by Dominic McCafferty


November 10, 2009 | by Dominic McCafferty

The heavily-browed face of Charles Darwin has this year at least become as familiar as one’s own features. Many TV programmes and books, and now a feature film, have given Darwin as high a profile as at any time since his death in 1882. The coincidence in 2009 of the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection provides a year-long opportunity to celebrate the life and work of the greatest naturalist to have lived. Walter Stephen’s book The Evolution of Evolution – Darwin And His Mentors explores the connection between evolution, Darwin and Scotland. The book contains insights into Darwin’s links with Scotland from two years he spent at Edinburgh University as a student, his later visits to Scotland and his relationships with leading Scottish scientists. However, Stephen provides more than a historical account; he argues that the Scottish Enlightenment, the natural history of Scot-land and several influential Scots profoundly influenced Darwin’s development as a scientist and his ideas on evolution.

The main ingredient of Turtle soup

At the age of 16 Charles Darwin and his older brother Erasmus entered Edinburgh University to study medicine. Unlike his father he never took to medicine and was disturbed by several operations he witnessed. Darwin attended lectures on geology by Robert Jameson, Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh University. He found his lectures dull, despite the reputation Edinburgh and Jameson had for geology at this time. However, Jameson indirectly provided opportunities for Dar-win. The impressionable young Darwin was able to mix with the scientific establishment which included an occasion to listen to the famous American ornithologist and painter James Audubon. He took lessons in taxidermy, an essential skill for a nineteenth century naturalist, taught by John Edmonstone, a freed black slave from Guyana who was working at the University Museum. Although Darwin came from a family of abolitionists, it was not at all common for a young man from a privileged background to be taught by a black man. The experience made an impression on Darwin. The journal he kept during his Beagle voyage castigates the slavery he observed in Brazil; one might also say that one of the by-products of his theory of evolution was to make a nonsense of the idea of superior species of men: we are, after all, as Darwin realised, descended from a common ancestor.

While at Edinburgh, Darwin became a member of a student body known as the Plinian Society and gave his first scientific presentation on several species of seashore animals collected during excursions along the shores of the Firth of Forth with the eminent zoologist Dr Robert Grant. Grant later went on to become the first Professor of Comparative Anatomy at University College London and was one of the leading zoologists of the nineteenth century. Grant was also interested in the concept of ‘transmutation’ having read the work of Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Dar-win. Grant tried to engage the young Dar-win on controversial ideas on evolution as proposed by the French biologist Jean Baptiste Lamark but Darwin appears not to have been interested in the subject as a young student in Edinburgh. Later in life he was surprisingly uncomplimentary about both Grant and Jamesons’ scientific accomplishments, despite their influence on his development as a naturalist. Darwin spent only two years at Edinburgh University and did not complete his medical studies, going on to complete a BA at Cambridge University instead.

While at Edinburgh Darwin appears never to have been exposed to the ideas of the Scottish geologist James Hutton. Hut-ton, born in Edinburgh in 1726, trained as a doctor, was interested in chemistry and agriculture but is best remembered as the founder of modern geology with the publication of Theory Of The Earth in 1795. From his observations he believed that present geology held clues to the past history of the Earth. Visit Siccar Point in Berwickshire and you can see ancient Silurian rocks uplifted and overlain with younger sandstone. The line separating these two rock types is now known as ‘Hut-ton’s Unconformity’. This formation was caused by a period of uplift and erosion followed by submergence and deposition, gradual processes that took immense periods of time. For Hutton the Earth was unimaginably more ancient than Old Testament explanations led others to believe it was. In Theory Of The Earth he states, “we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end”, a profound statement and summary of his concept of ‘deep time’. John Playfair, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh, and Sir John Hall, geologist and geophysicist were leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment who visited Siccar Point with Hutton. Playfair and Hall became great supporters of Hutton’s ideas. Stephen contends that this period of the Enlightenment where “reason overcame superstition” prepared the way for Darwin, but as a young man Darwin may have been too involved with the detail of science to notice the significance of Hutton’s ideas on geological time.

It was another Scots born geologist, Charles Lyell who passed on to Darwin the significance of Hutton’s work. Lyell was born in 1797 near Kirriemuir and although studying classics at Oxford he later went on to take up a Chair of Geology at King’s College London. At the age of only 33 he published the first volume of Principles Of Geology, which Darwin read during the voyage of the Beagle. As Stephen explains, Lyell clearly set out the principle of Uni-foritarianism, which states that “processes operating today are the same processes as have operated since the beginning of time…..these geological processes are gradual and therefore require an enormous stretch of time”. For Darwin, this work more than any other opened his eyes to geology and its implications. Lyell became a close friend and one of Darwin’s greatest allies. He remained a mentor throughout Darwin’s life and encouraged him to publish Origin Of Species.

