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.

Desmond’s chronological shift backwards also obliges him to forego the usual suspects. That is, although some of his dramatis personae were well-known, even notorious, in their own time, few have enjoyed enduring reputations. Rather than cataloguing the achievements of the ‘Oxbridge sporting gents’ who dominated English natural history in the 1830s, and who have subsequently preoccupied historians of 19th-century biology, Desmond excavates the ‘radical underworld’ of science, and in particular of medicine.

The inhabitants of this subterranean realm constituted a volatile professional proletariat with a substantial chip on its shoulder. Many came from middle-class, Dissenting backgrounds, which meant that they operated at a significant disadvantage in a highly-stratified profession where the greatest rewards were reserved for gentlemen, and where governance was exercised by a small and exclusive élite. These oppressed doctors understood and articulated their grievances in explicitly political terms. In the period immediately before and after the passage of the first Reform Bill, demands for professional democratisation resounded within the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons. And periodicals such as the Lancet and the London Medical and Surgical Journal, which catered to the insurgent medical constituency, echoed these demands with an editorial stridency that both reflected and intensified the unhappiness of their readers. The Lancet, for example, modelled its aggressive style on that of William Cobbett, who constituted one quarter of its editorial board; perhaps for this reason, a libel lawyer constituted another quarter.

The contentious columns of these publications were not, however, exclusively devoted to matters of class interest, at least not as narrowly defined. Scientific topics were debated with equal energy and vitriol. At this time, before the study of science had become thoroughly professionalised, natural history was often the avocation of élite physicians (and clergymen), while radical medical practitioners were apt to be serious amateurs of zoology, especially in those fields which, like anatomy, were closely related to their training and expertise. But doctors trained in Edinburgh, Paris, or the private medical schools of London tended to view the animal world through different scientific spectacles from those of the alumni of Oxbridge or of the élite-dominated London hospitals. On top of the conventional taxonomy of natural knowledge, they superimposed a whole set of disciplines or subdisciplines which Desmond variously characterises as radical or democratic sciences, including, among others, ‘atheistic forms of evolutionary development, materialist mental physiologies, and reductionist comparative anatomies.’ One consequence was that the political and social rifts which divided the medical profession were re-enacted in the learned societies.

The scientific establishment accepted these broad-ranging challenges in the agonistic spirit in which they were offered. The Royal Colleges which controlled medical practice were not the only élite organisations to dig in their institutional heels against demands for reform: similarly polarised confrontations occurred within the Royal Society, the Geological Society, and, with particular explosiveness, the Zoological Society, where conservative magnates had to give up the breeding farm designed to supply their own estates with exotic bloodlines. As a democratic scientific doctrine, transmutation was seen in much the same way as the pressure for institutional democratisation – as a reflection of the agitation for reform which threatened the larger political status quo.

To begin with, the source of the doctrine was politically suspicious – the republican French science of Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and, before him, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, rather than the establishment French science of Georges Cuvier. And its tenets, when carefully examined, proved to recapitulate the destabilising and egalitarian message of the institutional reformers. They replaced the authoritarian, static and hierarchical world of natural theology with a world which offered much more room for individual initiative and self-improvement – a materialistic world where the rules were set by nature rather than God. Thus during the Reform Bill crisis of 1831-32, the Tory geologist Charles Lyell conflated his uneasiness about the atheistic science to which he had been exposed in Paris with his family’s fear of being stoned by roving gangs of reformers; Lamarckian transmutation was perceived by him as a kind of zoological levelling, designed to rob people of their high genealogical estate by smashing the barrier that separated them from other animals.

This conflation, like many similar examples, enacts Desmond’s argument: that the complicated scientific controversy he chronicles was driven as much by political and social as by intellectual considerations. Desmond places his transmutationists and anti-transmutationists in a nested set of social and political contexts, moving constantly and gracefully from narrow professional turf battles to competition for government patronage to conflicting philosophical commitments of the most sweeping kind. (Coleridge and Bentham, neither primarily noted for contributions to biological science, figure prominently in his story.) Desmond is careful never to let the reader forget this intertwined determination or over-determination of scientific positions, allegiances and even results. Although his chapters are structured chronologically, to reflect the ebb and flow (or, more accurately, flow and ebb) of the fortunes of evolutionary theory in the 1830s and 1840s, his densely-detailed narrative can also be read as a series of interrelated biographies – lives lived against a complex political and institutional background.

Desmond’s argument is persuasive, and it can easily be extended, as he points out, in several directions. For example, in addition to offering an explanation of the history of evolutionary theory – why transmutation and other materialistic sciences were attractive to some British scientists in the 1830s and anathema to others – he offers an explanation of its historiography. With admirable consistency, Desmond carries his contextual analysis into the present, suggesting that the power of his own evolutionary chronology to evoke surprise can be explained in terms of the political inclinations that determine the practices of many (not all) current historians of 19th-century biology: in particular, their tendency to focus on major figures, to look for the roots of contemporary orthodoxies, and to prefer establishment subjects to anti-establishment ones. In combination, these tendencies have resulted in the neglect of a scientific ideology which lacked social prestige in its own time, was quickly overshadowed by the towering figure of Darwin and has not enjoyed a rehabilitation in the court of history. On the contrary, when transmutation has not been completely neglected, it has usually been caricatured and denigrated; perhaps the most familiar evidence of this intellectual habit is the standard textbook condescension to Lamarck.

