JAC: When I wrote my post two days ago about supposed Arab precursors to Darwin, I had some email and phone exchanges with my friend Andrew Berry, an instructor and advisor at Harvard who knows a ton about the history of evolutionary biology. After a recent exchange in which he sent me an informative email, I asked him to flesh it out a bit, as I thought it would make a nice standalone post. Right now there seems to be a resurgence of the claim that many people before Darwin anticipated his ideas in surprising detail. My view is no, they did not: they anticipated the notion of evolution, but nowhere near in as much detail as did Darwin in The Origin; nor did they provide supporting detail to make their theory credible. Finally, nobody (save the Scot Patrick Matthew and, of course, A. R. Wallace) even came close to the mechanism of adaptive evolution—natural selection. I believe, in the essay below, Andrew agrees with that.
But I digress. Here are Andrew’s thoughts on the issue of The Harbingers of Darwinism. He begins by mentioning two errors in my earlier post, which have now been corrected.
by Andrew Berry
First off, a couple of utterly trivial things: 1. Patrick Matthew was Scottish, not English. (Maybe an apparently minor distinction when viewed from the US side of the Atlantic, but not when viewed from the UK side, especially in this era of Brexit and Johnsonian perfidy). 2. Erasmus Darwin did not write a book about evolution. He merely mentioned it in a number of places in his writings, often in verse (his preferred format). In fact, he is responsible for what is surely the best statement ever made of the Descent with Modification component of his grandson’s theory (from Temple of Nature 1803):
Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.
Put that on a T-shirt!
I just wanted to add a general observation: that the VICE piece, and the academic articles it is based on, are part of a long tradition of finding hints of evolutionary thinking in a whole range of pre-Darwin writers. As Jerry mentioned, Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts (2012) is an excellent recent exploration of this area. As scholarship shifts away from a Western focus, my prediction is that Stott will have to produce another edition, with added thinkers from traditions that have not typically been regarded as relevant to what we might call pre-Darwinan studies.
As Stott recounts, many of these thinkers, western or non-western, took significant risks in challenging the reigning orthodoxy (usually religious ideas on origins). My favourite is a Frenchman, de Maillet, who took out a threefold insurance policy against suffering the consequences of heresy for his evolutionary thinking. First, he published his ideas posthumously (the book appeared in 1748, ten years after he died); second, he arranged for the manuscript to be edited by a Catholic priest to make sure his ideas were not too directly antithetical to church doctrine (the problem being that the resulting publication was deprived of de Maillet’s assertiveness), and, most creatively, third, he claimed that his ideas were not his own but were imparted to missionaries by an Indian sage called Telliamed. But de Maillet wasn’t willing to write himself entirely out of the story: Telliamed is ‘de Maillet’ backwards.
Darwin himself provided, in the later editions of the Origin, what he called ‘An Historical Sketch of the Recent Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species’, as a preface to the Origin. This was an account of previous evolutionary ideas. This was not included in the first edition of the Origin and is typically supposed to have been included in later editions as a response by Darwin to criticism post-First Edition that he had ignored the giants whose shoulders he was standing upon. The Origin, remember, was rushed out in response to Alfred Russel Wallace’s 1858 letter. Darwin had been quietly working away on what he called his “big species book” when Wallace intruded, sending a manuscript which laid out, in outline, the very idea that Darwin had been gestating over the previous 20 years. Darwin’s response? To rush out the Origin.
As the students who are required to read it in my courses will tell you, the Origin, at around 500 pages, is a hefty tome. However, for Darwin, it was merely a preliminary statement—a quick and dirty synopsis of his argument. He wanted the word “Abstract” in the title to indicate that this wasn’t his theory in its entirety, but, rather, just a summary. It was his publisher John Murray who persuaded him that 500 pages and “abstract” don’t really go well together. As a result of the rush to print, the Origin has a breathlessness about it: there are no references or citations.
