and his report on that work, Flora Tasmaniae (1853–59), lists 150 new species. He was taken round the island by the chief gaoler Ronald Gunn, who had a passion for plants and who became an important collaborator with Hooker. Back home in 1846, for example, Hooker wrote to ask for specimens of a rare member of the family he was researching. “My dear Gunn you must sprawl on your hallowed belly on the top of the mountains and pick little things out of the ground for I still want analogies [to the genus Forstera] which your mountains must produce.”

Gunn (small)       TasHistory-header-image-sl        Thylacine

A more straightforward scientific project, one no less significant, had just been started on-shore at home in England by a mining surveyor called William Smith (1769-1839) and resulted in the publication of the first geological map in 1815. While being employed as a surveyor to build the canals in newly industrialized parts of England, he had an unequalled experience of the geology from the rock exposures being cut through the hills. He used the fossils which he found to be restricted to one particular bed, or perhaps a particular assemblage, to give it an identity. He was concerned with the sequence of these beds, how they always outcropped in a particular order, and the fossils were diagnostically useful. That was what Smith wanted from his fossils – he was a surveyor and map maker, not a biologist or environmentalist.

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Like many working-class heroes, Smith also suffered through bad luck, made worse by not having any support from friends or societies of the ruling class. Even worse, they may even have been the cause of his downfall, their envy at one from a different class who had succeeded where the rich had failed. Most successful naturalists were still those from backgrounds able to support a university education, which encouraged ordination and a good living in a rural parish. Smith should have moved to France after the revolution for that was where both state and scientists remained separate from the church and where naturalists were free to explore in their own right, free of the establishment, unlike Smith.

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.

19. The Great Paris Debate 1830

From 1798 onwards, Geoffroy and Cuvier had still been close friends, working at the Paris museum just after the revolution when excitement was in the air. They worked long and hard and mixed with intellectual and political society. Geoffroy even left a note for Cuvier when he went off to Egypt with Napoleon’s academic entourage: “Goodbye my friend, love me always. Do not cease to consider me as a brother.”

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They carried on  working together on the same projects, then Cuvier moved on to make his own precise reconstructions from fossil bones and Geoffroy made more comparisons of whole groups of living things. Gradually they grew further apart, encouraged by their different personalities and of course these determined what they were good and bad at. Cuvier always made careful and precise dissections; he drew very accurately and beautifully, but was always very controlled, tight-lipped and calculating. His life was ordered and tidy, run with strict rules and precision. In comparison, Geoffroy’s work was more outward-looking, more concerned with the whole picture, looking for fresh light to solve a problem. This also meant that he could be a reckless dilettante, spontaneous, looking for metaphors and models that might bring things together. In the new freedom of the Paris museum in the 1810s and 20s there was space for both attitudes, and the other scientists there enjoyed the contrasts of the growing disparity. Slowly, the two men became well known as intellectual opponents, students taking sides proudly and other biologists eagerly waiting for the next publication from one side or the other.

They principally differed in accounting for how the bodies of different species were formed, whether they all developed along the same pathway, one limb being equivalent in different species, or whether they comprised separate groups of each sort. Cuvier was all for fixed functions and followed the old cliché that people climb mountains because they are there. Since there are many different kinds of mountains each appealing to different structured limbs and lungs, so there are different organs adapted to the different conditions and functions. On the other hand, Geoffroy argued that “there is, philosophically speaking, only a single animal”, variations of the same model or blue-print. There was a central column with a varying number of appendages whose use also varied: primates walked on just two, other mammals used four, and centipedes many more.

In 1830 two students gave a lecture about this model to the Academie des Sciences suggesting that a squid, a kind of mollusc, conformed to Geoffroy’s standard vertebrate model, their back-bone bending back at the middle so the base of the spine lined up with the neck. Cuvier was infuriated at their suggestion that molluscs were anything like vertebrates, and of course, Geoffroy was delighted. As a form of post-revolutionary duel the two agreed to debate their differences at the Academie every Monday afternoon until one withdrew.

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The youngest, Geoffroy, opened the first encounter at noon on February 15 1830 with a flourish, supporting the students’ interpretation of parts of the squid’s spinal column as equivalent to vertebrae that varied according to guidelines of the blueprint. It was not unlike the model for leaf variation that Goethe had proposed for plants. The next week it was Cuvier’s turn. Some organs may have looked similar but they had quite different arrangements “often constructed in a different manner, and accompanied by several other organs that vertebrates do not possess.” Cuvier’s functionalist argument was impressive.

