Saturday, December 9, 2017

What is a pre-Darwinian Darwinist?

The term “A pre-Darwinian Darwinist” refers to a researcher or scientist who foretook evolutionary ideas in his (or her) writings before Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published his book On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Who was a pre-Darwinian Darwinist?

Pre-Darwinism took place in the Darwin family itself. Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Charles' grandfather, foreshadowed  the theory of evolution in his scientific work Zoonomia, in which he discussed topics such as inheritance of acquired characteristics and also presented his thoughts on how one species could involve into another [1,2]. The Scottish journalist Robert Chambers (1802-1871) included ideas of evolution and transmutation of species in his work Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1884), anonymously published in 1844 [3,4]. Many other preeminent scientists and keen observers of the natural world in pre-Darwinian times advocated evolutionary— rather than creationist—explanations of species origin and biological diversity. Evolutionary theory was evolving.

Alexander von Humboldt as a word-barraging pre-Darwinian Darwinist

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was an explorer, naturalist and polymath. Darwin had Humboldt's Personal Narrative—the account of the Latin American expedition of Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland—next to his hammock on board of the Beagle (see page 257 in [5]). Humboldt and Darwin met in January 1842, while Humboldt accompanied his benefactor Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia to England for the christening of the Prince of Wales. With the help of geologist Roderick Murchison, he managed to meet the then thirty-two-year-old Darwin. The gathering turned out to be a lecture with Humboldt talking endlessly and Darwin not having the chance of starting a meaningful discussion. In The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf writes [5]:

If the two men had talked properly that day, perhaps Humboldt would have discussed his ideas of a world governed not by balance and stability but by dynamic change—thoughts that he would soon introduce in the first volume of Cosmos. A species was a part of the whole, linked both to the past and future, Humboldt would write, more mutable than 'fixed'. In Cosmos he would also discuss the missing link and the 'intermediate steps' that could be found in the fossil records. He would write about 'cyclical change', transitions and constant renewal. In short, Humboldt's nature was in flux. All these ideas were precursors to Darwin's evolutionary theory. Humboldt was, as scientists later said, a 'pre-Darwinian Darwinist'.

Humboldt started the publication of his five volumes of Cosmos (Kosmos, in German) in 1845, fourteen years before Darwin published his Origin.

Keywords: biology, natural history, evolutionary theory, history of emerging ideas.

References and more to explore

[1] Erasmus Darwin: Zoonomia; or the Laws of Organic Life []; for example, see chapter XXIX. Of Generation.
[2] Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) [].
[3]  John van Wyhe about Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation [].
[4] See footnote on page 288 in [5].
[5] Andrea Wulf: The Invention of Nature. First Vintage Books Edition, Vintage Books, New York, 2016