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A brief, but imperfect, historical sketch of a ‘considerable revolution’ Barbara Continenza University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’, Department of History, Culture and Society, Italy

Was the theory of evolution ‘in the air’ when Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859? Had natural selection been glimpsed by other scholars concerned with the increasingly problematic issues of natural history? In the third English edition of Origin of Species, published in 1861, he wrote the following: ‘I WILL here attempt to give a brief, but imperfect sketch of the progress of opinion on the Origin of Species. The great majority of naturalists believe that species are immutable productions, and have been separately created. This view has been ably maintained by many authors. Some few naturalists, on the other hand, believe that species undergo modification, and that the existing forms of life have descended by true generation from pre-existing forms’.1 Why did Darwin decide at a certain point in 1861 to place a ‘historical sketch’ before the introduction to his work? And why did he wait until the third edition of The Origin of Species to include the kind of historical review with which scientific works customarily opened? Although in later editions the structure of the historical sketch remained essentially unchanged, in the sixth and last edition of the Origin of Species (published in 1872), its title was to be slightly modified to: ‘‘HISTORICAL SKETCH OF THE PROGRESS OF OPINION ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, PREVIOUSLY TO THE PUBLICATION OF THE FIRST EDITION OF THIS WORK’’.2 The first edition of the Origin, therefore, stands as a kind of watershed and the Historical Sketch should perhaps be read less as a reconstruction of theoretical and conceptual links to the past, as one would normally expect, than as an assertion of a break with the historical continuity. The list of authors cited by Darwin as evidence of the progress of opinion on the origin of species does seem designed to emphasise the revolutionary nature of the theory as well as to proclaim Darwin’s originality and priority in formulating the ideas of both descent with modification and, especially, natural selection (Figure 1). Corresponding author: Continenza, B. ([email protected]). Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (London, 18613), xiii. http:// darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F381&viewtype=text&pageseq=1. 2 In fact, the Sketch had already appeared in a shorter form in the first German edition (1860) and in the fourth American printing (1860). Available online 29 October 2014 1


Surprisingly little systematic attention has been given to the Historical Sketch in the literature, as noted by Curtis N. Johnson in his extensive and detailed essay of 2007 dedicated to the subject. Here Johnson traces the ‘curious history’ of the Historical Sketch and highlights its controversial nature: the lack of clarity as to how it evolved in Darwin’s mind, the question of why he wrote it when he did, and what he hoped to accomplish by using it as a preface to the Origin of Species. Darwin’s belated decision to publish a historical note is normally attributed to the criticisms that were advanced by various reviewers of the first edition of the Origin of Species who reproached him for having failed to recognise the scholars who had preceded him.3 In particular, there appears to be a close connection between Darwin’s receipt of a letter from Baden Powell, which was lost but the contents of which can be reconstructed on the basis of two letters written by Darwin on the same day (18 January 1860), and his Historical Sketch which would be completed within a month (8 or 9 February 1860).4 In the first answer to Baden Powell, Darwin puts forward health reasons to explain the absence of a historical note in the first edition of the Origin of Species, but he does not seem to be willing to accept that it was his duty to provide any kind of justification for having claimed as his own ideas taken from others, including Baden Powell. He assures Baden Powell that he will re-read his essay,5 evidently mentioned in the letter sent by Powell, in order to assess the closeness of their ideas and states that: ‘‘Had I alluded to those authors who have maintained, with more or less ability, that species have not been separately created, I should have felt myself bound to have given some account of all; namely, passing over the ancients, Buffon (?) Lamarck (by the way his erroneous views were curiously anticipated by my Grandfather), Geoffroy St. Hilaire & especially his son Isidore; Naudin; Keyserling; an American (name this minute forgotten); the Vestiges of Creation; I believe some Germans. Herbert Spencer; & yourself. – the task would have been not a 3 Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Power of Place (New York, 2002); Adrian Desmond, James Moore, Darwin (New York, 1991). 4 See Curtis N. Johnson, ‘The Preface to Darwin’s Origin of Species: The Curious History of the ‘Historical Sketch’’, Journal of the History of Biology, 2007, 40, 529–556. 5 Baden Powell, ‘The Unity of Worlds’, in Essays on the Spirit of the Inductive Philosophy, the Unity of Worlds, and the Philosophy of Creation (London, 1855).

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Figure 1. Charles Darwin. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portraits_of_Charles_Darwin#mediaviewer/ Source: File:Charles_Darwin_aged_51.jpg.

little difficult, & belongs rather to the Historian of Science than to me. I ought also to have alluded to chief maintainers of opposite doctrines. – I had intended in my larger book to have attempted some such history; but my own catalogue frightens me. I will, however, consult some scientific friends & be guided by their advice.’’6 But, on the same day, Darwin wrote another letter to Baden Powell: ‘‘I have just bethought me of a Preface which I wrote to my larger work, before I broke down and was persuaded to write the now published Abstract [i.e., the Origin]. In this Preface I find the following passage, which on my honour I had as completely forgotten as if I had never written it.’’7 The passage to which Darwin refers and quotes in full in the letter is almost identical to what shortly after appears in the Historical Sketch (see below) in relation to Baden Powell. The two letters to Baden Powell and his temporary amnesia raise difficult questions and make it hard to resolve the question as to when Darwin actually wrote his Historical Sketch. The list, in the first letter to Powell, of a large number of the authors who then appear in the sketch, suggests that Darwin could somehow make reference to something that he had already elaborated, at least in part, and the existence of which, moreover, may make more plausible the interval of time, otherwise too short, elapsed between the response to Baden Powell and the conclusion of the drafting of the sketch. Johnson’s detailed analysis, in fact, explores different and complex factors that lead to the conclusion that Darwin had indeed already – while writing the ‘big book on species’ which he began in 1856 – drafted at least a first version of the sketch. But what is relevant here is that Darwin, as Johnson writes, ‘‘should have felt a strong incentive to produce a history of the subject as a preface to his own work. His great desire was not only to bring forward a powerful new theory about the origin of species 6 7

Letter from Darwin to Baden Powell, 18 January 1860. Second letter from Darwin to Baden Powell, 18 January 1860.


