ARTICLES: Darwin and Brocchi


Two articles about the Italian geologist Giambattista Brocchi (1771–1826) in Evolution: Education and Outreach:

Brocchi, Darwin, and Transmutation: Phylogenetics and Paleontology at the Dawn of Evolutionary Biology

Stefano Dominici and Niles Eldredge

Abstract Giambattista Brocchi’s (1814) monograph (see Dominici, Evo Edu Outreach, this issue, 2010) on the Tertiary fossils of the Subappenines in Italy—and their relation to the living molluscan fauna—contains a theoretical, transmutational perspective (“Brocchian transmutation”). Unlike Lamarck (1809), Brocchi saw species as discrete and fundamentally stable entities. Explicitly analogizing the births and deaths of species with those of individual organisms (“Brocchi’s analogy”), Brocchi proposed that species have inherent longevities, eventually dying of old age unless driven to extinction by external forces. As for individuals, births and deaths of species are understood to have natural causes; sequences of births and deaths of species produce genealogical lineages of descent, and faunas become increasingly modernized through time. Brocchi calculated that over 50% of his fossil species are still alive in the modern fauna. Brocchi’s work was reviewed by Horner (1816) in Edinburgh. Brocchi’s influence as a transmutational thinker is clear in Jameson’s (1827) “geological illustrations” in his fifth edition of his translation of Cuvier’s Theory of the Earth (read by his student Charles Darwin) and in the anonymous essays of 1826 and 1827 published in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal—which also carried a notice of Brocchi’s death in 1827. The notion that new species replace older, extinct ones—in what today would be called an explicitly phylogenetic context—permeates these essays. Herschel’s (1830) discussion of temporal replacement of species and the modernization of faunas closely mirrors these prior discussions. His book, dedicated to the search for natural causes of natural phenomena, was read by Charles Darwin while a student at Cambridge. Darwin’s work on HMS Beagle was in large measure an exploration of replacement patterns of “allied forms” of endemic species in time and in space. His earliest discussions of transmutation, in his essay February 1835, as well as the Red Notebook and the early pages of Notebook B (the latter two written in 1837 back in England), contain Brocchi’s analogy, including the idea of inherent species longevities. Darwin’s first theory of the origin of species was explicitly saltational, invoking geographic isolation as the main cause of the abrupt appearance of new species. We conclude that Darwin was testing the predicted patterns of both Brocchian and Lamarckian transmutation as early as 1832 at the outset of his work on the Beagle.


Brocchi’s Subapennine Fossil Conchology

Stefano Dominici

Abstract The Italian geologist Giambattista Brocchi (1771–1826) is presented as a key figure in the historical period preceding young Charles Darwin’s first work on transmutational theory while on the Beagle. The brief biographical account focuses on Brocchi’s writings related to his analogy that species have births and deaths like individuals, and culminates in his most important work, Subapennine Fossil Conchology of 1814. Brocchi’s analogy as an original and fertile way to approach the fossil record was to influence Darwin’s first evolutionary thinking. Relevant passages of the book are presented for the first time in an English translation.

1 thought on “ARTICLES: Darwin and Brocchi

  1. Pingback: Young links | Evolving Thoughts

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