Robert Grant (1793-1874)
Robert Edmond Grant was an Edinburgh-trained physician, who gave up the medical profession to study invertebrates. He was an early advocate of evolutionary thought (a strong supporter of Geoffroy and Lamarck and their views), and cited Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia in his medical dissertation. It is worth noting that Grant was mentored by the geologist Robert Jameson, now established as the author of an anonymously authored distinctly transmutationist 1826 paper “Observations on the Nature and Importance of Geology.” Early in his career, Grant traveled to Paris (multiple times between 1815 and 1820), and was acquainted with both Cuvier and Geoffroy.
Grant is often memorialized as Charles Darwin’s instructor in invertebrate zoology, while Darwin was a medical student at the University of Edinburgh between 1825 and 1827. From their joint collecting trips to the shore, Grant introduced Darwin to the world of research and microscopic dissection – and this led to the Darwin’s first scientific paper, delivered at the Plinian Society in 1827. As Darwin later wrote in his autobiography, “He [Grant] one day, when we were walking together, burst forth in high admiration of Lamarck and his views on evolution. I listened in quiet astonishment, and as far as I can judge, without any effect on my mind.” Darwin’s introspection aside, Grant surely played a critical role in fostering Darwin’s love of natural history, taste for research, and willingness to think openly about transmutation.
Grant’s first published hints of his evolutionist views appeared in a paper on the freshwater sponge, Spongilla friabilis (1826). Here, he made a seemingly evolutionary argument about the descent of marine sponges from their freshwater ancestors:
“From this greater simplicity of structure, we are forced to consider it as more ancient than the marine sponges, and most probably their original parent; and, as its descendants have greatly improved their organization, during the many changes that have taken place in the composition of the ocean, while the spongilla, living constantly in the same unaltered medium, has retained its primitive simplicity.”(283)
In 1827, Grant became a professor at the newly founded University College of London, where his lectures on comparative anatomy endorsed Geoffroy’s “unity of plan” concept. It is clear that this idea of homology, and gradated anatomical transitions between different groups (living and fossil) in the animal kingdom greatly influenced Grant’s transformism. In his inaugural address and lecture in 1828 Grant argued that the science of zoology “enquires into the origin and duration of entire species, and the causes which operate towards their increase or their gradual extinction; the laws which regulate their distribution, and the changes they undergo by the influence of climate, domestication, and other external circumstances.”
In 1833, again in his introductory address at the opening of the Medical School of the University of London, Grant wrote: “Extending his view to the remnants of organic beings embalmed in the earth, he [the comparative anatomist] finds that this kingdom has itself been gradually developed from simple to compound, that its roots are lost in the depths of the earth, and its extreme branches only are visible on the surface.”
Later in life, Darwin would distance himself from Grant, likely because of Grant’s radical materialism, politically reformist views, and general descent in reputation among natural historians. After the publication of On the Origin of Species, Grant made sure to link his name to that of Charles Darwin, particularly through the publication of an 1861 book on the animal kingdom – Tabular View of the Primary Divisions of the Animal Kingdom intended to serve as an outline for an elementary course of Recent Zoology – that he dedicated to Darwin. In addition to highlighting an excerpt of an evolutionary profession made in his 1834 Lectures, Grant made sure to remind the world of their close connection in Edinburgh, where “nearly forty [years] have already rapidly fled away since you and I were busied in exploring microscopically the delicate structures and the living phenomena of the lowest organisms abounding in the rich fauna of the Firth of Forth.”
For an excellent treatment of Grant and his ideas on evolution, please read: Desmond, A. 1984. Robert E. Grant: the social predicament of a pre-Darwinian transmutationist. Journal of the History of Biology 17: 189 – 223.
Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802)
Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, was the first Briton to explicitly write about evolution. His main prose on the topic appears in the first volume of Zoonomia in 1794. In the chapter “On Generation,” Erasmus Darwin discusses the descent of life from a microscopic common ancestor, sexual selection, the analogy of artificial selection as a means to understand descent with modification, and a basic concept of what we now refer to as homology (Richard Owen coined the term in 1843, but the concept had been in use for decades before then). While transformism is dealt with only briefly over the course of several pages of Zoonomia, these important ideas would all be exponentially expanded upon by his grandson Charles Darwin in support of his evolutionary theories in Origin. Erasmus Darwin’s thoughts on the diversity of life and evolution also appear in the Loves of the Plants (first published in two parts in 1789 and 1791), Phytologia (1800), and his last work, The Temple of Nature, published posthumously in 1803.
Interestingly, if not somewhat disingenuously, in his 1876 Autobiography, Charles Darwin wrote with reference to his grandfather Erasmus Darwin’s evolutionary views, that it was “probable that the hearing rather early in life such views maintained and praised may have favoured my upholding them under a different form in my Origin of Species.” Yet, in his Historical Sketch on the Recent Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species (added to the third English edition of Origin), Charles Darwin barely credited his grandfather’s influence, relegating him to a mere sentence in a footnote: “It is curious how largely my grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, anticipated the erroneous grounds of opinion, and the views of Lamarck, in his ‘Zoonomia’ (vol. i. p. 500-510), published in 1794.” That Erasmus Darwin upheld evolutionary views, and that his grandson Charles read his most widely known work on the subject – Zoonomia – both before and after attending university must certainly have provided Charles Darwin with a clear sense of freedom to explore what was then still viewed as a radical set of ideas.