in nature, but to establish his own priority and originality in finding it’’.8 Originality and priority may be distinct questions, though on several occasions Darwin would seem to have confused them.9 One can be original and yet not achieve priority with respect to a given scientific theory if someone else is first into print. The history of science is full of cases that document independent, contemporaneous discoveries. The fact is that just two years after the first publication of the Origin of Species, Darwin found himself presenting a short and imperfect historical sketch which at the same time was the sketch of an ‘abstract’, since the same Origin was regarded by Darwin as an ‘abstract’. ‘‘This Abstract, which I now publish – ‘he wrote in his Introduction’ to Origin of Species – must necessarily be imperfect. I cannot here give references and authorities for my several statements’’.10 Darwin had worked continuously, from 1837 onwards, on the ‘mystery of mysteries’, the origin of species. But even though his work was nearly finished, he wrote ‘‘I have been urged to publish this Abstract’’.11 Wallace, ‘unconscious means’ or victim of plagiarism? In the Introduction to the first edition of the Origin of Species, Darwin himself concisely but reliably explains the reasons that led him to publish his ‘abstract’ in such a short time: ‘‘I have more especially been induced to do this, as Mr. Wallace, who is now studying the natural history of the Malay archipelago, has arrived at almost exactly the same general conclusions that I have on the origin of species. Last year he sent to me a memoir on this subject, with a request that I would forward it to Sir Charles Lyell, who sent it to the Linnean Society, and it is published in the third volume of the Journal of that Society. Sir C. Lyell and Dr. Hooker, who both knew of my work – the latter having read my sketch of 1844 – honoured me by thinking it advisable to publish, with Mr. Wallace’s excellent memoir, some brief extracts from my manuscripts.’’12 Thus, even before the Origin of Species saw light, we can detect the elements that were to animate an endless debate on Darwin’s priority, his originality and, consequently, on the degree to which his ideas were revolutionary. The event that impelled Darwin to speed up the publication of the Origin of Species, as is well known, was Wallace’s essay ‘On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type’,13 received through the post on 18 June 1858. Darwin was shocked. As he wrote to Lyell when sending him the essay by Wallace: ‘‘Some year or so ago, you recommended me to read a paper by Wallace in the Annals, which had interested you. . . He has to day sent me the enclosed & asked me to forward it to you. It seems to me well worth reading. Yours words have come true with a vengeance – that I 8

Johnson, ‘The Preface to Darwin’s Origin of Species, 533. Ibid. Darwin, Origin, 1859, 2 11 Ibid., 1 12 Ibid., 1–2. 13 Alfred R. Wallace (1858) ‘On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type’, in C. Darwin, A. R. Wallace, ‘On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection’, Journal of the Linnean Society of London (Zoology), 1858, III, 53–62. 9



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should be forestalled. . . I never saw a more striking coincidence; if Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract.’’14 Darwin asked Lyell to return the manuscript; although Wallace had not expressed this wish, he would certainly have had to send it to some journal for publication. Darwin added: ‘‘So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed. Though my Book, if it will ever have any value, will not be deteriorated; as all the labour consists in the application of the theory.’’15 At this point, Darwin had not yet completed what he calls, in his letter to Lyell, ‘my Book’, the great work which he had begun to write in 1856.16 He had decided to entitle it ‘Natural Selection’ but it was never to be published other than in the form of an abstract, about 500 pages long, entitled the Origin of Species. Darwin saw that Wallace could constitute a serious threat to his own claims of originality. In reality, Wallace’s essay was not comparable to Darwin’s ‘long argument’. Darwin noted that ‘‘all the labour consists in the application of the theory’’ and even in the abbreviated form of the Origin of Species, Darwin was able to adduce far more evidence than Wallace. Nevertheless, Darwin was acutely sensitive to the possibility of losing priority. He was not to make any explicit reference to issues of priority in the Introduction of the Origin of Species, but the immediate circumstances that led to the book’s publication in 1859 were closely linked to the ‘delicate arrangement’17 put in place to address the problem of the independent discovery of natural selection by Darwin and Wallace. The attestation of Darwin’s priority was achieved through the presentation of the texts of both authors to the session of one of the most prestigious scientific societies of the time. The works were presented in alphabetical order, as was the custom. ‘Coincidentally’, the alphabetical sequence reflected the chronological order in which the texts had been written: the two texts of Darwin (1844 and 1857) preceded the one by Wallace (1858).18 Lyell and Hooker explicitly took up no position on the question of priority, but while doing so diplomatically, they left no room for doubt: ‘‘We are not solely considering the relative claims to priority of himself and his friend, but the interests of science generally; for we feel it to be desirable that views founded on a wide deduction from facts, and matured by years of 14 Letter from Darwin to Lyell, 18 June, 1858.The essay by Wallace in the Annals to which Darwin refers to is ‘On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species’, Annals and Magazine of Natural History, vol. XVI-second series, 1855, 16, 184–196. See Barbara G. Beddall, ‘Darwin and Divergence: the Wallace Connection’, Journal of the History of Biology, 1988, 21, 1–68; Michael Shermer, In Darwin’s Shadow. The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace (New York, 2002). 15 Letter from Darwin to Lyell, 18 June, 1858. 16 Darwin had already written two unpublished sketches of his theory in 1842 and in 1844; see Francis Darwin, ed., The Foundations of The Origin of Species. Two Essays Written in 1842 and 1844 (Cambridge, 1909). 17 Shermer, In Darwin’s Shadow; Arnold Brackman, A Delicate Arrangement: The Strange Case of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (New York, 1980). 18 The set of papers presented at the Linnean Society and subsequently published was organised as follows: A. Letter from Charles Lyell and Jos. D. Hooker. London, 20 June, 1858. B. Extract from an unpublished Work on Species, by C. Darwin, Esq., consisting of a portion of a Chapter entitled, ‘On the Variation of Organic Beings in a State of Nature; on the Natural Means of Selection; on the Comparison of Domestic Races and True Species’ (1844) C. Abstract of a Letter from C. Darwin, Esp., to Prof. Asa Gray, Boston, U.S., dated Down, 5 September, 1857. D. ‘On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type’, by Alfred Russel Wallace.



reflection, should constitute at once a goal from which others may start, and that, while the scientific world is waiting for the appearance of Mr. Darwin’s complete work, some of the leading results of his labours, as well as those of his able correspondent, should together be laid before the public.’’19 Originality and priority – as mentioned above – may be distinct questions and no one doubted that Wallace had arrived at his theory by an independent path. As Johnson notes, ‘‘One can be original and yet fail to achieve priority’’. This is what happened to Wallace: ‘‘Darwin was proven by history to have brought the theory into print – if not exactly publication – first.’’20 But, in fact, historical reconstructions around the question of Darwin’s priority are many and different. The events related to the presentation to the Linnean Society of the essays by Darwin and Wallace have been ‘dissected’ and subjected to cross analysis by historians who have highlighted Darwin’s concerns for the originality of his ideas,21 his conflicting feelings about the possibility of being forestalled, as well as his dislike of writing for the sake of priority.22 There has been some discussion among scholars of the possibility of a conspiracy designed to protect the priority of Darwin which builds upon the image of Wallace being sacrificed to Darwin’s determinaiton to safeguard his own priority.23 Actions and intentions related to the fateful arrival of the letter from Wallace on 18 June 1858 have been thoroughly investigated. Following careful studies on the timing of mail delivery, the standard date assigned for the arrival of Wallace’s letter has been questioned and this consequently led to the theory of Darwin plagiarising Wallace’s ideas about the divergence of characters.24 In this vein, Darwin and Wallace have been compared on the basis of their different social backgrounds: the first, a typical representative of the cultural and scientific elite, the second coming from the working class. Every recess has been explored sometimes subtly and sometimes factiously to amplify the conflict between these two men (Figure 2). Wallace, however, was always to assign priority to Darwin. Even many years later, in his autobiography, he explicitly stated: ‘‘I think that I may have the satisfaction of knowing that by writing my article and sending it to Darwin, I was the unconscious means of leading him to concentrate himself on the task of drawing up what he termed ‘an abstract’ of the great work he had in preparation, but which was really a large and carefully written volume – the celebrated ‘Origin of Species’, published in November, 1859.’’25 In addition, as we have seen, since the first edition of the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin mentions Wallace as the man who arrived at almost exactly the same general conclusions as he had himself. He cites the third volume of the Journal of the Linnean Society with the joint 19

