Before Darwin

Harriet Ritvo

  • The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine and Reform in Radical London by Adrian Desmond
    Chicago, 503 pp, £27.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 226 14346 5

Like 1066, 1688 and 1492, 1859 is an iconic date, indissolubly connected in the minds of schoolchildren and former schoolchildren to a single, conveniently packaged occurrence: the invention of Evolution in Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. It is, however, a date that does not figure in Adrian Desmond’s masterful account of the initial rise and decline of evolutionary theory in Britain. While Darwin was still afloat on the Beagle, transmutation, as it was usually called in the 1820s and 1830s, had become a hot topic in some London scientific circles. But these were not the circles frequented by Darwin on his arrival home in 1836. Nor was the transmutation of the 1830s, in any of its versions, the same as the doctrine propounded by Darwin two decades later. The engine of change, for one important thing, was the inherent plastic power of organisms, rather than natural selection.

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