Read more about Erasmus Darwin’s contributions to evolutionary biology
Erasmus Darwin, a medical doctor by profession, was not only an extremely well-read student of the natural sciences, but also a widely known poet and inventor. He was the founder of the Lichfield Botanical Society and a member of the remarkable Lunar Society, a group of Midlands enlightenment scholars and inventors who met regularly and advocated for the abolition of the slave trade (other members included Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley). In 1797, Samuel Taylor Coleridge remarked that Erasmus Darwin was “the first literary character in Europe, and the most original-minded man.” By the end of his life, Erasmus’ liberal views (he supported the American and French revolutions) led to vicious attacks by conservative forces in Great Britain. As such, he was lampooned in political cartoons and published satire that linked his evolutionist views with radical and revolutionary France.
Desmond King-Hele, Darwin’s foremost biographer, writes in Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unequalled Achievement, that it was the fossil remains of extinct species found during the 1767 excavation of the Harecastle Tunnel that first suggested to Erasmus a common origin of all animals. The centrality of evolution to Erasmus Darwin’s worldview was first publicly evidenced by his appending of the words “E conchis omnia” or “Everything from shells” to the three scallop shells on his family’s coat of arms in the early – and having this incorporated into his bookplates, as well as painted on the outside of his horse-drawn carriage (this would land him in trouble with the Canon of Lichfield, Thomas Seward). Erasmus Darwin’s thoughts on the diversity of life and evolution first appear in writing in his poem, the Botanic Garden, containing The Loves of the Plants and the Economy of Vegetation (first published in two parts in 1789 and 1791) which historian of biology Janet Browne calls, “an early study in Darwin’s lifelong commitment to the idea of transmutation” (604).
By the time he published Volume I of the Zoonomia in 1794, his opinion of evolution was unabashedly solidified:
“From thus meditating on the great similarity of the structure of warm-blooded animals, and at the same time of the great changes they undergo both before and after their nativity; and by considering in how minute a portion of time many of the changes of animals above described have been produced; would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!” (552-553).
Zoonomia was reviewed in the September issue of the 1794 Monthly Literary Review. Although Darwin is described as “well-known,” “an ingenious philosopher, of extensive knowledge and large inquiry” and “a poet, distinguished beyond most of his contemporaries by the boldness of his imagination”, the reviewer is noticeably reserved in praising the content of Darwin’s transformist theory. After describing it in detail, the reviewer writes: “We shall make no remarks on this system, referring to the work itself such of our readers, as are disposed to take pleasure in viewing the progress of such an ingenious fancy in working up a little fact with an abundance of conjecture” (Monthly Literary Review, 1;12). This tepid review notwithstanding, Zoonomia went through multiple editions and printings in London, as well as in Dublin, Boston, Philadelphia and New York – and would be translated into Italian (two separate editions), German, and French. Zoonomia was a widely circulated text whose importance in introducing the world to evolutionary ideas is likely to be significantly underappreciated.
In his 1800 Phytologia, a text that can be viewed as an early treatise on plant physiology and structure, Erasmus Darwin explicitly included plants in his view of an evolutionary world, equating their processes of sexual reproduction to those of animals, and showing how important this was for introducing variation and possibly new forms into the botanical :
“This mutability or uncertainty of the number of the organs of reproduction belonging to individual flowers, would seem to arise from an attempt of all organized beings towards greater perfection. Whence as the success of the process of reproduction becomes more certain from the greater perfection of the vegetable being, the organs for the purpose of reproduction seem to become fewer. Whence some flowers have lost half the stamina, and in others the anthers of those stamina are yet only deficient, and in others the pistilla are deficient; all which in process of time may gradually become less numerous, or separate themselves from hermaphrodite flowers into sexual ones, as in the classes of monoecia and dioecia; and all of them finally, after a long process of ages, become of the orders monandria and monogynian of those classes; whilst new kinds of vegetables may begin a similar progress from less to greater perfection. So in animals, the less perfect seem to possess organs for a more numerous reproduction, as fish and insects. Such would seem to be the perpetual progress of all organized beings from less to greater perfection existing from the beginning of time to the end of it!” (563)
Erasmus Darwin’s evolutionary views were last articulated in poetic form in his final published work, The Temple of Nature (1803). In romantic couplets (with extensive prose footnotes), Darwin presents a view of a deeply evolutionary world. Darwin proposes that all life evolved from “first forms minute” which arose “without parent by spontaneous birth” (Canto I), thereby tackling the question of the origin of life, a topic that his grandson would assiduously avoid.
With verses evocative of Lucretius’ epicurean De Rerum Natura, Erasmus Darwin notes the evolution of increasing complexity from a microscopic first form of ocean life and the evolutionary transition of water-based life to terrestrial life,
“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;
When countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.” (Canto I).
