Neptunism and Transformism: Robert Jameson and other Evolutionary Theorists in Early Nineteenth-Century Scotland
Journal of the History of Biology
Neptunism and Transformism: Robert Jameson and other Evolutionary Theorists in Early Nineteenth-Century Scotland
BILL JENKINS 0
0 Science Studies Unit, School of Social and Political Science University of Edinburgh Chisholm House , High School Yards Edinburgh EH1 1LZ Scotland , UK
This paper sheds new light on the prevalence of evolutionary ideas in Scotland in the early nineteenth century and explores the connections 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.
Evolution; Transformism; Neptunism; University of Edinburgh; Robert Jameson; Charles Darwin
It has long been suggested that the transcendental anatomy taught in
the Edinburgh extra-mural schools in the 1820s and early 1830s played
an important role in paving the way for the acceptance of evolutionary
ideas by many Edinburgh-educated thinkers in the decades that
followed (see, for example, Desmond, 1989; Rehbock, 1983). In this paper
I will argue that the Wernerian geology taught by Robert Jameson
(1774–1854), the University of Edinburgh’s professor of natural history
from 1804 to 1854, may also have played a significant role in suggesting
evolutionary explanations for the history and diversity of life on earth
to his students. Some of the most well-known of Jameson’s students and
associates who came to accept a transformist interpretation of the
history of life were Robert Grant (1793–1874), Robert Knox (1791–1862),
Ami Bou e´ (1794–1881), Hewett Cottrell Watson (1804–1881) and, most
famously, Charles Darwin (1809–1882). In this paper I will suggest how
Jameson’s teaching and the influence of the natural history circle
around him may have nudged these individuals towards transformist
solutions to one of the great questions of nineteenth-century biology.
By most accounts Jameson was an energetic and diligent professor.
According to the report of the Scottish Universities Commission of 1826
he lectured to his students five days a week for the five months of his
course and also made ‘‘it a practice to converse with them an hour
before the Lecture, and very frequently after the Lecture.’’ (Scottish
Universities Commission (1826), 1830, p. 47). In addition, the report of
the Commission notes that he took them on regular field excursions. As
a result, Jameson’s lectures were popular and well attended. As Robert
Christison (1797–1882), who was a student of Jameson in 1816, later
lectures were numerously attended in spite of a dry manner, and
although attendance on Natural History was not enforced for any
University honour or for any profession. The popularity of his
subject, his earnestness as a lecturer, his enthusiasm as an
investigator, and the great museum he had collected for illustrating his
teaching, were together the causes of his success. (Quoted in
Ashworth, 1935, p. 100).
Jameson therefore had ample opportunity to promote his views both
through formal lectures and in more informal settings. Among his
students were many of the key figures who were to shape debates on the
transmutation of species in the decades leading up to the publication of
the Origin of Species and beyond. As Edward Forbes (1815–1854) was
to say in his inaugural address as Jameson’s successor in the chair of
natural history at Edinburgh, ‘‘The value of a professorial worth should
chiefly be estimated by the number of his disciples. A large share of the
best naturalists of the day received their first instruction from Professor
Jameson.’’ (Forbes, 1854, p. 4). It would therefore seem highly likely
that many of the leading figures in natural history in the nineteenth
century would have been influenced by the progressivist and
transformist ideas discussed in the Edinburgh natural history circles around
In an important paper on the ‘‘Edinburgh Lamarckians’’ published
in 1991 James Secord questioned earlier attributions of an anonymous
transformist article entitled ‘‘Observations on the Nature and
Importance of Geology’’ which was published in the Edinburgh New
Philosophical Journal in 1826 (Anon, 1826). Earlier accounts of the article
had assumed that Robert Grant was the author of the piece (see, for
example, Eiseley, 1958; Desmond, 1989).1 As the article praised the
transformist theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), who Grant
is known to have admired, it is easy to see why his authorship seemed
likely.2 The fact that in the mid-1820s Grant was also a member of the
natural history circle around Robert Jameson, who was the editor of the
journal as well as Edinburgh’s professor of natural history, also added
plausibility to the argument. Secord suggested instead that Jameson,
was a much more convincing candidate, both in regard to the style and
the content of the article. If this attribution is correct, it would seem that
Jameson was both a neptunist geologist and a transformist, a
combination that might appear unlikely in the light of some conventional
interpretations of the history of science. As Secord remarked, that
‘‘Jameson could be simultaneously a neptunist, a gradualist, and a
transmutationist shows how completely our current picture of the
acceptance of evolution needs to be overhauled. It is not only in
questions of attribution that we have taken too much for granted’’ (Secord,
As Rachel Laudan has demonstrated, the neptunian theory of the
earth of Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749–1817) ‘‘dominated geology
until the late 1820s’’ (Laudan, 1993, p. 87). That Jameson was the
leading British advocate of Werner’s theory had been well known to
historians of geology; however, that he may also have been a
transformist was perhaps a more surprising claim. The apparent incongruity
between neptunism and transformism stemmed from prevalent models
1 Desmond later accepted Secord’s attribution of the paper to Jameson in Desmond
and Parker, 2006, p. 206.