Letter from Charles Lyell and Jos. D. Hooker, 20 June, 1858. Johnson, ‘The Preface to Darwin’s Origin of Species, 533 n. 21 Ibid. 22 Shermer, In Darwin’s Shadow; Rebecca Stott, Darwin’s Ghosts. In Search of the First Evolutionists (London, 2012). 23 Roy Davies, The Darwin Conspiracy (London, 2008). 24 Beddall, ‘Darwin and Divergence; David Kohn, ‘Darwin’s Keystone: the Principle of Divergence’, in The Cambridge Companion to the ‘Origin of Species’, eds. M. Ruse and R. J. Richards (Cambridge, 2009), 87–108. 25 Alfred R. Wallace, My Life: A Record of Events and Opinions (London, 19082), 193– 194. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/98619#page/12/mode/1up. 20


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Figure 2. Alfred Russel Wallace. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Russel_Wallace#mediaviewer/File:AlfredRussel-Wallace-c1895.jpg.

publication of ‘‘Mr. Wallace’s excellent memoir’’ and of ‘‘some brief extracts from my manuscripts’’,26 in which – he was to specify later on, starting with the third edition – ‘‘the theory of Natural Selection is promulgated by Mr. Wallace with admirable force and clearness’’.27 ‘Darwinism’? After the ‘delicate arrangement’ at the Linnean Society and the publication of the Origin of Species, the relationship between Darwin and Wallace became deeper on both personal and theoretical levels, though it was regularly punctuated by disagreements on major topics. The various issues on which the Darwin-Wallace debate centred (sterility, hybridism, sexual selection) gradually highlighted the original dissimilarities of their views in relation to natural selection.28 This was to emerge dramatically and irremediably when Wallace, through an extreme adaptationist interpretation, reached the conclusion that selection, in preserving only that which is useful, could not explain the development of a brain such as the one that emerged in ‘primitive man’ or in ‘savages’, the structure of which permits a decidedly superior performance than that required by the needs of subsistence. Selectionist to the hilt, to the point where he claimed to be ‘more Darwinian than Darwin himself’, Wallace – in his attempt to apply his beliefs on selection as ‘natural cause’ in a consistent and inflexible manner – even went as far to argue a spiritualist hypothesis on the origin of man’s mind and conscience in flagrant contradiction of Darwin’s theory on the origin of man and of his faculties.29 In his refusal to assign any 26

Darwin, Origin, 1859, 2. Darwin, Origin, 1861, xix. Malcolm J. Kottler, ‘Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace: two decades of debate over natural selection’, in D. Kohn, ed., Darwinian Heritage (Princeton, 1985), 367–432; Alexander J. Nicholson, ‘The role of population dynamics in natural selection’, in Sol Tax (ed. by), Evolution after Darwin (Chicago, 1960), vol. I, 477–522. 29 Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London, 1871). 27 28


importance to the heritability of acquired characters, Wallace was also far more intransigent than Darwin, who believed in the power of habits and the use and disuse of organs to alter the heritable qualities of an organism. And, unlike Darwin, who in his Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868) was to formulate a ‘provisional hypothesis’ of pangenesis that incorporated Lamarckian cues, Wallace in the ‘80s was one of the first to take Weismann’s part in rejecting outright both Lamarck and any possible form of soft inheritance.30 Wallace was to reaffirm all of these theoretical issues in the work that he published some years after Darwin’s death, in 1889, entitled – significantly, but perhaps paradoxically – Darwinism. Here he openly stated his insistence on the greater efficacy of natural selection: ‘‘This is pre-eminently the Darwinian doctrine, and therefore I claim for my book the position of being the advocate of pure Darwinism’’.31 He claimed to be addressing ‘‘the problem of the Origin of Species on the same general lines as were adopted by Darwin, but from the standpoint reached after nearly thirty years of discussion, with an abundance of new facts and the advocacy of many new or old theories’’.32 Just like the last edition of the Origin of Species, this work consists of fifteen chapters, but Wallace points out explicitly that the order in which the topics are addressed is different from that adopted by Darwin. Since, according to Wallace, it had always been considered a weakness in Darwin’s work that he based his theory primarily on the evidence of variation in domestic animals and cultivated plants, his discussion was concerned in the first place with the variations of organisms in a state of nature. He believed that this would ‘‘secure a firm foundation for the theory’’. Moreover, Wallace wrote, ‘‘I have also made what appears to me an important change in the arrangement of the subject. Instead of treating first the comparatively difficult and unfamiliar details of variation, I commence with the Struggle for Existence, which is really the fundamental phenomenon on which natural selection depends’’.33 Wallace shifted away from ‘Darwinism’ in several ways: his commitment to demonstrating the overwhelming importance of natural selection over all other factors in the production of new species; his explicit admission that he was rooted in ‘‘Darwin’s earlier position, from which he somewhat receded in the later editions of his work’’34; his rejection of ‘‘that phase of sexual selection – depending on female choice’’; as well as his position regarding human evolution. As George Romanes remarked in 1895 in his ‘‘Darwinism of Darwin as contrasted with the Darwinism of Wallace’’, Alfred Russel Wallace’s theory of evolution was ‘pure Wallacism’. Romanes explained35: 30 Charles Darwin, Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (London, 1868). 31 Alfred R.Wallace, Darwinism, an Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection with Some of its Applications (London & New York, 1889), xiii. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/124700#page/16/mode/1up. 32 Ibid., v. 33 Ibid., vii. 34 Between the first and subsequent editions of the Origin Darwin introduced some changes, recognizing, next to natural selection, a role also for use and disuse and habit. 35 George J. Romanes, Darwin and after-Darwin. An Exposition of the Darwinian Theory and a Discussion of Post-Darwinian Questions, 3 vol. (Chicago, 1892–97), vol. II, 13. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/37759/37759-h/37759-h.htm.


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‘‘Through all his life Darwin differed from Wallace. . .; and therefore, unlike Wallace, he was always ready to entertain ‘additional suggestions’ regarding the causes of organic evolution. . . Hence we arrive at this curious state of matters. Those biologists who of late years have been led by Weismann to adopt the opinion of Wallace, represent as anti-Darwinian the opinion of other biologist who still adhere to the unadulterated doctrines of Darwin. . . But we may easily escape this confusion, if we remember that wherever in the writings of these naturalists there occurs such phrases as ‘pure Darwinism’ we are to understand pure Wallaceism, or the pure theory of natural selection to the exclusion of any supplementary theory. Therefore it is that for the sake of clearness I coined, several years ago, the terms ‘Neo-Darwinian’ and ‘Ultra-Darwinian’ whereby to designate the school in question.’’36 Wallace’s ‘pure Darwinism’ was the maturation and reiteration of all those differences that in the thirty intervening years had animated the comparison between the two scholars, starting precisely with the essay received in 1858 in which Darwin had perceived a theory identical to his, but which, in fact, was not identical. Differences and divergences were inevitably to emerge and the proliferation of labels – Neo-Darwinism, Ultra-Darwinism, Wallaceism – heralded the so-called ‘eclipse of Darwinism’ – is tangible evidence of the disagreements among the community of evolutionists. Wallace’s same 1858 paper – as Peter Bowler has noted – must be studied without presupposing that it presented a theory identical to that of Darwin. As he wrote: ‘‘There are ambiguities in the paper, and natural temptation has been to accept Darwin’s interpretation’’.37 Darwin, effectively, had openly acknowledged the coincidence between his ideas and those of Wallace, and in the conclusion of his work, he had explicitly cited Wallace, independently from any question of priority, in a particularly emblematic passage in which he evoked the very idea of ‘revolution’: ‘‘When the views entertained in this volume on the origin of species, or when analogous views are generally admitted, we can dimly foresee that there will be a considerable revolution in natural history.’’38 Moreover, the following sentence appears in all editions of the Origin of Species, only partially modified (starting from the second one): ‘‘When the views advanced by me in this volume, and by Mr. Wallace in the Linnean Journal, . . .’’. A ‘considerable revolution’ Despite the modest tone adopted (‘‘we can dimly foresee that. . .’’), which is typical of Darwin’s style, it has been pointed out that ‘‘a declaration of revolution in a formal scientific publication, appears to be without parallel in the history of science’’.39 Again in the Origin of Species, Darwin, in Chapter IX, ‘‘On the Imperfection of the geological record’’, citing Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1832–33),40 36

