Darwin in Edinburgh: The Making of an Evolutionist

Cambridge University Woodwordian Professor of Geology Adam Sedgwick, said of young Charles Darwin accompanying the expedition aboard HMS Beagle, in a letter to his father, ‘It was the best thing in the world for him that he went out on the Voyage of Discovery… he will have a great name among the Naturalists of Europe.’1 Darwin returned from the voyage a promising young naturalist, however his interests in science and natural history developed earlier in his life. Similarly, although the Beagle voyage was to supply him with the material for his theory of evolution by natural selection which would transform biology and shatter man’s most arrogant and vainglorious conceptions of himself as the pinnacle of creation, Darwin, the grandson of one of Britain’s most notorious evolutionists, was no stranger to evolution when he stepped aboard the Beagle. During his time in Edinburgh he experienced first-hand the schisms of unruly, young dissenters, challenging the established orthodoxies of the Church and of science.  Darwin was amply exposed to the heresy of transmutation, and the radical dissentience which typically accompanied it, before he set sail on his ‘Voyage of Discovery’.

Charles Robert Darwin came from a line of doctors and physicians and was named ‘after the medical men in the family,’2 so it seemed natural for him to follow his elder brother, Erasmus, up to Edinburgh to study medicine. Yet Darwin, not particularly taken with his studies, finding the lectures ‘intolerably dull,’3 and horrified by the butchery of operations,4 left early before completing his degree. Nevertheless, despite Darwin’s disaffection for medicine, he discovered a passion for science. Erasmus stayed for only one year, leaving his younger brother in Edinburgh, ‘so that during the second year I was left to my own resources; and this was an advantage, for I became well acquainted with several young men fond of natural science.’5 These acquaintances included William Francis Ainsworth, John Coldstream and James Hardie. Lastly, there was the notorious Dr Robert Edmond Grant who would have a significant influence on the young Darwin..

Edinburgh University

The Plinian Society of Edinburgh University was formed in 1823 by the Regius Professor of Natural History Robert Jameson. The Plinian Society provided a forum for students to present and discuss papers on natural science. Darwin was proposed to the Society by the radical William A. F. Browne, and was elected in November, 1826 alongside the similarly radical William Greg. Darwin later wrote, ‘I used regularly to attend and the meetings had a good effect on me in stimulating my zeal and giving me new congenial acquaintances.’ Biographers Desmond and Moore write that ‘The illicit excitement of these meetings was enormous. Established Church doctrines were being impugned, dissident sciences championed. It must have affected the impressionable seventeen-year-old,’ although ‘the meetings were not all high-brow heresy and student radicalism; they flew high and low, moving from the cuckoo’s habits to the classification of animals, from instinct to the existence of sea-serpents… The young Darwin stood to add his bit on cuckoos and classification, and, all in all, seems to have found the Society a great boon.’7Whilst Darwin was exposed to radical heresies–’It seems that many members held flagrantly reductionist views’8–he was also able to cultivate an interest in natural science, presenting a short paper to the Society at the beginning of 1826.

Robert Edmond Grant

The aforementioned Dr Grant was to become Darwin’s walking companion. Grant had given up medicine to study marine zoology and was an expert on sea sponges. The young Darwin came to share Grant’s fascination for the curious creatures which they collected along the coast and from local fishermen, dissecting them as well as he could. Darwin learned much from Grant, making his own original contributions. As well as attending some of the Plinian meetings–and actually serving as secretary to the Society until 23 May, 18269–Grant was a council member of the Wernerian Natural History Society which was held in the university museum and began bringing Darwin in late 1826–only MDs could become members, so students were brought along as guests. It was on 24 March, 1827 that Grant announced to the Society the discovery made by Darwin that the strange forms nesting within the egg-cases of the vermiform Pontobdella muricata were the eggs of a parasitic skate leech. Grant wrote, ‘The merit of having first ascertained them to belong to that animal is due to my zealous young friend Mr Charles Darwin of Shrewsbury, who kindly presented me with specimens of the ova exhibiting the animal in different stages of maturity.’10 The creatures Darwin studied alongside Grant would not be the last he would spend many an hour poring over.11

Chevalier de Lamarck

Grant was also a materialist and an outspoken evolutionist in high praise of the Chevalier de Lamarck who at the time was still working in Paris. Adrian Desmond writes that when Grant became the first Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Zoology at the University of London later in 1827 he ‘was probably the only teacher in Britain sympathetic to Lamarckism in the three decades before 1859.’12 On their walks together, Darwin and Grant did not just discuss marine zoology. Darwin later recalled that ‘one day, when we were walking together [he] burst forth in high admiration of Lamarck and his view on evolution. I listened in silent astonishment, and as far as I can judge, without any effect on my mind.’13 Adrian Desmond writes that ‘Grant openly consorted with materialists in Edinburgh and London… His science was naturalistic, hence his discussion of the direct generation of species; and as a secularist reformer he ridiculed Providence in front of his students,’14 although Grant’s outspoken attitude eventually proved decidedly injurious. As well as nurturing a keen and productive interest in natural science, Darwin was not only exposed to heresies of materialism, but became the companion of a fervent transmutationist. Darwin’s freethinking, deist grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, a renowned physician and a man of science, settled in the heart of the rapidly industrializing Midlands, promulgated a progressivist philosophy of industrial and organic evolution,15 penning the biological-medical work Zoönomia which caused quite a stir upon its publication in the late eighteenth century, its discussion of organic evolution causing ‘immediate offence.’16 Grant had read Erasmus Darwin’s Zoönomia,17 as had young Charles, who noted the similarities between the views expressed by his grandfather and also by Grant.18

Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire

On the continent Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s theory of a ‘unity of plan’ had travelled across the Channel, proving extremely popular, no less with Grant.  Saint-Hilaire proposed that organic development occurred according to predetermined laws of organization. Grant argued that all organisms shared a common plan, and that the more primitive an organism the further down it resided on the great chain of organic development as it retained the simplicity characteristic of early life. Grant saw Spongilla as foundational in the chain as it lead up from ‘monad to man’. 19 Yet despite his extraordinary exposures to transmutationism, Darwin became no convert whilst at Edinburgh. That would come later. Before he headed for Cambridge to prepare for ordination, he wrote that he ‘did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible…’20 Nevertheless, Darwin was not particularly troubled by his exposures, his sangfroid assured, perhaps, by his freethinking heritage.

Michael Ruse writes that ‘at Edinburgh he became friendly with just about the only Lamarckian in Britain… So, coupled with his own admission that he greatly admired his grandfather’s Zoönomia, young Darwin probably had a more sympathetic introduction to evolutionism than any other person in Britain at the time…’21 When Darwin stepped aboard the Beagle, headed on his ‘Voyage of Discovery’, he was no transmutationist, yet his experiences of the subversive radicals with their sights trained on the established orthodoxies, the burgeoning of his passion for natural science under the tutelage of one of Britain’s only Lamarckians, his grandfather decades earlier praising progress in Britain’s industrial heartlands and similarly in nature, must all have been conducive to Darwin’s later evolutionism and his scientific efflorescence, at the same time urging caution, warning of the passions aroused by questions of origins. Later Darwin would recall his time at Edinburgh, his talks with Grant, writing, ‘it is probable that the hearing rather early in life such views maintained and praised may have favoured my upholding them under a different form in my Origin of Species.’22 It seems that Edinburgh saw the making of a professional evolutionist.

References & Notes

  1. Sedgwick, A. quoted in: Darwin, S. E. Letter to Charles Darwin, 22 November, 1835. Available at: <http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-288&gt;
  2. Desmond, A. and Moore, J. Darwin. London: Michael Joseph, 1991.p.12.
  3. Darwin, C. R. Autobiographies, eds. Michael Neve and Sharon Messenger. London: Penguin Books, 2002. p.23.
  4. Darwin wrote, ‘I also attended on two occasions the operating theatre in the hospital at Edinburgh, and saw two very bad operations, one on a child, but I rushed away before they were completed. Nor did I ever attend again, for hardly any inducement would have been strong enough to make me do so; this being long before the blessed days of chloroform. The two cases fairly haunted me for many a long year.’ (See above note for reference.)
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid. p.24.
  7. Desmond and Moore, op cit. p.33.
  8. Desmond, A. Robert E. Grant: the social predicament of a pre-Darwinian transmutationist. Journal of the History of Biology, 17 (2): 189-223, 1984. p.199.
  9. ibid.
  10. Grant, R. E. Notice regarding the ova of the Pontobdella muricata, Lam. Edinburgh Journal of Science 7 (1): 160-161, 1827. p.161. Interestingly, it was here that Darwin’s name first appeared in print.
  11. Darwin was to spend eight years penning a monumental work on barnacles (Cirripedes) between 1846 and 1854–two large volumes on living species and two smaller volumes on extinct species. The work was to earn him the Royal Society’s prestigious Royal Medal in 1853. In his autobiography, Darwin wrote, ‘My work on the Cirripedia possesses, I think, considerable value… The Cirripedes forms a highly varying and difficult group of species to class; and my work was of considerable use to me, when I had to discuss in the Origin of Species the principles of a natural classification. Nevertheless, I doubt whether the work was worth the consumption of so much time.’ (Autobiographies. p.71.)
  12. Desmond, op cit. p.189.
  13. Darwin, Autobiographies. p.24.
  14. Desmond, op cit. p.193-4.
  15. Michael Ruse writes that ‘In good, strong, circular fashion, [Erasmus] Darwin started with his social belief in the desirability of progress–the progress of the British industrialist. He read this into nature, and then he read it right back out as confirmation of his philosophy… Deism bound with and leading to progress was what motivated Darwin and was the force behind his speculations on organic origins.’ (Ruse, M. Mystery of mysteries: is evolution a social construction?. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. p.46.)
  16. King-Hele, D. G. Erasmus Darwin, man of ideas and inventor of words. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 42 (2): 149-180, 1988. p.169.
  17. After the publication of the Origin, Grant wrote to Darwin, ‘More than fifty years have now elapsed since the “Zoonomia” of your illustrious ancestor, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, first opened my mind to some of “the laws of organic life,” which he so clearly expounded, and so successfully applied to explain the abnormal phenomena of the human body…’ (Grant, R. E. Letter to Charles Darwin, 16 May, 1861. Available at: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-3150)
  18. Darwin, Autobiographies. p.24.
  19. Desmond, A. The politics of evolution: morphology, medicine and reform in radical London. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. ch.2-3.
  20. Darwin, Autobiographies. p.29.
  21. Ruse, M. The Darwinian revolution: science red in tooth and claw, second edition. London/Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. p.161.
  22. Darwin, Autobiographies. p.24.
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