Darwin talks at British Society for the History of Science meeting

The 2010 annual meeting of the British Society for the History of Science is going on right now in Aberdeen. I just posted to my Tyndall blog about a Tyndall session put together by folks from the Tyndall Correspondence Project – here. While you can view the whole programme (PDF), these are the various talks concerning Darwin and one on Wallace:

“Darwin and the Tree of Life: The Roots of the Evolutionary Tree,” Nils Petter Hellstrom:

To speak of evolutionary trees and the Tree of Life is presently routine in evolution studies. Until the nineteenth century however, the same tree grew in Paradise and was rather a common image in religious discourse. It is only since Darwin that the Tree of Life has also been understood as a genealogical tree of all life, rooted in common origins. Although many see Darwin‘s tree as a secondary illustration to his theory—an analogy with which to communicate his findings—it is clear from Darwin‘s private notes that he visualised his genealogical Tree of Life before he developed his theory of descent by natural selection, and before he drew any diagrams to illustrate it. In fact, the tree was not secondary to evolutionary theory; it was the theory. Recent studies of prokaryote evolution have called into question the suitability of the tree model and have fuelled anti-arboreal sentiments within parts of the research community. Despite this, the tree prevails as the privileged evolutionary model. Because it is not immediately obvious why a tree is best suited to represent evolution—for a start woodland trees don‘t have their buds in the present and their trunk in the past—the reasons why trees make sense to us are rather historically and culturally predicated. This paper will thus explore the particular context in which Darwin came to represent the classification and history of life with a tree, and to call his tree the Tree of Life.

“Charles Darwin really was the naturalist on HMS Beagle,” John van Wyhe:

For decades the orthodox view amongst historians of science has been that Charles Darwin was not the “naturalist” or “official naturalist” during the 1831-6 voyage of HMS Beagle but instead Captain Robert FitzRoy’s “companion”, “gentleman companion” or “dining companion”; that is, foremost a companion and only secondarily a naturalist. Although this view has been upheld by many able historians and repeated in countless accounts of Darwin, this presentation will argue that it is incorrect. Almost everyone educated in the history of science will be highly suspicious of such an argument. The “companion” interpretation is one of a number of distinguishing views that card-carrying historians of science believe to correct earlier views. The “companion” hypothesis has, after all, opened up the history of Darwin and the Beagle voyage to far richer social and contextual approaches. Nevertheless the “Darwin was the captain’s companion” view can be demonstrated to be incorrect. The original journal articles which established this view cannot stand up to critical scrutiny. The ship’s surgeon was not, as is almost universally claimed, the “official naturalist”. Whether we consider the appointment of the Admiralty, the title for Darwin all contemporaries used before, during and after the voyage, “official” or private, or what Darwin actually did during the voyage, “naturalist” is, I will argue, the overwhelming conclusion.

“Wallace, spiritualism, and anthropology at the BAAS: A new interpretation,” Juan Manuel Rodriguez Caso:

From the time of its foundation in 1831, the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) allowed its annual meetings to serve as a forum for the scientific study of man, including anatomy, physiology and ethnology. But there was no section dedicated to anthropological issues until 1866 — a year when, as is well known, two societies dedicated to anthropological issues, the Ethnological Society of London (ESL) and the Anthropological Society of London (ASL), were in the middle of a struggle for the domination of the emergent discipline. At such a delicate juncture, the man of science elected president of the new section was Alfred Russel Wallace. A naturalist whose interest in man had led him to embrace transmutation, Wallace had acquired a great deal of experience as an ethnographer thanks to his travels to the Amazon (1848-1852) and the Malay Archipelago (1854-1862). In 1864, he presented a famous paper on the origins of man by means of natural selection. He was not aligned with the ESL or the ASL — a point which may have weighed in his favour in the considerations about who should serve as section president. At the same time, however, Wallace by 1866 had already begun to express public sympathy for spiritualism, notably in a pamphlet entitled The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural — an attitude which seemed to clash with longstanding BAAS principles. Certainly it is striking that the anthropology section was absent from the programme at the following year’s BAAS meeting. Using previously little-explored documents, this paper will offer a new answer to the question of why Wallace was chosen as section president for the anthropologists in 1866, instead of other people much more involved and better recognized in anthropology, and also perhaps more obviously acceptable in their scientific attitudes and beliefs. The paper will also consider the question of why the section disappeared so rapidly after Wallace’s term of service.

