Tuesday, April 6, 2010

4/6: What ideas about evolution were circulating when Darwin was writing?

Last Update: 04-08-2010 12:22:39

It was pointed out that the idea of evolution did not originate with Darwin and that the concept incorporates far more than Darwin's discussion of natural selection. Let's talk more about other important ideas about evolution that were being discussed at the time.

Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-33) was a revelation for Darwin and others. Mediating between "cosmologies" and biological evolution it displaced humans and living organisms from the central focus of evolution; fossils were embedded within the earth's strata and the earth itself had been evolving for millenia. Darwin originally thought of himself as a geologist and his early post-Beagle publications have as much to do with geology as zoology (volcanic islands, coral reefs). We can think of evolution in the immediate pre-Darwinian period in terms of controversies over the history and transformation of the earth itself. In addition to geology, the popular concept of the "natural history" of a region was part of the idea that a naturalist traditionally studied the details of the earth along with its creatures (Darwin was trained as a geologist and Lyell as a zoologist). Darwin's regional observations of the relationship of creatures, climate, location grew out of the tradition of what it was to be a naturalist.

And then, of course, outside the UK, there was Lamarck, as Barbara Larson has dealt with so well in her own work, notably in the context of Odilon Redon. By the late 19th century, it became entirely possible/habitual for one to be assimilated with the other in the popular consciousness; the author art critic and anarchist, Félix Fénéon, for example (but only one!), considered 'Lamarck's transformism' and 'Darwin's theory of evolution' to be the leading manifestations of the materialist philosophy in the 19th century.

Yesterday Roger introduced the notion of the evolution of the universe, and today Barbara wrote about the evolution of the earth. Did people in the 19th century link these ideas? Was the same importance given to a static physical world as to a static biological world? Would Darwin have worried as much about the effect of his geology as of his biology?

Before I go for the day, another quick post. Here is one of my favorite anti-evolutionary illustrations, a frontispiece to a work by Darwin's enemy, the natural historian Richard Owen, which humorously introduces a third term to the human/animal binary--the divine. Published a decade before On the Origin of Species, when the debate on transformism vs fixity of species was already very vigorous. The politics of the period are wonderfully described at length by Adrian Desmond in The Politics of Evolution:Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London (1992): transformists tended to be advocates of social and political reform or revolution; upholders of the fixity of species tended to be conservatives who supported monarchical and aristocratic and ecclesiastical hierarchy. The underlying assumption was that there should be a correspondence between the natural order and social/political/economic orders.

Richard Owen, On the nature of limbs (1849), frontispiece. Owen, a pioneering paleontologist (he coined the term "dinosaur"), believed that the similar structures of the different vertebrates ("archetypes") were evidence of the divine hand.
Yes to Michael's comment about Owen, and in Britain, the transformist ideas that circulated in the radical medical community of London, as Desmond shows, were Lamarck's. Owen's version of transcendental anatomy was adapted from continental models and was designed, in Desmond's account, to neutralize the transformist threat--the import of Lamarck's "French" ideas, with their radical political implications and anti-clerical potential.

Lyell's Principles of Geology also contains an extended rebuttal of Lamarckian ideas. That, and the example of Vestiges, caused Darwin to be sure that his model of evolution could be clearly differentiated from Lamarck's (even though he allowed ever-greater place for the inheritance of acquired characteristics in the successive editions of the Origin and in Variation and Expression in particular).

A brief comment regarding Barbara Larson's attention to Lyell's seminal book on geology, the age of the earth, cosmology, evolution, etc.... The view of a static "tree of life," with humankind sitting (nay, reigning) at the top, dates ultimately to ancient natural philosophy and religious constructs. Many pre- and post-Darwin evolutionary thinkers were willing to accept a limited amount of "change" in time, as long as it did not affect humankind's sacrosanct position atop the world of Nature. In reality, Darwinian evolutionary thinking represented the culmination of the Copernican revolution. What began in the de-throning the earth from the center of the cosmos ended in the de-throning of humankind from its special place in the natural order of things. Life would come to be seen, in the 20th century, as an epiphenomenon of a changing, evolving (yet creative) cosmos.

