Darwin's famous intervention in the long scientific debate over the way differing species and life-forms came into being was not a sudden idea. Before its first publication in 1859, he had spent nearly thirty years in scientific exploration, research and analysis, across a range of what are now separate disciplines, collecting the evidence that he summarized and synthesized in his Origin of Species. The result was, in the words of the leading Darwin bibliographer, "certainly the most important biological book ever written." The exhibit traces this story from his days as an undergraduate to the debates that followed his book's publication.
The Wedgwood family of Etruria Hall, 1780
The wealthy couple shown here, Josiah and Sarah Wedgwood, at their country house in Staffordshire, were Darwin's grandparents. Both Darwin and his father married Wedgwood cousins, and his career as an independent scientific researcher was made possible not only by his father's success as a physician, but also by wealth inherited from the pottery business.
Heredity: Darwin's tribute to a scientific grandfather
Ernst Ludwig Krause, 1839-1903.
Translated by W. S. Dallas, with a preliminary notice by Charles Darwin. New York: Appleton, 1880.
Darwin inherited a tradition of scientific theorizing, political liberalism and religious freethinking. His grandfather Erasmus (1731-1802), a physician in Lichfield, was a botanist and poet who belonged to Joseph Priestley's Lunar Society. Darwin's substantial "preliminary notice" to this German summary of his grandfather's writings also describes his often-difficult father, another physician and freethinker who at first pushed him towards a medical career.
Imagining a common origin for all life-forms
Erasmus Darwin, 1731-1802.
The temple of nature; or, The origin of society: a poem, with philosophical notes. London: J. Johnson, 1804.
Alongside more conventional research, Erasmus Darwin published several volumes of scientific poetry, propounding inter alia the theory that nature showed the gradual emergence of progressively more complex life-forms, culminating in man. In this passage, he exclaims over man's ultimate origin in some primal microscopic being.
Linnaeus's classification of plants,
from Erasmus Darwin,
The Botanic Garden, a Poem in Two Parts.
Lichfield: J. Jackson; London: J. Johnston, 1789-1791.
Erasmus Darwin had developed a botanical garden at Lichfield using the classification system for plant genera developed by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus (1707-1778). The second part of this work, The Loves of the Plants, published locally in 1789, rather roguishly depicts the propagation of plant species as a form of fashionable flirtation, anticipating his grandson's much more scrupulous research on the propagation of orchids.
Darwins and Wedgwoods: scientific and political traditions
Engravings of a section of the Earth and of two Wedgwood medallions, from Erasmus Darwin,The Botanic Garden, London: Jones, 1825.
This page from a later octavo edition conveniently brings together three separate engravings from the quarto. The geological section anticipates Charles Darwin's fascination with volcanic and other movement in the earth's surface, while the two medallions show the liberal and anti- slavery tradition of the Wedgwood family. One carries the famous abolitionist image and motto ("Am I not a man and a brother?"). The other, made from clay from the convict settlement at Botany Bay in New South Wales, depicts Hope for the convicts. Throughout his life, Charles Darwin argued strongly against slavery.
Erasmus Darwin on the natural process of creation
Zoonomia; or, the laws of organic life.
2 vols. London: J. Johnson, 1794-1796.
The most serious of Erasmus Darwin's medical works was this weighty study on the classification of diseases. In this section, on "generation," or sexual procreation, he compares the gradual changes of geology to a similar gradual process of development for the animal world, describing God as the "cause of causes" in "generating" a continually improving world.
The French revolution in comparative anatomy
Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet de Lamarck, 1744-1829.
Philosophie zoologique; ou, Exposition des consid‚rations relative … l'histoire naturelle des animaux.
2 vols. Paris: Dentu et l'Auteur, 1809.
The French zoologist Lamarck argued against the traditional view of immutability of species, theorizing that lower forms of life developed into higher ones through the development of new organs in response to environmental challenges. Lamarckian theory differed from later Darwinian theory in asserting that such immediate adaptations were inheritable.
The French fossil record and the development of species
Georges, Baron Cuvier, 1769-1832.
A discourse on the revolutions of the surface of the globe: and the changes thereby produced in the animal kingdom . . . Translated from the French.
Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1831.
The French comparative anatomist and palaeontologist Cuvier had explored in detail the geological strata around Paris in conjunction with the sequence of fossils that they held. In this book, he synthesizes his detailed research to argue that geological change held the key to the survival, extinction and development of animal species. This copy of the English translation belonged to Professor Francis Lieber of South Carolina College, and is inscribed by him to his son, the scientist Oscar Lieber. The library also has President Thomas Cooper's copy of the 1825 French edition.
The significance of sponges
George Johnston, 1797-1855,
A history of British sponges and lithophytes.
Edinburgh: W.H. Lizars, 1842.
In 1825, aged sixteen, Darwin joined his brother Erasmus to study medicine at Edinburgh University, the leading medical school in Britain. The radical Edinburgh scientist Dr. Robert Grant took Darwin with him on sea-coast exploration and inspired Darwin's own first scientific discovery. Grant was a grand theorist, not just a collector, arguing that the structure of sponges demonstrated a basic identity between simple life-forms and the complexity of mammals. Darwin paid tribute to Grant's Lamarckian ideas on the origin of species in his "Historical Sketch" in the third edition of the Origin.
Charles Darwin's First Scientific Discovery
A page from the minutes of the Edinburgh Plinian Society for the meeting of March 27th, 1827, reproduced from Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin, London: Michael Joseph, 1991.
Darwin's presentation described a discovery about the organs of the Flustra. The heavily scored- out page also shows an attempt to conceal the much more radical speculations of another Plinian, William Browne.
Drawings from the French school of comparative anatomy
M. J-C. Werner, del.,
"Orangutan" and "Gibbon",
from atlas to M.H.M. Ducrotay du Blainville, 1777-1850, Osteographie ou description iconographique comparee . . . des cinq classes d'animaux vertebres. Paris: A. Bertrand, 1839.
Werner's 323 plates of skeletons and teeth were designed to allowed identification and reconstruction of fossil remains as well as of comparative study. The whole series in 26 parts took some thirty-five years to appear (1829-1864). In Edinburgh, Charles Darwin attended anatomy lessons both from the official University professor, Alexander Monro, tertius, and from a much better extramural lecturer, John Lizars. But an air of scandal and risk surrounded Edinburgh anatomy. Shortly after Darwin left, the most ambitious of the Edinburgh comparatists, Dr. Robert Knox, who built up a great anatomical museum for the College of Surgeons, was implicated in the case of Burke and Hare, the murderers who provided dissection specimens for his students.