Mortiz Wagner

Mortiz Wagner (1813-1887)

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William Lawrence

William Lawrence (1783-1867)

Nature has provided, by the insurmountable barriers of instinctive aversion, of sterility in the hybrid offspring, and in the allotment of species to different parts of the earth, against any corruption or change of species of wild animals. We must therefore admit, for all the species which we know at present, as sufficiently distinct and constant, a distinct origin and common date. ( Lectures on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man, 1819).

Sometimes, being elevated to the status of an early evolutionist runs counter to the actual evidence. Such is the case of William Lawrence, whose views above, make amply clear that he was not an evolutionist. However, this did not prevent C.D. Darlington from referring to Lawrence as a “precursor to Darwin” whose “book made it clear that the theory of evolution was bound up with ideas that would destroy both the Church and the governing class.” That said, there is much that is radical in Lawrence’s 1819 Lectures on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man: his starkly materialist view of the human mind, his position that humans should be studied like any other species of animal, his outright rejection of Lamarckian (and prevailing) views of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and his unswerving insistence on scientific inquiry unfettered by academic or theological authority.

The overarching project of Lawrence’s book is to advance the idea that the different human races are members of a single species (monogenism) as opposed to separately created species.  Lawrence located human beings within a natural, or zoological, classification. His radical materialist philosophy of mind claimed that cognition resulted entirely from an animal’s structural organization, and he viewed the difference between man and the smallest creatures on Earth as one only of degree:

“If the intellectual phenomena of man require an immaterial principle superadded to the brain, we must equally concede it to those more rational animals which exhibit manifestations differing from some of the human only in degree. If we grant it to these, we cannot refuse it to the next in order, and so on in succession to the whole series, – to the oyster, the sea-anemone, the polype, the microscopic animalcules.” (96)

The prevailing Lord Chancellor apparently took these kinds of views to be an implicit denial of Christian theological tenets. As a consequence of this radicalism, Lawrence’s 1819 Lectures on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man was suppressed and its copyright revoked (though later editions were printed illegally and were widely available).

What makes Lawrence’s writings feel consistent with a modern understanding of evolutionary process are his considerations of inheritance and heredity, as well as his views on the formation of varieties and races in humans, other animals, and plants. Lawrence clearly recognized the possibility of heritable biological novelty arising in a population that could then be passed on and spread and categorically rejected the inheritance of acquired characteristics:

“It is obvious that the external influences just considered [i.e. the operation of climate] …would still be entirely inadequate to account for those signal diversities, which constitute differences of race in animals. These can be explained only by two principles already mentioned; namely, the occasional production of an offspring with different characters from those of the parents, as a native or congenital variety; and the propagation of such varieties by generation.” (469)

Moreover, Lawrence conceived of the additional power of geographic isolation of populations leading to the creation of distinct races:

“Let us suppose that the porcupine family [humans with a hereditary disease causing bristly protrusions from the skin] had been exiled from human society, and been obliged to take up their abode in some solitary spot or desert island. By matching with each other, a race would have been produced, more widely different from us [Caucasians] in external appearance than the Negro.” (pg. 390 in 1822 Natural History – also qtd in Wells)

Lawrence never used any of his evidence on individual and population-level variation giving rise to new races and varieties to articulate a theory of evolutionary change over longer periods of time. Nevertheless, in Descent of Man (1871), Darwin cited Lawrence’s observations on the outcomes of sexual selection in human populations as evidence of evolutionary change induced by selective breeding. Alfred Russel Wallace was also well versed and deeply impressed by Lawrence’s Lectures.

For additional treatment of Lawrence’s writings in an evolutionary context, please see Kentwood Wells’ “Sir William Lawrence (1783-1867) A Study of Pre-Darwinian Ideas on Heredity and Variation.”

Robert Knox

Robert Knox (1793-1862)

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Eduard Joseph d’Alton

Eduard Joseph d’Alton (1772-1840)

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George Combe

George Combe (1788-1858)

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Karl Friedrich Burdach

Karl Friedrich Burdach (1776-1847)

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Jean Baptiste Bory de St. Vincent

Jean Baptiste Bory de St. Vincent (1778-1846)

[O]f the more decided and complete creations of species, genera, and entire families of plants and animals, can they not have taken place continuously, and does it not insultingly restrict the creative power to maintain that, having in a way broken his molds and tired of producing, he would no longer be able to modify and increase his work? (42, Création” in Dictionnaire classique des sciences naturelles).