04-07-2010 11:50:39
As is well-documented, it took a long time for Gregor Mendel’s work to reach the scientific as well as general public. Nevertheless some of Mendel’s work was published in 1865, dealing with the inheritance of peloric traits (mutant forms found in some varieties of Antirrhinum plants). That was after Darwin had published On the Origin of Species and 3 years before Darwin published his own observations on Antirrhinium plants. According to some of the literature, the observations made by Darwin implied that the peloric trait depends on a single gene. But, as Enrico Coen (The Art of Genes) has pointed out, Darwin was unfamiliar with Mendel’s theory, and, as a result, one wonders whether Darwin would have discovered the principles of heredity along with evolution if he had been aware of all the literature then.

04-07-2010 14:01:53
Thus far there has been little discussion about the discourse and representation of "deep time" as a source for evolutionary discourse and the production of evolutionary natural knowledge, and as a genre instigated by evolutionary discourse. The classic works on this are a series of books by Martin J.S. Rudwick, Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representation of the Prehistoric World (1992); Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution (2007); Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform (2008); etc. So here are more specimens of visual culture: an 1825 copperplate engraving from Cuvier, showing in meticulous detail some fossilized skeletal remains; a couple of mid-19th century engravings from Figuier that imaginatively reconstruct ancient creatures on the basis of recently discovered fossil remains. Deep time, like the Copernican Revolution, runs against the scriptural account of creation, and rewrites human history as the very brief conclusion to a very long story.

Louis Figuier, La Terre avant le Déluge (1864). L'ichthyosaure et le plésiosaure. Illustration: Riou. Dutch translation: E.M. Beima

Louis Figuier, La Terre avant le Déluge (1864). L'ichthyosaure et le plésiosaure. Illustration: Riou.

Georges Cuvier, Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe (1825), foldout 2. The most famous naturalist of his time, Cuvier believed that the fossils were not evidence of evolution per se, but of a series of successive creations.


04-08-2010 12:22:39
In terms of deep time, the popular imagination and creation/evoluton, gigantism in the fossil record and the possibility of gigantic "living fossils" in wild, untrammeled areas entered both popular science and the imagination (think geological walk at the crystal palace exhibition of 1851 with the enormous Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins prehistoric creations, the recent discovery by westerners (1847) of the gorilla and its implications, or the fantastic creatures in the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau). If intererested, I cover some of the issues of popular culture, islands, Darwin, and gigantism in the catalogue Odilon Redon: Le Ciel, La Terre, la Mer.


04-08-2010 12:53:42
I would very much be interested to hear more about the depiction of deep time. I'm particularly interested in the difficulties of depicting it even in contemporary practices. I know that the phrase deep time specifically refers to pre history but it appears to me that artists have the same issue in depicting/imagining the future - that is to say, no first hand accounts.

04-08-2010 16:35:20
This may be a partial repeat, since I somehow just lost my response to J.D., but deep time imagery often made use of fragmentary fossil evidence, but was often understood as accurate and circulated as such. These fantastic images were part of the visual culture of the biblical antediluvean era--distant, bizarre, and nonhuman. Sometimes fossil discoverers and artists collaborated. John Martin, mentioned in another thread, created an image of an iguanadon (herbivorous dinosaur) as the frontispiece for a book on geology by Gideon Mantell, who discovered the first skeletal evidence. The Yale catalogue has a good discussion on images of this creature,noting that Mantell's own ideas about the form of the creature later changed as new fossil evidence was located. In imagining oneself back in this pre-human past or perhaps coming face to face with a "living fossil," artists often fell back on conventions of the sublime with diminutive human beings set against large scale creatures that reference smaller current species (as in the science fiction imagery found in Verme where humans travel deep into the sea or back through geological time).

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