Ibid., 12. Peter J. Bowler, The Non-Darwinian Revolution. Reinterpreting a Historical Myth (London, 1988), 43. 38 Darwin, Origin, 1859, 484. 39 Bernard I. Cohen, Revolution in Science (Cambridge (Mass) and London, 1985), 285. 40 Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, 3 vols. (London, 1830–32). 37



was to predict that ‘‘the future historian will recognise (it) as having produced a revolution in natural science’’,41 and later on in the same chapter, he was to refer to ‘‘the revolution in our Palaeontological ideas on many points’’.42 The concept of revolution associated with the advancement of science was a dominant idea at least in the first threequarters of the nineteenth century43 and was deeply influenced by the widespread revolutionary climate in the social and political spheres which were such a feature of the century. Darwin could not escape this scientific and cultural atmosphere. As I. Bernard Cohen noted, ‘‘The periodicals Darwin was reading during the 1840s and 1850s were filled with references to political revolution, revolutionary activity, and even revolution in science. . . In the decades before the publication of the Origin, Darwin would have become familiar with the image of revolutionary change . . ., and he introduced several striking references to revolution in science into his book’’.44 In this context, the annual report by Thomas Bell, president of the Linnean Society in the year in which the Darwin-Wallace papers had been jointly presented, should not go unmentioned.45 In May 1859, Bell began his Presidential Address thus: ‘‘Gentlemen, the year which has passed has not been unproductive, . . . It has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionise, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear; it is only at remote intervals that we can reasonably expect any sudden and brilliant innovation which shall produce a marked and permanent impress on the character of any branch of knowledge, or confer a lasting and important service on mankind. A Bacon or a Newton, an Oersted or a Wheatstone, a Davy or a Daguerre, is an occasional phenomenon, whose existence and career seem to be specially appointed by Providence, for the purpose of effecting some great important change in the conditions or pursuits of man.’’46 Thomas Bell has come to be seen as a kind of champion of intellectual short-sightedness on account of his failure to realise that the year had been marked by the first enunciation of the theory of natural selection: the theory that, within a few months, was to revolutionise not only natural history but the very way of understanding life in its broadest sense. Yet Bell is also remembered as ‘‘one of the most stimulating Presidents the Society has ever had’’47 and it is widely recognised that through his advocacy the Linnean Society became one of the five major scientific societies in the country.48 Bell’s own presidential address demonstrates the general awareness of the occurrence of revolutions in science and, in some ways, the expectation 41

Darwin, Origin, 1859, 282. Ibid., 306. 43 Cohen, Revolution in Science. 44 Ibid., 284. 45 Thomas Bell (1792–1880) was President of the Linnean Society since 1853 to 1861. He was Professor of Zoology at King’s College since 1836 and described the reptile specimens that Darwin had brought home from the voyage of the Beagle. 46 Thomas Bell, ‘Anniversary Meeting, May 24th 1859’, Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society- Zoology (London, 1860), viii-ix. http://biodiversitylibrary.org/ item/19455#page/18/mode/1up. 47 Andrew Thomas Gage, A history of the Linnean Society of London (London, 1938), 48 (quoted in Gina Douglas ‘Editorial’, The Linnean, 1977, vol. 13, 4. 48 Douglas, ‘Editorial’. 42


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Figure 3. Thomas Bell. Source: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Bell_(zoologo)#mediaviewer/ File:Zoologist_Thomas_Bell.jpg.

of such a revolution in the life sciences.49 Bell documents the occasional nature of the phenomenon – one of those revolutions which occur ‘‘only at remote intervals’’ – by listing after Bacon and Newton, giants of science traditionally held to be those who had revolutionised natural philosophy and methodology leading respectively to the final success of the experimental method and to the application of mathematics to physics and astronomy, four famous chemists and physicists – Hans Christian Oersted, Charles Wheatstone, Humphry Davy and Louis Daguerre – all contemporaries or even still living – who share primarily their success in the production of practical innovations and inventions (Figure 3).50 Moreover, as noted by David Hull (1988), Bell was right when he observed that nothing much had happened in the Linnean Society that year. Other scientists had already ‘‘toyed’’ with the idea of species evolving. Moreover, the papers by Darwin and Wallace were simple sketches, albeit very good ones, but hardly more complete than the suggestions made by Lamarck and Chambers. ‘‘Our amazement,’ writes Hull, ‘is a function of hindsight. If all Darwin and Wallace had done was to have published their Linnean papers, it is very unlike that biology would have been revolutionized’’.51 It is not so surprising, then, that the joint presentation and publication of Darwin and Wallace’s papers did not raise much of a stir and were virtually ignored. In his Autobiography, written in his old age and published after

his death, Darwin would still recall that ‘‘our joint productions excited very little attention, and the only published notice of them which I can remember was by Professor Haughton of Dublin, whose verdict was that all that was new in them was false, and what was true was old’’.52 Apart from the fine humour of this oft-cited sentence, Darwin continues with a reflection in which, now many years after the events to which he is referring, he stresses the meaning of his commitment to develop the argumentative structure of the Origin: ‘‘This shows how necessary it is that any new view should be explained at considerable length in order to arouse public attention’’.53 As he had written to Lyell at the crucial moment when Wallace’s essay arrived, his book would not be ‘deteriorated’ because his labour consisted in the systematic and extensive application of the theory, namely a detailed illustration and explanation of the mechanism of natural selection. It is interesting to note that, during the reading of the proofs of the last chapters of the Origin of Species, the same Lyell, in a letter to Darwin written on 3 October 1859, was to identify the tight cogency of the argument as one of the key aspects of the work: ‘‘I have long seen most clearly that if any concession is made, all that you claim in your concluding pages will follow - It is this which has made me so long hesitate, always feeling that the case of Man and his Races, and of other animals, and that of plants, is one and the same, and that if a vera causa be admitted for one instant, [instead] of a purely unknown and imaginary one, such as the word ‘creation’, all the consequences must follow.’’54 ‘‘This whole volume is one long argument’’ was the expression used by Darwin in the last chapter of the Origin of Species, since its first edition, in order to make explicit his deliberate choice of how to expose and explain his theory.55 ‘One long argument’ has become, not surprisingly, almost a formula still today recurrently cited by commentators to characterise the style and argumentative line of the Origin of Species whose purpose was to analyse thoroughly the phenomena that the theory is intended to explain through the mechanism of natural selection, which is, almost obsessively – as it were – verified in its application to a really broad range of examples, which include and discuss at length several doubtful cases and anomalies.56 In this regard, for example, David Hull stressed the need to provide mechanisms for the processes under investigation, ‘‘no matter how mistaken the mechanisms turn out to be. . . Not only do scientists have to present mechanisms, but these mechanisms have to be up to the task and presented in scientifically reputable ways’’.57 The history of the theories on the transmutation of species is an excellent case in point since none of ‘precursors’ of Darwin and Wallace fulfilled