 Jean Baptiste Genevieve Marcellin Bory de Saint Vincent (Bory) was a vocal and important French supporter of materialist transformist thought in the early 19th century. In keeping with the biographical norm for many of the most influential 19th century naturalists, Bory served as the naturalist on board a naval expedition, later publishing a travel narrative, Voyage dans les quatre principals iles des mers d’Afrique (1804). Bory’s astonishment at the high levels of animal and plant endemism in the Mascarene Islands led him to muse on the possibility of an evolutionary world, asking “How did greenery come to shade an isolated volcano?” Much of what is known of Bory’s evolutionary thought is revealed in his entries in the multivolume Dictionnaire classique des sciences naturelles, which he edited in the 1820s. Bory was a frequent contributor to the Dictionnaire, writing on such topics as “Creation,” “Natural History,” “Geography,” “Man,” “Orang,” “Instinct,” and “Intelligence.” Of particular interest is the fact that Bory’s Dictionnaire is known to have been on board the Beagle with Charles Darwin.

Unlike other evolutionists such as Leopold von Buch (1825) and Charles Darwin who concluded that islands are colonized by long distant transport of species from neighboring mainlands, Bory explicitly rejected this possibility. Instead, he proposed a theory of multiple “modern creations” of life on isolated islands that involved instances of spontaneous generation from which more complex life forms then developed via Lamarckian transformism. Importantly, for Bory, the process of evolutionary innovation involved “individual aberrations” which become permanent and give rise to new species. Thus, variation is central to his evolutionary speculations. Bory also argued that evolutionary advances must take place within a strict order, or ecological succession, in which early-appearing “primitive species” prepare the ground for “newer” (more complex) species which rely on these pioneers for their own survival.

Bory’s transformist views did not go unnoticed. In an 1805 anonymous review of Voyage dans les quatre principals iles des mers d’Afrique published in the Edinburgh Review, the author describes Bory’s theory of multiple spontaneous creations as “unphilosophical” and “by no means countenanced by fact.” It is interesting to note that the subsequent 1805 English translation of Voyage (Voyage to, and travels through the four principle islands of the African seas) lacks many of the evolutionary bits of its original French .

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Bory drew support for his theory of separate creations from the multiplicity of forms that he witnessed among island flora, remarking that he had seen more polymorphic species on Reunion Island, than on any mainland continent. For him, the highly variable island floras were proof of their more recent origin – there had not been sufficient time for the traits of these young labile species to evolve towards more fixed (less variable) forms. Bory’s comments on the general similarities of microscopic species around the globe suggests a strong belief in mechanistic similarities in the generation of life (as did his later reliance on reports of spontaneous generation based on faulty experiments involving putatively sterile water). Conversely, Bory felt that the diversity and dissimilarity of more derived species around the world was a consequence of the unique and specific interplay of climate and physical environment found on each island or land mass.

One would be tempted to conclude that in each place vegetation and life must endure and begin in the same way; that by reason of the elements of existence which each place offers, beings must be formed according to respected laws, and that temperature or other causes continually changing, and according to laws, the primitive species are always reborn in order to pass to other states in proportion as, departing from the form of types, the first modifications adopt fixed and determinate forms under which they are perpetuated in constant species; Species which, by their varieties, can in turn become the strains of new species. (46, “Création”)

In his 1827 entry “Orang” in the Dictionnaire, as well as his essay, “L’Homme: Essai Zoologique sur le Genre Humain” (reprinted from the Dictionnaire), Bory went further than Lamarck in challenging Cuvier’s conception of man and insisted that humans were in fact closely related to orangs. While Cuvier separated humans and primates into separate orders (Bimanes and Quadrumanes), Bory argued that there were in fact more anatomical and physiological similarities between humans and apes (“anatomical conformities humiliating to our vanity”) than between apes and other primates. Intrinsic to Bory’s view of species transmutation was the idea that human beings were not the ultimate end of creation but that evolution would continue. In 1835, the comparative anatomist Richard Owen explicitly refuted Bory’s claims regarding the close relationship between man and orangutan, while also noting Bory’s credentials as a supporter “of the theory of progressive development and transmutation of species.”

Bory de Saint Vincent’s map of Tenerife, 1803.

Hermann Schaaffhausen

Hermann Schaaffhausen (1816-1893)

Coming soon.

Richard Owen

Richard Owen (1810-1890)

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Charles Lyell

Charles Lyell (1797-1875)

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