Evolution’s revolution was the naturalist’s, though initial idea wasn't

January 12, 2011 By Alvin Powell, Harvard University
Arnold Arboretum Director William “Ned” Friedman said scientific discovery requires more than just an idea: "Darwin had the ability to convince others of the correctness of the idea." Credit: Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Naturalist Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" is credited with sparking evolution's revolution in scientific thought, but many observers had pondered evolution before him. It was understanding the idea’s significance and selling it to the public that made Darwin great, according to the Arnold Arboretum's new director.

William “Ned” Friedman, the Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology who took over as arboretum director Jan. 1, has studied Darwin’s writings as well as those of his predecessors and contemporaries. While Darwin is widely credited as the father of evolution, Friedman said the “historical sketch” that Darwin attached to later printings of his masterpiece was intended to mollify those who demanded credit for their own, earlier ideas.

The historical sketch grew with each subsequent printing, Friedman told an audience Monday (Jan. 10), until, by the 6th edition, 34 authors were mentioned in it. Scholars now believe that somewhere between 50 and 60 authors had beaten Darwin in their writings about evolution. Included was Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, a physician who irritated clergymen with his insistence that life arose from lower forms, specifically mollusks.

Friedman’s talk, “A Darwinian Look at Darwin’s Evolutionist Ancestors,” took place at the arboretum’s Hunnewell Building and was the first in a new Director’s Lecture Series.

Though others had clearly pondered evolution before Darwin, he wasn’t without originality. Friedman said that Darwin’s thinking on as the mechanism of evolution was shared by few, most prominently Alfred Wallace, whose writing on the subject after years in the field spurred Darwin’s writing of  “On the Origin of Species.” Alhough the book runs more than 400 pages, Friedman said it was never the book on evolution and natural selection that Darwin intended. In 1856, three years before the book was published, he began work on a detailed tome on natural selection that wouldn’t see publication until 1975.

The seminal event in creating “On the Origin of Species” occurred in 1858, Friedman said, when Wallace wrote Darwin detailing Wallace’s ideas of evolution by natural selection. The arrival of Wallace’s ideas galvanized Darwin into writing “On the Origin of Species” as an “abstract” of the ideas he was painstakingly laying out in the larger work.

This was a lucky break for Darwin, Friedman said, because it forced him to write his ideas in plain language, which led to a book that was not only revolutionary, despite those who’d tread similar ground before, but that was also very readable.

Though others thought about evolution before Darwin, Friedman said scientific discovery requires more than just an idea. In addition to the concept, discovery requires the understanding of the significance of the idea, something some of the earlier authors clearly did not have — such as the arborist who buried his thoughts on natural selection in the appendix of a book on naval timber. Lastly, Friedman said, scientific discovery demands the ability to convince others of the correctness of an idea. Darwin, through “On the ,” was the only thinker of the time who had all three of those traits, Friedman said.

“Darwin had the ability to convince others of the correctness of the idea,” Friedman said, adding that even Wallace, whose claim to new thinking on and natural selection was stronger than all the others, paid homage to Darwin by titling his 1889 book on the subject, “Darwinism.”

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5 / 5 (2) Jan 12, 2011
Everyone forgets Alfred Russell Wallace...
2.5 / 5 (4) Jan 13, 2011
Darwin's book was never a best seller and had an impact on the scientific community, not the general public, who were buying up Robert Chamber's book on Evolution in far greater numbers right into the 20th century.

Chambers was friends with many scientists and anonymously published a synthesis of their more speculative ideas. They included the evolution of the Earth, the solar system and the universe from a single mass of matter, the evolution of all living species from a single ancestor, something Darwin only alludes to once, in a book on the (wrong) molecular mechanism of evolution ('Pangenesis, outlined in 'The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication').

Jean Baptiste Lamarck, in Zoological Philosophy, outlined the fact of evolution but his proposed mechanism was incorrect and Thomas Malthus outlined the concept of overbirth and dieback as a natural mechanism of population control (in 'An Essay on The Principle of Population', a book which both Darwin and Wallace read)
1 / 5 (8) Jan 14, 2011
Having other people agree with you doesn't make evolution a fact. The "Origin of the species" book never lives up to the title, by answering that question. But the biggest question left from the article is, so what? And, how exactly did we come to exist from inorganic materials?
5 / 5 (5) Jan 15, 2011
I am puzzled by the factual errors made by Robert Karl Stonjek in his recent comment. Darwin's books were generally popular, and the first printing of "On the Origin of Species" sold-out in a single day (1,250 copies). While Chamber's book did outsell Darwin before 1900, Darwin remains popular, and "Vestiges" is a historical curiosity. Further, Darwin did certainly consider a single, unique origin of life in "Origin" as seen by reading the final chapter.

Robert Chamers published anonymously, and maintained many grossly mistaken ideas; the spontaneous generation of insects by electricity, the "great chain of being," and that humans were the ultimate "goal" of divinely directed evolution. I recommend reading "Victorian Sensation The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" by James A. Secord (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2001.)
5 / 5 (6) Jan 16, 2011
And, how exactly did we come to exist from inorganic materials?
Evolution is what happens when self-reproducing molecules, or programs or maybe even energy fields reproduce with errors. Selection, by the environment or an operating system or an intelligence, then removes those errors that don't fit the needs of the selection process, whether that process is intelligent or simply the environment. Evolution isn't going to disappear in a puff of smoke simply because we don't know how life started.