Cohen, Revolution in Science. Hans Christian Oersted (1777–1851), Danish physicist and chemist, particularly known for his studies on electromagnetism and for his contribution to chemistry by producing aluminium for the first time. Charles Wheatstone (1802–1875), English physicist and inventor, whose name is linked, among other things, to the invention of the telegraph and the stereoscope. Humphry Davy (1778–1829), English chemist and inventor, isolated sodium, potassium, calcium, barium, strontium, magnesium and showed as magnesium oxide (laughing gas) could be used as an anaesthetic. Louis Daguerre (1787–1851), French chemist and physicist, famous for his contributions to the photographic technique: he was the inventor of the daguerreotype. 51 David Hull, Science as a Process (Chicago and London, 1988), 279. 50


52 Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. With the Original Omissions Restored. Edited and with Appendix and Notes by his Granddaughter Nora Barlow (London, 1958), 122. http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=text&itemID=F1497&pageseq=1. 53 Ibid. 54 Letter from Lyell to Darwin, 3 October 1859. 55 Darwin, Origin, 1859, 459. 56 See, for example, Ernst Mayr, One long argument. Charles Darwin and the genesis of modern evolutionary thought, Cambridge, 1991). 57 Hull, Science as a Process, 276–77.


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these requirements, and the joint publication of Darwin and Wallace was also unsatisfactory in this respect. Darwin himself signed his abstract presented to the Linnean Society thus: ‘‘This sketch is most imperfect; but in so short a space I cannot make it better. Your imagination must fill up very wide blanks.’’58 The detailed presentation of the theojry is what Darwin would have done in the Origin, discussing the implications and the actual operative mode of his mechanism through his long and logically cogent argument, but, until then, ‘‘Without a mechanism, few scientists were willing to take the idea of evolution seriously’’.59 This is precisely what Wallace had argued in a long letter to Darwin in 1864 from which their divergence on many issues already emerged very clearly: As to the theory of Natural Selection itself, I shall always maintain it to be actually yours and yours only. You had worked it out in details I had never thought of, years before I had a ray of light on the subject, and my paper would never have convinced anybody or been noticed as more than an ingenious speculation, whereas your book has revolutionised the study of Natural History, and carried away captive the best men of the present age.60 In the Historical Sketch, only a few succinct lines towards the end are devoted to the events that had forced Darwin into writing the Origin of Species: ‘‘The third volume of the ‘Journal of the Linnean Society’ contains papers, read July 1st, 1858, by Mr. Wallace and myself, in which, as stated in the introductory remarks to this volume, the theory of Natural Selection is promulgated by Mr. Wallace with admirable force and clearness’’.61 The ‘Wallace case’ so absorbing, so recent and so spectacularly emblematic with regard to the priority and originality of his theory is likely to have had some kind of influence on his attempt to provide a sketch of the progress of opinion on the origin of species. This, also in view of the fact that what prompted him, at least in part, to open his Origin of Species with an albeit succinct historical reconstruction may have been the direct or indirect claims of other misrecognised priorities, although this time coming a posteriori, in other words after the publication of the Origin of Species. Amid positive and negative reviews, the ‘precursors’ began to come to the foreground. The historical sketch After briefly mentioning allusions to the possibility of evolution among classical authors, Darwin’s historical sketch turns briefly to the Comte de Buffon before he devotes approximately half a page to the ‘justly-celebrated naturalist’ Lamarck, ‘‘the first man whose conclusions on the subject excited much attention’’.62 Darwin explained that Lamarch ‘‘first did the eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all change in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law, and 58 Charles Darwin, Alfred R. Wallace, ‘On the tendency of species to form varieties and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection’, Journal of the Linnean Society of London (Zoology), 1858, III, 45–62, 53. http:// darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F350&viewtype=text&pageseq=1. 59 Hull, Science as a Process, 278. 60 Letter from Wallace to Darwin, 29 May 1864. 61 Darwin, Origin, 1861, xviii-xix. 62 Ibid., xiii.



not of miraculous interposition’’.63 Regarding the means of modification which Lamarck theorised, he went on, ‘‘he attributed something to the direct action of the physical conditions of life, something to the crossing of already existing forms, and much to use and disuse, that is, to the effects of habit’’, and there is even a reference to the giraffe’s long neck. ‘‘But’’, Darwin stressed, Lamarck likewise believed ‘‘in a law of progressive development; and as all the forms of life thus tend to progress, in order to account for the existence at the present day of simple productions, he maintains that such forms are now spontaneously generated’’.64 In addition to the Philosophie Zoologique (1809),65 and to the ‘Introduction’ to his Histoire Naturelle des Animaux sans Verte´bres (1815–1822),66 Darwin gives 1801 as the date of Lamarck’s first publications on the theme,67 specifying in a note that his source for the reference was Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s Histoire naturelle ge´ne´relle of 1859,68 yet without providing any further details. In the same note he adds his own grandfather Erasmus’s Zoonomia (1794),69 arguing that it was ‘curious’ how largely he ‘‘anticipated the views and erroneous grounds of opinion of Lamarck’’.70 Darwin also fleetingly mentions Goethe, again drawing on an indirect source. Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire follows Lamarck in Darwin’s sketch. As we can read in the biography written by his son Isidore, he wrote, he71 ‘‘suspected, as early as 1795, that what we call species are various degenerations of the same type’’. Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Darwin added, that ‘‘he seems to have relied chiefly on the conditions of life, or the ‘monde ambiant’ as the cause of change’’,72 although he did not believe that existing species are now subject to change. In the fourth edition, published in 1866, Darwin next mentioned the American physician William Charles Wells. He had been identified as a precursor in a note sent to Darwin by the American philanthropist Brace Charles Loring in recounting a conference held at the Royal Society in 1813. Loring referred to Wells’ ‘An Account of a White Female, part of whose skin resembles that of a Negro’, published posthumously together with ‘Two Essays upon Dew and Single Vision’ in 1818.73 As Darwin was to admit quite openly in his Historical Sketch: ‘‘In this paper he distinctly recognises the principle of natural selection, and this is the first recognition which has been indicated; but he applies it only to the races of man, and to certain characters alone. After remarking that negroes and mulattoes enjoy an immunity from certain tropical diseases, he observes, firstly, that all animals tend 63

