A new article in the Journal of the History of Biology:
“Plants that Remind Me of Home”: Collecting, Plant Geography, and a Forgotten Expedition in the Darwinian Revolution
Abstract In 1859, Harvard botanist Asa Gray (1810–1888) published an essay of what he called “the abstract of Japan botany.” In it, he applied Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory to explain why strong similarities could be found between the flora of Japan and that of eastern North America, which provoked his famous debate with Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) and initiated Gray’s efforts to secure a place for Darwinian biology in the American sciences. Notably, although the Gray–Agassiz debate has become one of the most thoroughly studied scientific debates, historians of science remain unable to answer one critical question: How was Gray able to acquire specimens from Japan? Making use of previously unknown archival materials, this article scrutinizes the institutional, instrumental, financial, and military settings that enabled Gray’s collector, Charles Wright (1811–1885), to travel to Japan, as well as examine Wright’s collecting practices in Japan. I argue that it is necessary to examine Gray’s diagnosis of Japan’s flora and the subsequent debate about it from the viewpoint of field sciences. The field-centered approach not only unveils an array of historical significances that have been overshadowed by the analytical framework of the Darwinian revolution and the reception of Darwinism, but also places a seemingly domestic incident in a transnational context.
An online first article from the Journal of the History of Biology:
The Impact of Lamarck’s Theory of Evolution Before Darwin’s Theory
Abstract This paper analyzes the impact that Lamarckian evolutionary theory had in the scientific community during the period between the advent of Zoological Philosophy and the publication Origin of Species. During these 50 years Lamarck’s model was a well known theory and it was discussed by the scientific community as a hypothesis to explain the changing nature of the fossil record throughout the history of Earth. Lamarck’s transmutation theory established the foundation of an evolutionary model introducing a new way to research in nature. Darwin’s selectionist theory was proposed in 1859 to explain the origin of species within this epistemological process. In this context, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology and Auguste Comte’s Cours de Philosophie Positive appear as two major works for the dissemination of Lamarck’s evolutionary ideology after the death of the French naturalist in 1829.
Bill Mesler and H. James Cleaves II, A Brief History of Creation: Science and the Search for the Origin of Life (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), 336 pp.
Publisher’s description How did life begin? It is perhaps the most important question science has ever asked. Over the centuries, the search for an answer has been entwined with some of science’s most revolutionary advances including van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Crick and Watson’s unveiling of DNA. Now, in an age of genetic engineering and space exploration, some scientists believe they are on the verge of creating life from nonliving elements and that our knowledge of the potential for life on other planets is ever-expanding. In the midst of these exciting developments, A Brief History of Creation provides an essential and illuminating history of Western science, tracing the trials and triumphs of the iconoclastic scientists who have sought to uncover the mystery of how life first came to be. Authors Bill Mesler and H. James Cleaves II examine historical discoveries in the context of philosophical debates, political change, and our evolving understanding of the complexity of biology. The story they tell is rooted in metaphysical arguments, in a changing understanding of the age of the Earth, and even in the politics of the Cold War. It has involved exploration into the inner recesses of our cells and scientific journeys to the farthest reaches of outer space. This elegantly written narrative culminates in an analysis of modern models for life’s genesis, such as the possibility that some of the earliest life was composed of little more than RNA, and that life arose around deep-sea hydrothermal vents or even on other planets, only to be carried to the Earth on meteorites. Can we ever conclusively prove how life began? A Brief History of Creation is a fascinating exploration not only of the origin-of-life question but of the very nature of scientific objectivity and the process of scientific discovery.
John Dvorak, The Last Volcano: A Man, a Romance, and the Quest to Understand Nature’s Most Magnificent Fury (New York: Pegasus Books, 2015), 356 pp.
Publisher’s description Volcanoes have fascinated—and terrified—people for ages. They have destroyed cities and ended civilizations. John Dvorak, the acclaimed author of Earthquake Storms, looks into the early scientific study of volcanoes and the life of the man who pioneered the field, Thomas Jaggar. Educated at Harvard, Jaggar went to the Caribbean after Mount Pelee exploded in 1902, killing more than 26,000 people. Witnessing the destruction and learning about the horrible deaths these people had suffered, Jaggar vowed to dedicate himself to a study of volcanoes. What followed was fifty years of global travel to eruptions in Italy, Alaska, Central America, Japan and the Pacific. In 1912, he built a small science station at the edge of a lake of molten lava at Kilauea volcano in the Hawaiian Islands, with the goal of solving the mystery of why volcanoes erupt and how they could be predicted. Jaggar found something else at Kilauea: true love. She was Isabel Maydwell, a widowed school teacher who came to Kilauea to restart her life. For more than twenty ears, she and Jaggar ran the science station, living in a small house at the edge of a high cliff that overlooked the lava lake. Maydwell would quickly becoming one of the world’s most astute observers of volcanic activity. Mixed with tales of myths and rituals, as well as the author’s own experiences and insight into volcanic activity, The Last Volcano reveals the lure and romance of confronting nature in its most magnificent form—the edge of a volcanic eruption.
A 2014 article in History of Science looks at the importance of language and translation for Darwin, Huxley, and John Tyndall:
Scientific naturalists and their language games
Abstract For nineteenth century British scientific naturalists like Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, and John Tyndall, translation, and the issues of language that it raised, were crucial. Dealing with these issues became a major part of their strategy to reform British science, and it involved opening up the scientific community to French and German research. Early in their careers, both Huxley and Tyndall invested time translating science books from the continent into English. Later, as they themselves wrote books that were in demand across the channel, they, and Darwin, put a great deal of time and energy into locating the best possible translators for their writings. Translation was not only a key to reforming British science; it was also essential as a means of circulating the evolutionary worldview of scientific naturalism globally. But Darwin, Huxley, and Tyndall were not fully prepared for the challenges they would encounter in authorizing translations of their own works.
I came across another article on the famous Oxford debate, this one from 2014 in History of Science:
Oxford Serialized: Revisiting the Huxley–Wilberforce debate through the periodical press
Nanna Katrine Lüders Kaalund
Abstract The debate between the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, and the scientific naturalist, Thomas Huxley, at the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science has come to represent an iconic moment in the history of the relationship between science and religion. This article uses the digitalized databases of nineteenth-century British periodicals to re-examine the reception of the Huxley–Wilberforce debate. By combining methods and insights from digital humanities with the vast literature on the Huxley–Wilberforce debate, and the secondary literature on science and print culture, I show that the narrative of Huxley’s victory over Wilberforce was not the prevalent story told in the press immediately after the event occurred. Rather, this study shows that there is still much to be learned from looking at the ways in which the press influenced nineteenth-century understandings of iconic moments in the history of science, even in cases that have been well examined, such as the Huxley–Wilberforce debate.
This new article [PDF] in the Notes and Records of the Royal Society will interest those who enjoy looking at the history of the famous “Oxford debate” between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce:
A Yankee at Oxford: John William Draper at the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Oxford, 30 June 1860
James C. Ungureanu
Abstract This paper contributes to the revisionist historiography on the legendary encounter between Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley at the 1860 meeting in Oxford of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. It discusses the contents of a series of letters written by John William Draper and his family reflecting on his experience at that meeting. The letters have recently been rediscovered and have been neither published nor examined at full length. After a preliminary discussion on the historiography of the Oxford debate, the paper discloses the contents of the letters and then assesses them in the light of other contemporary accounts. The letters offer a nuanced reinterpretation of the event that supports the growing move towards a revisionist account.