Life did NOT start from inorganic compounds. Well, we have no reason to think that it did since organic compound exist without life having been involved in their formation. Organic compounds have even been found in space.
The "Origin of the species" book never lives up to the title, by answering that question.
Obviously you don't understand the title. It is the origin of SPECIES not LIFE. Evolution is about the changes in LIFE.

4.3 / 5 (3) Jan 16, 2011
Everyone forgets Alfred Russell Wallace...
Everyone? Where do you get this Everyone shit?

OK I admit it. When I was climbing one of the Evolution peaks above Evolution Basin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains it wasn't Mt. Wallace we tried to climb. It was Mt. Darwin. Maybe that is why the weather turned on us. Maybe that wasn't thunder that blasted off the rock walls behind me as we retreated to lower altitude. Maybe Mt. Wallace was having a fit.

Funny that I was climbing Mt. Darwin with a Fundamentalist. HE picked it out because it was the highest.

not rated yet Jan 17, 2011
Everyone forgets Alfred Russell Wallace...

Everyone forgets Aritostenes.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 17, 2011
So, the other day I'm climbing Mount Meditation, acting as the head sherpa for the Dalai Llama. As we all know, Mt. Meditation is in the Consciousness Range, which is part of the Enlightenment Chain. What is less well known, is this chain is a result of a process called Karma, which, as most know from the ubiquitous "Karma Jar," is a result of service tipping.

So, after the descent, he's gonna stiff me. I says to the Dalai Llama, "Hey Lama. Hey, how about something, ya know, for the effort, ya know?" He tells me, "There won't be any money, but on your death bed, you will receive total consciousness."

So I got that goin' for me, which is nice.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 18, 2011
Skulthch there really is a Mt. Darwin in California.


I did try to climb it with a friend who is, or at least was, a full blown fundamentalist, despite his being a Catholic. The weather got really nasty and we decided the better part of survival was not being where the lightning might strike.

You have not heard thunder at its most extreme till you have heard it bounce off a convex curved wall of granite hundreds of feet high. Its a wonder my ears didn't ring. Maybe the altitude helped.

I won't receive total consciousness but I do have some nice black and white pictures of my friend giving Mt. Darwin the finger.

not rated yet Jan 18, 2011
Skulthch there really is a Mt. Darwin in California....

Yeah, I thought so. You just inspired a joke in me and I couldn't resist. :)

I've been stormed off high ridges at 13k'+ a few times myself. Most recently, trying to summit and snowboard descent the cirque chutes right below the summit of the 14er, Mt. Sherman, in Mosquito Range in CO. Twice I have had to escape down one of the Mt. Gemini (same massive) snowfields. Once north side, once south side.

That's pretty cool there are mts named after Darwin and such. I need to get over to the Sierras. I have some friends in CA and we talked about it. Maybe this summer. How late does the backcountry ski go over there? CO is having an EPIC snow season, you?
1 / 5 (1) Jan 18, 2011
Darwin only vaguely alluded to a common ancestor in the 1st edition & more forcefully in the 6th. Chambers asserts it far more forcefully and in the opening chapter of his book and it may have been in response to Chambers that Darwin became more strident later on.

Darwin made many mistakes eg most of the pangenesis theory was wrong. He also feared that the disease he acquired during his life may have been passed on to his children and there are letters from Wallace castigating Darwin for this (Lamarckian) belief.

The great chain of being is not in evidence in Chambers' book. In my copy of the Vestiges, Chambers argues against spontaneous generation. Most of his book reports on the science of the day, including experiments with electricity. Where does he say that spontaneous generation occurs via electricity? Nowhere...

Darwin was a great man who did great things, but this historical revisionism by Darwin worshipers is deplorable.

I recommend reading Chambers' book
1 / 5 (1) Jan 18, 2011
And my point that (from the above) "Naturalist Charles Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species' is credited with sparking evolution's revolution in scientific thought, but many observers had pondered evolution before him. " is utterly and completely wrong still stands.

There were as many as 60 prominent books on evolution before The Origin. The revolution started with geologists insistence on an old Earth and the inexplicability of fossils, especially of extinct animals. By the turn of the 18th century we had the likes of Lamarck and Paley writing well informed books trying to account for the building evidence of something other than biblical literalism, Lamarck suggesting that animals evolve and Paley suggesting a theological science (Natural Theology) to rival science (Natural Philosophy) and arguing against an evolutionary answer on the grounds of the complexity of the eye.

I recommend reading Paley's and Lamarck's book and not second hand appraisals of them.
not rated yet Jan 19, 2011
How late does the backcountry ski go over there? CO is having an EPIC snow season, you?
Don't really know as I am not a skier. Southern California tends to have an epic snow season if ANY snow falls. Still some on the local mountains. I can see it anyway.

Back country sking in the Sierra's is extremely dangerous. The Donner Party is only one example. Even experienced well equiped people should be very carefull and carry radios to keep track of the weatherz.


The pack was running 200 percent of normal at the end of December but it not that high now as the rain has slacked off to more normal levels.


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