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Robert Knox (1793-1862)

“[W]hat difficulty is there in imagining that with time—to which may be added the unknown law of progress and development, and a change in the external media, the air, the waters, the temperature—with time, the simple animals of the early world… may have produced by continuous generation the more complex animals of after ages; that the fish of the early world may have produced reptiles, then again birds and quadrupeds; lastly, man himself? Give us time, said the anatomist—the geologist could not object to this—and with time and progress in time, and a change of external circumstances, it will not be difficult to show that there was only one creation…” (page 120, Races of Men, 1862).

Courtesy of the Library of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh

Robert Knox is among the more colorful of the early evolutionists. A gifted scholar from a lower middle-class family, he attended the University of Edinburgh and later became one of that university’s most proficient medical anatomy lecturers. Knox’s anatomical studies were influenced by German Naturphilosophie, especially as it was articulated by Goethe and Oken; and he subscribed to what was then known as transcendental, or philosophical, anatomy in the hopes that it would enable him, in his own words,“to explain in a connected chain the phenomena of the living material world; to connect the history of living plants and animals with those which now lie entombed in the strata of the crust of the globe; to explain the mysterious metamorphoses which occur in the growth of animals and plants from their embryonic state to their maturity of growth and final decay; to trace a plan of creation, and to guess at that plan” (page 167, Races of Men, 1862).

Knox ultimately fell into disrepute both in his own time for his involvement in the Burke and Hare murders (he bought corpses of murdered victims to use for anatomical dissection), as well as in our time for his racist views in the field of ethnology. Read more about Robert Knox’s contribution to early evolutionary thought.

His implication in the 1831 Burke and Hare murders prevented Knox from continuing to teach in Scotland. He relocated to London and earned money by publishing in scientific journals and delivering public lectures. It was during this period that he advanced his “guess at that plan [of creation].” Knox’s engagement with evolutionary ideas of the era can, at times, seem contradictory; yet his engagement with them is undeniable, and his views are clarified in light of transcendental anatomical theory, the nascent state of embryological research, and his anti-conservative, nihilistic political views (for an insightful analysis of the way in which Knox’s sociopolitical views influenced his biology, please see Evelleen Richards’ The “Moral Anatomy” of Robert Knox: The Interplay between Biological and Social Thought in Victorian Scientific Naturalism). Knox did not believe that evolution was necessarily progressive; thus his disapproval of the underlying progressivism in the theories of Lamarck and Geoffroy, as well as in Chamber’s Vestiges. He explicitly rejected Cuvier’s successive creations, as he believed that “[d]istinct epochs or acts of creation imply a miracle, and miracles are impossible” (page 594, Races of Men, 1862).

Knox’s evolutionary views were strongly influenced by transcendental theories of animal embryology; indeed embryonic development was the focal point of his theories. In Races of Men, he wrote:

“…that [an] embryo, passes through a succession of forms, shadowing forth the organic world as it now exists, from the highest to the lowest; shadowing forth the organic world as it has existed from the dawn of creation to the present day— this is proved by geology; and shadowing forth the organic world, or worlds, no doubt, which are yet to come. For there was but one creation— there could not be two, or three, or twenty, as Cuvier has it, or rather his followers, for be himself never maintained such opinions. Unity of idea, unity of result—life once created, once called into play, could never cease: it appeared, no doubt, with the globe itself—contemporaneous, coeval” (page 422).

For Knox, species are, in a sense, predestined by the transcendental anatomy of the embryo and his theory can be said to be evolutionary in that all species are derived from a single origin of life which has and will continue to diversify when new environmental conditions enable the development of “new” adult forms which pre-exist in the potentiality of the embryo.

There is scant evidence to confirm that Charles Darwin attended Knox’s classes when he was a medical student at the University of Ediburgh (October 1825 – April 1827), although he was in Edinburgh at the same time that Knox was a lecturer. Darwin did cite both Races of Men and Great Artists and Great Anatomists in the second edition of The Descent of Man. He did not, however, include Knox in his Historical Sketch. It is interesting to note that there has been some confusion among Knox’s contemporaries, as well as among scholars today, regarding the extent to which Knox’s view of life was “evolutionary”. In a biography written after Knox’s death, his pupil, Henry Lonsdale, wrote that Knox’s views more closely followed the German school of transcendental anatomy than the French transmutationists; however, Knox’s contemporary, the Rev. Baden Powell, referred to Knox as a “zealous supporter of the principles of transmutation” in his Essays on the Unity of Worlds.