Charles Naudin (1815-1899)
Such, in our ideas, is the course followed by nature; like us, it wanted to form races to fit them to its needs; and with a relatively small number of primordial kinds, it successively gave birth and at various times, to all the plant and animal species that inhabit the globe…
Charles Naudin was a French botanist who studied hybridization and heredity over the course of his long life. In 1852, he published a paper on evolution entitled “Considérations philosophique sur l’espèce et la variété” (Philosophical considerations on species and varieties) in Revue Horticole. In this important paper, Naudin writes that artificial selection is essentially based upon nature’s process of selection and that the line between species and varieties is artificial. In addition, Naudin wrote of deep time and the progressive nature of the fossil record, and critically, that life should be classified based on genealogy.
After On the Origin of Species was published (1859), Darwin received a letter from the French botanist Joseph Decaisne, who argued that Naudin had already advanced the central ideas of artificial and natural selection. Darwin was sufficiently miffed by this letter (no longer extant) to write (letter here) his good friend and colleague Joseph Hooker (December 23, 1859): “I am surprised that Decaisne shd say it was same as mine. Naudin gives artificial selection as well as a score of English writers; & when he says species were formed in same manner I thought the paper would certainly prove exactly the same as mine. But I cannot find one word like the Struggle for existence & Natural Selection.”
Even some of Naudin’s French contemporaries agreed with Darwin. The French biologist Jean Louis Armand de Quatrefages called Naudin’s conception closer to that of his French countrymen Buffon, Lamarck, and Bory de Saint Vincent; and wrote that Naudin had failed to penetrate the crux of the species problem, in contradistinction to Darwin. Quatrefages (1870) wrote that Naudin’s work neglected to explain the actual process by which nature selected new variations generated in the hereditary process and left open the question of whether selection was driven by “an intelligent nature, acting with a view to a determined goal” or the directionless “natural selection” postulated by Darwin.
In fact, one finds in Naudin’s work that species formation is attributed to the interplay of two opposing forces – atavism, or the hereditary conservation of ancestral characteristics, and plasticity, or the creation of new heritable morphologies. A precise role for these two counteracting forces is not delineated; however, Naudin did express a belief that early phases of life had been more plastic, allowing for original creations to “subdivide into secondary types,” while atavistic forces increased with the progress of time, restricting the breadth of new types that could evolve. Despite differing conditions between the past and present as well as between nature’s resources and man’s, Naudin held that the process by which new species came into being was essentially the same, and that it could be compared to the process by which the horticulturalist created new varieties of plants:
“We do not believe that nature has proceeded to form its species in a manner that we ourselves use to create our varieties; rather, it is nature’s process that we have applied to our practices… [T]o start a new lineage, we choose among the large number of individuals… those that seem to deviate from the specific type in ways that suit us, and, with a rational selection and follow up of the products obtained, we do, after an undetermined number of generations, create artificial varieties or species that meet more or less the ideal type that we were aiming for… Such, in our ideas, is the course followed by nature; like us, it wanted to form races to fit them to its needs; and with a relatively small number of primordial kinds, it successively gave birth and at various times, to all the plant and animal species that inhabit the globe… Nature has operated on a huge scale and immense resources. We, on the contrary, we do so with extremely limited means; but between its processes and ours, between its results and those we get, the difference is all in quantity; between its species and those we create, there are only the more and less.”
What appears to be evident in this passage is that the process of selecting in nature is likened to the process of domestication with a guiding hand and a goal (“nature, like us, it wanted to form races to fit them to its needs”). This distinctly teleological process is radically different from what Darwin and Wallace (at least Wallace until the mid-1860s) would propose as an unguided mechanism of natural selection.
No doubt Naudin’s extensive horticultural and plant-breeding experience (he crossed approximately 2,000 cucurbit varieties in an effort to clarify familial relationships) led to his conclusion that the relationships among species were best viewed as a branching tree. Furthermore, he proposed that this image worked because the relationships were real – all life could be considered and grouped into genealogical communities of descent. Here, his view of life undoubtedly overlaps with Darwin’s.
“[A] perfect and rigorous classification of organic beings of the same kingdom, same order, same family, would be nothing other than the genealogical tree of the same species, indicating the relative ancientness of each, degré de spéciéité [unifying characters?], and line of ancestors from which it is descended.”
The reason for the persistence of particular species in time was obscured by Naudin’s references to the force of “finality,” an essentially teleological proposition which he equates with a “mysterious power… whose incessant action on living beings determines, in all ages of the existence of the world, the shape, volume, and duration of each of them, because of its destiny in the order of things to which it belongs.” As Darwin remarked in his letter concerning Naudin to Hooker, “he brings in his principle (p. 103) of Finality (which I do not understand) which he says with some authors is fatality, with others Providence, & which adapts the forms of every Being, & harmonises them all througout [sic] nature.”
Beyond his contributions to evolutionary thought, Naudin’s work (although perhaps unwittingly) played a role in the development of French art. In 1905, the French Fauvist artist Henri Matisse moved to the South of France, seeking consolation from emotional and mental distress. He visited Naudin’s Villa Palma gardens and the color and form there appear to have so inspired him that Naudin’s olive trees and palms, among other plants, are featured in Matisse’s stunning paintings of Collioure, France.
For a brief treatment of the life and intellectual contributions of Charles Naudin, click here.