Darwin also exposits upon the superiority of sexual reproduction over asexual reproduction in conferring fitness, and sexual selection and competition among males:
There the hoarse stag his croaking rival scorns,
And butts and parries with his branching horns;…
While the female bands attend in mute surprise,
And view the victor with admiring eyes.—(Canto II).
In this final published work, Erasmus ventured further than Charles would at first dare to do in Origin. He proposes that human beings have also evolved from the same microscopic beginnings and goes so far as to remove mankind from its traditional hierarchical pedestal above other forms of life:
“Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect who scorns this early sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point, or microscopic ens!” (Canto I).
Erasmus Darwin’s writings also make clear the extent to which his commitment to political and social progress were enmeshed with his biological views of progressive evolution. Amidst verses describing nature, he advocates for liberal reform, the abolition of slavery, and shows support for the American and French Revolutions.
For an excellent and highly enjoyable biography of Erasmus Darwin, please read Erasmus Darwin, a Life of Unequalled Achievement, by Desmond King-Hele, 1999.”
Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
Charles Darwin did not formally publish on the topic of evolution until 1858, when excerpts from an essay he had privately written in 1844 and a portion of a letter to the American botanist Asa Gray were published along with Alfred Russel Wallace’s formal manuscript on the mechanism of natural selection (click here to read all three pieces) in the Journal of the Linnean Society of London, Zoology. Nevertheless, Darwin wrote extensively about evolution in his private notebooks beginning shortly after his return from the voyage of the Beagle in 1836. In 1842, he wrote his first formal essay on evolution and this was expanded in 1844. These two essays were first published in 1909 (click here to read). Between 1855 and 1858, Darwin worked on what became known as his “Big Species Book” which was subsequently abandoned when he learned that Alfred Russel Wallace had independently elucidated the principle of natural selection and there was a need for expeditious publication of his views. What came next, was the remarkable flurry of writing activity that resulted in On the Origin of Species, published in November of 1859 (click here to read).
Robert Chambers (1802-1871)
Robert Chambers was an Edinburgh publisher who anonymously penned a best selling book on evolution in 1844, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. The book was an absolute sensation and was read by Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln. Within a matter of years, it would pass through ten separate editions and would continue to maintain total sales exceeding those of On the Origin of Species through the 1880s. In the absence of international copyright law, at least four different publishers reprinted Vestiges in the United States. Robert Chambers’ authorship was only revealed after his death.
The prominence of Vestiges and the rampant speculation about the identity of its author is reflected in this piece from Punch (1847). The cartoons provide a wonderful insight into the many denials of authorship and the book’s orphan status. In Charles Lyell’s A Second Visit to the United States of North America, based on his travels in 1845 and 1846, he related the following while in Alabama: “Sometimes, in the morning, my host would be the humblest class of ‘crackers,’or some low, illiterate German or Irish emigrants, the wife sitting with a pipe in her mouth, doing no work and reading no books. In the evening, I came to a neighbour, whose library was well stored with works of French and English authors, and whose first question to me was, ‘Pray tell me, who do you really think is the author of the Vestiges of Creation?’”
For an excellent account of the publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, please read Victorian Sensation, The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, by James A. Secord, 2000.
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788)
Leopold von Buch (1774-1853)
Leopold von Buch (1774-1853) was an extremely distinguished German geologist, paleontologist, and plant geographer, as well as a protégé and lifelong colleague of Alexander von Humboldt. In March of 1815, he sailed with the Norwegian botanist Christen Smith from England to the Canary Islands. A thorough description of the geology, physical nature, and flora of these islands, Physicalische Beschreibung der Canarischen Inseln, would result and be published in 1825 and subsequently be translated into French in 1836 (Description Physique des Îles Canaries). Importantly, the chapter on the flora of the Canary Islands contains a lucid description of key insights associated with allopatric speciation on continents, as well as an explanation of the origin and diversification of island floras through dispersal of taxa from the nearest mainland, subsequent divergence of varieties, and speciation (with reproductive isolation) through geographic separation.
Two early evolutionists, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, read these remarkable passages!
Here is Wallace’s translation and comments from his species notebook of 1857:
“On continents the individuals of one kind of plant disperse themselves very far, and by the difference of stations of nourishment & of soil produce varieties which at such a distance not being crossed by other varieties and so brought back to the primitive type, become at length permanent and distinct species. Then if by chance in other directions they meet with an other variety equally changed in its march, the two are become very distinct species and are no longer susceptible of intermixture.” Wallace then goes on to summarize: “He then shows that plants on the exposed peak of Teneriffe where they can meet & cross do not form varieties or species, while others such as Pyrethrum or Cineraria living in sheltered vallies & low grounds often have closely allied species confined to one valley or one island.” (See Wallace’s December 1860 letter to Darwin).
Here is Darwin’s clear recognition of the importance of von Buch’s insights, from his Notebook B (1837-8):
“Von Buch distinctly states that permanent varieties become species… not being crossed with others. – Compares to languages. But how do plants cross? – – admirable discussion.”