Ibid. Ibid. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Philosophie Zoologique (Paris, 1809). 66 Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Histoire naturelle des animaux sans verte`bres, 7 vols (Paris, 1815–1822). 67 Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Syste´me des aninaux sans verte`bres (Paris, 1801). 68 Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Histoire naturelle ge´ne´relle des re`gnes organiques (Paris, 1859). 69 Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia; or, the laws of organic life (Dublin, 1800). 70 Darwin, Origin, 1861, xiii. 71 Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Vie Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (Paris, 1847). 72 Darwin, Origin, 1861, xiii. 73 William C. Wells, ‘Me´moire sur une femme blanche, don’t la peau, dans certaines parties, ressemblait a` celle d’un ne`gre’ (1813), published posthumously in Wells W. C., Two Essays upon Single Vision with Two Eyes; the Other on Dew (Edinburgh, 1818). 64 65


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to vary in some degree, and, secondly, that agriculturists improve their domesticated animals by selection; and then, he adds, but what is done in this latter case ‘‘by art, seems to be done with equal efficacy, though more slowly, by nature, in the formation of varieties of mankind, fitted for the country which they inhabit.’’74 There then follows a chronological list of authors, almost all of whom were Darwin’s contemporaries and in many cases still living. Alongside their names he placed gtthm the date at which they adumbrated aspects of his theory: the Reverend William Herbert (1822, 1837), Professor Robert Edmond Grant (1826), Patrick Matthew (1831), the geologist and naturalist Leopold von Buch (1836), the Franco-American naturalist Constantine Rafinesque (1836), and Professor Samuel Haldeman (1843–44), and Robert Chambers, author of the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844).75 A considerable space is dedicated to Patrick Matthew (1790–1874), a Scottish author of political and agricultural works and an expert in the use of wood for ship building. Matthew was one of the first to present himself as a ‘predecessor’ with a letter published in the 7 April 1860 issue of The Gardener’s Chronicle. He began his letter with the following words: ‘‘TRUSTING to your desire that every man should have his own, I hope you will give place to the following communication. In your Number of March 3rd I observe a long quotation from the Times, stating that Mr. Darwin ‘professes to have discovered the existence and modus operandi of the natural law of selection’, that is, ‘the power in nature which takes the place of man and performs a selection, sua sponte’, in organic life. This discovery recently published as ‘the results of 20 years’ investigation and reflection’ by Mr. Darwin turns out to be what I published very fully and brought to apply practically to forestry in my work Naval Timber and Arboriculture, published as far back as January 1, 1831. . . and reviewed in numerous periodicals, so as to have full publicity.’’76 Matthew then cited a long excerpt from the volume in question ‘‘which’’, he insisted, ‘‘clearly proves a prior claim.’’ We read, for example: ‘‘There is a law universal in nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possibly suited to its condition that its kind, or that organised matter, is susceptible of, which appears intended to model the physical and mental or instinctive powers, to their highest perfection, and to continue them so’’.77 74

Darwin, Origin, 1866, xiv-xv. William Herbert, ‘Instructions for the Treatment of the Amaryllis longifolia. . .’, Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, 1822, 3, 187–196; William Herbert, Amarryllidacee, Preceded by an Attempt to Arrange the Monocotyledonous Orders, and Followed by a Treatise on Cross-Bred Vegetables and Supplement (London, 1837); Robert E. Grant, ‘On the structure and nature of the Spongilla friabilis’, Edinb. Phil. Journ., 1826, XIV, 270–284; Patrick Matthew, On naval timber and arboriculture; with critical notes on authors who have recently treated the subject of planting (Edinburgh, 1831); Leopold von Buch, Description physique des Iles Canaries (Paris, 1836) (or. ed. Physicalische Beschreibung der Canarischen Inseln (Berlin, 1825); Constantine Rafinesque, New Flora and Botany of North America (Philadelphia, 1836); Samuel Haldeman, ‘Enumeration of the recent freshwater Mollusca which are common to North America and Europe’, Journal of Natural History, 1843–44, 4, 468–484. 76 Patrick Matthew, ‘Nature’s law of selection’, Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 1860, 7 April, 312–13. http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=A143&viewtype=text&pageseq=1. 77 Ibid. 75


Darwin published a reply in the same journal on 21 April: ‘‘Natural Selection. – 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.’’78 And Matthew did indeed appear in the Historical Sketch: In 1831 Mr. Patrick Matthew published his work on Naval Timber and Arboriculture, in which he gives precisely the same view on the origin of species as that (presently to be alluded to) propounded by Mr. Wallace and myself in the Linnean Journal, and as that enlarged on in the present volume. Unfortunately the view was given by Mr. Matthew very briefly in scattered passages in an Appendix to a work on a different subject, so that it remained unnoticed until Mr. Matthew himself drew attention to it in the Gardener’s Chronicle, on April 7th, 1860. The differences of Mr. Matthew’s view from mine are not of much importance: he seems to consider that the world was nearly depopulated at successive periods, and then re-stocked; and he gives, as an alternative, that new forms may be generated ‘‘without the presence of any mould or germ of former aggregates’’. I am not sure that I understand some passages; but it seems that he attributes much influence to the direct action of the conditions of life. He clearly saw, however, the full force of the principle of natural selection.’’79 It is far from proven that Darwin had had the opportunity to acquaint himself with Matthew’s work before the publication of the Origin of Species; but what has been shown is that Matthew, like Darwin, and indeed like Wallace, were all influenced by Malthus (Figure 4). Firmly convinced of his priority, Matthew even printed the words ‘Discoverer of the Principle of Natural Selection’ on his visiting card, but, as we have seen, he was toppled from his alleged position at the top of the podium, at least for the fact that the writings of Wells had been published before his own. Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation receives decidedly more attention and space than the previous cases listed.80 Darwin was referring to the ‘much improved’ 78 Charles Darwin, ‘Natural selection’, Gardeners’ Chronicle, 1860, 16 (21 April), 362–363, http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F1705&viewtype=text&pageseq. 79 Darwin, Origin, 1861, xiv-xv. About Matthew see William J. Dempster, Natural Selection and Patrick Matthew: Evolutionary Concepts in the Nineteenth Century (Edinburgh, 1966); the review of Gert Korthof, ‘Evolutionary concepts in the nineteenth century. Natural Selection and Patrick Matthew. A Review’, 2013, http:// wasdarwinwrong.com/kortho16.htm#Contents; Wells, K. D. (1973) ‘‘The historical context of natural selection: The case of Patrick Matthew’’, Journal of the History of Biology 6, 2, pp. 225–258. Patrick Tort, ‘Matthew Patrick (1790–1874)’, in P. Tort, ed., Dictionnaire du darwinisme et de l’evolution (Paris, 1996), vol. 2, 2831–2832. 80 Robert Chambers, Vestiges of Creation (London, 1844).


