Evolution: Setting the Stage Part 4

Charnia Pre-Cambrian fossil
Charnia Pre-Cambrian fossil

Evolution from the Beginning

When Charles Darwin published On the Origen of Species in 1859 evolutionary theories had been around for a long time. The third century BC Greek philosopher Epicurus derived a form of evolutionary theory from Democretus’ atomic theory. Lucretius, first century BC Roman poet, proposed it as a logical necessity of naturalism in order to explain life arising from nature alone without divine intervention. It was resurrected in the Renaissance through the Age of Enlightenment in a number of forms. See the table.

Charles Darwin had been introduced to evolutionary theories through his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, a physician, inventor and poet. See an evolutionary verse in the box below. Erasmus Darwin was a friend of William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge and their contemporaries who admired his poetry. Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein after reading of his galvanic experiments on animals. He was an advocate of evolution by acquired characteristics, a theory later popularized by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and which was still later discredited as having no viable mechanism. Charles’ family was wealthy, being associated with the Wedgwood fortune. Both sides of the family were Unitarian free thinkers, but the Wedgwood side leaned toward Anglican, at least socially. In this environment and later through his brother Erasmus’ circle of friends, Charles was exposed to the intellectual elite of the day.

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.

— Erasmus Darwin, The Temple of Nature, 1803


 Evolution theories before Darwin (click to follow link)

Charles’ father Robert was a physician and wished for Charles and his older brother Erasmus Alvey Darwin to follow suite. The brothers attended medical training together at the University of Edinburgh. Erasmus graduated as a physician, but was retired on a pension at age 26 by his father because of his frail health. He spent the rest of his life entertaining the intellectual elite. Charles did badly in medicine, probably because his interests lay elsewhere. While there, he studied with naturalist Robert Edmund Grant who was a proponent of Lamarck’s acquired traits evolutionary theory and homology, a belief that similar form meant common ancestry. He learned stratigraphic geology from Robert Jameson and also studied plant classification and taxidermy.

Later, his father sent him to Christ’s College where he received a BA in theology. His father had procured a position for him as an Anglican pastor, but Charles never was ordained and did not practice. More interested in natural history, he studied botany and geology and aspired to travel for study in the tropics, a popular avocation of young men of independent means. One of his professors, John S. Henslow, got him an unpaid position on the HMS Beagle as gentleman’s companion to Captain Robert FitzRoy on a voyage to map the coastline of South America. Darwin spent his time collecting fossils, plants and animals from South America to the Galapagos Islands to Polynesia. Because Professor Henslow popularized the collections he sent back before his return, Darwin was a celebrity when he arrived home.

When Charles returned from his five year around the world trip in 1836, he published detailed journals of the trip, as well as other scientific books, and delivered papers to the Geological, Geographical and Zoological Societies. He spent another twenty years studying barnacles, pigeon breeding and similar subjects. He never addressed Evolution in any of these publications. He did not publish On The Origin of Species for 23 years! Supposedly he did not publish earlier because he feared reprisals, but being of independent means, being recognized as an authority in his field, and actively dialoging with leaders of the day about other theories of transmutation of species, this seems to be a thin excuse invented by later authors. This excuse was never alluded to in his book. Instead, he described working on it steadily over all those years and that he chose to publish his “abstract” (On the Origin of Species) due to failing health, although he said it would take three or four more years to complete his work.

It wasn’t until Alfred Russell Wallace, a naturalist and admirer, sent Darwin his observations and theory of Evolution while still away on a voyage to the Malay Archipelago and Borneo, that Darwin’s theory was (hurriedly?) presented and published, establishing primacy over Wallace. To his credit, when his friend Charles Lyell presented the joint papers[1] to the Linnaean Society, Darwin acknowledged Wallace as co-founder of the theory. Claiming to have sat on his theory for over twenty years, he rushed to publish On the Origin of Species which he described as an unfinished manuscript without supporting facts, acknowledgements or references[2]. This state was little improved even in the Sixth (and last) Edition, which was only minimally changed from the first edition except for historical recognition of others before him and attempts to address some of the most important scientific criticisms.

I have always wondered whether Wallace was the true originator of a theory that Darwin had overlooked in his own observations, although he had written letters to Joseph Hooker and Asa Gray earlier hinting at an evolutionary theory. Did Wallace provide the link that brought all his speculations together? Because he was backed up by his friends Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell in his claim of primacy, we may never know. It is sure that the scientific reputation of Wallace declined, while Darwin’s grew. It is interesting to note that Wallace later rejected the theory as lacking both mechanism and sufficient evidence. Others have also speculated about Wallace being the true originator of the theory.

[1] Presented as On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and On the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection. It was composed of two papers, Wallace’s On the Tendencies of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type and Darwin’s Abstract Extract from an Unpublished Work on Species along with Abstract of a Letter to Asa Gray (to establish primacy).

[2] On the Origin of Species, first edition, Introduction, paragraph 3 & 4.

One thought on “Evolution: Setting the Stage Part 4

  1. boammarruri December 16, 2016 / 6:13 pm

    Your writing on Darwin’s background has been insightful and informative in helping me understand the political nature of Darwinian evolution.


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