13. Geotheories and Revolution 1750-1790

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Geotheory 1

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

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


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

Geotheory 2

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

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

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

Geotheory 3

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

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

Geotheory 4

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


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

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

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


 Geotheory 5

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

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

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

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

Geotheory 6

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

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

Revolution in Hoxton

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

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

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

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

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

34. Five Men Go To War 1914-1918

The most promising ideas about evolutionary biology were kept alive by five brave men, and as with so many campaigns of those years tragedy came to many of their projects. But as well as some serious set-backs two of these men did help sort through the murky detail that had accumulated since Darwin’s death.

The soldiers were JBS Haldane, Ronald Fisher, Jan Smuts and Julian Huxley, while Arthur Tansley worked in munitions. As a group they were never close and they didn’t meet together. Huxley was a polite diplomat and could have been a discrete host, for only he had a relationship with all the others. Instead, they mostly thought and worked alone, though Fisher and Haldane had strangely close and parallel lives. They had similar backgrounds, similar age, schools, Oxbridge, and ended up as biologists at University College London, one was a Christian right winger and the other an atheist and to the left. Fisher the Christian saw God as a benign casino owner with what he called a “design by chance” policy, challenging humanity to work together by self-discipline to save the planet. This made it easy for him to explain natural selection by probability theory. Fisher and Haldane always worked on separate projects, and despite their strong rivalry there are no well-known stories that they ever seriously fell out. However, they did argue incessantly, and when they worked in the same building during the 1920s they were heard to disagree about anything and everything every tea-time.

Of the five warriors only Huxley and Tansley had trained as biologists: Smuts was a lawyer, Haldane a classicist, and Fisher a mathematician. Such intellectual variety enabled them to imbibe rich evolutionary diets, and the violent times cut out a lot of the pre-war rubbish, confusion and personal bickering. It was the time to review the best of what remained and use that to rebuild with fresh plans and techniques.

JBS Haldane (1892-1964), also known as Jack, said he had a good war. As Lieutenant Haldane he raided the German lines at night by throwing grenades into their trenches. As part of an aristocratic family of Scottish baronets, he had been brought up to relish fear and how to work with it, skills that he enjoyed showing off to his uncle who was Minister of War. He was also influenced by his eccentric father, the Professor of Physiology at Oxford, and they often used their own bodies as experimental animals. His mother told how, when Jack was eleven, his pet guinea-pigs were killed by a friend’s dog the day before he came home from Eton. He hated school and had been bullied there from the day he started: then he broke an arm and he discovered that his only defence was his academic brilliance. The tragedy with his guinea-pigs was especially frustrating to him because he’d been counting the progeny to give him precious data so he could test his equations that modelled their breeding. Then his father soon came up with some other new challenges that involved quite dangerous tests breathing toxic gasses. After one decompression experiment he suffered a perforated ear drum which left him somewhat deaf: “one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment.”

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Jack Haldane couldn’t wait to finish his finals exams at Oxford because he was so looking forward to trying out some of his physiology experiments in the real battleground. He joined up as a soldier with the Black Watch as soon as he graduated and went off to the front in Belgium with equipment to monitor respiration and other bodily functions affected by poisonous gas. Before the battle of Aubers Ridge in 1915 Rajah the Bomb, as he was known by his men, wrote to his father: “I am enjoying life here very much. I have got a most ripping job as a bomb officer.”  For Haldane, the war seemed to make little difference to the way he lived and thought in normal life; it was just the kind of work that was new and the company different. What most people thought to be uncomfortable and frightening he didn’t seem to notice.

The same applied for different reasons to Haldane’s great rival Ronald Fisher (1890-1962) who left university for work as a statistician in the City of London. This was not an easy thing for an eager young man to do in that troubled decade but even his good record as a part-time officer in the Territorial Army couldn’t prove that his eyesight was good enough for the recruitment board. Reluctantly he settled for teaching physics and mathematics to cadets and rented a cottage out in the country with his 17 year old wife so they could help the war effort by farming. It also gave him an ideal opportunity to fulfil his own political ideals: if you believed strongly in eugenics, and if you and your mate were healthy and intelligent, you had a duty to society to have a lot of children. It might even begin to help make up for the very high number of officers being killed. th-3   th-2

The quiet country evenings allowed them to concentrate on their work and Fisher continued to try to solve the problem that had kept Cambridge and London apart, the difference between evidence from single characters such as genes and their mutations and evidence from questionnaires about things like height and intelligence. Fisher wrote an article attempting to reconcile the differences between Cambridge and London, focussing on the use of new methods to analyse the data.

Similarly stretched in those times, but from a very different culture, Jan Smuts (1870-1950) was an Afrikaner who had become enough of a professional soldier to live with the new conflict in Europe as his normal routine. Earlier he had led raids in the Boer War, became a Unionist politician hoping to unite the country, was elected to join the government and served as Education Minister. By the outbreak of the First World War he was a General and so he led the British Army to take German East Africa in 1916 while in his free time he pursued his hobby as a field botanist. Already he had become a specialist in South African grasses and had supported a big survey of plants in South Africa, finding great pleasure in looking at nature in the vast African landscape. It was an interest he had enjoyed as a law student at Cambridge in the 1890s, going off for long walks making field observations of wild life in the fens. It was one of his few pleasures in those lonely years, the beauty of nature starkly contrasting with his attraction to some political mission in his homeland. These two apparently extreme parts of his personality were brought together by his actively creative mind as he developed a grand idea he called holism and which he later adapted to controversial ends.

