Ami Boué (1794-1881)
“But, in examining the series of fossil remains that are found buried in the strata of the globe, there is nowhere perceived a distinct line of demarcation between the different terms of that series, so as to prove that life has been once or oftener totally renewed on the earth. On the contrary, we discover in it proof of the successive and gradual change which we have pointed out.”
The French-born, Austrian-naturalized, geologist Ami Boué is a very much underappreciated early evolutionist. Only recently, has he been identified as the source of an anonymous and explicitly transformist 1827 publication in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal. As a student of medicine at Edinburgh in the early 1800s, Boué was mentored by the eminent geologist and natural historian Robert Jameson (also recently identified as the author of an anonymous evolutionist article “Observations on the Nature and Importance of Geology” in 1826). An expert stratigrapher and geologist, Boué would continue through the 1830s to emphasize the gradual and progressive nature of the fossil record (and strongly oppose catastrophist hypotheses) and the role that environmental change played in stimulating evolutionary change,
In his 1827 article, “Of the Changes Which Life Has Experienced on the Globe”, Boué argued against interpretations of the history of life that invoked geological and biological catastrophism with subsequent special creations. Rather, Boué’s view of an evolved world of life was based on a critical (and accurate) reading of the fossil record of plants and animals. Boué noted that ‘ancient’ and ‘primitive’ species can be found alongside more modern species in newer layers of rock, and remarks on the continuity of some genera from the past through the present:
“Certain primitive types have indeed completely disappeared, but they are found existing at various epochs, and their remains are blended with those of more modern types; along with new species of types still existing, we find some of anterior epochs; certain genera that yet obtain are common to all the terms of the series; and toward the end of the series, we find the remains of some of the present species along with ancient types and extinct species.”
Boué also pointed out that major environmental changes over the course of Earth’s history could result in changes of the geographic ranges of the world’s flora and fauna – not complete extinction of the animal and plant kingdoms with subsequent replacement. For Boué, evolution could also yield new forms suited to new habitats in response to climatic change.
“The differences which vegetables and animals exhibit at the present day, according to the various climates or situations in which they occur, have been gradually established under the predominating influence of a small number of natural causes, and constitute at length the order of distribution which life now presents at the surface of the earth.”
Despite publishing anonymously in English in 1827, Boué openly declared transformist views in an 1834 article in the Bulletin de la societe geologique de France (“Resumé des Progres des sciences geologiques pendant l’annee 1833” – Resumé of progress of the geological sciences during the year 1833). Here, Boué included a “Discussion sur l’espéce” (Discussion on the species), wrote of the “transmutation of acknowledged species,” and aligned himself with the “conclusions of Lamarck and Geoffroy.”
These types of gradualist, anti-fixist/anti-catastrophist claims would be repeated in the second volume of Boué’s 1836 geological guide for travelers, Guide du Géologue-Voyageur, sur le modéle de l’agenda geognostica de m. Léonhard. Here he would again emphasize a uniformitarian view of Earth’s history, as well as a nuanced view that while the preponderance of transmutation was gradual, cataclysmic change could on occasion occur, without the complete extinction of life – views that would very much accord with those of Charles Darwin some twenty plus years later.
“Sudden changes leave no chance for the species; only slow changes allow them to adapt. The series of fossils shows nowhere a clear line of demarcation between the different terms of this series. The vegetable and animal creations do not appear to have been renewed several times and in totality on the earth. On the contrary, the succession of genera and species of fossils, and their replacement by each other, indicates a gradual change, which has been abrupt only here and there, at certain epochs, and consequently by great upheavals, subsidence, and considerable floods. There would have been cataclysms, which could have embraced a large part of the globe, without thereby depopulating it entirely.” (248).
Boué’s ideas constitute a prime example of the integration of geological knowledge with biological explanations for the history and diversity of life. Indeed, throughout his career, Boué, would try to reconcile the differing views of his colleagues on violent upheaval and geological uniformitarianism and show how the true nature of the fossil record belied Cuvierian theories of catastrophism. His work demonstrates the extent to which incorrect preconceptions of the geological world could profoundly affect the way in which scholars interpreted the development of the biological world.