21. Darwin and The Origin 1830-1862

By 1842 Charles Darwin had a good draft of his evidence for natural selection, but he was far from convinced that it would stand up to the public scrutiny that he knew would be vicious. So he decided to look for more clues and to use them to test his theory further. But it was hard to chase the evasive biological changes and he became more and more frustrated. In 1858 he finished a manuscript of what he called The Big Species Book, in which he tried to set out the difficulties as well as the theory itself, but he was not happy with the work and so he kept it hidden away under the stairs. He already had a major literary achievement under his belt: his observations from the Beagle voyage ten years earlier, and that would have to be enough to present to the world.

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

But he was still afraid that his case was not convincing to many of the reasonable people who had criticised Chambers’ book, and he held back to find more arguments to support the theory of natural selection that he had already formulated. The story is well-known of how Darwin was forced into writing The Origin of Species after he had read a draft manuscript outlining the same idea, written out in Malaysia by the species collector Alfred Wallace. Darwin’s friends in the Royal Society wanted to protect what they thought was his right to claiming the well worked out theory as his own, and not some last-minute argument that had flashed into the mind of some unknown explorer. In that event Charles Darwin wrote his book in nine months, incorporating the support he had gathered from lots of scientific specialists throughout the world, making his own observations clear and presenting the argument so that both specialists and the public could understand. Meanwhile, Wallace was only too pleased to accept Darwin’s offers of co-authorship of the first formal announcement at the Linnean Society and his later friendship.

Less well-known is that Wallace confided with a wry smile to a friend that as long ago as 1831 a Mr Patrick Matthew “appears to have completely anticipated The Origin of Species”.

220px-Patrick_Matthew_1790    Patrick Matthew  1790-1874

Meanwhile, The Vestiges was believed to reflect the more open thinking about nature in Scotland, a place eager to throw off the control of the English intellectual establishment of Oxford and Cambridge. One view was that Chambers had formed his ideas about evolution after he had also heard talk of evolution from his fellow-Scot Patrick Matthew. He had suggested that his farming stock was improved by selection from within the orchard or the herd, and this meant that inheritance of new features for a changed environment was unnecessary: it happened before such change, within each population automatically, as a matter of course. Selection was happening continually, on his farm and in nature, and was only noticed when some environmental change made a particular form conspicuous. Matthew didn’t amplify this idea and only jotted a brief note in the appendix of his 1831 book Naval Timber and Arboriculture, a book that one of Chambers’ friends happened to read. It was another example of the feeling that Thomas Huxley shared forty years later: “it is such a wonderfully simple idea that I wonder I didn’t think of it myself”.

The concept was implicit in several documents written around that time, though their impact was lost by their brevity. Charles Darwin took the prize with his articulate approach to life, his unique experiences on the Beagle and at Down House, and with his beautiful writing. He was also such a likeable man that everyone he knew, except Richard Owen, wanted him to take the credit.


22. Wallace Returns 1862

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

th-6  (Commons Getty Collection)

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

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

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

th    The Wallace Line

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

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

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

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

th-3   250px-Batesplate_ArM Bates collected insects

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

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

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

23. Just Visiting 1862-1870

It was soon clear to Wallace that he had returned to a land of confusion about how evolution worked and that publication of his and Darwin’s explanation had not settled any of the controversies. Instead of finding good experimental evidence for their theory of evolution by natural selection what he did find was something very different and unexpected: because progress was going to be slow a deep philosophical void had emerged. This placed more hope on measuring what was thought to be evolving, and more interest in how humans themselves had evolved. Wallace was confused by the new expectations of scientists and was understandably out of date from his long absences. At the peak of Empire these difficult homecomings were common.  th-6

He also lacked the refined social graces of his new London hosts but persisted in making a mark on science and its society. Within a few months of his return, he had visited all the main players on London’s life science network. Despite their different social classes he found much in common with Sir Richard Strachey, who had just returned from plant hunting in India, and Joseph Hooker, back from Tasmania.

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

It didn’t help that the leader of that group of evolutionary biologists was beginning to lose touch with these objective requirements of modern science. Thomas Huxley had only two years of schooling and became what he called “a man of science” when he was 21 and served onboard HMS Rattlesnake as a humble assistant to the ship’s surgeon. He advanced quickly and soon become a witty debater and charismatic teacher, one of the old school with fastidious attention to all details and observations. In 1862 Wallace arrived at the Huxley home in St John’s Wood and found that the whole domestic tone of the house induced a sense of awe and inferiority.

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Two pictures of T Huxley  at the Normal School of Science (now Imperial College)     and Joseph Hooker at Kew Gardens

Whenever they spoke about evolution, Huxley’s superior knowledge of anatomy and physiology only added to his stiffness. He had cheered up when he heard Huxley’s famous reaction on first reading Darwin’s ideas about adaptation by natural selection: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that”. But Huxley never did understand natural selection to have the slow and uniform adaptations changes that Darwin and Wallace intended.

Nevertheless, Huxley had become Darwin’s loudest and most loyal supporter, a kind of Victorian public relations consultant, but privately he was worried that in The Origin Darwin had argued strongly that change should be gradual. He thought it was wrong to have so little to say about any revolutionary catastrophes: “You have loaded yourself with the unnecessary difficulty in adopting Natura non facit saltum so unreservedly”. Huxley knew from Lyell’s Principles of Geology published thirty years earlier that there was a big gap in the geological record between the top of the chalk and the base of the Eocene, the very time that reptiles and mammals showed major changes. Huxley was alone in having a hunch that this was a sign of some sudden environmental change, some catastrophe. [This is now known as the Terminal Cretaceous Event that caused the dinosaurs to become extinct

220px-Impact_event     220px-KT_boundary_054 The event was between the light and dark rocks.]

One of the stories Wallace heard on these visits told of a conversation between Huxley, Hooker and Darwin in which they “ran a tilt against species farther I believe than they are deliberately prepared to go.” It put Hooker, especially, in a difficult position, wanting to faithfully support his very close friend Charles, yet having lived the life of a plant taxonomist, naming and labeling specimens, and craving stability. He told the staff at Kew that these thoughts about evolution “should not influence our treatment of species, either as subjects of descriptive science, or … their dispersal and replacement in area.” For unlike Darwin or even Huxley, the people at Kew wanted a species to be a fixed entity defined by comparison to a single type specimen, many of which were preserved in the herbarium there. That was the job of the people at Kew, and their equivalent at other botanical and zoological gardens and museums throughout the world. The last thing any of these people wanted was for any of these species to change; their rules encouraged stability.

herbarium-specimens-awaiting-collection unsorted specimens at Kew     herbarium-finshed-mounts a stable catalogue

Later in 1862 Hooker talked to Wallace about this different approach and admitted that he wanted “to write a Darwinian book on botany” setting out classification, distribution and origin. But before that he felt his priority was to “work out all the species.” He spent the first ten years after he retired from Kew revising all the species of balsams in the genus Impatiens, so unfortunately he didn’t get round to writing the Darwin book.

If Hooker was more attracted to the idea of permanent species moving up the ladder without changing, one of Darwin’s first letters must have haunted him: “I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable. Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a ‘tendency to progressions,’ ‘adaptations from the slow willing of animals’ etc.! But the conclusions I am led to are not wholly different from his; though the means of change are wholly so. I think I have found out (here’s presumption) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends.” Both Wallace and Darwin expected natural selection at the level of the organism: Lamarck’s system of inheritance was at the level of a species or even higher. It was a view for which Hooker had some sympathy, for his life-long task had been to put plants into taxonomic categories and the more clearly defined the group the more complete was his work. Unfortunately for these taxonomists this kind of order was not necessarily what evolution provided.

Wallace was more comfortable with the senior member of Darwin’s circle though it was Lyell to whom Wallace had sent the manuscript in the Spring of 1858 setting out his own argument for natural selection. If there were still any hard feelings left from the presentation to the Linnean Society they were soon forgiven and apparently forgotten. Wallace’s visit was a great success and though Lady Lyell was patronizing, thinking that his manners were of an unacceptable standard.

Henry Bates, who had explored South America with Wallace had a less successful reunion with Lyell, despite their having met regularly at the Geological Society, and having once been Lyell’s guest at its Dining Club. Later, he bumped into Lyell beside the seal pond at London Zoo: “He was wriggling about in his usual way, with spy-glass raised by fits and starts to the eye” and began: “Mr Wallace. I believe – ah”. “My name’s Bates.” “Oh, I beg pardon. I always confound you two.” Once he had recognized who he was talking to Lyell was able to congratulate Bates about the value of his collections. But it was a frosty relationship and their joint interests in evolution could never bridge their different social classes: Lyell was from the Scottish aristocracy, Bates from a family of Leicester hosiery factory workers.