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In South Africa, botany had been a popular hobby for the white elite after the Boer War and Smuts wanted to share its wonder and variety as a national treasure. His vision was to compare his homeland’s great biodiversity with the range of human interests in culture and philosophy. It was what he called holism, and his hope as Education Minister was to bring that broad concept to unite all classes in the new nation. With an essay entitled An Inquiry into the Whole he argued against the tendency of most scientists to split things up into their component parts, preferring to see the system as a whole. It was an unpopular suggestion then, and with little very clear evidence that it might mean anything, so as with Fisher’s manuscript, another set of stiff referees agreed that it should not be published.

That was a pity because the manuscript contained some original ideas about uniting the ever-widening branches of the life sciences. He described these as “the external physical world of energy” and “the internal world of mind and spirit” and argued that these two parts of living systems were needed together, an indivisible unity of The Whole. It was a way of thinking that didn’t fit into war-torn Europe and so Smuts’ good ecological thoughts became lost in history. Something very much like them was to return almost a century later, too late to rescue the world’s natural environment.

Despite his unpopular manuscript, Smuts was a hero in Britain for very different reasons: not only for his military success in South West Africa but later in 1916 for his important advice to the war cabinet. Through those months he lived in the Savoy Hotel overlooking the Thames and the Palace of Westminster, but he found hotel life in the middle of a big city a “very severe strain”. It prevented him from “walking in the country in unity with nature and in quiet from human beings.” But the end of the war was in sight and he felt that Europe had had its day. With his belief that “Holism shall find healing in the Whole from the grievous wounds of the spirit, for the sick soul the Whole is the only Healer” he returned to South Africa as soon as he could. He wanted to promote his own version of holism and that was as good a place to do it as any other.

Meanwhile, the ecologist from Bloomsbury, Arthur Tansley, was 43 years old in 1914 and spent most of the war at the Ministry of Munitions in London. He also tried to keep tabs on the struggle between plants and their changing environment, and he monitored his long-term experiments near the Cambridge fenland that Smuts knew as a student. Tansley went further north to the Norfolk coast, and continued his surveys of woodlands and heath in other parts of Britain. He was doing something more than making static descriptions and lists of species that had become the normal way of conducting this field work. Instead he sought to compare these data alongside the physiological and genetic features of the organisms he saw, integrating as much as he could.

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But even at home, war-time life was a hard struggle and at times it got Tansley down. He was especially traumatised by what had happened to so many young men in the war and he began to have restless nights haunted by vivid dreams. One of these influenced him deeply, causing him to develop an interest in the young discipline of psychology.

I dreamed that I was in a sub-tropical country, separated from my friends, standing alone in a small shack or shed which was open on one side so that I looked out on a wide-open space surrounded by bush or scrub. In the edge of the bush I could see a number of savages armed with spears and the long pointed shields used by some South African native tribes. They occupied the whole extent of the bush-edge abutting on the open space, but they showed no sign of active hostility. I myself had a loaded rifle, but realized that I was quite unable to escape in face of the number of armed savages who blocked the way.

Then my wife appeared in the open space, dressed entirely in white, and advanced towards me quite unhindered by the savages, of whom she seemed unaware. Before she reached me the dream, which up to then had been singularly clear and vivid, became confused, and though there was some suggestion that I fired the rifle, but with no knowledge of who or what I fired at, I awoke.

After a lot of thought about its meaning, the dream inspired Tansley to read the new medical journals and sort through what he thought was the most important work being done in psychology. Then he decided to write about this new way of understanding the human mind and after the war his New Psychology and its Relation to Life soon became a standard introduction to the subject. It sold by the thousand and was read by even more. Inevitably he drew comparisons between his two interests, one attracting much more attention and praise than the other. Only a few specialist scientists read his ecological work in as much detail and the relatively poor response drew him away from ecology towards psychology. It was a challenge that kept attracting those many people still wanting to know what makes humans unique.


The fifth warrior, more an adjudicator, was the 1909 zoology graduate from Oxford, Julian Huxley (1887-1975). He was a much more relaxed and rounded character than the others and even at Eton he had a happy time. Haldane remembered the five-year-senior Huxley trying to cheer him up by giving him an apple, a rare act of kindness. In the spirit of his important grand-father TH Huxley, well-known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”, Julian studied zoology at Oxford and then stayed on to study water birds. With that pedigree and background he was soon invited to set up the biology department at Rice University in Texas. When he first arrived in America in 1912 Huxley visited Harvard and met Sewall Wright, a modest mathematician looking for evolutionary trends and working on guinea pig data.


Among the explanations for some of these was one that all the characters he had chosen were controlled by genes on the same chromosome. These concepts of genes as particles that coded for a character were pretty advanced breakthroughs for the times, and to find evidence for their location on one particular chromosome was even more staggering. But Wright was cautious as well and he wasn’t going to shout about that possibility until he was sure.  th-11     th-10

Likely as not Wright mentioned the new discoveries when Julian Huxley passed through on his way to Texas, but Huxley was also a tactful listener and he was hearing a lot of other exciting new ideas on that journey. The work there meant that he missed joining the war at first but the call to arms was strong and he came back to join the Intelligence Corps. He wrote of being pleased to feel physically fit and then: “In the spring we were sent to a camp at Upstreet, near Canterbury. I remember riding about the peaceful Kentish lanes, lined with white May bushes and pink-flowering horse-chestnuts, in strange contrast to the distant boom of heavy artillery from across the Channel.”

These different war-time experiences had similar effects on all these scientists, focussing their outlook on science to seek clearer and more objective targets. The pain of their friends’ deaths, their own guilt and loneliness as survivors was intense. Haldane and Smuts, the toughest of the group before the war, retained that aggression and arrogance, while Fisher became even more committed to eugenics with its even wider link to facism. They were all hardened by that war and all five of them had developed strong political aims that were to influence their work for the rest of their lives.