Monday, October 27, 2014

Predecessors of Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace are usually credited with independently developing the idea that natural selection could be the important process by which new species arise, although history has apportioned most of the fame to Darwin alone.

In the first edition of his most famous book Darwin (1859) cited no sources, and credited no-one except Thomas Malthus as a source of ideas. He was criticized for this, and from the third edition onwards he provided a historical essay mentioning a few more names.

The basic issue is that the idea of natural selection had been "in the air" for more than half a century, but only with respect to within-species variation. It was Darwin and Wallace who took the leap to consider between-species variation, on the basis that there is no historical boundary defining species — all individuals trace their ancestry back through a whole series of ancestors, including those who existed before the origin of their current species. That is, phylogenies trace back to the origin of life not just to the origin of each species.

So, who were the people who published, however briefly, a comment noting the idea of within-species natural selection? Joachim Dagg, of the Natural History Apostils blog, has recently been writing a series of posts discussing many of those publications that contain a clear description of selection. Here I have provided a convenient overview, in time order, with links to Joachim's blog for those of you who want more information.

Joseph Townsend
  • (1786, republished in 1817) A Dissertation on the Poor Laws, by a Well-wisher to Mankind. London: Ridgways.
— a brief mention of selection in relation to the Poor Laws, not organic evolution, but he seems to have inspired Thomas Mathus (1798) Essay on the Principle of Population, the critical work cited by both Darwin and Wallace (Malthus does not write about heritable variation, and therefore does not cover selection)
Link 1 - Link 2

James Hutton
  • (1794) Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge and of the Progress of Reason, from Sense to Science and Philosophy. Volume 2. Edinburgh: Strahan & Cadell. [section 13, chapter 3]
— advocated the idea of what we now call microevolution (related to heritable variation within species), especially in relation to agriculture, and suggested natural selection as the mechanism
Link 1

William Charles Wells
  • (1813) An Account of a White Female, Part of Whose Skin Resembles that of a Negro. [talk]
  • (1818) Two Essays: One Upon Single Vision with Two Eyes; the other on Dew. [plus] An Account of a Female of the White Race of Mankind, Part of Whose Skin Resembles that of a Negro. Edinburgh: Archibald Constable.
— a talk read before the Royal Society of London in 1813, and apparently referenced by Adams, but not put into print until 1818 — discusses selection in relation to human skin color
Link 1 - Link 2

Joseph Adams
  • (1814) A Treatise on the Supposed Hereditary Properties of Diseases. London: J. Callow.
— does not actually use the expression "selection" but briefly describes the process in relation to climate-related human variation, tucked away in the notes
Link 1 - Link 2 - Link 3

Patrick Matthew
  • (1831) On Naval Timber and Arboriculture; with Critical Notes on Authors who have Recently Treated the Subject of Planting. Edinburgh: Adam Black.
— explicitly used the phrase "natural process of selection" in relation to the origin of timber varieties, with a discussion tucked away in an appendix — as noted by Joachim Dagg, Matthew explicitly included the possible origin of new species via selection, thus being a literal predecessor of Darwin and Wallace, although they appear to have been unaware of his work [until Matthew advertised it to the world after Darwin published his book: (1860) Nature's law of selection. Gardeners' Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette (7 April): 312-313]
Link 1 - Link 2 - Link 3 - Link 4 - Link 5
You can learn more about him at The Patrick Matthew Project.

John C. Loudon
  • (1832) [Book review of] Matthew, Patrick: On Naval Timber and Arboriculture; with Critical Notes on Authors who have recently treated the Subject of Planting. The Gardener's Magazine 8: 702-703.
— a book review mentioning Matthew's idea of natural selection (he was the only contemporary commenter known to do so) and noted it explicitly as being concerned with "the origin of species and varieties"
Link 1 - Link 2

Edward Blyth
  • (1835) An attempt to classify the "varieties" of animals, with observations on the marked seasonal and other changes which naturally take place in various British species, and which do not constitute varieties. The Magazine of Natural History 8: 40-53.*
  • (1836) Observations on the various seasonal and other external changes which regularly take place in birds, more particularly in those which occur in Britain; with remarks on their great importance in indicating the true affinities of species; and upon the natural system of arrangement. The Magazine of Natural History 9: 393-409.*
  • (1837) On the psychological distinctions between man and all other animals; and the consequent diversity of human influence over the inferior ranks of creation, from any mutual or reciprocal influence exercised among the latter. The Magazine of Natural History, new series, 1: 1-9.*
— discusses the effects of artificial selection, but describes the process in nature as restoring organisms in the wild to their archetype (rather than forming new species)
Link 1

Herbert Spencer
  • (1852) A theory of population, deduced from the general law of animal fertility. Westminster Review 57: 468-501.
— published his article in order to show that the adaptedness or fitness of organisms results from the principle discussed by Malthus — Spencer later coined the expression "survival of the fittest" as a synonym of natural selection (in 1862)
Link 1

* Full title: The Magazine of Natural History and Journal of Zoology, Botany, Mineralogy, Geology, and Meteorology


  1. For me as a linguist, it is quite interesting to find Hutton in the list, since he is often seen as one of the fathers of "uniformitarianism" (, which first became popular in geology (Charles Lyell was an important figure here) and then spread to biology and linguistics. Linguists usually strongly emphasize how important uniformitarianism is for the linguistic argument, and one can find quotes from early linguists such as August Schleicher that directly support this. Although probably obsolete now, I have the impression that "uniformitarianism" as an idea that brought theoretical support for the idea that it is possible to infer past states from contemporary ones ("present is the key to the past") is the one that most tightly connects biology, linguistics, geology and other historical disciplines in the beginning of the 19th century.

    1. I think you are right. Uniformitarianism is the basis of the essential idea that small changes accumulating over massive lengths of time will lead to the large variation we see around us, which is at the core of modern biology and geology, and our belief that we can reconstruct the past by studying that variation. Lyell was Darwin's original mentor, and that is where Darwin got the idea. However, Lyell rejected the conclusion (at length in print) that this could apply to biology, which is where Darwin differed, and thus became the more historically important of the two. Interestingly, Wallace's ideas were also developed by trying to refute Lyell's published refusal to apply the idea to biology. Darwin and Wallace differed, however, in the extent to which the idea could be applied to humans, Wallace insisting that there is more to humans than can be accounted for by ideas like natural selection.

  2. Thanks for the highlight David,

    by the way, Matthew's appendix to the Appendix (list of endnotes) does not only discuss within species varieties:

    "The progeny of the same parents, under great difference of circumstances, might, in several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction." (Matthew 1831, p. 384) On Naval Timber, p. 384

    1. Thanks for pointing that out, Joachim. I have amended the text accordingly.