Henry Hulme Cheek (1807-1833)
Relatively little is known about the Edinburgh medical student Henry Hulme Cheek, but his few publications and professional affiliations provide important insights into the transformist discussions taking place at the University of Edinburgh in the 1820s and early 1830s. We are largely indebted to historian Bill Jenkin’s 2015 “Henry H. Cheek and Transformism: New Light on Charles Darwin’s Edinburgh Background” for information on Cheek’s evolutionary views. Jenkins’ archival research reveals Cheek to have been a concurrent member of the Plinian Society with Charles Darwin (indeed, they were elected to the Society on the same day!). Cheek took part in Plinian Society discussions surrounding the inheritance of acquired characteristics and the minutes of the Plinian Society record Cheek’s participation in conversations regarding transmutation on two occasions between 1831-1832. Cheek went on to co-found and edit the Edinburgh Journal of Natural and Geographical Science – a short-lived publication overtly supportive of transformism.
In 1829, Cheek published an article “On the Natural History of the Dugong” (1829) that seems to present a transformist view. He wrote that the anatomy of a dugong (a marine mammal related to manatees) indicated that it is a connecting link between fish and terrestrial mammals, and that “speculation immediately suggests the geological fact, that fishes existed prior to the creation of mammalia; and that the Omnipotent has passed by slow gradations from one series of organization to another.” Cheek was strongly influenced by Geoffroy’s “unity of type” concept – the journal advocated blatantly for Geoffroy in his 1830 debates with Georges Cuvier – and here recognizes homologous organization between the dugong and its land-dwelling mammalian counterparts (although incorrectly viewing the dugong as transitional between fish and terrestrial mammals).
In his 1830 paper “On the Varieties of the Human Race”, read before the Edinburgh Royal Medical Society, Cheek suggested a single common ancestor for all living species. Here, he also admitted to having doubts, based on the great and frequent difficulties that many other naturalists had with clearly distinguishing between species and varieties, as to whether species could be considered “real” entities in nature. Cheek’s paper presents the ideas of three major precursors to modern evolutionary thought: Lamarck, Geoffroy, and Buffon. The essay, however, is more than a synthesis of prevailing transformist thought. Cheek’s own hypothesis for descent with modification:
“I am myself inclined to the opinion that the accepted laws of cause & effect are not applicable to the discussion of questions on organization – that the climate does not cause the change – but that there is an ultimate Zoological law, that structures have a tendency to change for adaption to new functions – that the indigenous races are adapted to the climates in which they are found – and that, if a race be removed to a new region it will either become adapted to new functions required, by the powers or organization, or that it will propagate a sickly & imbecile offspring, and ultimately perish” (qtd in Jenkins, 161-2).
At one level, Cheek appears to provide a standard Lamarckian postulation of a “tendency” for organisms to adapt to the requirements of new environments. Yet, at the same time, Cheek’s “ultimate Zoological law” statement is striking in its anticipation of natural selection – if a race fails to become adapted to new environments, its offspring will be “sickly [unfit] and ultimately perish.” Cheek appears to have grasped an understanding that new varieties are created via a process of differential success (selection) in new environments. Nevertheless, this brief statement however should not be read as a strong precursor to Darwin’s and Wallace’s theory of natural selection (see also James Hutton). Nothing more was ever made of this thought by Cheek since his life was cut short by his tragically young death in 1833.
The Edinburgh Journal of Natural and Geographical Science which served as a medium for Cheek and his colleagues to broadcast their transformism to the wider community, was only in print for a brief three volumes, though it was distributed in London, Dublin, and possibly Paris (Jenkins p.163). Nevertheless, the glimpses into this young medical student’s speculation on the nature of species and the production of new varieties provides insight into the extent to which evolutionary ideas were being independently formulated and promulgated in Edinburgh by Darwin’s peers and mentors almost three decades before the publication of On the Origin of Species.