HenryWalterBates       th-1    th-2

Henry Bates                                                  Charles Lyell                                                    Joseph Hooker

Through all this time Lyell kept his belief in God, pleased to let in the advances of science, while still feeling some faith. His subtle argument in Principles was based on his acceptance of Lamarck’s theory of evolution and that in turn presented Darwin with the need to argue his alternative and for it to be listened to. It was only possible because Lyell persuaded his peers, men like Lubbock and Argyle, that their shift of emphasis away from Lamarck was possible, however slow and reluctant some of them were to make it.

Then there was another important man whom Wallace visited, the Derby railway engineer turned philosopher, Herbert Spencer, who made him realize for the first time that his ideas about natural selection had a wide and frightening political importance.

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Spencer was a man of many words, pleased to tell his visitor why he was so excited about individual organisms presenting different features to some new conditions in the environment. “Each individual shall be left to experience the effects of his own nature and consequent conduct. This would quickly clear away the degraded”. There was no opportunity for Wallace to intervene and point to the difficulties in this outlook.  It soon became clear that Spencer had his own programme of interests and wanted to use his own concept of natural selection to further those ends. He was to become a champion of capitalism and he made a lot of money himself by writing about his “scientific” justification of economics. Spencer went on to interpret Wallace and Darwin’s theory in his own way, no matter how much he failed properly to understand it. For Spencer had already embarked on a campaign of political philosophy and the slogan “survival of the fittest” was going to serve that very well, whatever Wallace might have said.

Wallace was particularly confused by the visit which he made with Bates whose social origins were very similar to those of Spencer: “Our thoughts were full of the great unsolved problem of the origin of life, and we looked to Spencer as the one man living who could give us some clue to it.” Instead, Spencer told them how he thought that humans would eventually breed a less aggressive and increasingly altruistic species. This was part of his own version of the Atlantis myth, his perfect society where no-one would give pain to another.

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[Atlantis Zuccarello.deviantart.com]

His long-winded System of Synthetic Philosophy written from 1862 to 1897, extended to ten volumes and was very successful in its time, especially in the United States. It sold more than a million copies, more than any other philosopher has ever achieved before or since, and was a reaction against the progressive scientists whom Wallace was meeting. The book was also suggesting a return to Lamarck’s escalating hierarchy, with its unscientific values that were too soft for Wallace to take seriously.

Spencer had taken his canon of philosophy to apply to economics after reading Adam Smith, one of the stars of the Scottish enlightenment for whom individual, not group, competition gave the best social order. Spencer reasoned that what held for human societies could also be good for natural selection among organisms, leading in both to the maximum division of labour and therefore to more sophisticated adaptation. Just as individuals strove against one another, so groups struggled against other groups. The products came from the struggles between each individual. Spencer believed in Smith’s saying that “the happiness of a people is made up of the happiness of single persons.”

Later, Spencer turned into a grumpy old man and became well-known for the devious ways he used to avoid talking. He had a pair of ivory ear-plugs, carved specially to fit his own ears as though he had planned to be isolated even though he sought the company of others. It became a way of keeping control on his own world, and often when he dined at his club, or read in the library there, he would put the plugs in his ears rather than listen to the conversation or be put off his concentration by the laughter.

24. Understanding Evolution in 1862

The meeting with Spencer had taught Wallace to be very cautious with another man who shared the same Lamarckian values. In the 1860s and 70s Richard Owen was a powerful figure at the British Museum where he used Cuvier’s methods to work out the meaning of vertebrate palaeontology.

th-3Richard Owen    220px-Herbert_SpencerHerbert Spencer

They both saw vertebrates as an archetype of design, a string of vertebrae variously making head, arms, ribs, pelvis and legs. Many more groups of animals and even plants conformed. Owen was a strange man, greatly troubled by his own past, having nightmares from his days as a surgeon’s apprentice in Lancaster jail. From those hard experiences in 1820 he had come a long way to become one of Queen Victoria’s advisors for the Great Exhibition thirty years later.  In that time he was Professor of Vertebrate Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons after winning notoriety with the Prince Consort and the Royal Society for his reconstructions of dinosaurs and the fossilized remains of an extinct flightless bird from New Zealand 4m high.

The Manchester Spectator reviewed one of his lectures in 1849 and gave a flavor of the man: “Richard Owen undertakes to demonstrate scientifically that the arms and legs of the human race are the later and higher developments of the ruder wings and fins of the vertebrate animals …. he concludes that God has not peopled the globe by successive creations, but by the operation of general laws.” He stuck to this same idea ten years later to the British Association in 1858, where he spoke glowingly of Lamarck and “the continuous operation of Creative Power”.

Few scientists have ever had a worse reputation in all recorded aspects of their lives than Richard Owen. Because so many scientists hated him, this often caused them to gang up and irritate him even more. Huxley shared his specialism in vertebrate palaeontology and after his famous public rebuke of Owen’s jealous reaction to The Origin, the two men didn’t exchange a civil word with one another. Huxley was powerful enough to encourage others to oppose Owen, who became a loner as well as an angry old man, always causing unnecessary trouble and resentment.

Mining in Belgium during the 1860s had yielded rich collections of Iguanodon fossils, and they showed clearly that the giant dinosaur had stood on its two hind legs. This stirred up the old argument between Owen and Mantell, proving both to have been wrong on some points. Mantell had died in 1852, missing the discoveries and a thin admission of defeat from Owen. More new dinosaur fossils were found in many of the rocks exposed by the surge in railway building when the American Civil War ended in 1865 and the palaeontologists ED Cope and OC Marsh took the work to another level by the end of the century with evolving lineages of different species of horses.

In the Summer of 1862 Wallace stayed with the Darwins in their home at Down House.

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It was the first time the two men had met and what could have been a difficult encounter turned out to be a pleasant weekend, politely sharing their many compatible experiences, though from very different backgrounds. Darwin enjoyed the chance to reflect on the time in 1836 when he also had returned to London, after four years away on the Beagle voyage. He had gained similar inspiration from the rich tropical forests, the vast grasslands and the colourful corals. He had also thought of the consequences of the writings by Malthus and Lyell and he had also written notes of these early ideas of evolution. Darwin scribbled his first famous drawing of a branched evolutionary tree in 1837 and wrote a draft essay about natural selection in the Spring of 1842 just before he and his wife Emma left London to live at the village of Downe in Kent. But he thought that he didn’t yet have a case and he put the writing to one side.

There in Kent, the Darwin family settled into a busy but simple rhythm of Victorian country life, kindly and loving, and Charles decided to take his time building up support for natural selection before he submitted a manuscript for publication. He knew that some of his ideas needed experimental evidence, inheritance and migration for example being large issues. And he needed to build up his own confidence in those ideas, fearing the political and religious storms that his presentation was bound to cause. Nevertheless, he continued from 1854 until 1858 to write several versions of his argument, a 231 page sketch in 1844, and what his family called the Big Species Book. That was what he was writing when Wallace’s own manuscript arrived for Lyell to check through in June 1858. Now, Wallace was spending his first weekend at Downe and they were sharing the excitement of their work quite happily.

books    The Big Species Book – only recently published – by Cambridge University Press

No-one was more delighted about this than Wallace himself and that cheered-up Darwin immensely. The relief shows up in one of Charles’ early reactions, that “he rates me much too highly and himself much too lowly. What strikes me most about Wallace is the absence of jealousy towards me.” Wallace’s concurrent view of Darwin was of the quiet Englishman proud to be in the middle: socially, politically and philosophically.

Darwin had no such affiliation. He was out on his own, beholden to no-one, with his own investment income. He was a holistic thinker: had formally studied biology, medicine, theology and geology. He became experienced as an observer and explorer, a writer, a taxonomist, a pigeon-fancier and a plant physiologist. He remained interested in all these things and more. That was his strength, and to Wallace’s envy he had a loving family and a sense of humour. His Cambridge influences were showing through: the updated scientific methods being advocated there by the philosopher William Whewell and the desire to analyse the results, the intuition of his mathematical cousin Francis Galton. Their influence on biological problems was just beginning.

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Francis Galton                                                                                     William Whewell

Whewell (1794-1866) had gone against the trend toward specialization and prided himself in his wide range of interests, which included geology, physics, astronomy and economics, and had a hunch that together they would show him some general patterns. He had felt that Bacon’s deductive methods, reducing scientific issues to singular logic, were either too simplistic or too complicated to resolve. Useful though they had clearly turned out to be Whewell wanted more invention, sagacity and genius. He was afraid that scientists were losing sight of the soul inside the systems they studied and he thought that creativity could bring it back. Only pluralists like him, with really broad overviews, could create general scientific laws or even theories.