Although Desmond repeatedly emphasises that scientific rehabilitation is not his primary concern – that he is interested in the extra-scientific reasons that led certain scientists to adopt certain positions, rather than whether they were right or wrong – he occasionally does a little repair work. Fearing that his contextualism might seem to provide further grounds for the standard dismissal of pre-Darwinian evolutionary theory as wrong-headed and old-fashioned, he goes out of his way to insist on the theoretical respectability of transmutation in the 1830s. The ultimate failure of transmutation – that is, the loss, in the 1840s, of much of its former audience – he attributes not to any persuasive disproof by conservative opponents like Richard Owen, then of the Royal College of Surgeons, but to the diffusion of a spirit of liberal compromise within medicine and science which led to the isolation and ultimate abandonment of a range of radical institutions and positions. Of course, the victors did not analyse their triumph in the same terms. Among the many examples Desmond offers of the politically contingent nature of scientific truth is the debate over several ancient jaws which came into the possession of the Oxford geologist William Buckland in 1812. They were remarkable because, although they looked mammalian, most resembling the opossum, the Stonesfield slate in which they were embedded was of the Jurassic period, before mammals were thought to have existed. This anomaly surprised and interested the conservative scientists who first noticed it, suggesting that they might need to revise their idea that climatic conditions in the Secondary (Mesozoic) age would have precluded the existence of mammals, but it did not particularly disturb them; certainly it posed no threat to the creationist philosophical underpinnings of their science.

Controversy arose in the 1830s, when the radical anatomist Robert Grant dissented, claiming instead that the fossils were reptilian. What was at stake was transmutation, which in the version subscribed to by Grant required a gradual ascent of organic forms in a single continuous series; the appearance of an anachronistic marsupial during a period considered conducive only to the support of lower reptilian forms called the entire theory into question. The battle was joined on the very technical field of osteology and dentition. Ultimately, the radicals lost and the conservatives, led by Owen, won. It was on scientific rather than political grounds that the fossils were definitely proved to be marsupial rather than saurian. At least, this is the conventional view: with the ‘Stonefield opossum’ as with pre-Darwinian evolution in general, the winners won because they were right and the losers lost because they were wrong.

As Desmond shows, however, neither side turned out to be right. Only a generation later, the technical evidence which had carried the day for marsupials was reinterpreted by newly-professional scientists, who characterised the troublesome fossils as generalised sub-marsupial mammals – in a sense, a compromise between the two earlier positions, although not intended as such. Furthermore, this technical evidence had been buttressed by the energetic politicking of Owen and his supporters – and in any case, Grant never really capitulated. The winners won, Desmond suggests, because of their institutional power and political adroitness, rather than as a result of the force of their arguments. The marsupial victory reflected, not the state of the Jurassic fauna, but the state of British science in the late 1830s.

If Desmond is not interested in the truth or falsity of scientific theories, he is nevertheless interested in justice. Among many other things, The Politics of Evolution, rather than rating its constituent actors and ideologies as bad or good, false or true, is an egalitarian attempt to impose a kind of methodological fairness on the history of science. As Desmond puts it, ‘we ... can do real justice to past scientists by exploring the dialectical relationship between their views on nature and their specific professional, religious and class interests.’

Of course egalitarianism can also be levelling, and even-handedness does not have to be neutral – Desmond has written a deeply engaged work of both history and historiography. Although The Politics of Evolution is a model of painstaking, imaginative research and thoughtful, intelligent argument, he characterises his historical mission in the language of disciplinary subversion, thus making an implicit analogy between his own professional position and that of his subjects.

Desmond’s sympathy for these neglected radical scientists structures his narrative in many ways. He speaks up for them politically and socially, if not scientifically. They are the heroes of his story, even if he denies them special moral status: he explicitly acknowledges that their positions were as much social constructions as those of their conservative opponents, that whiggism of the left is as untenable as whiggism of the right. As protagonists, of course, they dominate the narrative, which is designed to give full exposure to the difficulty of their political and professional lives, as well as to the intellectual strength of their position and its centrality in the London scientific debates of the 1830s and 1840s. Most readers will finish The Politics of Evolution convinced that its underdog heroes got a raw deal; if Desmond does not deal in truth and error, or in good and bad science, he does, in a backdoor way, deal in good and evil.

The introduction of such 20th-century categories can both clarify and problematise historical interpretation. For example, one of the heroes of The Politics of Evolution is Robert Knox, an outspoken atheistic anatomist and a popular teacher, who suffered professionally more on account of his radicalism than on account of his peripheral involvement in the Burke and Hare scandal. After his scientific career foundered in the 1840s, Knox became a hack writer, producing, among other things, works of deterministic racial analysis which gained him the support of some mid-Victorian anthropologists, but which now seem abhorrent.

Such complications show that any work of relativistic historical scholarship, no matter how self-conscious and sophisticated, is inevitably bound by the inherent paradoxes of its position. But that is not to make light of the intellectual rewards, and there can be no doubt that these are well illustrated by The Politics of Evolution.