One of the students later wrote: “I cannot find words to express how devastated I am that our Memoir has given rise to disputes. We could scarcely believe that anyone could draw such exaggerated consequences from a single, simple consideration on the organization of molluscs.”  But the debate went on, each protagonist making wider generalizations from more examples of their work, exaggerating to make their points.

Further debates didn’t improve the chances of either argument. Cuvier always returned to his fixed anatomy for each species, stable forms suddenly coming and suddenly going, but never changing. Geoffroy was all for change, stimulated by the environment, one species changing into another. In the fourth debate he illustrated his progression with some examples: he cited a species of marine lizard found as a fossil in the chalk deposits near Paris, and suggested it had changed into a crocodile, then that into a giant mammal, and finally into an extinct paleotherium. Even then it sounded like a stupid idea and to make matters worse he had no new evidence, just a very large number of missing links. Even the ages of the fossils were in the wrong sequence and the anatomical affinities were confused. Much to Cuvier’s surprise and pleasure Geoffroy went on with even more bad examples. Fish turned into cephalopods, and he linked the lowest vertebrates to the highest mollusks.

The latest, 2013, ideas about the ancestry of some of the major vertebrate groups is shown in two diagrams.

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Not surprisingly, the fifth debate on March 8th had to be cancelled because Geoffroy was ill and the next week Cuvier refused to attend to make things even. The crowd of spectators was furious. Geoffroy took Cuvier head-on about the evolution of crocodiles – whether they had evolved through environmental revolution or internal reorganization. Like Lamarck he expected an uninterrupted path of generation, a slow merging from the simple to more complex in very similar environments. Instead of Cuvier’s extinctions at every revolution, Geoffroy suggested that the environment caused the internal changes directly.

By the sixth week the debate began to run out of steam. A disappointed man from the crowd even asked whether the speaker agreed with Goethe that he was: “not anti-Christian, nor un-Christian, but most decidedly not Christian”. Geoffroy announced that he would not continue in this “pit, applauding the outrageous comedies of Aristophanes.” The majority verdict was that there was no winner, a conclusion summed-up by Goethe who thought that “the more vitally these two [directions] of the mind are related, like inhaling and exhaling, the better will be the outlook for the sciences and their friends.” Unfortunately, not many people heard him then, and fewer read his scientific work since.

th-5     Goethe’s frustrated character Faust was damned for thinking that humans could learn the tools of God’s trade, be able to refine the crudity of nature, and separate the wheat from the chaff. Human knowledge was certainly moving fast during the 1820s and the German capital was almost as exciting a place as Paris.

th-3  The idealist and philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831) lectured there at the university in Berlin, saying that beneath the anarchy and chaos of human affairs, the spirit of reason was at work, not only in those contemporary turbulent times but for long before, and doubtless into the future as well. With this strong sense of optimism, the story of life on earth was at a changing point, science taking over the role of driving force, replacing the insecurity and fear from the myths that had held sway. It was a new age with a new knowledge, but using the strong spirit of reason. Hegel believed that the history of materialism began with the ordering of early life on earth, then reading through the stories of the bible, and then passing through the methods of science to a new level. Could this journey mean that the science laboratory was to subsume the church?

Hegel might have been surprised to find support from a London lawyer: “England is more parson-ridden than any country in Europe except Spain”. Despite this over-emphatic opinion, Charles Lyell was determined to “free the science from Moses.” Not only was he thinking of his own teacher at Oxford in 1820 but of the attitude across so much of society in Britain at the time. The old ways of thinking, the old habits of living just wouldn’t go away gradually and without a fight. In particular, he thought that Professor Buckland, who still commanded a big following, was thinking in one century and living in another.

20. English Traditionalists 1820-1845

Back in England, the Rev William Buckland’s work (see Post 18, below)  showed examples of animal design throughout the fossil record and he presented in the format of Geoffroy’s grand model. He had been persuaded to accept that extinction was possible and accounted for the many strange large mammals being found in what were still thought to be Superficial Gravels. The very acceptance of the first part of this proposition was an advance from a few decades before when extinction counted as a failure, and God’s failure at that. That was why extinction was so unacceptable. God didn’t do failure, so extinct features were not possible.