Darwin and Wallace both knew there was a new approach in biology that was a good example of the kind of thing Whewell had in mind, an interdisciplinary view of global biology to which Wallace was eminently attached. Now we call it biogeography, and in 1876 Wallace’s The Geographical Distribution of Animals was an early example. He was able to add a lot of new data from his travels in South America and East Asia and to test out some of the theories to explain the intercontinental migration of animals and plants.

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Darwin was famously skeptical of the land bridges being used to explain the movements first proposed by young Edward Forbes who had died in 1854. He thought there had only been the wide oceans, which was why he had spent so much time testing how long seeds could stay afloat in the currents. But Wallace had grander ideas, mapping the ranges of whole floras and faunas and suggesting climatic and migratory restrictions.

220px-Gideon_Mantell_engaged_in_battle_by_Edward_Forbes      Forbesfrontispiece These cartoons are by Edward Forbes, one of Gideon Mantell chasing flying dinosaurs (1830) and the other for his book Natural History of European Seas 1859.

Another of Wallace’s new acquaintances from his exploration of the London scientific community was secretary at the London Zoo, Philip Sclater, and they quickly established a good relationship. They had both noticed a similarity between mammals of Madagascar and mainland Africa, and wondered about the reality of invoking a lost continent in the southern hemisphere to account for it. Sclater even gave it a name, Lemuria, and the idea was soon picked up by the great German biologist Ernst Haeckel in his 1868 Natural History of Creation but there was no direct evidence. It turned out that this book was much more widely read than the Origin and went through 12 editions before Haeckel died in 1919. In those days, a lot of ideas that touched on scientific problems were not backed up by evidence, though for its place and time the book was a lively mix of myth, science and philosophy.

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Haeckel’s enthusiasm for the similarities between the developmental changes in an embryo and some lineages of related species became well known as his Biogenetic Law, that embryology reflects phylogeny. He had series of pictures from mammals, birds and fish showing their embryo growing through phases similar to what may once have been mature creatures, now extinct. Humans had the longest lineage, from early life on earth starting as a single cell, dividing to a cup-shaped form similar to so many marine organisms, then to resemble an early fish with gills and finally mammals and humans.  The idea picked up a lot of support in the 1860s, especially in the United States, where Alpheus Hyatt had reconstructed pathways of fossils through geological time. One showed how snails may have evolved, examples about which he had corresponded with Darwin many times.


Hyatt and his supporters extended these embryological pathways of evolution, thinking they would have continued under their own control, away from environmental influence, until an unworkable form led to extinction of the lineage: a missing link too far, caused by some internally programmed trait. They used the theory to explain many very different trends that were showing up in some other kinds of fossils. For example, they thought this kind of runaway development might explain why the antlers of the Irish Elk became too long for the species’ survival, why the extended canines of sabre-toothed cats might have the same effect, and why the self-strangulation of the oyster Gryphea eventually killed the creature. Darwin was not impressed and the lack of further evidence for Hyatt‘s explanations lost what little support the work had.

Most interest in evolution at that time centred on how biodiversity increased through geological time. Haeckel, however, was considering the opposite as well, and he realized that if evolution can move one way so it can also go the other. As selection took place so individuals of the earlier species separated into either the more-progressive or the less-progressive forms. The less-progressive ones chose to settle on smaller territory as their numbers reduced if the environment stayed hostile, or as they recovered when often it didn’t. There was going to be more interest in this kind of negative progress later, when several biologists considered it as a common feature of evolution. They called it ‘degeneration’ and it was thought to explain variations of varieties or races within species.

25. Biology Goes Objective 1870

The 1860s was when life science quietly came of age. It had separated from myth and the church, it had gained a fundamental and intellectually substantial theory well described and ready for testing, and its many components were starting to be measured and analysed. It was a quiet decade for scientists and it gave no great historical catastrophic events. There was a new generation of charismatic life scientists, especially Haeckel and Francis Galton, emerging to lead those advocating measurement and analysis, and more non-scientists such as Samuel Butler and Herbert Spencer taking it upon themselves to consider reforming public opinion. Then, quietly, there came data from new scientific enquiries in the then barely embryonic subjects of genetics, stratigraphy and biometry.

The first of these came from within the church of the Hapsburg Empire at Brno, just north of Vienna. During the 1850s and 60s the monastery there was run by Abott Cyrill Napp who supported the changes in life-style and theology that came with scientific advance.

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He also enjoyed gardening and could see that further social improvements would come from new methods of plant breeding and horticultural techniques. He and his young monk Gregor Mendel had heard about the latest ideas of cell division and some of its consequences for inheritance which led them to the latest techniques of counting and calculating progeny for crosses and they wondered whether they might lead to a better understanding of transmutation.

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As a student in Vienna, Mendel had run up against the old and rigid authorities and had signed a defense of his teacher Franz Unger, a plant physiologist who was threatened with dismissal for supporting revolution. Failing the viva examination Mendel returned to Brno where he devised refinements to their earlier experiments of crossing carefully bred wild peas. Although Mendel himself was none too confident of the real significance of the patterns that emerged from these famous experiments involving crosses of different varieties, he suggested that structural characters such as flower colour and seed shape were inherited by processes at cell division and became mixed in definite proportions through the cellular processes of sexual reproduction.

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He didn’t use the word ‘gene’ but he did recognize that some kinds of particulate recombination took place during fertilisation. The article was published in 1866 by the Natural History Society of Brno in their Proceedings and if anyone did read it they didn’t understand its importance. It stayed hidden-away until 1900 and arguably its significance was not clear until much later still.

Trying to understanding evolution from different perspectives produced more measurements to add to the still ambiguous qualitative evidence. In 1864 the great physicist William Thomson (1824-1907) had estimated the time taken for molten rock to cool to earthly levels. Although he was a devout creationist, Thomson agreed with Lyell’s suggestions that geological changes were gradual and that “this earth, certainly a moderate number of millions of years ago, was a red-hot globe.” His first calculations for the cooling of sufficient rock to form the planet was between 20 and 400 million years, not long enough for Darwin, but large numbers to challenge Victorian dogma.

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Thomson used to quote Alexander Pope’s 1734 poem Essay on Man:

Go, wondrous creature! Mount where Science guides;

Go measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;

Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,

Correct old Time, and regulate the sun.

For the first edition of the Origin Darwin had used a value for the rate of erosion of chalk cliffs to determine that the Sussex Weald had taken 300 million years to erode to its present form. All Darwin wanted was enough time for gradual evolution, long enough to explain the occurrence of extinct groups, such as ammonites and dinosaurs, in slightly older sediments underlying the chalk. But his line of reasoning had little validity and was immediately scorned by geologists and geographers let alone physicists such as Thomson. The latter’s very different kind of mathematics had an objectivity that was highly respected even though most scientists didn’t understand the calculations, and it suggested there had been a mere 100 million years since the planet’s origin. That allowed much less time for the Weald to have eroded.

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Darwin was forced to revise his estimate of deep time and for the fifth edition of the Origin he offered compromises to speed up his initial estimates of evolutionary progress. In desperation he asked his son George, by then a mathematician at Cambridge and a colleague of Thomson, to help check the calculations. He also offered factors such as the planetary tilt and climate change that needed to be considered in further estimates of time. Impressive though all this objective Baconian science may have been, it was becoming clear that it was not going to come up very quickly with a clear answer for the age of the earth. The speculation about slow or sudden rates of evolution continued.

Thomson also revised these numbers until 1897 when he settled on 20-40 million years for the erosion of the Weald, times quite out of scale to the values required by the geologists and palaeontologists who followed Darwin. But to add more confusion for them, Thomson had been involved with calculations about heat flow, working towards the second law of thermodynamics. It meant that the planet’s geology was becoming less ordered and so Lyell’s uniformity was impossible. It was the law that remained constant, not the planet and Thomson accused Lyell of seeing them both as the same. The theory meant there was a faster break-up of order at the beginning of the earth’s existence than now and with these different rates of change the processes involved couldn’t all have been the same as Lyell advocated.

Then, in 1903, Ernest Rutherford discovered the source of heat in Thomson’s theory and in 1907 it enabled radiometric dating of rocks to give a much more reliable estimate of geological time. While Mendel’s followers measured genetic variation by counting the ratios of colouring of pea flowers, the physicists searched for other parts of biology which they could usefully measure..

They were to stimulate a third kind of objective analysis of evolutionary data from the eccentric and enquiring mind of Francis Galton. He was 13 years younger than his cousin Charles Darwin and though they were never very close they were sportingly competitive. In 1841, the first year of Emma and Charles’ marriage, the 19 year old Francis was invited to their little house in Gower Street. The talk of exploration in South America and Australasia must have had an impact because Francis himself soon went off to Africa and stayed in Namibia until 1852. Instead of continuing with his medical studies at King’s College Hospital, Francis was persuaded to go up to Cambridge and study mathematics. So began the new ways of analysing and understanding morphological and genetical data which brought the cousins together thirty years later.

