Harvard University The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University
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Sir Richard Rawlinson Vyvyan (1800 – 1879)

Sir Richard Rawlinson Vyvyan is a (now) truly obscure figure in the world of early evolutionists. However, during his lifetime, he was strongly suspected to be the author of the anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), the sensational and most widely read book on evolution up until the 1880s (when On the Origin of Species finally surpassed it).  Vyvyan was not the author of Vestiges, but was the author of an anonymously published book, On the Harmony of the Comprehensible World (1842, 1845), an incredibly rare 500-plus-page treatise that discusses transmutation and attempts to provide mathematical, physical, and phrenological support for a biological world that has teleological leanings towards greater complexity (advancement) and the ultimate evolution of humans.

Vyvyan’s obsession with circles in this book might well be second to none. But, his chapter “On the origin of species, and the theory of their transmutation” is a lucid account of the state of understanding of biological evolution in the early 1840s. Vyvyan recognized that new species are derived from varieties of previously existing species (hence, he saw species and varieties as part of an evolutionary continuum), and that “all the higher animals (man included) derived their origin from some lower and less complicated forms of animated material systems…”

Vyvyan also discussed the earlier evolutionist works of Lamarck, d’Omalius d’Halloy, and sparred effectively with the anti-evolutionary arguments of Cuvier and Lyell.

It is worth noting that Vyvyan also promotes a theory that all parasites of animal and plants evolve spontaneously as a generative product of its host. “The general hypothesis about the reciprocity between magnetic bodies being the stimulating cause of the development of organic life, is supported by the phenomena of parasitical plants and animals.” How the moon and “magnetic bodies” fit into this hypothesis remains opaque to this modern reader!