ARTICLE: More than a Mentor: Leonard Darwin’s Contribution to the Assimilation of Mendelism into Eugenics and Darwinism

An article of interest in the Journal of the History of Biology:

More than a Mentor: Leonard Darwin’s Contribution to the Assimilation of Mendelism into Eugenics and Darwinism

Norberto Serpente

Abstract This article discusses the contribution to evolutionary theory of Leonard Darwin (1850–1943), the eighth child of Charles Darwin. By analysing the correspondence Leonard Darwin maintained with Ronald Aylmer Fisher in conjunction with an assessment of his books and other written works between the 1910s and 1930s, this article argues for a more prominent role played by him than the previously recognised in the literature as an informal mentor of Fisher. The paper discusses Leonard’s efforts to amalgamate Mendelism with both Eugenics and Darwinism in order for the first to base their policies on new scientific developments and to help the second in finding a target for natural selection. Without a formal qualification in biological sciences and as such mistrusted by some “formal” scientists, Leonard Darwin engaged with key themes of Darwinism such as mimicry, the role of mutations on speciation and the process of genetic variability, arriving at important conclusions concerning the usefulness of Mendelian genetics for his father’s theory.

Recent Darwin/evolution articles from the Journal of the History of Biology

The following articles have been published in the Journal of the History of Biology in the last year or so, and one from 2013:

Radim Kočandrle, Karel Kleisner, “Evolution Born of Moisture: Analogies and Parallels Between Anaximander’s Ideas on Origin of Life and Man and Later Pre-Darwinian and Darwinian Evolutionary Concepts”

Abstract This study focuses on the origin of life as presented in the thought of Anaximander of Miletus but also points to some parallel motifs found in much later conceptions of both the pre-Darwinian German romantic science and post-Darwinian biology. According to Anaximander, life originated in the moisture associated with earth (mud). This moist environment hosted the first living creatures that later populated the dry land. In these descriptions, one can trace the earliest hints of the notion of environmental adaptation. The origin of humans was seen as connected in some way with fish: ancient humans were supposed to have developed inside fish-like animals. Anaximander took into account changes in the development of living creatures (adaptations) and speculated on the origins of humans. Similar ideas are found also in the writings of much later, eighteenth and nineteenth century authors who were close to the tradition of German romantic science. We do not argue that these later concepts are in any way directly linked with those of the pre-Socratics, but they show surprising parallels in, e.g., the hypothesis that life originated in a moist environment or the supposition that human developed from fish-like ancestors. These transformations are seen as a consequence of timeless logic rather than as evolution in historical terms. Despite the accent on the origin of living things, both Anaximander and the later Naturphilosophen lack in their notions the element most characteristic of Darwin’s thought, that is, the emphasis on historicity and uniqueness of all that comes into being.

Dominic Klyve, “Darwin, Malthus, Süssmilch, and Euler: The Ultimate Origin of the Motivation for the Theory of Natural Selection”

Abstract It is fairly well known that Darwin was inspired to formulate his theory of natural selection by reading Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. In fact, by reading Darwin’s notebooks, we can even locate one particular sentence which started Darwin thinking about population and selection. What has not been done before is to explain exactly where this sentence – essentially Malthus’s ideas about geometric population growth – came from. In this essay we show that eighteenth century mathematician Leonhard Euler is responsible for this sentence, and in fact forms the beginning of the logical chain which leads to the creation of the theory of natural selection. We shall examine the fascinating path taken by a mathematical calculation, the many different lenses through which it was viewed, and the path through which it eventually influenced Darwin.

Matthew Morris, “We Know in Part: James McCosh on Evolution and Christian Faith”

Abstract James McCosh (1811–1894), president of Princeton College from 1868 to 1888, played a significant role in the American reception of evolution in the late 1800s – he was one of the more prominent clergyman to assuage the public’s fears of evolution while incorporating evolution into a conservative Christian worldview. McCosh was a prolific writer, whose books document his intellectual journey from hostility to acceptance of evolution. Three things will stand out in this overview that have not been emphasized in detail in other works: (1) James McCosh’s perspective on evolution dramatically changed over time; (2) McCosh’s motivations for engaging in the evolution-religion debate serve to clear up confusion regarding McCosh’s final position on evolution; and (3) the theological and philosophical basis for McCosh’s acceptance of evolution was established while McCosh was still hostile to evolution. His theological background therefore ‘pre-adapted’ him for evolution, and he was able to preach theology and evolution without substantially altering his theology.