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Figure 4. Patrick Matthew. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Matthew#mediaviewer/ File:Patrick_Matthew_1790.jpg.

tenth edition of 1853, and he quotes a lengthy passage by the anonymous author, highlighting its inconsistencies and shortcomings, before concluding that ‘‘the work, from its powerful and brilliant style, though displaying in the earlier editions little accurate knowledge and a great want of scientific caution, immediately had a very wide circulation. In my opinion it has done excellent service in this country in calling attention to the subject, in removing prejudice, and in thus preparing the ground for the reception of analogous views’’.81 It seems appropriate to point out that this observation on Darwin’s part betrays a certain consonance ante litteram with the type of analysis recently conducted by James Secord in connection with the Vestiges. Secord describes Vestiges as a ‘‘popular’’ work and in that sense ‘‘a failed precursor of Origin’’.82 But he adds that ‘‘what once made sense as the ‘Darwinian Revolution’ must be recast as an episode in the industrialisation of communication and the transformation of reading audiences’’.83 Vestiges actually represented a special case for the success that received and the widespread diffusion of the debate that aroused. What is here interesting to note is that Darwin wants to emphasise – as he has done just before in the case of Lamarck – the ‘eminent’ and ‘excellent’ service in ‘arousing’ and ‘calling’ attention on the subject by authors whose ideas differed in so relevant way from his own. Darwin devotes only a few lines to authoritative geologist Jean-Baptiste Julien d’Omalius d’Halloy (1846),84 and then it is on to Professor Richard Owen – ever his great rival – who gets more than a page! Here Darwin almost seems to give free reign to a caustic sarcasm, not comparable with the controlled and subtle irony he evinces


Figure 5. Richard Owen. Source: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Owen#mediaviewer/ File:Richard_Owen_1856.jpg.

towards other authors such as Matthew. After mentioning Nature of Limbs (1849)85 and the ‘archetypal idea’, he certainly does not let slip the opportunity to ‘dig the knife in’ offered to him by Owens’ ‘Address’ to the British Association in 1858.86 The passages which Darwin quotes, interspersed with his own remarks, are obviously designed to highlight the tortuousness of the claims put forward by Owen, whom he describes here, though clearly with quite other than encomiastic intent, as the ‘eminent philosopher’. But above all, Darwin does not miss the chance to point out that: ‘‘This Address was delivered after the papers, by Mr. Wallace and myself on the Origin of Species, presently to be referred to, had been read before the Linnean Society. When the first edition of this work was published, I was so completely deceived, as were many others, by such expressions as ‘‘the continuous operation of creative power’’, that I included Professor Owen with other palæontologists as being firmly convinced of the immutability of species.’’87 (Figure 5) His sarcasm here seems to turn into a condemnation; yet still not content, Darwin carries on pretending to acknowledge his own error in considering Owen a fixist pure and simple, and referring to his Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of Vertebrates (1866–68),88 he states: ‘‘In the last edition of this work I inferred, and the inference still seems to me perfectly just, . . . that Professor Owen admitted that natural selection may have done something in the formation of new species; but this appears. . . inaccurate and without evidence. I also gave some extracts from a correspondence between Professor Owen and the Editor of the ‘London Review,’ from which it appeared manifest to the Editor as well as to myself, that


Darwin, Origin, 1861, xiv-xv. James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation. The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Autorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago, 2000), 4. 83 Ibid. 84 Jean-Baptiste Julien d’Omalius D’Halloy, ‘Sur la succession des eˆtres vivant’, Bulletin de l’Acade´mie royale de Bruxelles, 1846, t. XIII, 581. 82



Richard Owen, On the Nature of Limbs (London, 1849). Richard Owen, ‘Presidential Address’, BAAS (Leeds 1858), xlix-cx. 87 Darwin, Origin, 1872, xviii. 88 Richard Owen, Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of Vertebrates, 3 vols. (London, 1866–68). 86


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Professor Owen claimed to have promulgated the theory of natural selection before I had done so; and I expressed my surprise and satisfaction at this announcement; but as far as it is possible to understand certain recently published passages. . . I have either partially or wholly again fallen into error. It is consolatory to me that others find Professor Owen’s controversial writings as difficult to understand and to reconcile with each other, as I do.’’89 His final ‘knife-thrust’ is caustic: ‘‘As far as the mere enunciation of the principle of natural selection is concerned, it is quite immaterial whether or not Professor Owen preceded me, for both of us, as shown in this historical sketch, were long ago preceded by Dr. Wells and Mr. Matthews’’.90 Darwin continues by once again mentioning Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire for his Lectures in 1850 and for his Histoire naturelle ge´ne´rale (1859),91 then Doctor Henry Freke for an essay in the ‘Dublin Medical Press’ (1851)92 in which he argued that all organic beings have descended from a primordial form. Darwin waxes ironical in his regard too: ‘‘His grounds of belief and treatment of the subject are wholly different from mine; but as Dr. Freke has now (1861) published his Essay on ‘the Origin of Species by means of Organic Affinity’, the difficult attempt to give any idea of his views would be superfluous on my part’’.93 He devotes a rather sober passage to Herbert Spencer, acknowledging the remarkable skill and effectiveness with which he contrasted the theory of Creation and the Development of organic organisms in 1852.94 Arguing from the analogy with domestic production and taking into account the changes that affect embryos in many species, the difficulty in distinguishing species from varieties and the principle of natural gradation, ‘‘he argues. . . that species have been modified; and he attributes the modification to the change of circumstances’’.95 Moreover, he mentions the date 1855,96 when Spencer ‘‘also treated Psychology on the principle of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation’’.97 Darwin goes on to point to the admirable work on the origin of the species by Charles Victor Naudin (1852),98 ‘a distinguished botanist’, who ‘‘expressly stated. . . his belief that species are formed in an analogous manner as varieties are under cultivation; and the latter process he attributes to man’s power of selection. But he does not show how selection acts under nature’’.99 However, the distance between his own theory and the position expounded by 89

Darwin, Origin, 1872, xviii. Ibid. Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, ‘Cours de zoologie’, Rev. et mag. zool., 1850, II, 11– 20; Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Histoire naturelle ge´ne´relle des re`gnes organiques (Paris, 1859). 92 Henry Freke, ‘Dublin Medical Press’, 1851, 322; Henry Freke, On the Origin of Species by Means of Organic Affinity (London, 1861). 93 Darwin, Origin, 1872, xix. 94 Herbert Spencer, ‘The Developmnt Hypothesis’, The Leader, Mars 1852; reprinted in Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative (New York, 1858). 95 Darwin, Origin, 1872, xix. 96 Herbert Spencer, Principles of Psychology (London, 1855). 97 Darwin, Origin, 1872, xix. 98 Charles Naudin, ‘Quelques conside´ration sur l’espe`ce et la varie´te´; modification propose´e a` la de´finition de l’espe`ce, en botanique’, Comptes Rendus, 1852, XLVI, 340– 344. 99 Darwin, Origin, 1872, xix. 90 91