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Buckland          the Buckland family               Megalosaurus – a M. Jurassic dinosaur

Buckland had found how the major groups of animals showed up in the newly understood sequences of sediments. He listed all the fossil species present in a set of strata, and used that as a kind of check-list to characterise their relative ages. The technique is still used to define particular rock formations and to define particular stages in geological time. Such advances in geology, especially the order in which different rock formations had been laid down, had been enormous since Smith’s breakthrough in 1815. Buckland had a broad overview of all fossils and the extent of modern biodiversity was also becoming well known, but his problem was to try and understand these new data in terms of old language. It was to be for the readers of his work to say whether it was still going to make sense in the nineteenth century. Paley’s popular view that “it is the will of God that the established government be obeyed” was part of the establishment rock of society and it was going to be hard to break down.

The liberal scientists who grew up with the teachings of the Lunar Society wanted parliamentary reform and it was an essential start to demonstrate that the scientific foundations of Paley’s natural theology were false. That meant destroying the myths of diluvial geology and catastrophism that had built up as the Flood had been welded into the scientific evidence from glacial geology. It was what had come from the futile pathway taken by guides such as Priestley, who had been happy that theology could underpin what he was finding from his experiments, science taking over from alchemy and still safe in God’s world.

In Britain there was one final attempt from Paley’s followers to retain their intellectual authority in the face of all the growing opposition. Buckland was one of the old mould of scientists who contributed an article to one of the eight volumes that went to make the Bridgewater Treatises. These sermon-like essays were published from 1833 to 1840 “on the power, wisdom, and goodness of God, as manifest in the creation”. Here there was no room for hypothesis or experiment because everything was already explained. So each volume was written the other way round: starting with the conclusion, and fitting as much evidence as possible after it and consequently, Buckland’s contribution went down like a lead balloon. Even some of his fellow-scientists at Oxford called them the “bilgewater treatises”.

So it was left to Buckland’s successor as prime geological spokesman, Charles Lyell, to apply the scientific tests and retain the option of a different way to understand life on earth. For he believed strongly that open-minded scientific enquiry would one day explain all the earthly features of nature such as fossils, mountain chains, glaciers and earthquakes. There was no need for the Flood let alone catastrophes of the kind that Cuvier thought made species extinct. Geology described how the earth changed very gradually over millions of years, with no telling then how many were needed to allow weathering and sedimentation, let alone the evolution of new species. Lyell had some idea of the immensity of time involved from field work with his friend Gideon Mantell across the Weald of southern England and they agreed it was a longer time-scale than anyone had conceived. Without the religious constraints still being imposed by Buckland and a few others, they could have all the time they wanted.

There remained the problem of the numerous extinct mammals such as the elephants and rhinos from the Superficial Gravels, let alone the age of these infamous deposits and how they formed. Most people still regarded them as having been caused by the Flood, that relic of the “scriptural geologists”, that dwindling number who were still fearful of some divine decree to punish men for progressive beliefs, a number nevertheless still favorably received by the Church of England in the 1830s. But a more up-to-date view prevailed in the minds of many geologists and this was left for an eccentric and unknown onlooker to publicise.

Only twelve years older than Charles Darwin, George Scrope (1797-1876) had a strategy to give the alternative populist views an airing. First there was his book called Considerations on Volcanoes which gave the opposite arguments to those of Cuvier’s wonderful revolutions.

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Instead of having a catastrophe such as the Flood, Scrope argued that geological time had been long enough for most things in nature to happen smoothly and slowly. Scrope agued that just as there was no need for the king to interfere with the natural and intrinsic laws of economics and of society, so there was no need for God to interfere with nature. It was sufficient enough to have been given volcanoes in the first place, no need for God to intervene with uplift and erosion as well. The book was too radical for the Geological Society at that time, and it was dismissed without a hearing. Scrope, who had a private income, reacted by buying himself a seat in Parliament and used it to pursue his scientific campaign to prove that Paley was wrong. But without any proof that monarchy was unnatural and that sovereignty belonged to the people, Scrope and his liberal friends remained relatively powerless.