2 I will be using the terms ‘transmutation of species’ or ‘transformism’ henceforth in
this paper to distinguish these older theories from Darwinian evolution, from which
they vary significantly. The term ‘evolution’ was current in the 1820s, but was generally
used with reference to foetal development, and was often associated with
preformationist theories of generation.
of the histories of geology and evolutionary thought that Secord threw
into question in his paper. These interpreted transmutationism as an
essentially progressive phenomenon, pointing forwards towards the
triumph of evolutionism in the second half of the nineteenth century,
while neptunism was perceived as a geological creed which had had its
day by the mid-1820s, when Jameson had become one of its last
defenders in Britain.
The contention that there may have been a link between theories of
neptunism and transformism in the early nineteenth century receives
striking confirmation in the writings of one of Jameson’s
contemporaries in Edinburgh, the geologist and minister of the Free Church of
Scotland John Fleming (1785–1857). The close relationship between the
two doctrines was quite clear in Fleming’s mind when he wrote his
inaugural lecture as professor of natural history at the newly founded
New College in Edinburgh in 1850. In this lecture, Fleming unleashed a
tirade against the theory of the earth espoused by Werner and his
Edinburgh disciples in the following words:
Subsequent to the rise of this Scottish geology of Hutton, the
German geology of Werner was introduced, and for a while
appeared to triumph. This system, equally indifferent to the truths of
palaeontology, and outraging all philosophy by the extravagance
of its assumptions, paved the way for those reveries of progressive
development with which of late years we have been inundated.
(Fleming, 1851, p. 216)
The catalyst for this outburst seems to have been the publication a few
years before of Jameson’s ‘‘laudatory’’ reviews of Robert Chambers’
anonymously published transformist magnum opus, the Vestiges of the
Natural History of Creation (1844) and its sequel, Explanations: A
Sequel to ‘‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’’ (1845), in the ‘‘new
publications section’’ of the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal.
Jameson had this to say of Vestiges: ‘‘Although we do not agree with the
ingenious author of this interesting volume in several of his
speculations, yet we can safely recommend it to the attention of our readers’’
([Jameson], 1845, p. 186). The following year he reviewed Explanations,
noting that ‘‘These explanations sufficiently prove that the author has
met with great effect the arguments of its distinguished opponents.’’
([Jameson], 1846, p. 400). While perhaps not meriting the term
‘‘laudatory’’, Jameson’s reviews at the very least indicate that he
maintained an open mind towards the ‘‘development hypothesis’’ that
Chambers expounded in Vestiges and which Fleming referred to
dismissively as ‘‘reveries of progressive development’’. That Jameson
considered Explanations to have effectively answered the arguments of
the critics of Vestiges must have been particularly galling to Fleming, as
these critics included Fleming himself, as well as and his friend and
fellow evangelical David Brewster (1781–1868), who has written a
blistering review of Vestiges for the North British Review ([Brewster],
1845). Fleming roundly condemned Chambers’ book in the strongest
possible terms later in his inaugural lecture and it seems that in his mind
there was no doubt regarding the links between the scandalous theory of
universal progress outlined in that work and the developmental vision
of the history of the earth advanced by the Wernerians earlier in the
century. In this paper I intend to follow up this intriguing suggestion
and examine to what extent directional theories of the earth of the kind
developed by Werner may have helped to pave the way for the
acceptance of a developmental model of the history of life in the early decades
of the nineteenth century.