One of Galton’s early contributions to this new approach was in 1865 when the influential Macmillan’s Magazine publicized some of the results of his data-gathering under the headline “Hereditary Talent and Characters”. The article was typical of his eccentric approach and reported the serious search for physical and mental characters which were inherited in “animals and therefore man”, all having been subject to selection. They were the “many obvious cases of heredity among the Cambridge men who were at the University about my own time.” The work went on to find simpler things to measure in many more subjects, so Galton got the measurement of a million men’s height, then the exam results of 5,738 Scottish soldiers. Each time he plotted the range of measurements and found the same normal distribution shaped as a bell curve.

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In 1869 Galton set out alone to publish his objective hopes and desires about how characters might be inherited. In Hereditary Genius he argued that “man’s natural abilities are derived by inheritance” and “out of two varieties of any race of animal who are equally endowed in other respects, the most intelligent variety is sure to prevail in the battle of life.” Galton used a 16 point scale to monitor human intelligence with a negro two levels below an Englishman, a Lowland Scot just above him and an ancient Athenian at the top.

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He placed composite photographs of criminals and other “degenerate types” at the different levels on the scale to suggest pathways of inheritance. The difficulty was to get hold of enough data for use in any equations, one of the reasons why he was involved in so many things at once: fingerprints, weather forecasting, inheritance, and especially human evolution. Another reason was his irascible and eccentric interest in experimenting. Like many of his contemporaries he worked alone with little money to invest in research. Even if he had had the resources he didn’t know the questions to ask, or have any expertise in the right experimental methods. He was stuck in-limbo with no-one to set his wits against and argue with, no way of testing his ideas with experiments.

One person who did accept his challenge was his cousin Charles Darwin and through the 1860s they planned experiments crossing silver-grey rabbits after giving blood transfusions from another breed of black rabbits. They then crossed these males and females to find what other characters their offspring inherited. In 1869 they were breeding ‘a few couples of rabbits of marked and assured breeds”. If particles of inheritance were really in the blood as Darwin thought, then some features from the black rabbit’s donors should show up in the subsequent offspring. They then set about counting the offspring and looked for non-existent patterns, realizing how difficult it was to focus on a single variant at a time.

Well-aware of these deficiencies Galton persisted with his measurements, hoping to obtain data about animals as well as human features and habits and to use his mathematical skills to analyse them. But his simple methods just couldn’t begin to scratch the surface of the difficult things that he chose to study, such as the inheritance of intelligence. One of the projects tracked the number of generations in active legal families: “after three successive dilutions of blood the descendants of judges appear incapable of rising to eminence.” His main conclusion was that what this succession for lawyers really needed was a mix of “capacity, zeal and vigour”.

As the study of biology grew, so it acquired more practitioners, and these specialists became professionals as biological industries began in agriculture and health, and biology became a necessary part of education and university research. Switzerland attracted a more diverse gathering of the new biologists than most countries due to its central location in a politically unsettled Europe with many migrants, and they came from varied social backgrounds. Details of the range of interests being studied were given by Alphonse de Condolle, a Swiss botanist who had been stimulated to make the catalogue by reading Galton’s 1869 Hereditary Geniusth-11

But the Swiss data suggested to de Candolle that environmental factors played a big part. Galton’s book was about heredity, de Condolle’s Histoire des Sciences et des Savants depuis Deux Siecles about environment. Largely from their correspondence came Galton’s little book in 1874: English Men of Science: their Nature and Nurture, quoting Prospero in The Tempest “A devil, a born Devil, on whose nature nuture can never stick.”

26. Hard Times for Humans 1869-1871

Most of the public interest in the Origin had centred on what it said about the human species, especially the argument that Homo sapiens shared ancestors with all the other Primates. This was despite the author’s decision to avoid details of that topic in the book, knowing how difficult and controversial it was. Religious people were not the only ones who wanted to keep humans at the top of the tree of life, for nearly all Europeans took that place for granted, even expecting it to put them above other races. Darwin’s own values had been challenged in 1832 by his reaction to the Tierra del Fuego communities and with no clear evidence he was content to leave any debates about that matter until later.

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Tierra del Fuego about 1890

Instead, he put the basic things first and used the Origin to concentrate on the scheme of natural selection. What was more, its immediate positive reception showed that English society was ready for a mature assessment of the human place in evolution and who better to write it than Darwin himself. He was persuaded to write it by his publisher John Murray and they argued about the title before settling on The Descent of Man. That title, by the way, should surely have received a prize for the cleverest example of defence being the best form of attack. For Darwin, man was not necessarily at the point of highest ascent on the evolutionary mountain. The important thing was how species came to be alive in nature, not to make some judgment about values and morality.

Wallace’s skepticism about humans as just another species of primate grew. He seriously doubted that natural selection explained why the human brain was so big and assumed that intellectual capacity accounted for this larger size. Was this sufficient to increase the chance of human success or was there some other explanation, such as the selective force from a higher spiritual power? He wrote about these ideas in an 1869 book review of Lyell’s updated version of the Principles of Geology and Darwin, who was still writing The Descent of Man, replied angrily: “I groan over Man – you write like a metamorphosed (in retrograde direction) naturalist, and you the author of the best paper that ever appeared in the Anthropological Review! Eheu! Eheu! Eheu!” Instead, Darwin suggested that language accounted for the larger human brain, that it “depends on the external inheritances of civilization, rather than on the organic inheritances of the civilized man.”

The social class of scientists was becoming less elitist, it was the beginning of the end of the grand tradition of wealthy Oxbridge clerics studying natural history as amateur gentlemen. It was becoming more unusual for men of independent means like Darwin and Galton to excel in science, though plenty of parish priests and other professionals spent a lot of time with their passionate English culture of natural history. Most of the biologists from the professional classes, men like Huxley and Hooker, needed to earn money, and gradually, men from working class backgrounds, Wallace and Bates for example, were being accepted into the company of the intellectual aristocrats. This did not happen in the early nineteenth century as William Smith and even Gideon Mantell testified.

But when the socially elite were in decline so the specialist elite were rising. They knew something about the world that others did not. They cultivated masks of jargon to hide their skills and ignorance from other people and they had answers to awkward questions. These abilities gave the scientific specialists a kind of power, sometimes clouded by arrogance, which had a special place in the old societies of the European countries. But in the new world of North America they were treated like anyone else.

So began the biological contributions to the dialectic form of mid-nineteenth century intellectual debate, the inevitable consequence of the perpetual motion of self-conscious reason found in any large society. They were ideas first put into historical context by the philosopher Georg Hegel’s Berlin lectures back in 1823, and later used by Engels to find a goal in history. Engels and Marx were later to apply this same philosophy to communist politics, but at first Engels was more concerned with its relevance to nature and its large systems of apparent chaos.

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GWF Hegel 1770-1831              F Engels 1820-1895                             K Marx 1818-1883

In the final decades of the nineteenth century the life sciences were struggling to resolve four important issues. One was the difference between De Condolle and Galton, the argument they stimulated about nature and nurture. Galton also stimulated the debate about whether evolution was gradual or sudden and the changing view about the age of the earth. A third big debate was beginning, in ignorance of Mendel’s premature answer, about whether inheritance was transmitted by vibrations, particles or something else. Fourthly, there was the debate about whether humans were just another species, this involving Galton and his adversary Wallace.

In England. Galton’s 1869 Hereditary Genius was one of a series of books published then about human evolution as part of the debate stimulated by the Origin. Talk of human evolution, whether by natural selection or something else, was all the rage in the 1860s and there was a flurry of books on the subject. It was not unlike the publishing storm over geotheories a hundred years before when a different set of extrovert thinkers wanted to turn the very different topical issues to their own advantage. Over that century, science had been slowly getting a grip on the same big question; it had shifted from being about the origin of the earth to the origin of humans. Lyell’s book on The Antiquity of Man was the first out, in February 1863, quickly followed by Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature. Wallace wrote a substantial article on the Origin of Human Races the following year and then Darwin’s Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871. Few people had any doubts about the validity of biological evolution by natural selection, this was not the main issue when man came into the sequence of evolutionary progression. The central issue then was whether humans were like other animals. Huxley and Darwin both argued that humans and other primates were obviously and clearly related; they had no doubts that all were from the same branch.

Through the 1870s and up to the 90s the growing interest in human evolution became inextricably mixed up with the nature and nurture debate which was where Galton’s heavy emphasis on the distribution of human intelligence was leading.

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Lyell and Wallace were holding out for man as a special case. Wanting to do a favour to a friend short of money, in 1872 Lyell commissioned Wallace to correct his manuscript for a new edition of the Antiquity of Man. He was pleased to have a like-minded editor check the argument and also hoped it would be seen as a good way of showing his appreciation for the 1869 review of the new edition of Principles that had so disappointed Darwin. The gesture could also be seen as the mastery of Lyell and his close friends over Wallace, the social outsider, who was not going to threaten their world after all.