“Gavin de Beer and the notion of mosaic evolution,” Silvia Caianiello:

The paper will deal with the notion of ―mosaic evolution‖ developed by de Beer in his 1954 paper “Archaeopteryx and Evolution.” His authorship of this fortunate expression in later biological theory, however, was and still is mostly unrecognized. I will argue that, notwithstanding its fleeting appearance in de Beer’s scientific production, the roots of “mosaic evolution” lay deep in his thinking and synthetic endeavour. I will also tackle the significance of the “conceptual transfer” of the notion of “mosaic” from development to evolution, as well as its implication for his approach to macroevolution. I will finally investigate some possible reasons for the uneasiness that de Beer‘s formulation of his principle might have unleashed at a time of “hardening” of the Modern Synthesis, and its relevance in foreshadowing major Evo-Devo themes.

“The evolutionary archive,” Katrina Dean:

Accounts addressing the recent history of British evolutionary science have not yet fully benefited from research using archives held at British Library including the papers of W.D. Hamilton, George R. Price and John Maynard Smith. This paper offers a preview of the John Maynard Smith archive, which primarily contains correspondence, original research records and offprint collections. I’ll explain how the archive is structured and what work is being undertaken to make it accessible to researchers, and mention some of the challenges. Using the papers as a guide, a survey of the work of Maynard Smith might suggest some potential lines of inquiry in the recent history of evolution and raise issues of more general interest to the history of twentieth century science in Britain. I will also invite feedback about what researchers would find helpful in the way of making these archives more accessible and seek guidance on priorities. This paper may be of interest to specialists in the history of evolution, of recent British science and anyone who is curious (or has some good advice to offer) about curating contemporary research collection.

“‘Everything gives way to experiment’: empiricism and beauty through the history of the Wedgwood family,” Chiara Ceci and Stefano Moriggi:

Seeking beauty does not mean you get lost in the taste for decoration, but that you imagine the style of an era and the meaning of society. The aesthetic empiricism of Josiah Wedgwood I evolved into a pedagogical approach within the family. For generations after him, boys and girls in his family and their circle, were brought up following these ideals: cultural and political awareness are conveyed by an education leading to freedom and tolerance through his technical and scientific approach to the experience of beauty. In particular, political, cultural and social ideals can be traced in the education of women and in their sensibility to the importance of knowledge as public good for the development of citizenship. From the Grand Tour and many abroad experiences to Sunday schools, Wedgwood women embody an educational attitude almost as a civil duty. They had not just the passion for art, literature, music and openness to sciences typical of the Victorian middle and high classes, but they carried concrete efforts, also due to their common Unitarian background, in the opening and management of schooling centres for poor, filling the lack of state and public institutions. Emma Darwin, née Wedgwood, is one of these women: analyzing some steps of her Bildungsroman and then following her life, we can see how the aesthetic education of her youth evolved into her cultural and civil commitments towards society. Even towards her husband‘s ―dangerous idea‖ she never failed to recognized the social importance of the advancement of scientific knowledge, even when that conflicted somehow with her religious believes: this attitude blooms from that cultural seed whereby “everything gives way to experiment.”

2 thoughts on “Darwin talks at British Society for the History of Science meeting

  1. Pingback: Withnail and Links « Evolving Thoughts

  2. Pingback: Tweeting from British Society for the History of Science « The Dispersal of Darwin

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