Several years after his return from the Beagle expedition, Darwin made a three week geological field trip to Scotland to study the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy, his ‘Scotch expedition’, as he called it. Based on his observations in the Andes, he believed that the Parallel Roads were raised sea beaches but the roads were later shown to be due to the action of ice-dammed lakes. His mistake would years later almost rob him of his role in history. Stephen maintains that Darwin did not like being wrong in public and the “Glen Roy experience reinforced his tendency to procrastinate until he was correct before launching into print”. Darwin’s duty to detail slowed his progress towards sharing his theory of evolution until his hand was forced by the news rival naturalists were close to completing work on theories similar to his. The publication by Robert Chambers of Vestiges Of The Natural History Of Creation in 1844 also allowed Darwin to foresee the controversy that his theory of natural selection would bring about. Chambers was an important literary character in Scotland at the time. Born in Peebles he was educated at the local school before moving to Edinburgh. His elder brother William, with Robert as partner, established the famous Edinburgh publishing company of the same name. Chambers published Vestigesanonymously. It set out a version of the formation of the earth and evolution that contradicted biblical creationist views and it was strongly criticised by the church and much of the scientific establishment, including, interestingly, Dar-win.

Although Darwin is most often remembered for Origin Of Species, he published several other books including The Expression Of The Emotions In Man And Animals in 1872. This was an attempt to describe and explain behaviour through the study of facial expressions. Stephen suggests that there may be a link between this work and his membership of the Plinian society during his time in Edinburgh. One of the Presidents who proposed Darwin for membership was William Browne who later went on to become the first Commissioner in Lunacy in Scotland. At the Plinian Society Browne disagreed with an eminent anatomist on the origins and functions of muscles that controlled human expressions. Although it may be conjecture to suggest that Darwin’s work on human behaviour was prompted by such early exposure to this subject, it is certainly clear that The Expressions benefited from correspondence with Browne’s son J. Crichton Browne who was interested in the study of behaviour as director of a large asylum in the North of England.

Walter Stephen has published previously on the ‘father of planning’ Patrick Geddes, who was born in Ballater in 1854 and brought up in Perth. It is not surprising therefore that he devotes two chapters to the relationship between Darwin and Geddes. It’s justified given the links between Darwin and Geddes. Darwin was a strong supporter and promoter of Geddes and he may have played a part in spreading and interpreting Darwin’s ideas. Geddes may be best remembered as a town planner but much of his early life and work was devoted to botany. Like Darwin, Geddes started his studies at Edinburgh University but lasted only a week, and went on to study with Thomas Huxley (‘Darwin’s bulldog’ and the most pugnacious of the naturalist’s defenders) in the Royal School of Mines, later to become Imperial College of Science in London. Geddes applied for the Chair of Natural History in Edinburgh and Darwin wrote him a highly supportive reference only weeks before his death. In 1888, Geddes took up the post of Professor of Botany at University College, Dundee. It seems that ill health may have influenced him to turn away from the sciences towards social analysis. Stephen states that “From Darwin himself Geddes formulated the Planning Model”, in which Geddes believed that by changing the environment within towns and cities it was possible to change social life. This could be an interpretation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection where it is the environment that ultimately influences the evolutionary outcomes of individual organisms. Stephen however does admit that it is difficult to see clearly how Geddes incorporated Darwin’s ideas into his own work or how Geddes contributed to further interpretation of evolution and natural selection.

The Evolution Of Evolution is a well researched and thoughtfully written book that recognises the importance of Scotland in the formation of evolutionary thinking and the role of Scots in both mentoring and influencing Charles Darwin throughout his life. Tantalisingly, Walter Stephen leaves his story at the beginning of twentieth century but there remains further scope for examining the influence of Dar-win in Scotland to the present day. Evolution is the unifying principle of modern biology and Scotland plays a major role in applying Darwinian thinking to our own origins and to contemporary issues, from the emergence of new pathogens such as E. coli 0157 to the ability of organisms to adapt to climate change. In Scotland, as it is elsewhere, evolution continues to evolve.

The Evolution of Evolution – Darwin And His Mentors
Walter Stephen
Luath Press, £12.99
pp128, ISBN 9781906817237

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