Robert Jameson and Wernerian Geology in Edinburgh
Jameson, the professor of natural history at the University of
Edinburgh whom Fleming castigated for both his positive review of Vestiges
and espousal of neptunist geology in his inaugural lecture, probably first
became acquainted with Werner’s theories through Charles Anderson,
the translator of Werner’s Theory of the Formation of Veins, whom he
got to know while he was working as an assistant to the surgeon John
Cheyne as a young man in Leith (Jameson, 1854, p. 6). In 1792 and 1793
Jameson attended the lectures of the University of Edinburgh’s
professor of natural history, John Walker (1731–1803), whose friendship
and patronage were later to shape Jameson’s career. Jameson made a
trip to Ireland in 1793 where his interest in Werner’s theory of the earth
and rejection of the rival theory proposed by James Hutton (1726–1797)
were encouraged by the Irish geologist Richard Kirwan (1733–1812),
who pointed out to him ‘‘several strong fails [sic] against the Huttonian
theory’’ (quoted in Sweet, 1967, p. 110). By 1796 Jameson had fully
embraced Werner’s neptunian theory of the earth, as can be seen in two
papers which he read to the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh in that
year in which he expressed an uncompromisingly neptunist view of the
history of the earth (Sweet and Waterson, 1967). In 1800 Jameson
travelled to Freiberg, where Werner taught at the Mining Academy, to
study with the master himself.
On his return to Scotland, and following the death of his friend and
mentor, John Walker, Jameson was appointed professor of natural
history at the University of Edinburgh in 1804. This put him in a strong
position to promote his views to generations of students over the five
decades for which he was to hold the chair. In 1808 he founded the
Wernerian Natural History Society, named in honor of his master.
From 1819 he edited the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, first with the
natural philosopher and scientific journalist David Brewster, and then
alone after 1824. From 1826 he was the sole editor of the successor to
the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, the Edinburgh New Philosophical
Journal. This was to provide an important forum for the dissemination
of progressivist theories of geology and transformist theories of the
history of life. Before we are in a position to examine the relationship
between theories of the earth and of the history of life, we will need to
cast a quick glance at the fundamental differences between the
Wernerian vision of the history of the earth and the rival Huttonian system.
The situation in geology at the beginning of the nineteenth century
has been accurately summarized by Martin Rudwick, who has noted
that the theories prevalent at the time could be classified into ‘‘those that
postulated an earth in steady state or cyclic equilibrium and those who
saw the earth’s temporal development in directional terms’’ (Rudwick,
2005, p. 173). The theory of Werner belongs firmly in the latter camp,
while Hutton’s is an extreme example of the former. While Werner’s
theory interpreted the geological record as showing a clear pattern of
progressive change over time, Hutton’s theory was radically ahistorical,
centered on a uniformitarian model of the history of the earth. For
Hutton the earth’s history was an endlessly repeated cycle of uplift and
erosion with, as he famously put it, ‘‘no vestige of a beginning, – no
prospect of an end’’ (Hutton, 1788, p. 304). But for religious
considerations, there would have been no reason to assume that this
unchanging natural order was not eternal. Despite Hutton’s importance
for the later development of geology, directional models were dominant
in the early nineteenth century to the extent that Rudwick refers to
theories of the type espoused by Werner as the ‘‘standard model’’ for the
period. So what was the nature of the Wernerian directional model of
earth history? To illustrate his theory I will be drawing largely on the
writings of Jameson, his most important British disciple and one of the
principal subjects of this paper.
Neptunist geotheory was based on the premise that sea levels had
been falling continuously throughout geological history. The nature of
the Biblical Deluge, much debated by geologists in this period, did not,
however, present particular problems for Werner and his followers.
Apparently anxious to take into account historical evidence for the
Deluge, Werner argued that the retreat of the ocean was not necessarily
an absolutely continuous process, but that the geological record
provided evidence that a temporary resurgence of the waters had taken
place (Laudan, 1993, p. 90). In the earliest times he believed that there
had existed a universal ocean, very different in chemical composition
from the ones that exist today. The spherical form of the earth was
taken as evidence of its original fluidity (Jameson, 1808, p. 73). From
this primordial ocean the oldest rocks had been deposited by chemical
precipitation. The rocks of the earliest, ‘‘primitive’’, period in the earth’s
history were crystalline in character, as might be expected from their
process of formation.3 Obviously crystalline rocks such as granite and
gneiss would fall into this category. During the ‘‘transition’’ and
‘‘floetz’’ periods the waters receded and the first land appeared. While
chemically precipitated rocks, such as limestone, continued to be
formed, erosion of the land masses also contributed mechanically
deposited strata, such as sandstone. Gradually the balance shifted, and the
recent ‘‘alluvial’’ strata were almost entirely deposited mechanically
rather than chemically, the most recent ones being largely
unconsolidated. As might be expected from their order of deposition from a
receding universal ocean, the most ancient, crystalline rocks were to be
found in high mountain ranges, while the youngest, alluvial, rocks were
found in low lying areas of the globe. Several different explanations for
the recession of the ocean were put forward by neptunist thinkers; the
one favored by Jameson was that the excess water had been lost to space
over the millennia (Jameson, 1808, p. 77).
