Evolution before Darwin: Theories of the Transmutation of Species in Edinburgh, 1804–1834 (Edinburgh University Press, October 2019)

book coverIt was long believed that evolutionary theories received an almost universally cold reception in British natural history circles in the first half of the nineteenth century. But relatively recently serious doubt has been cast on this assumption. This book will be the first major study of what was probably the most important centre or pre-Darwinian evolutionary thought in the British Isles. It shows that Edinburgh in the late 1820s and early 1830s was witness to a veritable ferment of radical new ideas on the natural world, including speculation on the origin and evolution of life, at just the time when Charles Darwin was a student in the city. Those who were students in Edinburgh at the time could have hardly avoided coming into contact with these new ideas, espoused as they were by many among his professors, fellow students and acquaintances in Edinburgh. This book sheds new light on the genesis and development of one of the most important scientific theories in the history of western thought.

Book chapter

‘Theories of Universal Degeneration in Post-Enlightenment Scotland’, in Aileen Fyfe and Colin C. Kidd, Beyond the Enlightenment: Scottish Intellectual Life, 1790-1914 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2023)


Journal articles

David Brewster at the Royal Society of Edinburgh: Science, politics, and patronage in Scotland, 1808–37

Scottish Historical Review 101 (2022), 20–45

The Scottish natural philosopher David Brewster played an important role in the history of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, being at different times its general secretary, vice-president, and president. This paper examines his career between joining the Society in 1808 and becoming principal of the University of St Andrews in 1837. It explores how he built a network of scientific and personal connections with key individuals in Scottish science that helped him establish himself as a leading Scottish natural philosopher of the nineteenth century. The surviving records of the Royal Society allow us to see how Brewster used recommendations of new members and his own contributions to the meetings of the Society to build his reputation. Brewster was a committed reform Whig for his entire career. We will see how he both benefitted from the patronage of fellow Whigs, such as John Playfair and James Russell, and was able to build strong personal connections with figures from across the political spectrum, from the Tory president of the Society, Sir Walter Scott, to the radical anatomist, Robert Knox. Brewster’s career at the Royal Society of Edinburgh has much to tell about the roles of politics, patronage and sociability in the scientific culture of Scotland in the early nineteenth century.

The ‘Stronsay Beast’: testimony, evidence and authority in early early nineteenth-century natural history

Published online in Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 26 January 2022

When an unknown sea creature was washed ashore on the Orkney Islands in September 1808, the Edinburgh anatomist John Barclay declared that this was the first solid scientific evidence for the existence of the ‘great sea snake’. The testimony of witnesses along with some of its preserved body parts were examined by both the Wernerian Natural History Society in Edinburgh and the surgeon and anatomist Everard Home in London. Contradicting Barclay’s opinion, Home identified the creature as a decomposing basking shark. While Barclay took the testimony of the local witnesses largely on trust and accepted their interpretation of the Beast, Home discounted it and instead asserted his own expert authority to correctly interpret the evidence. Both made use of the preserved physical remains of parts of the creature in strikingly different ways: Barclay to support the accounts of the witnesses, Home to undermine them. The debate between the two anatomists has much to tell us about the uses of evidence and testimony in early nineteenth century natural history, but also has broader resonances for the roles of evidence and authority in science that still remain relevant today.

The mind’s magic lantern: Vision, illusion and the scientific imagination in post-Enlightenment Scotland

Published online in History of European Ideas, 14 February 2021

The imagination has always been thought to operate primarily in conjunction with the sense of vision. Imagined objects and scenes are thought of as conjured up before the ‘mind’s eye’. In early nineteenth century Scotland the natural philosopher David Brewster developed a theory of the imagination that explained its operation through a reversal of the normal processes of visual perception. These ideas were rooted in the mental philosophy of David Hume, Thomas Reid and other philosophers of the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment. For Brewster the mind’s eye  was also the eye of the body, and images from the memory and imagination were projected onto the retina in the same manner that images were projected onto the screen in a magic lantern show. Brewster believed that this process was as essential to the discoveries of science as it was to that of the creation of great art. He believed the scientific imagination was essentially akin to poetic fancy. This theory underpinned his belief that imagination played an essential role in scientific discovery and his rejection of the then dominant inductive model of scientific method. The workings of the imagination, however, were often unconscious, and therefore not amenable to direct investigation. The writings of Brewster can tell us a great deal about the connections between science and literature in early nineteenth century Scotland, as well as showing that the philosophy of science in contemporary Britain was far from monolithic.