Kate Holterhoff, “The History and Reception of Charles Darwin’s Hypothesis of Pangenesis”

Abstract This paper explores Charles Darwin’s hypothesis of pangenesis through a popular and professional reception history. First published in The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), pangenesis stated that inheritance can be explained by sub-cellular “gemmules” which aggregated in the sexual organs during intercourse. Pangenesis thereby accounted for the seemingly arbitrary absence and presence of traits in offspring while also clarifying some botanical and invertebrates’ limb regeneration abilities. I argue that critics largely interpreted Variation as an extension of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), while pangenesis was an extension of natural selection. Contrary to claims that pangenesis was divorced from natural selection by its reliance on the inheritance of acquired characters, pangenesis’s mid nineteenth-century reception suggests that Darwin’s hypothesis responded directly to selection’s critics. Using Variation’s several editions, periodical reviews, and personal correspondence I assess pangenesis popularly, professionally, and biographically to better understand Variation’s impact on 1860s and 70s British evolutionism and inheritance.

ARTICLES: Disciplining and Popularizing: Evolution and its Publics from the Modern Synthesis to the Present

The journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences has a set of articles in its March 2014 issue that all stem from a conference session for the History of Science Society in 2012:

Disciplining and popularizing: Evolution and its publics from the modern synthesis to the present (Introduction)
Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis

Darwin’s foil: The evolving uses of William Paley’s Natural Theology 1802–2005
Adam R. Shapiro

Making the case for orthogenesis: The popularization of definitely directed evolution (1890–1926)
Mark A. Ulett

Paleontology at the “high table”? Popularization and disciplinary status in recent paleontology
David Sepkoski

Claiming Darwin: Stephen Jay Gould in contests over evolutionary orthodoxy and public perception, 1977–2002
Myrna Perez Sheldon

BOOK: Evolving: The Human Effect and Why It Matters

A new title from Prometheus Books might be of interest to readers of this blog:

Evolving: The Human Effect and Why It Matters

by Douglas J. Fairbanks

Prometheus Books, 2012, ISBN 978-1-61614-565-1

In this persuasive, elegantly written book, research geneticist Daniel J. Fairbanks argues that understanding evolution has never mattered more in human history. Fairbanks not only uses evidence from archaeology, geography, anatomy, biochemistry, radiometric dating, cell biology, chromosomes, and DNA to establish the inescapable conclusion that we evolved and are still evolving, he also explains in detail how health, food production, and human impact on the environment are dependent on our knowledge of evolution. Evolving is essential reading for gaining a fuller appreciation of who we are, our place in the great expanse of life, and the importance of our actions.

“With so many excellent books on evolution available, it’s hard to imagine another one with anything new in it. Fairbanks succeeds with a whole array of original examples that demonstrate not only the truth of evolution, but also its impact on human life and society.” – Victor J. Stenger, New York Times bestselling author of God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion

“This book provides a compact overview of the results of many lines of research, especially in genetics, which continue to deepen our knowledge of evolution. Anyone who wonders about the practical value and importance of understanding the processes of evolution will benefit from reading it.” – Eric Meikle, National Center for Science Education

“This is an important book. Fairbanks presents an overwhelming case for the correctness of evolutionary theory. It is engagingly written, with many personal glimpses, and the technical material is clearly presented and understandable. Evolving should be essential reading for anyone who wishes to be an informed citizen.” – Allan Franklin, Professor of physics, University of Colorado, and coauthor of Ending the Mendel-Fisher Controversy

ARTICLE: Did Darwin read Mendel?

This was from 2009 in the QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, but I just came across it:

Did Darwin read Mendel?

David Galton

Read no further if you want a definite answer to this question. It is a sort of detective story with clues scattered around. The circumstances surrounding the question however are so interesting since they involve two of the most important scientific publications of the 19th century.

Read the rest here.