Darwin’s book took a lot of space to address Wallace’s vexed issues of the large human brain and it speculated on what might have filled the brain to make it so much larger. There were no easy answers because supposedly human faculties such as moral reasoning, sympathy for others, appreciation of beauty and music could be found in smaller degree in some other mammals such as dogs and apes. Darwin had referred to psychology at the end of the Origin and he talked later to Wallace about how the sexual displays by his birds of paradise might have their equivalent in human selection. “Among savages the most powerful men will have the pick of the women, and they will generally leave the most descendants.” Wallace was not too sure since “every race has its own style of beauty” and we cannot put our human values on other species. Then, of course, there was the question of whether different human “races” were distinct “species”. Although everyone agreed that both these concepts were very difficult, some agreement was emerging that all living humans were the same species.

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Cookshop London 1870,     The Paris Commune 1871,  (goldenagepaintings.blogspot)

The Descent of Man was published in May 1871 just as groups of extremists took over L’Hotel de Ville in Paris and set up the Paris Commune. In London The Times condemned these Communards and made an interesting link to the new book: from a man who incurred “a grave responsibility when, with the authority of a well-earned reputation, he advances at such a time the disintegrating speculations of this book.” But there was to be even more criticism of this kind, derived from other experiences that Darwin and Wallace had had in South America, influenced by the culture of the enlightenment in which they had been brought up and was then dying away. This was their attitude to slavery, which some inevitably linked to how they saw the boundaries of our own species.

Not only was The Times horrified at the lack of defense in the capital but Haeckel’s professor at Munich, the anthropologist Rudolf Virchow rebuked him: “We cannot teach, we cannot maintain as a discovery of science that man has descended from apes or any other animals.” Haeckel was very upset by this onslaught, and Huxley wrote to encourage his spirits: “May your shadow never be less, and may all your enemies, unbelieving dogs who resist the Prophet of Evolution, be defiled by the sitting of jackasses upon their grandmothers’ graves!”

27. The Dissolving Spectre of Darwinism 1872-1887

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


28. Degeneration 1882-1890

Charles Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey on April 26th 1882 And though he was very much a man finding his way in the fledgling middle class, Ray Lankester didn’t know where to look, even then. Not for the first time Lankester was thinking of his own future, reacting to the impact of Darwin’s life and fearful of where some of the ideas might lead. He was suddenly aware that he was living through the final throes of a passing age. Eight years earlier he had been appointed Jodrell Professor of Zoology at University College and was well-known as a star performer in the lecture theatre and as a precise observer of marine invertebrates. That year he was 35 years old and he was adding a lot of weight to his already large frame and round, flat face.

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Lankester also spent a lot of time thinking about how people were struggling with their different social circumstances at the end of the nineteenth century. Not only were they living through the mature stages of the industrial revolution, but also through the associated scientific and technological ones. He agreed with Darwin that soon it would be the turn of biology to have some impact on daily life styles, perhaps through some control of breeding or by adapting to psychological stresses. But if there really was going to be a successor to Darwin these applications had better come soon and it was hard for him to spot a likely candidate in that congregation. He looked at the rows of scientists in the nave for possible contenders: Hooker and Huxley were the obvious ones but they and all the others he could see were too old.

Could biologists ever breed new crops and healthier humans, with the same basic mechanisms involving genes and sexual recombination? Lankester was the first to speak of what happened in the early moments of a new embryo, the changes inside the cells that were starting to be discovered. He was well-aware of the similarities between the application of Darwin’s ideas to social progress and what his friend Karl Marx had in mind at that time for political change. In 1879 Lankester had lectured on what was known of this to the Sheffield meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Marx had also been interested in the idea that societies might degenerate, and argued that if a new embryo has to struggle with a new environment, then some new kind of society would have to do the same.

Lankester was positive about these links and spoke optimistically of what came from such natural interactions long ago, fossilised hallmarks and other remains of geological processes. It was there in the rocks, old sediments, reworked by erosion of old surfaces, formed at the bottom of shallow seas, forced by earthquakes into the bowels of the earth to be heated and pressurised into another form, a harder metamorphic rock. These same layers of ancient environments also preserved similar species of Lankester’s beloved marine animals, closely related but different as a result of the constant changes of the self-organised living systems from those different ages.

As though to confirm these expectations, the religious controversy that had so dominated the last two decades of Darwin’s life began to die down after his death, only to be replaced by these more political ones. Huxley still fought some remaining dissenters of the new attitude, especially laymen’s views of miracles. Gladstone and the Duke of Argyll were well-known antagonists but most scientists regarded the arguments as old hat and they soon stopped.

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That also meant that fewer articles about evolution got published in the papers and the topic had an air of yesterday’s news. For some intellectuals there was the prospect that the two greatest ideas of the last half of the nineteenth century, Darwin’s natural selection and Marx’s materialism, were united in hopes for a scientific utopia. But war about threats from dictatorships and religious revivals soon eclipsed these ambitions.

Ray Lankester was sharp and critical both socially and professionally. He had been admired for his attention to detail by Darwin himself when the two had exchanged letters about earthworms and other species. The introduction to the great biologist came from Ray’s teacher Thomas Huxley whose lectures at the Royal College of Science, now part of Imperial College, were inspiring many men of the next generation. And because he lived in one of the streets in St James, it was easy to call in to the Geological Society and the Linnean to hear lectures on his way home from school.

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With this background his own destiny was clear and the 27 year old biologist became Professor of Zoology at University College London in 1874. He was one of the growingly successful English middle class, without a fortune let alone land but his educated drive more than made up for that. He rented rooms on the ground floor of a house by Hyde Park and he shared a housekeeper with one of the other tenants. He travelled regularly to Oxford, Plymouth, Naples and places in France and Germany. On the other hand, such a life style became very lonely and made it harder to value people outside one particular circle, and it encouraged arrogance.

A year later he was at a ceremony to mark the founding of the Marine Biological Association, soon to have its own headquarters at Plymouth. It was modelled on the Stazione Zoologica in Naples where Lankester had worked in the early 1870s when his Fellowship at Exeter College allowed him to spend much of his time in Italy.

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Then, as now, young scientists usually spent several years at the beginning of their career working hard at a substantial project. As well as experience and knowledge it built confidence and showed the world what the individual could do. Nowadays, this apprenticeship involves registering as a PhD student, but then you tended just to get on with it. Lankester special interest was in marine invertebrates, molluscs especially, and they grew in the Mediterranean, offshore Naples, where they could be collected in great profusion. He worked on Amphioxus, cuttlefish, several exotic worms and the electric eel was a special fascination. Darwin wrote to encourage him: “What ground work you did at Naples! I can clearly see that you will some day become our first star in Natural History.”th-11

The following year Lankester was in Naples again, pleased for the rare chance to be host to his mentor Thomas Huxley and show him the tanks of fish and other marine animals as well as some of the historical sites around the bay. But the eager young man became seriously ill with typhoid fever, common enough then for vulnerable Englishmen, and he took to his bed for several weeks. It meant that he missed another rare opportunity to see the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. All he could do was listen to the deep humming sound, though even inside his room the darkness and dust got everywhere.

In 1874 the Naples Station attracted two of Lankester’s young students from University College who had begun a collaborative project, Walter Weldon, a zoologist, and Karl Pearson, a mathematician. They were in Naples to make measurements of eleven different organs from hundreds of specimens of the shore crab. All the result distributed normally except one, the frontal breadth of the carapaces, and this became a distinguishing feature of different races of Carcinus moenas. Weldon ended their joint article: “It cannot be too strongly urged that the problem of animal evolution is essentially a statistical one.” Lankester was furious. It was another early sign of the new divide in understanding evolution: the qualitative and the quantitative. It was apparent between Lankester and Galton with their very different personalities. Although they both cultivated the image of an arrogant Victorian gentleman, the one was spontaneous and worked with feelings, while the other was calculating and difficult.

Everyone involved expected that observations from the more temperate oceans around the British Isles would prevail at the new Plymouth Marine Station, and the new building became operational in 1888. Equipped with boats and a stone building on the Citadel overlooking the naval dockyard, the young scientists had high hopes of finding more support for natural selection in the largely un-described marine realm. But to start with, work at the new laboratory gave evidence to support those who Lankester labelled the opposition. It was typical of many set-backs to promoting Darwin’s work at around that time and confirmed that the enthusiasm for natural selection did not lead to the conclusion that he was right.