As can be seen from the surviving notes from his lectures, this was
essentially the model of earth history that Jameson taught his students
until at least the mid-1830s.4 Generally, it is the recession of the oceans
and gradual but profound change in their chemical composition that
Jameson saw as driving the directional change that he observed in the
geological record. However, there are some indications that he also
considered the possibility that global temperatures had declined over
time, a doctrine often associated with George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de
Buffon (1707–1788), who saw the cooling of the earth from an original
3 The terminology to describe the different periods changed over time and according
to the author. I have here used the terminology to be found in the table between pages
95 and 96 of Jameson, 1808.
4 See, for example, the very full account of the neptunian theory in the set of notes
taken in Jameson’s lectures by D.B. Ramsay (Jameson, 1835/1836).
molten state as the primary motor for change. The section of the natural
history syllabus that covered botany for the 1826 session included
‘‘Deductions illustrative of Gradual Change in the Heat of the Earth,
and of Alteration in Climate, as disclosed by the facts in the Physical
and Geographical Distribution of Fossil and Living Plants’’ (Jameson,
1826, p. 11). In his lectures Jameson gave a little more detail regarding
the direction and effects of climatic change; in a set of lecture notes from
1830 he suggested that in the geological past ‘‘the climate was very
different from what it is at present and that at the time Britain was
calculated to produce plants and animals requiring a much more
considerable temperature then the Island possesses at present’’ (Jameson,
1830, f.5). In a fragmentary note found among Jameson’s paper we also
find the following note in Jameson’s hand that suggests he saw a
diminution in temperature over geological time as likely and compatible
with a broadly neptunian picture of earth history:
7 [owing?] to the diminution of temperature the expanded state of
water becoming less the quantity of the atmospheric vapor & height
of water diminishes 8 the Transition rocks the next down from
them conglomerate, charcoal & their organic remains intimate the
existence of mechanical action & of such a temp as to allow of the
growth of organic bodies all of which appear to have been marine
(Jameson, n.d. (a)).
The evidence quoted above also hints at the consequence of directional
change in the conditions on the earth’s surface for the history of life,
and it is to this subject that I turn in the next section of this paper.
Progressive Visions of the History of Life in Edinburgh and Beyond
By the early decades of the nineteenth century it could no longer be
ignored that the fossil record appeared to follow a strong trend towards
greater complexity in the remains of living creatures found in the rocks,
with the major groups of living things making their appearance in a
clearly defined order. The progressive nature of the fossil record was
becoming generally accepted among geologists in this period and, as
Martin Rudwick has chronicled, by the early decades of the nineteenth
century there had developed a general consensus among geologists that
the history of life was progressive (Rudwick, 2008, p. 49). In a set of
notes from Jameson’s lectures, which are undated but not earlier than
1826, as they contain a reference to a paper published that year, we find
the following outline of the fossil record:
In the oldest strata [of the Transition] we find the lowest species of
vegetables & animals, as marine plants and zoophytes, which were
therefore first called into existence. … Floetz rocks are less
crystallized than transition rock, but contain a greater variety of
organic remains. Indeed there appears to be a regular & consistent
distribution of organic beings through the rocks of this class from
the very low species of the earliest strata to the more perfect
animals of the newest strata, immediately adjoining the alluvial
formation. (Jameson, n.d. (b), f.255).
For Jameson, the directional history of life revealed by the fossil record
was directly related to the directional changes in the physical
environment of the earth’s surface. In his Elements of Geognosy (1808) Jameson
As the water diminished, it appears to have become gradually more
fitted for the support of animals and vegetables, as we find them
increasing in number, variety and perfection, and approaching
more to the nature of those in the present seas, the lower the level
of the outgoings of the strata, or, what is the same thing, the lower
the level of the water. The same gradual increase of organic beings
appears to have taken place on the dry land. (Jameson, 1808, p.
In the first decade of the century a student of Jameson named J. Ogilvy
wrote a dissertation ‘‘On the Huttonian and Neptunian Theories of the
Earth’’ for the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh, which appears in
the Society’s dissertation book for 1806–1807. This essay demonstrates
that Jameson had already made some converts among the student body
to his neptunian geology and its connection with a progressive vision of
the history of life with his ‘‘masterly statement of the Wernerian theory’’
in his first few years as professor (Ogilvy, 1806–1807, f.238). In his
dissertation Ogilvy remarked that
Another general observation of the same philosopher [Werner]
beautifully confirming his opinion, – is the constantly increasing
frequency of the relicts of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, as
we descend from the Transition to the rocks of most recent
formation; and, at the same time, he sagaciously remarked, that, in
5 It is worth noting that Fleming quotes part of this passage in his 1850 inaugural
lecture as proof of Jameson’s adherence to transformism.
making this descent, these vestiges point out individuals of these
kingdoms with which be become the more familiar as we approach
the most modern formations. (Ogilvy, 1806–1807, f.238).