ARTICLES: “Darwin’s “Beloved Barnacles” & “What Would Have Happened if Darwin Had Known Mendel”

Two Darwin articles from Vol. 33, no. 1 (2011) of the journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences:

Darwin’s “Beloved Barnacles”: Tough Lessons in Variation


Costas Mannouris


Abstract In 1846, burdened by insecurity and self-doubt, and having been convinced that he needed to study some group of organisms closely, Darwin embarked on an eight-year odyssey in the protean and perplexing world of barnacles. At the time, he was searching for evidence in support of his theory of evolution by natural selection. In the course of his long study of barnacles, however, he was not just validating his preexisting theoretical system, but was also modifying his views on such fundamental aspects as the universality of individual variation, which is the focus of this paper. According to this notion, the members of any population of living things are expected to exhibit sufficient differences from one another for natural selection to operate. By emphasizing the theoretical value of the barnacle project, my analysis contributes to the historiographic tradition which highlights the significance of the period between the first comprehensive formulation of the theory of evolution by natural selection in 1844 and its urgent publication in the late 1850s. In the course of these years, Darwin’s theory was not just accumulating empirical laurels, but was also expected to adapt to a changing conceptual landscape.


What Would Have Happened if Darwin Had Known Mendel (or Mendel’s Work)?


Pablo Lorenzano


Abstract The question posed by the title is usually answered by saying that the “synthesis” between the theory of evolution by natural selection and classical genetics, which took place in 1930s-40s, would have taken place much earlier if Darwin had been aware of Mendel and his work. What is more, it nearly happened: it would have been enough if Darwin had cut the pages of the offprint of Mendel’s work that was in his library and read them! Or, if Mendel had come across Darwin in London or paid him a visit at his house in the outskirts! (on occasion of Mendel’s trip in 1862 to that city). The aim of the present paper is to provide elements for quite a different answer, based on further historical evidence, especially on Mendel’s works, some of which mention Darwins’s studies.

ARTICLES: Darwin in Denmark, Shakespeare and Darwin, and Dobzhansky

In the Journal of the History of Ideas:

Protestant Responses to Darwinism in Denmark, 1859–1914

Hans Henrik Hjermitslev

Preview From the 1870s onwards, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in On the Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871), was an important topic among the followers of the influential Danish theologian N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783–1872). The Grundtvigians constituted a major faction within the Danish Evangelical-Lutheran Established Church, which included more than ninety percent of the population in the period 1859–1914. This article demonstrates the influence of local contexts on the reception of scientific ideas by analyzing how specific aspects of Danish intellectual culture made the Grundtvigian reactions to Darwin’s theory different from Protestant denominations in America and Britain. Firstly, Grundtvig’s critique of Lutheran scriptural theology and his preference for the living word to the letters of the Bible legitimized liberal interpretations of Scripture. Secondly the philosophy of the Søren Kierkegaard protagonist, Rasmus Nielsen, made it possible for Grundtvigians to draw radical distinctions between science and faith. This specific “Danish Protestantism,” as the clergyman Frederik Jungersen phrased it in 1873, led the way for liberal Grundtvigians in coming to terms with Darwinism in the first decades of the twentieth century.

From Configurations:

Shakespeare’s Origin of Species and Darwin’s Tempest

Glen A. Love

Abstract Ecocriticism provides a natural meeting-point of the humanities and the life sciences. Shakespeare’s last great play, The Tempest, is rich in its anticipation of Darwinian evolutionary ideas, thus providing the stage for a rare two-cultures dialogue between, arguably, the world’s greatest literary artist and its greatest scientist on the most abiding and profound of subjects: nature, and especially human nature. If Caliban is the most noticeable of The Tempest‘s subjects of evolutionary and cultural significance, he is accompanied by other matters of interest in today’s expanding field of biocultural and cognitive research and thought.

From Configurations:

Evolutionary Works and Texts: Reading Dobzhansky in an Age of Genomics

Michael P. Cohen

Abstract Scientific writing is the most powerful and pervasive nature writing of our era. Instead of using science to interpret literary texts, ecocritics should read classic scientific “works” as “texts” (as Roland Barthes defines these terms), uncovering grounds for stories about nature and premises of modern environmental narratives. This essay examines a classic text of the modern evolutionary synthesis, Theodosius Dobzhansky’s Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937), where the conservative force of heredity battles the random change of mutation in an “adaptive landscape,” yielding resultant “species.” Tensions between metaphors and maps structure his exposition and reveal a still-influential master-narrative.