It was not only the references that got cut from the project. We know from Darwin’s correspondence that, as a part of the big book project, he had been working on that Historical Sketch—a review of previous ideas on evolution. However, he chose not to include this in the first edition. As he explained in a letter shortly after the Origin came out in November 1859, “My health was so poor, whilst I wrote the Book, that I was unwilling to add in the least to my labour; therefore I attempted no history of the subject; nor do I think that I was bound to do so.” I think, in fact, he is being a little disingenuous here. The rush to publish the Origin, after all, was all about establishing precedence, declaring that the theory was his (not, implicitly, Wallace’s). I suspect that Darwin’s neglect of prior authorities was, at least in part, deliberate. Wallace is mentioned just four times in the first edition of Origin. And, in his autobiography, Darwin downplayed the influence of his grandfather even though surely his wonderful lilting evolutionary speculations were both historically significant and a prominent part of his family’s lore. Darwin, I suggest, wasn’t above a little modest self-promotion.
Critics, however, were quick to take Darwin to task for trying, by oversight, to suggest that all the ideas in the Origin were entirely his own. And it was presumably in part as a response to these critics that Darwin took to adding the Historical Sketch preface in later editions. The critic most often cited in this regard is Baden Powell (father of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of Scouting; curiously, Baden Powell’s widow, upon his death in 1860, renamed their children to have his full name, Baden Powell, be their surnames, with a hyphen).
This from: The Preface to Darwin’s Origin of Species: The Curious History of the “Historical Sketch” Author(s): Curtis N. Johnson Source: Journal of the History of Biology , Sep., 2007, Vol. 40 pp. 529-556 [JAC: free download at the link]:
“Shortly after the Origin originally appeared in November, 1859, Darwin received a letter from Baden Powell, Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford (1827-60), apparently suggesting (from what may be inferred from Darwin’s response – the Powell letter unfortunately has not been found) – that Darwin’s “theory” had been at minimum anticipated well prior to Darwin’s publication, and perhaps, more strongly, that Darwin had been scooped altogether, by Powell and perhaps by others. In the first letter of response to Powell Darwin asserts that not even the “most ignorant [educated person]” could possibly suppose that Darwin “meant to arrogate to myself the origination of the doctrine that species had not been independently created,” and that “if I have taken anything from you, I assure you it has been unconsciously” – words that sound very much as though directed to someone who had suggested some unacknowledged borrowing.”
From 1861, Darwin made sure that his ‘An Historical Sketch of the Recent Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species’ prefaced every edition of the Origin.
Darwin, naturally, sees his list of precursors as evidence of longstanding interest in the topic but not as evidence of a lack of originality on his part. Stott’s book falls in the same tradition: she is pointing out that there was a great deal of interesting pre-Darwinian thought on evolution, but she does not see this as diminishing the significance of Darwin’s contributions.
There is, however, another strand of analysis of pre-Darwinian thought that insists that, by rights, these thinkers should displace Darwin: Darwin, by implication, was either a plagiarist or, at best, willfully ignorant of other thinkers’ work. Or, even more damning, Darwin is wrong, having misinterpreted key components of this prior thinking. Perhaps the fullest expression of this perspective appeared shortly before Darwin died: Samuel Butler’s Evolution Old & New (1879). In it, Butler argues that Darwin’s ideas can all be found in a careful reading of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, of Erasmus Darwin, of Patrick Matthew, of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and, regardless, some of these ideas are in fact superior to Darwin’s.
Appropriately enough, Alfred Russel Wallace was the one who took up the book review cudgel against Butler in the pages of the then relatively youthful science magazine, Nature: “the main object of the book is to show that all these [pre-Darwinian] authors have been right, while Mr. Charles Darwin is altogether wrong; and that the works of the former contain a more philosophical, more accurate, and altogether superior view of the nature and causes of evolution in the organic world than those of the latter.”
Reading over both Darwin’s Historical Sketch and the new Arab additions to the list of pre-Darwinian evolutionists, I am reminded of a comment by historian Peter Bowler in his Evolution, History of an Idea (2009). In recounting the proto-evolutionary conjectures of the Greeks, he notes that, with the benefit of hindsight, we tend, anachronistically, to see ancient thought as presaging modern ideas when perhaps the connection is not really there. Bowler writes that, “Ancient thought is cut and stretched to fit a Procrustean bed defined by our modern categories of analysis.” In our search for pre-Darwinian hints of evolution, I think we keep Procrustes busy.
But as Jerry points out, the single lesson we learn from analyses of pre-Darwinian thought, is that, though interesting and tantalizing, these shards are just parts of something that only became fully realized in the hands of Darwin and Wallace. After all, the very reason Darwin (perhaps reluctantly) added his Historical Sketch preface was to point out that curious evolution-related speculations do not a theory of evolution make.