Physiology of the haunted mind: Naturalistic theories of apparitions in early nineteenth-century Scotland

Journal of the History of Ideas, 81: 4 (2020), 577–97

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw a resurgence of interest in the supernatural in Scotland as elsewhere in the United Kingdom. A number of intellectual figures responded by proposing naturalistic explanations for supernatural phenomena, drawing on the legacy of Scottish Enlightenment philosophy. These included the geologist and antiquarian Samuel Hibbert and the phrenologist George Combe. This paper explores the interrelations between these theories, their roots in the troubled cultural politics of Scotland in the early nineteenth century and the reaction of different protagonists in the cultural conflicts of the period to their ideas.

Race before Darwin: Variation, adaptation and the natural history of man in post-Enlightenment Edinburgh, 1790–1835

British Journal for the History of Science, 53: 3 (2020), 333–50

This paper draws on material from the dissertation books of the University of
Edinburgh’s student societies and surviving lecture notes from the university’s professors to shed new light on the debates on human variation, heredity and the origin of races between 1790 and 1835. That Edinburgh was the most important centre of medical education in the English-speaking world in this period makes this is a particularly significant context. By around 1800 the fixed natural order of the eighteenth century was giving way to a more fluid conception of species and varieties. The dissolution of the ‘Great Chain of Being’ made interpretations of races as adaptive responses to local climates plausible. The evidence presented shows that human variation, inheritance and adaptation were being widely discussed in Edinburgh in the student circles around Charles Darwin when he was a medical student in Edinburgh in the 1820s. It is therefore no surprise to find these same themes recurring in similar form in the evolutionary speculations in his notebooks on the transmutation of species written in the late 1830s during the gestation of his theory of evolution.

Commercial scientific journals and their editors in Edinburgh, 1819–32

Centaurus, 62: 1 (2020) Special Issue: Editorship and the Editing of Scientific Journals, 1750–1950, 69–81

This paper explores the editorial policies and practices of three scientific journal published in Edinburgh in the first half of the nineteenth century. The first of these was the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal (1819–26), and its continuation as the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal (1826–54). This was edited until 1824 by Robert Jameson, Edinburgh’s professor of natural history, and David Brewster, natural philosopher and scientific writer and editor. Brewster left in 1824 to found his own journal, the Edinburgh Journal of Science (1824–32). The third journal published in Edinburgh in this period was the Edinburgh Journal of Natural and Geographical Science (1829–31), edited by Henry H. Cheek and William Ainsworth, two medical students at the University of Edinburgh. All three journals were direct competitors, being strikingly similar in form and content. As well as competing with his journal for readers and authors, Cheek and Ainsworth also used their journal to directly attack Jameson in print. This paper sheds new light on the ways editorship of these journals was used not only to consolidate and extend circles of patronage in early nineteenth-century science, but also to challenge existing centres of authority.

The platypus in Edinburgh: Robert Jameson, Robert Knox and the place of the Ornithorhynchus in nature, 1821–24

Annals of Science 73: 4 (2016), 425-441

The duck-billed platypus, or Ornithorhynchus, was the subject of an intense debate among natural historians in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Its paradoxical mixture of mammalian, avian and reptilian characteristics made it something of a taxonomic conundrum. In the early 1820s Robert Jameson (1774–1854), the professor of natural history at the University of Edinburgh and the curator of the University’s natural history museum, was able to acquire three valuable specimens of this species. He passed one of these on to the anatomist Robert Knox (1791–1862), who dissected the animal and presented his results in a series of papers to the Wernerian Natural History Society, which later published them in its Memoirs. This paper takes Jameson’s platypus as a case study on how natural history specimens were used to create and contest knowledge of the natural world in the early nineteenth century, at a time when interpretations of the relationships between animal taxa were in a state of flux. It shows how Jameson used his possession of this interesting specimen to provide a valuable opportunity for his protégé Knox while also helping to consolidate his own position as a key figure in early nineteenth-century natural history.