Naudin is stressed by Darwin who, citing a passage in the original French in which we encounter such terms as ‘puissance myste´rieuse, inde´termine´e’, ‘fatalite´’, ‘volonte´ providentielle’, refers to what Naudin himself calls the ‘principle of finality’. In a note he adds other authors such as palaeontologist Franz Unger (1852),100 cited from Bronn in Untersuchungen u¨ber die Entwickelungs-Gesetze (1858),101 according to whom species are subject to development and modification; Eduard J. D’Alton (1821) in his joint work with Christian Pander on fossil sloths102 and Lorenz Oken in his ‘mystic’ Natur-Philosophie (1809–1811),103 who voiced similar views. Starting with Godron’s work Sur L’Espe`ce (1859),104 he also lists Jean-Baptiste Bory Saint-Vincent,105 Karl Friedrich Burdach (1826–1840), Jean Louis Marie Poiret (1819–1820) and Elias Fries (1832–18422),106 who ‘‘have all admitted that new species are continually being produced’’.107 And he stresses that, of the overall number of thirty-four authors whom he mentions in his Historical Sketch and ‘‘who believe in the modification of species, or at least disbelieve in separate acts of creation, twenty-seven have written on special branches of natural history or geology’’.108 Darwin then resumed his list in the text, where we find German geologist and palaeontologist Alexander von Keyserling (1853), German anatomist, anthropologist, and palaeoanthropologist Dr. Hermann Schaaffhausen (1853) and French botanist Henry Lecoq (1854),109 who harks back to Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and to Goethe, although several of his remarks ‘‘make it a little doubtful how far he extends his views on the modification of species’’.110 The Sketch draws to a close and Darwin cites the Reverend Baden Powell who, in his Essays on the Unity of Worlds (1855), addressed the ‘Philosophy of Creation’ in ‘masterly fashion’. ‘‘Nothing can be more striking than the manner in which he shows that the introduction of new species is ‘a regular, not a casual phenomenon’, or, as Sir John Herschel expresses it, ‘a natural in contra-distinction to a miraculous process’’’.111 It is precisely the same passage that Darwin had cited in his second letter of reply to Powell on January 18, 1860 (Figure 6). 100

Franz J. Unger, Botanisshe Briefe (Wien, 1852). Heinrich G. Bronn, Untersuchungen u¨ber die Entwickelungs-Gesetze der organischen Welt wa¨hrend der Bildungs-Zeit unserer Erd-Oberfla¨che (Stuttgart, 1858). 102 Eduard J. D’Alton, Christian Pander, Das Riesen-Faulthier, Bradypus giganteiis, abgebildet, beschrieben, und mit verwandten Geschlechtem verglichen (Bonn, 1821). 103 Lorenz Oken, Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie (Jena, 1809–1811). 104 Dominique A. Godron, Sur l’espe`ce et des races dans les eˆtres organise´s et spe´cialement de l’unite´d’espe`ce humaine (Paris, 1859). 105 Bory Saint-Vincent is mentioned in Godron (1859) without any indication of date through the reference to Jean-Louis Armand de Quatrefages, ‘Confe´rences d’ anthropologie’, Revue des cours publics, 1856, 2, 404–7. 106 Karl F. Burdach, Die Physiologie als Erfahrungswissenschaft (Leipzig, 1826– 1840); Jean Louis Marie Poiret, Lec¸ons de flore. Cours complet de botanique (Paris, 1819–1820); Elias Fries, Novitiae florae suecicae (Lundae and Upsaliae, 1832–18422) (first edition 1814–1823). 107 Darwin, Origin, 1872, xx. 108 Ibid. 109 Alexander von Keyserling, ‘Note sur la Succession des etres organises’, Bulletin de la Socie´te´ ge´ologique de France, 1853, 2. Ser., 10, 355–358; Hermann Schaaffhausen, ‘Verhandlungen des naturhistorischen Vereins der Provinz Rheinland-Westpha¨len’, Rheinl. u Westpha¨l. Verhand, 1853, 420–451; Henry Lecoq, Etude sur la ge´ographie botanique de l’Europe et, en particulier, sur la ve´ge´tation du plateau central del la France, 9 vols. (Paris, 1854–1858). 110 Darwin, Origin, 1872, xx. 111 Ibid. 101


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Figure 6. Baden Powell. Source: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baden_Powell_(matematico)#mediaviewer/ File:Rev_Baden_Powell.jpg.

For Baden Powell the question of the species and the defence of a naturalistic explanation of natural phenomena had been, since 1830–40, the problematic and central core of his radical theology. If Darwin, in the Sketch, emphasizes the ‘masterly manner’ with which the mathematician and theologian Baden Powell discussed the question of creation, Powell expressed himself in an equally laudatory terms in his essay ‘On the Study of the Evidences of Christianity’ in the collective volume Essays and Review (1860), which was published four months after the Origin of Species: ‘‘A work has now appeared by a naturalist of the most acknowledged authority, Mr. Darwin’s masterly volume on The Origin of Species by the law of ‘natural selection’ – which now substantiates on undeniable grounds the very principle so long denounced by the first naturalist – the origination of new species by natural causes: a work which must soon bring about an entire revolution of opinion in favour of the grand principle of the self-evolving powers of nature.’’112 Although, after Baden Powell, there still appear the names of Wallace, von Baer, Huxley and Hooker, it is with him that the Sketch actually ends.

112 Baden Powell, ‘On the study of the evidences of Christianity’, in Essays and Reviews (London, 1860), 138–139. 113 ‘‘Before and after the founding of the city’’. Osborn refers to the role of watershed which must in any case be attributed to Darwin’s theory despite the many ‘‘anticipations’’ that he tracks down during the entire previous history.



Conclusions ‘Ante e post urbem conditam’,113 was the expression used by American palaeontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn a few decades later in his From the Greeks to Darwin. An outline of the development of the evolution idea (1894),114 This book produced far more than a short and imperfect historical sketch of the idea of evolution. Instead it showed the development of the idea over a span of 24 centuries. Osborn was to entrust to the future the task of determining whether Darwin’s precursors and Darwin himself had reached a full solution of the problem, or if in fact we still need to await another Newton for our philosophy of Nature. Recalling Newton, Osborn quoted what became a widespread and evocative way of celebrating Darwin’s greatness: the ‘Newton of the leaf of grass’ that Kant, in 1790, in his Kritik der Urtheilskraft had despaired could ever be born, declaring it impossible to know or to explain organised beings in accordance with pure and simple mechanistic principles. If Darwin’s has actually been a revolution is a matter on which much has been written, and the matter of what a scientific revolution really is, has been and continues to be equally debated. What, however, might be interesting to understand, whichever way we characterise the so-called ‘scientific revolution’ is how Darwin perceived and valued his contribution. In this sense, the Historical Sketch is a good means to tackle the problem, in spite of its many imperfections – there have been some, like the English biologist Cyril Dean Darlington who defined it ‘‘the most unreliable account that ever will be written’’115 – and the many doubts that still remain about it. Beyond the interesting analysis on the actual date in which the Historical Sketch was written, the lack of familiarity with the history that Darwin himself admitted, the questions on the true motivations that led him to introduce it in the opening of the Origin, what seems to emerge, despite the wide choice of authors cited, is Darwin’s claim of priority and originality of his theory, not so much for the descent with modification, but rather, for his theory of natural selection. In this sense, it appears clearly that it is not an impeccable historical essay, but we assume that it is precisely this that makes it an incomparable historical record because Darwin, as we have seen, and unlike his usual very discreet style, allows himself to reveal his emotions and dislikes.

114 Henry Fairfield Osborn, From the Greeks to Darwin. An outline of the development of the evolution idea (New York, 1894). 115 Cyril Dean Darlington, ‘The Origin of Darwinism’, Scientific American, 1959, 200, 5, 60–66.

A brief, but imperfect, historical sketch of a 'considerable revolution'.

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