Pre-Darwin “Darwinians”: a post by Andrew Berry

October 9, 2020 • 12:30 pm

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.


Pre-Darwin “Darwinians”

by Andrew Berry

Jerry’s piece in response to a VICE article on several early Arab thinkers whose ideas presaged the theory of evolution raised a number of interesting points.

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.

29 thoughts on “Pre-Darwin “Darwinians”: a post by Andrew Berry

  1. Matthew did not involve natural selection in speciation (his “ramification”). This is a carelessly, often repeated misinterpretation.

    Please see,

    The Origin of Specious: misunderstandings about Patrick Matthew’s evolutionary thinking
    J F Derry, Joachim L Dagg
    Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, blaa115,
    Published: 29 September 2020

    1. It is. I just spent the last hour trying to re-write something I wrote some years ago in the same fashion. I failed miserably, but it would be pretty cool to see a modern scientific paper written by someone as talented as Erasmus Darwin

  2. Thanks Andrew for that. But I do not understand why people talk about ‘lost’ letters. In the introduction to Darwins letters Page v volume 1, 1887, Francis Darwin says “It was his custim to file all letters received, and when his slender stock of files (“spits” as he called them) was exhausted, he would burn the letters of several years, in order that he might make use of the liberated “spits.” This process, carried on for years, destroyed nearly all letters received before 1862. After that date he was persuaded to keep the more interesting letters, and these are preserved in an accessible form.”

    So I cannot understand why people wonder over what happened to early letters! Sadly all ashes that probably ended up on the garden compost heap…

  3. My only comment is a loud thank you to both of you.

    It is another reason that this web site sparkles and is trusted. I’ve read this entry once–much too quickly–but will be more serious and focused and in less of a hurry later today when I re-read it.

  4. Fascinating history. I find it pretty easy to grant Darwin a little bravado after the publication of “Origin”. After all he changed the world.

    1. Ideas almost never come out of a vacuum, they emerge often in different places because there are other ideas that contribute in some way. But you know this!

      For both of them Malthus was the key that unlocked the door to Natural Selection. As far as we know none of the supposed pre-modern people spent the time Darwin & Wallace did making observations. Obviously Lamarck & Buffon did, but their evolution was not natural selection, & Matthews published his ideas as a part of an obscure book about timber I think, & did not support it with evidence. Indeed Wallace realized that Darwin was the senior partner as it were, as he had amassed so much information in support of the idea. It is just a pity he had not been writing that BIG book – did he call it that? – to a stage when he could publish that.

        1. Yes, a field vole I found – I have its skull, picked clean by ants & flies, Nature’s waste disposal units. I had the avatar years & years ago when I wrote my blog that no one read about 10 years ago, & it linked to my hotmail. I mostly commented here with my UCL email, that came up as ‘Dominic’ but when they made me redundant in May I had to shift to the hotmail, & the (gr)avatar that I had forgotten. Nothing disappears online…

  5. “The Annotated Origin” (James T. Costa, Bellknap/Harvard, 2009) provides the references missing from Darwin’s original book. Highly recommended.

  6. Finding someone non-white who came up with evolution by natural selection is part of wokism. I used to listen to the Things You Missed in History podcast until the host started opened the show about germ theory of disease with a disclaimer that indigenous people somewhere probably came up with it first but that day’s show was focusing on it in Europe.

  7. I still think it’s a travesty that some sci-fi writer from the 30’s or 40’s did not get a Nobel Prize for inventing the laser, because he had the good guy blasting the alien invaders with a ray-gun. What else is a ray but a light ray? Case closed.

  8. Incidentally, I met Rebecca Stott at the Scottish Humanist Society’s conference a year or two ago. It was hosted in the rooms of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which was nice. I didn’t know she’d written a book about evolutionary thinking pre-Darwin, though- I’ll have to check that out! At the conference she was discussing her memoir, ‘In The Days of Rain’, which recounts her upbringing in the Exclusive Brethren, a fundamentalist cultist offshoot of the Christian Plymouth Brethren. I bought the book and had it signed by her, but I’ve yet to get round to reading it, shamefully! She was a very engaging speaker, and a thoughtful and decent woman. Her story is incredibly moving.

  9. Thanks Andrew, and Jerry, for these explications on Darwin’s precursors. I’ll add my 3 cents here. (Then Matthew will need to add his!)

    There’s a long history of tracing Darwin’s ideas back through history, and sort of the ur-text for that is Henry Fairfield Osborn’s From the Greeks to Darwin (1894; available for free at the Biodiversity Heritage Library). It’s an historically interesting work, the first in the Columbia Biological Series, which later published many of the key works in the second wave of the Modern Synthesis (Dobzhansky, Mayr, Simpson, Stebbins), and reflects the fairly muddled thinking of its time: after evolution as such had been accepted, but before the acceptance of natural selection. Osborn had his own theory of evolutionary mechanism, aristogenesis, which seems fairly out there today, but was not out of step with its contemporaries. Osborn made a long list of precursors, but as Andrew sagely notes, “curious evolution-related speculations do not a theory of evolution make.” (Another list of these precursors has been posted by Andrew’s colleague at Harvard, William (Ned) Friedman.)

    Wallace, of course, was not a curious speculator, and Darwin recognized this. Though, as Andrew explicates in his account of the addition of the “Historical Sketch”, the first edition of the Origin has limited citation to earlier work, Wallace was acknowledged for his “excellent memoir” on pages 1-2 of the first edition (which must have raised Wallace’s visibility substantially).

    And finally, Patrick Matthew’s work (and thanks to J.F. Derry and Joe Felsenstein for links to recent analyses of this): one of my favorite publications by Darwin is one of his shortest, his response in the Gardener’s Chronicle to Matthew’s assertion of priority. Here it is in full (from the essential Darwin Online edited by John van Wyhe):

    I have been much interested by Mr. Patrick Matthew’s communication in the Number of your Paper, dated April 7th. I freely acknowledge that Mr. Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection. I think that no one will feel surprised that neither I, nor apparently any other naturalist, had heard of Mr. Matthew’s views, considering how briefly they are given, and that they appeared in the appendix to a work on Naval Timber and Arboriculture. I can do no more than offer my apologies to Mr. Matthew for my entire ignorance of his publication. If another edition of my work is called for, I will insert a notice to the foregoing effect.

    When I was in graduate school, I had an extract from this taped to my office door, under the heading, “The importance of not publishing obscurely”.


    1. Darwin did reply, “I freely acknowledge that Mr. Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection.”, but he only had Matthew’s extract and a review (probably written by Jane, not John, Loudon) to go by.

      From this limited information he was unable to ascertain that Matthew intended to answer the earlier species question: how are species maintained, in stasis, as suggested by the aeons of regularity in the fossil record. Darwin and Wallace saw the role of biogeography in explaining this pattern (animals move!). Matthew simply applied the age-old concept (at least Lucretius onwards) of natural selection to maintain the fixity of species. That is for what he was claiming priority.

      In contrast to Darwin’s evolution by natural selection Matthew’s adaptation, leading to speciation, was a teleological, Lamarckian internal force in response to environmental change, with the process devoid of natural selection (Derry & Dagg 2020).

  10. Thank you for this fascinating article and all the great comments. It has raised my spirits in a particularly depressing Covid-19
    time. I have a very limited knowledge of this topic, not having read most of the sources mentioned other than “The Voyage of the Beagle” (hope I remembered that right.) Much as I would like to know more, I don’t think I can get it all read in the time I may have left. If only there were an injection!!

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