Lankester thought that another set of confusing results came from observations of the pigmentation of the two surfaces of the flat-fish, whether it was right to assume that the pigmentation on the upper surface was inherited, or the result of light reacting from above or darkness from below. He was unhappy with a popular belief that science was to settle differences of this sort rather than to have both options. Comparisons between the young forms and the adults showed that prolonged exposure to light did stimulate pigmentation, and some patterns were inherited for sure. Like so many of the early experiments in biology these were observations in controlled conditions looking at either/or situations. Others expected it to be either pigmented or not, a star pattern or an arrowed one, light or dark, Darwin or Lamarck. Often, everyone was able to take away some argument for victory, and always there was some chance of ambiguity, uncertainty and need for more work. Of course we know now that the problems being considered were caused by physiological and developmental processes which involved many biochemical pathways. Then it was not at all clear on these issues and Lankester began to understand why Darwin couldn’t be proved right overnight. Without clear evidence all the options had to be left open, even if they were going to lead to frightening political difficulties.

Darwin’s ideas were declining in popularity through these years due to the continuing lack of any new evidence. Many cast around for some breakthrough in the many alternative explanations of life, all of which were dead-ends and false alerts. Try as he would, Lankester became more frustrated with his own failures to find useful clues in his classical observations of new species and he lost his temper with others who were equally unsuccessful looking elsewhere. But he was still determined to follow Darwin and Huxley with some faithful support and there were still plenty of places to seek it out. He was beginning to concentrate on the new studies in embryology and there were so many other new developments and disciplines in biology that helped him remain optimistic.

Just across the North Sea in Germany there was another way of seeing nature that looked back into The Enlightenment. The English liked to have a sense of purpose, an aim, something tangible, an object to strive for; on the other hand, many Germans saw life on earth as some vast transcendental process that changed under its own force. The generation of the 1870s which comprised men like Huxley and Norman Lockyer, the founding editor of Nature, believed from Goethe’s naturphilosophie that man and nature form a unity which can be studied and understood by the application of science.

240px-Lockyer-Norman  Lockyer  170px-Nature_cover,_November_4,_1869

All these men, and of course Ray Lankester as well, believed with Faust that nature and moral ideals intermingle within each individual: “I only really enjoy my life when I win it every day afresh”. Only then did passion become set against passion, the anger of one side was set against the scorn of the other and a glorious victor moved forward amidst the tragedy of the other. But these interactions all happened together at different places and at different levels and intensities. Like Faust, Lankester searched for the mysterious power which bound nature into the whole; they believed this was the right path, and though they often went astray, they always returned to it. This was their deep faith.

Whenever he was in Germany Lankester liked to visit the leading biologist there, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), Charles Darwin’s fervent young supporter who visited him in 1866. He was also inspired by Goethe’s way of looking at biology, and the two had allowed him to think of a particular process in embryology which they called recapitulation. They had noticed that a growing embryo passed through stages corresponding to the sequence of adult forms in its species’ evolutionary history. Lankester had been interested in these apparently similar processes from his student days. th-9      th-1

Lankester explained why he and others of his times were so excited about the stages of early development in the embryo. They saw some connections in the embryos of lizards, birds and elephants which appeared to bear little resemblance to one another as adults. Although the youngest embryos in a related group usually look different, they then grow to look very similar, then become different again. In this hourglass shape, the middle waist was when the body plan was laid down, a time of minimal anatomical divergence. No wonder these late Victorian biologists thought there was some relationship between the way an embryo developed and the way it evolved, that ontogeny followed the same path as phylogeny.

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Meanwhile, back at University College in London at the end of the 1870s, Lankester’s alternative ideas of degeneration became more sophisticated, especially following the discussions he had had in Italy and Germany with his friend there Carl Dohrn (1806-1892) whose 1875 book gave Lankester more support for his own observations of embryo development. He began to formulate his own version of how degeneration might account for some evolutionary changes. After Darwin’s death these thoughts were set against growing support for environment-influenced along straight Lamarckian pathways.


Degeneration: a chapter in Darwinism was the title both of Lankester’s Presidential Address to the Zoology Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Sheffield in 1879 and of a short book, based on that lecture, which he published afterwards. Heavily based on Haeckel’s ideas of recapitulation, it differed in avoiding a linear pathway of evolution. Lankester gave lots of examples of species with unused organs, domestic ducks with smaller wings, blind cave animals and even rare families of humans with extraordinary musical talents. Not only did he risk being labelled a Lamarckian but the very mention of humans brought him face to face with political groups accusing him of destroying the structure of society with pornography and other decadent threats.

Could humans degenerate to a simpler form of society? Evolution was normally seen to turn the primitive into the advanced and civilised. Alternatively, instead of seeing evolution as progress Lankester was arguing the opposite. Could it sometimes return to the form of an earlier generation? Could this even explain different racial and even specific characters? Instead of representing progress and reform maybe evolution could also represent regression and decline. Quickly, this idea caught on with others who saw it as a possible explanation of the new tendencies in the arts, Dandyism, naturalism and mysticism.

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Others had it explain how some races had evolved less far than European ones while others had developed into decadence: the hourglass observations meant it may even be genetically controlled rather than socially.

Lankester joked that he saw this kind of degeneration in many men when they inherit a fortune.  But his idea backfired seriously when it was taken up by conservatives who cherished evolution as the Creator’s domain. They still argued in the 1880s that God had put humans at the top of a mountain of complexity, the argument that Lamarck had begun in 1809. If the respectable Dr Jekyll created the damnable young Mr Hyde, so other top humans could control lower forms by Lankester’s device of degeneration. The idea encouraged well-known Victorian thinkers such as Herbert Spencer and Samuel Butler to turn against Darwin’s words and twist them to their own ends. Humans do have some control over parts of the environment though the full consequences of this were not clear to anyone in their day.

There was also much that angered Lankester about the fashionable pursuit of spiritualism that swept Britain and North America through the 1870s and 1880s. The very assumption of contacting the dead, let alone the process and practice of communicating with them was too much for a scientist to take seriously. And certainly this process was serious for millions of people then, sitting at cloth-covered tables, in heavily curtained dim drawing rooms, where every sound was heard with suspicion and hope. To Lankester’s mind it was a proposition that was there only to be falsified, and that is what he set out to do.


An event in 1876 gave him a wonderful opportunity and stimulated him to challenge some of those involved. It was a remarkable address given to the British Association by none other than Alfred Wallace who spoke in support of spiritualism as a scientifically valid process. That evening, Lankester wrote a letter to The Times complaining that the lecture had brought the Association and science into disrepute. The rumpus that followed attracted the full glare of publicity and involved Lankester prosecuting one of Wallace’s spiritualist friends for fraud. The hearing at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court lasted several weeks and attracted huge public interest. Wallace spoke in the defendant’s favour, as did Arthur Conan Doyle, while a professional illusionist showed how the trick could have been performed. Wallace’s friend was found guilty under the Vagrancy Act and after an Appeal he went back to the United States. The whole affair made séances far less fashionable and Ray Lankester became the most well-known professor in the country. But it didn’t do Alfred Wallace any good at all.

Lankester was a man of contradictions, not one to be taken in by any over-simplification of the complex systems of biology. He strongly believed that arguments were a necessary part of the way human intellect worked things out, and of how they are in nature. So although he strongly disagreed with a lot of the new criticism of natural selection, he did have secret admiration for some of the protagonists.

29. Catastrophe and Mutation 1883-1895

 From June until October 1883 large parts of the Earth were shaded beneath dark clouds of smoke. More than half of the Indonesian island of Krakatau was thrown up into the atmosphere and tsunamis killed more than 36,000 people along the coast in Java and Sumatra, 40km away. The effects on climate and weather lasted for over a year and they were global.

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The island actually increased in size with new volcanic ash up to 80m thick and in effect the whole area had been sterilised so that animal and plant life ceased. The following year someone saw a single spider and “a few blades of grass”, then more plants and a few birds and insects arrived from the island of Sebesi, 12kms away. Slowly, life started to return to something like it was before. Within fifty years the entire surface was re-colonised with forest but the changing succession, the sequence of changes to return to the stable flora and fauna, continued for several decades. Arguably it is still going on, well over a hundred years later. But a sudden event such as an explosion followed by a hundred years recovery was just one trivial catastrophe on a geological time-scale. For biological evolution it was a small turn of the screw, just one more environmental change. The eruption advanced interest in catastrophic events in nature and biologists learnt a lot. For example, when things moved onward more rapidly than was normal, it showed that there were major consequences for the environment of the region and for its biodiversity.

The immediate concerns of the scientists involved were to improve their understanding of volcanic activities so that one day they might be predictable. Others were able to use the new virgin territory to monitor the whole process of re-colonisation of the new island’s species. With his recent field experience in the Himalayas the Royal Society appointed Richard Strachey to chair a group to investigate these scientific aspects of the eruption. For evolutionary biologists the sudden event also raised interest in Frances Galton’s recently aired beliefs that sudden changes in the physical environment might cause evolutionary change. Darwin remained in favour of gradual change, not catastrophic: Galton was opening the argument again with a new theory and the volcanic event at Krakatau helped him keep the debate alive even though most of the biologists in The Royal Society remained highly sceptical.

