New perspectives on Edinburgh Lamarckians and other transformist thinkers: evolutionary debates in the Athens of the North, 1790–1844
Jenkins, William Hugh Wright
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Recent scholarship has suggested that transformist ideas had a wider currency in Edinburgh in the first half of nineteenth century than had previously been acknowledged. The first objective of this study is to delve deeper into the reception of transformist theories there in the years 1790 to 1844. The main figures whose theories on the transmutation of species were discussed in contemporary sources are Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), George-Louis Leclerc, Conte de Buffon (1707–1788), Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802), Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772–1844); this study therefore concentrates on the reception of their work. The principle Edinburgh contexts in which the reception of their theories is explored are the University of Edinburgh, the extra-mural medical schools and the city’s various learned societies and scientific journals, although the opinions of all those in Edinburgh known to have discussed transformism in this period are considered. The sources examined reveal that transformist theories were largely received with interest. Discussion of them was generally confined to scientific, or naturalistic, arguments, except in the cases of some Evangelical natural historians, who rejected them outright on theological grounds. This thesis also explores how some thinkers in Edinburgh went beyond discussing received ideas about transformism and developed their own theories, synthesising the work of earlier thinkers. The most important of these were Robert Edmond Grant (1793– 1874), Robert Jameson (1774–1854), Robert Knox (1791–1862) and Henry H. Cheek (1807–33). This thesis also explores the genesis of the later transformist theory of Robert Chambers (1802–71), the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), to establish to what extent he may have been influenced by the earlier transformists of the 1820s and 30s. Events in Edinburgh in the 1820s also had a wider resonance for the history of evolutionary ideas in Britain, as Charles Darwin (1809–1882) was a student at the University of Edinburgh between 1825 and 1827. It has long been suspected that his experiences in Edinburgh had a larger part to play in the development of his theory of evolution than he later cared to admit. Careful to avoid associating himself with the more speculative theories of earlier transformist thinkers, Darwin made little mention of them in his published writings. We already know, however, that Darwin had a close relationship with Grant during his time in Edinburgh and must have been familiar with his transformist ideas. This thesis aims to show to what extent the intellectual environment that Darwin found himself in was suffused with the idea of the transmutation of species. In broad outline, it can be concluded that transformism was much less controversial in Edinburgh in the first half of the nineteenth century than might be supposed from the prevailing historiography and had a significant number of sympathisers and adherents.