Neptunism and Transformism: Robert Jameson and other Evolutionary Theorists in Early Nineteenth-Century Scotland

Journal of the History of Biology 49: 3 (2016), 527–57

This paper sheds new light on the prevalence of evolutionary ideas in Scotland in the early nineteenth century and establish what connections existed between the espousal of evolutionary theories and adherence to the directional history of the earth proposed by Abraham Gottlob Werner and his Scottish disciples. A possible connection between Wernerian geology and theories of the transmutation of species in Edinburgh in the period when Charles Darwin was a medical student in the city was suggested in an important 1991 paper by James Secord. This study aims to deepen our knowledge of this important episode in the history of evolutionary ideas and explore the relationship between these geological and evolutionary discourses. To do this it focuses on the circle of natural historians around Robert Jameson, Wernerian geologist and professor of natural history at the University of Edinburgh from 1804 to 1854. From the evidence gathered here there emerges a clear confirmation that the Wernerian model of geohistory facilitated the acceptance of evolutionary explanations of the history of life in early nineteenth-century Scotland. As Edinburgh was at this time the most important center of medical education in the English-speaking world, this almost certainly influenced the reception and development of evolutionary ideas in the decades that followed.

Evangelicals and the Plurality of Worlds Debate in Scotland, 1810–55

Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 35: 2 (2015), 189–210

In the first half of the nineteenth century a remarkable group of Scottish evangelicals set out to address the theological questions raised by the possibility of intelligent life on other worlds. These included the popular science writer Thomas Dick, reformer and political economist Thomas Chalmers, natural philosopher David Brewster, and geologist and journalist Hugh Miller. All concluded that only a universe where life was ubiquitous would be compatible with the power and wisdom of the Deity. Each of them proceeded to formulate an answer to the problem of how the incarnation and atonement of Christ could relate to beings on other planets. The writings of these figures present a fascinating case study on how an important group of evangelical thinkers attempted to meet the challenges posed by modern science, not by rejecting its findings, but by developing a new synthesis between it and their religious beliefs.

Phrenology, heredity and progress in George Combe’s Constitution of Man

British Journal for the History of Science 48: 3 (2015), 455–73

The Constitution of Man by George Combe (1828) was probably the most influential phrenological work of the nineteenth century. It not only offered an exposition of the phrenological theory of the mind, but also presented Combe’s vision of universal human progress through the inheritance of acquired mental attributes. In the decades before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, the Constitution was probably the single most important vehicle for the dissemination of naturalistic progressivism in the English-speaking world. Although there is a significant literature on the social and cultural context of phrenology, the role of heredity in Combe’s thought has been less thoroughly explored, although both John van Wyhe and Victor L. Hilts have linked Combe’s views on heredity with the transformist theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. In this paper I examine the origin, nature and significance of his ideas and argue that Combe’s hereditarianism was not directly related to Lamarckian transformism but formed part of a wider discourse on heredity in the early nineteenth century.

Henry H. Cheek and transformism: New light on Charles Darwin’s Edinburgh Background

Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science 69: 3 (2015), 155–71

Evidence for the transformist ideas espoused by Henry H. Cheek (1807–33), a contemporary of Charles Darwin’s at the University of Edinburgh, sheds new light on the intellectual environment of Edinburgh in the late 1820s and early 1830s. Cheek was the author of several papers dealing with the transmutation of species influenced by the theories of Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772–1844), Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) and the Comte de Buffon (1707–88). Some of these were read to student societies, others appeared in the Edinburgh Journal of Natural and Geographical Science, which  Cheek edited between 1829 and 1831. His writings give us a valuable window onto some of the transformist theories that were circulating among Darwin’s fellow medical students in the late 1820s, to which Darwin would have been exposed during his time in Edinburgh, and for which little other concrete evidence survives.

Book reviews

Alexander Broadie and Craig Smith (eds), The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment, second edition, The Scottish Historical Review 99: 1 (2020): 1578

Ruth Barton, The X Club: Power and Authority in Victorian Science, Intellectual History Review 29: 3 (2019): 5379

Blog posts

Bill Jenkins on ghosts and apparitions after the Scottish Enlightenment, Journal of the History of Ideas blog, 11 December 2020

Race before Darwin: Variation, adaptation and the natural history of man in post-Enlightenment Edinburgh, 1790–1835, Cambridge Core blog, 7 July 2020

The short life and tragic death of Henry H. Cheek, a pre-Darwinian evolutionist, Edinburgh University Press blog, 3 December 2019

Exploring the history of science, technology and medicine with National Museums Scotland and Curious Edinburgh, National Museums Scotland blog, 8 May 2017