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Richard Strachey and his family – 1890s

To help understand catastrophism, Galton had raised the metaphor of a rough stone that would “tumble over into a new position of stability” an idea that first appeared publicly as an afterthought at the back of his earlier 1869 book Hereditary Genius.1.2

Now he had good discussions with Richard Strachey about Krakatau so he brought the same metaphor into the main argument of his second important book about evolution published in1889, Natural Inheritance. Galton liked gadgets and so this time he made a wooden model of the rough stone, a few centimetres in diameter with 64 surfaces. He took it with him to demonstrate at his lectures all around the country and he called it his “polyhedron”: tipping the model to tumble onto one stable surface after another, each tumble taking it to a new position of stability until the next catastrophe.

Steve Gould called it “evolution by jerks”.

Similar thoughts were going on in the minds of a different kind of life scientists, those few new biologists beginning to measure inside reproductive cells. But cells were vulnerable to their own kind of catastrophe otherwise known as mutation, a phenomenon noticed by one of Darwin’s acquaintances, the horticulturist Hugo de Vries. This Dutchman bred varieties of evening primrose and in 1889 he observed that a larger version than normal had appeared in an instant during his breeding programme and it was stable, surviving from one generation to another. Although the Cambridge plant and animal breeder, William Bateson, suspected it to be a hybrid rather than a new species he agreed that its sudden appearance was important and should be investigated further as a possible example of a new mutant. There was also the difficulty for these breeders about what these words meant: species, variety, hybrid and mutant.

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Were such instant new forms, de Vries and Galton wondered, compatible with the more gradual changes foreseen by Darwin? They noticed a lot of continuing support for change being cause by environmental changes, especially catastrophic ones rather than the familiar gradual trends. And there was still no sign of evidence to support any other kind of selection. There seemed to be a return to the idea of straight adaptation to a new environment, more like Lamarck’s continuous changes than Darwin’s selection of one or another.

Support for natural selection was reduced even more by a split between its two most fervent backers, Galton and Lankester, respectively the quantifier and the qualifier. Lankester’s limited powers in diplomacy were not going to help even though he understood both sides and tried to keep them together. For Galton, measuring seemed to be taking over from feeling, and instead Lankester stuck with the old methods to which slow hard work describing intricate new structures would eventually answer all the important questions. There was no new evidence to bring things together. Instead there was an unhappy set-back in 1895: the death of Thomas Huxley.  Lankester was devastated: “There has been no man or woman whom I have met on my journey through life, whom I have loved or regarded as I have him, and I feel that the world has shrunk and become a poor thing, now that his splendid spirit and delightful presence are gone from it. Ever since I was a little boy, he has been my ideal and my hero.”

The conflicts became obvious just after Huxley’s death but the foundations went back at least a decade and arguably much longer. Lankester began to notice the split showing up between his friends as their personalities and experiences took them in opposite directions. One group went outwards into space and time, keeping an open mind on how things worked; the other went inwards to the cell, looking for smaller and smaller units and expecting them to hold the key to it all. Lankester knew that studying evolutionary biology was one way to get down to the brass tacks about the meaning of life.

30. Statistics against Biometrics 1895-1906

Francis Galton was 25 years older than Ray Lankester and for some years they had lived nearby on the southern side of Hyde Park where they often talked about their different attitudes to science.

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Galton believed the answer to the question of life could be measured, yet his main problem was that he didn’t have much data. He offered a challenge to Lankester about his elaborate plans for an Anthropometric Laboratory, with which he was going to collect a lot of data and analyse them. The project was being set up just down the road in South Kensington to measure physical and behavioural features from visitors to the International Health Exhibition. It was a small roving exhibition and volunteers were measured for things like head size and shape, then the results were compared to social status and other factors. Galton was also collecting data about the intelligence of whole families, though a lot of the detail seemed even then to be of dubious social, let alone scientific, acceptability. One of his expectations was to devise an index to measure the range of human intelligence.

Interested and able to get involved with this kind of analysis was Carl Pearson, a student of marine biology and statistics who Lankester had encouraged to go to Naples with Weldon. Pearson was brought up in archetypal Victorian middle class family tradition. His domineering father was a successful hard-working barrister who paid no attention to his family during term-time. Holidays were for that kind of thing and it was then that the youngsters would be taken shooting and fishing, all strictly under his control.  Carl was sent to school at Rugby and then studied mathematics at Cambridge. In 1879 he got a First and was elected to the Fellowship of King’s College Cambridge. He hated anything compulsory and argued with his colleagues about the divinity classes that he had to attend with all the other Fellows.

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The freedom of the Cambridge life-style allowed Pearson to visit Berlin and Heidelberg regularly and he took an interest in the contemporary German philosophers who were so busy then. He admired the new left wing politics and JBS Haldane argued later that it was Marx’s influence that caused him to change his name from Carl to Karl. But statistical mathematics excited him most and the new data being accumulated by people like Francis Galton presented him with very attractive applications.

Statistical analysis is an advance from what he’d been doing with Raphael Weldon at the Marine Station in Naples a few years previously. Weldon had followed Lankester’s main interest in marine life and spent time at the Naples laboratory and later at Plymouth, but was more and more aware that evolution was a statistical problem. Then, a major challenge was to provide more data for analysis and Weldon obtained measurements of the death rates of crabs and snails. In 1889 he took Lankester’s job at University College where he became well known as a great teacher. He also continued Lankester’s fight to defend the independence of University College and King’s College against their amalgamation as a new Albert University. Lankester had left London for an unhappy decade at Oxford, leaving the young scientists to take over many of his projects. It also put them under the influence of Galton and enlisted them both in the programme for a statistical solution to the problems of heredity and evolution.

Earlier, while he was an undergraduate at Cambridge, Weldon had been friendly with William Bateson who strongly favoured mutation as the cause of most change in evolution. Bateson presented the idea as his theory of discontinuous evolution, showing it as two peaks in the population of an earlier single species. He explained it in detail in what he hoped would become a student bible, Materials for the Study of Variation published in 1894. But he over-emphasising the role of mutation and gave no place for environmental influences. With Lankester out of the way in Oxford there was peace between these four quantitative scientists and they teamed up as Galton and Pearson, Bateson and Weldon. The harmony was not going to last for very long.

None of them gave much attention to Darwin’s ideas on natural selection until Alfred Wallace was asked to review Bateson Materials book. The next day he had the good chance to bump into Weldon in London and they talked about Bateson’s dismissal of many ideas that Darwin had cherished. Sharing their anger after that initial exchange Wallace and Weldon went away intent on going public with their criticisms of the biased approach and they both gave bad notices for the book. What had been a strong friendship at Cambridge between Bateson and Weldon became a bitter and nasty battle in their later lives. Galton continued to support the book because it added to the cause of his own polyhedron model and was one in the eye for his cousin’s old-fashioned insistence on gradualism.

A rare defender of mainstream Victorian values, and Charles Darwin in particular, was Sir William Thistleton-Dyer, the new Director of Kew Gardens who took over from Hooker in 1885. He shared the need for stability of the mean and agreed with Weldon about Bateson’s neglect of outside influences on evolution. Dyer made that same point in 1895 when he suggested that different coloured varieties of the ornamental flowering plant Cineraria were hybrids and not random mutants.

220px-ThiseltonDyer  th-14

His observations were that the different colours formed gradually not suddenly, though whether that meant they weren’t mutants wasn’t very clear then. This intervention attracted the wrath of Bateson in the correspondence columns of Nature and Weldon soon joined in. Bateson took the criticism personally and from then on his Cambridge group, studying mutations in what became Mendelian Genetics, were at war with the London school of statistical biometrics.

Most biologists agreed that experiments were needed to settle these questions and that some statistical analysis of the results could be very useful. The argument about mutations had divided those with a quantitative outlook on evolution, leaving hapless observers like Lankester and Wallace on the side-lines, feeling useless relics of another age. Their interests in evolution were far away from the mathematical theory that had entered the discussions and they felt isolated from the young generation. A serious divide had been made much deeper and science was moving on faster all the time.

So with this in mind, over a working lunch at his club in 1893, Herbert Spencer entertained Galton, Weldon, Wallace and Lankester to a discussion about “conducting statistical enquiry into the variability of organisms.” They agreed that the statistical method was the only one by which Darwin’s hypothesis could be experimentally checked.