Undaunted by Scrope’s failure, the young whig lawyer Charles Lyell then tried his hand at destroying the geological foundation of monarchical theory. His influential Principles of Geology comprised three little books published in 1830, 1832 and 1833 that brought the earlier geotheories for life on earth up-to-date and led to a different kind of understanding about earth processes. In turn, this opened the way for a new mechanism of evolution that we still find acceptable. Lyell took a much more subtle line than had Scrope, and in the 100-page introduction to the Principles, he argued not so much that the Flood didn’t happen, as that it was mythological and its continued usage impeded the “progress” of geology. In the first volume he went on at great length concerning the forces of erosion and the effects of volcanic uplift in what was a brilliant avoidance of all evidence of catastrophism. It was just what the more moderate members of the new Geological Society of London were looking for. They rallied around Lyell and elected him first as secretary and then as president.

In 1831 Scrope wrote triumphantly to Lyell: “By espousing you, the conclave have decidedly and irrevocably attached themselves to the liberal side, and sanctioned in the most direct and open manner the principal things advocated. Had they on the contrary made their election of a Mosaic geologist like Buckland or Conybeare, the orthodox would have immediately taken their cue from them, and for a quarter of a century to come, it would have been heresy to deny the excavations of valleys by the deluge, and atheism to talk of anything but chaos had lived before Adam. At the same time I have a malicious satisfaction in seeing the minority of Bigwigs swallow the new doctrine upon compulsion rather than from taste and shall enjoy their wry faces as they find themselves obliged to take it like physics to avoid the peril of worse evils. I feel some satisfaction in this.”

It turned out to be a great change not only for geology but astronomy and natural history, and it became entangled with the Great Reform movement of 1832. They were all part of the far more general shift in world view from paternalism to liberalism, and those involved were well aware of what they were doing.

Another example came in the autumn of 1844 when an anonymously written book was published in Edinburgh that gave Charles Darwin and thousands of others an unexpected fright. The book was called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and argued that evolution progressed up a ladder of complexity but without making God responsible. th   th-2

New habits led to altered structures rather than the other way round. The secret author of Vestiges challenged the creationist view that when the first birds suddenly found themselves with a wing they soon found something to do with it. The Vestiges then went on to suggest that major differentiation from one large group like birds, up to another large group like mammals happened at the embryo stage – all in one sudden jump. The mystery author was praised by the critics for being a very good writer and the book was also expertly marketed. It quickly became a best seller and ten editions were published. The book was extremely critical of the religious establishment and itself perpetrated numerous errors and misunderstandings of nature. This put up the backs of the scientific establishment, most of whom were churchmen anyway. But the book’s popularity reflected the growth of a new middle class and its need for assurance that humans, with the new industrial technology, are in charge of nature.

The main reason why there was so much fuss about Vestiges was its suggestion that progress takes place without God’s design. The implication was that nature evolves of its own accord, though the book didn’t actually say so. This was all too much for one reviewer, the Cambridge geologist the Reverend Adam Sedgwick. The mystery author was some cowardly bungler attacking all his life’s work and belief: “From the bottom of my soul I loathe and detest Vestiges”. In the spirit of the time, Sedgwick dismissed the work as trivial saying that anything so stupid “must have been written by a woman.”

th-5           th-1            chambers Robert Chambers

It was quite common for things to be published without giving the author’s name, and it stimulated extra interest in trying to guess who it was. Among the candidates was the novelist William Makepiece Thackeray, the early feminist write Harriet Martineau, the inventor of a mechanical calculating machine Charles Babbage, Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin and even Prince Albert. The owner of the influential Westminster Review, John Chapman, was in a better position to know than most and in 1848 he assured Richard Owen that “there is now pretty strong evidence to fix the paternity on Chambers”. Robert Chambers was the founder of the Scottish publishing company that specialised in encyclopedias. But Chambers kept silent and covered his tracks, having a pew in two churches so that people seeing him absent from one would assume he was at the other.

But there was strong criticism thrown at Chambers’ Vestiges by the church and conservative academics and that made many scientists, including Charles Darwin, sick at the very mention of “Mr Vestige’s book”. If that’s what they felt about this book, Darwin thought in horror, just think what they’d make of what he was planning to say. For the moment, at least, he had to remain on the defensive. “The geology is bad and his zoology far worse” he wrote to Joseph Hooker at Kew. But his friend gave a different response: “I have been delighted with Vestiges from the multiplicity of facts he brings together [even though] he has lots of errors.” With friends like these Darwin didn’t need to focus his concern on the enemies, so he became even more convinced that his own argument had to be presented unambiguously with very good evidence.