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Later this group became the Evolution Committee of the Royal Society, which confirmed to Lankester that he was one of the few biologists then who still wanted to look outside at the whole organism and then towards the physical environment. Most others were on the new mission to the smallest part of the cell, expecting to join with the chemists and physicists and find mathematically defined laws. It frightened him that both directions of study were so vast, suggesting that progress in understanding the biology of life was going to be very slow, however fast one part of the science might be moving.

Despite the attempts of Wallace and Weldon to bring the sides together, the last few years of the nineteenth century saw a rapid decline in support for natural selection, encouraged by the Bateson affair and the continuing absence of evidence for adaptation. Galton worried that he might die before the elusive agent of heredity was discovered and to add to that despair his wife did die in 1898. Accidentally, he was kept going by stumbling across some very exciting new data, the pedigree of a large family of Basset hounds with white and yellow patches and he was able to trace the heritage back several generations. He used the data to establish the distribution of each parent’s contribution going back four and more generations. Overjoyed with such good data for analysis, Karl Pearson described the patterns of inheritance for the white and yellow patches with a series of new equations. To cheer up his depressed boss he incorporated them into a Happy New Year card, and through Galton’s warm reaction it gave all the London biometricians a new lease of life for the next battle with Cambridge.

That came sooner than they expected because Bateson was the referee of the manuscript setting out Pearson’s equations, and though the mathematics may have been original, the biology was bad. Bateson took great delight in rejecting the manuscript. In anger, the London group decided to begin a journal of their own for such articles on topics crossing the boundaries of traditional disciplines. They called it Biometrika, a name like Pearson’s own, spelt with a k not a c (and which is still publishing high quality work). Even with this divided opposition, Lankester was side-lined in his defence of Darwin and the holistic view he still had for all of nature.

No-one would have guessed anything special was going to happen when William Bateson caught the train from Cambridge to London one morning in May 1900. He had been invited to give a lecture to the Royal Horticultural Society in Chelsea, about what was being called Galton’s Law. It came from the conclusions of Galton’s analysis of the white and yellow patches on Basset hounds that had just been published and stated that parents contributed equally to their offspring’s inherited matter. On the slow train journey Bateson happened to turn to some papers that he had bundled into his bag and there he found an unread reprint of an article published 34 years earlier. The author was Gregor Mendel.

Bateson realised that the characters that Mendel had counted over several generations of peas showed a pattern was carried from one generation to the other. Whatever this mechanism, Bateson thought the forty year old manuscript by Mendel had some important messages for plant breeders, a different kind of detail to Galton’s and that difference was important. Legend has it that before his train reached Liverpool Street Station in London he had decided to change his lecture and share Mendel’s work with his audience at the Chelsea Society. The audience remained silent, unaware of the importance of the monk’s breeding experiments, let alone why such dull work should be presented with such excitement. It was an uncanny repeat of the silence after the Darwin and Wallace paper was read out to the Linnean Society 42 years earlier.


Wanting to share his discovery further, Bateson wrote to alert Galton to the manuscript “in case you may miss it. Mendel’s work seems to me one of the most remarkable investigations yet made on heredity, and it is extraordinary that it should have got forgotten.” Like the audience in Chelsea, Galton did not respond and it took several years for the penny to drop in other peoples’ minds. To be fair to these observers, it was easy to miss the point from Mendel’s funny little experiments crossing different varieties of peas. For the uninitiated, and that was the vast majority, counts of which pea types had shown up in the next generation were a long way from finding Darwin’s missing units of inheritance.

Attracting hardly any interest, Bateson was left feeling that he had over-reacted to the Mendel article and that his own idea was best after all. It was six years since he had first suggested that hereditary features were transmitted by vibrations rather than by discrete particles. He became so pre-occupied with this hypothesis that he preferred to dismiss all other explanations of evolution out of hand. He summarised Darwin in one line: “Selection is a true phenomenon; but its function is to select, not to create”. He was convinced that Darwin had got it wrong and the London group around Galton and Pearson were beyond the pale.

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After all, there was still a possibility that his own theory of vibrating messages would show Mendelian ratios and that he had been right to get excited about the re-discovered manuscript. So with this always in his mind he never did accept the chromosomal account of inheritance.

Some people, like de Vries, saw mutation as hereditary change showing up as splitting one species into two, big evolutionary jumps, more dramatic than anything Darwin had anticipated in the world of gradual change. Later in the decade “mutation” became associated with smaller changes, encouraged by replacing the difficult expression “Mendelian Factor” with the simple term “gene”.

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These changes in single characters were usually happening within a species, one simple character controlled by one gene. Even Darwin had expected that mechanisms such as mutation might account for evolutionary change in addition to the more important process of natural selection. In the last sentence of the Introduction to the Origin he wrote: “I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.”

In all parts of the life sciences the quantitative approach was gaining ground. With this trend were Pearson and Weldon who used mathematics to test the validity of Mendel’s own data and whose results appeared to be too good to be true: there was nearly 100% validity, an unheard-of result that made them suspect that someone had fiddled the calculation. But who would want to do such a thing, and with what motive?  Bateson did not accept the criticism and saw Weldon’s questioning of Mendel’s conclusions as an over-reaction. Ever more determined, Weldon went on looking for evidence of adaptation in his snails and crabs, measuring their death rates, looking for signs of extinction of old species and origin of new ones. But he didn’t find any new evidence and blamed that on the complexity of the way his organisms showed their adaptation and selection. This was no way of gaining support from an already disillusioned group of Darwin supporters.

Bateson took an even stronger line against the London statisticians in Pearson’s circle and the bitter dispute about the nature of evolution and the value of the statistical method continued to rage. The battle over Mendel’s data reached its climax at the 1904 British Association meeting that happened to be in Cambridge where the audience was hostile to the London side. In response, a complacent Bateson was the proud host and felt confident that his students would give some good talks. In the event there was a series of dull displays of statistical analysis from the Londoners and the presentations of breeding experiments from Bateson’s Cambridge group were not much better. At the end, Pearson offered to bring the two sides together: the chairman looked around at the blank faces of the Cambridge audience and saw little enthusiasm for this: “But what I say is: let them fight it out!” The audience broke up into small groups, each wondering which side another was on, and many thinking that strong leadership could have led the scientists out of this hole. Instead, most of the positive work was being done miles away in New York and the English contribution was about to turn into tragedy.

Weldon was eager to accept the challenge from that meeting and his first chance for reconciliation came later in the year when the Royal Society asked him to referee a manuscript from one of Bateson’s supporters. It took data from the pedigrees of race horses and found what the author argued to be Mendelian ratios in the coat colours: bay and brown being dominant to the chestnut recessive. Weldon was unhappy with the author’s colour assignments, fearing they had been altered to give good results, and asked the author to clarify the methodology and the definition of his characters. The great row that inevitably followed ended in the work eventually being published, but with a brief footnote. It highlighted some of the changes that Weldon had demanded, but the fact that the article was published at all gave victory to Bateson’s group.

In despair at this outcome Weldon put all his energy into disproving the article’s results, and that meant him finding evidence of a chestnut mare, crossed with another chestnut, giving birth to a brown or a bay foal. He worked frantically, saying “I cannot leave this thing unsettled” and causing his good friend Pearson to measure the seriousness of the situation by observing that “he used stronger language than I have ever heard him use.” Eventually Weldon found the information he had hoped for and was persuaded to take a family holiday with the Pearsons. That was when the 45 year old Weldon caught a chest infection and he died a few weeks later. It was generally agreed this was from the exhaustion, worry and over-work.

All these incidents between London and Cambridge were based on uncertainty and the battles they created were really about their lack of belief in what Darwin or Mendel had been telling them. More particularly, Darwin’s theory was aggressively rejected by Bateson’s group and Mendel’s was not accepted by Weldon and his London friends. But neither group had anywhere else to turn, other than to the hope that somehow the numbers games would come up with something unexpected.

That was exactly what happened when new calculations laid another of Darwin’s ghosts to rest, the one about the age of the earth and the time that had most likely been available for animal and plant evolution to have happened. In 1904, during one of his public lectures, Rutherford announced his new radiometric dating techniques which measured the half-life of elements such as radium present in particular rocks. His first results suggested a much older age of the earth than had been advocated by Thomson.

200px-J.J_Thomson  Thomson    220px-Ernest_Rutherford_cropped  Rutherford

Afterwards, Rutherford is said to have described his shocked reaction to seeing Thomson in the audience as he began the lecture. “To my relief Thomson fell fast asleep, but as I came to the important part, I saw the old bird sit up, open an eye and cock a baleful glance at me. Then a sudden inspiration came, and I said Thomson had limited the age of the earth, provided no new source of heat was discovered. That prophetic utterance refers to what we are now considering tonight, radium!” Just as Thomson saw through Lyell’s shaky edifice of uniformity, Rutherford had seen through Thomson’s single-tracked thinking about the cooling planet earth: more than one thing was going on at once and that had clouded each process.