We have already seen that in later decades John Fleming became a
harsh critic of both Werner and Jameson, as well as a resolute opponent
of transformism. However, Fleming’s views had changed radically
between the 1820s and 1850. His earlier writings show that in the early
decades of the century Fleming had held geological views not very
different from those of Jameson and he had been a founding member of
the Wernerian Society in 1808. In his great work on The Philosophy of
Zoology (1822) he wrote that
From the period, therefore, at which petrifactions appear in the
oldest rocks, to the newest formed strata, the remains of the more
perfect animals increase in number and variety; and it is equally
certain, that the newest formed petrifactions bear a nearer
resemblance to the existing races, than those which occur in the ancient
strata. (Fleming, 1822, vol. 2, p. 97).
Fleming believed, as did Jameson, that these changes were caused by
physical changes in the environment of the surface of the globe. Like
Jameson, he believed that the area of dry land had increased over time,
although he considered that this had been achieved by the filling in of
lakes and seas by the products of erosion rather than by a net loss of
water. He also believed that one result of these changes was the gradual
modification of the climate, making the difference in temperature
between summer and winter more extreme. Although he may have differed
from Jameson about the details of the mechanism of progressive
change, he expressed its consequences in a similar manner:
A variety of changes have taken place in succession, giving to the
earth its present character, and fitting it for the residence of its
present inhabitants. And if the same system of change continues to
operate, (and it must do while gravitation prevails,) the earth may
become an unfit dwelling for the present tribes, and revolutions
may take place, as extensive as those which living beings have
already experienced. (Fleming, 1822, vol. 2, p. 104).
The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, edited by Jameson, provided
a forum for like-minded geologists, not just from Edinburgh or Great
Britain, but from across Europe and beyond, to exchange their findings
and opinions. It included a significant number of papers that dealt with
the history of the earth. The following three examples will give a flavor
of the kind of articles dealing with the progressive history of life on
earth that Jameson published. The first appeared in 1826 and was
entitled ‘‘Geological Observations’’. Its author was Ami Bou e´, an
Austrian Wernerian geologist, former student of Jameson in Edinburgh
and member of the Wernerian Natural History Society. After noting
that ‘‘the farther we penetrate into the crust of the earth, the more
simplicity do we observe in the vegetable and animal productions’’, he
speculated that this was due to a greater equality of temperature across
the globe before concluding that as ‘‘the zones and climates gradually
became established, the vegetables and animals became diversified.’’
(Bou e´, 1826, p. 90). In the following year Jens Esmark (1762–1839), the
Danish-Norwegian Wernerian mineralogist, published a piece in which
he speculated that the earth might have been devoid of life for several
thousand years after the creation, and that ‘‘organisation did not begin
till this long period was completed, which the earth required to the full
development of its own constitution; that, after it began, it proceeded by
successive steps from the less to the more perfect formations, ending
with man as the head of the whole.’’ (Esmark, 1826, pp. 120–121). We
are presented by Esmark with a model in which the appearance of life
was made possible by changes in the physical environment, changes
which then continued to act, gradually promoting an increase in the
complexity of living things. Jameson was clearly favorably impressed by
Esmark’s article, as he discussed this ‘‘very ingenious paper’’
approvingly and at some length in one of his lectures, a set of notes for which
survives in Edinburgh University Library (Jameson, n.d. (b), ff.236–
238). A similar paper was published anonymously in 1830. Here again
we find the same gradual, progressive history of life as we have seen in
the preceding papers. The anonymous author remarks that
It is, notwithstanding, always of much importance to be able to
look into the facts already established, and to observe that the
gradual development of organic bodies in the animal and
vegetable kingdom has followed precisely the same progress. While the
simplest organized kinds of both kingdoms first appear, we also
find repeated throughout the same gradations, as regards the
gradual appearance and increase of the most perfectly organized
beings in the strata of the earth’s crust. (Anon, 1830, p. 127).
These articles demonstrate how Jameson’s journal provided a space for
broadly Wernerian geologists to present their ideas on the relationship
between the history of the earth and the history of life. It is evident from
them that the link between a progressive history of the earth and a
progressive history of life was clearly a commonplace of the geological
circles around Jameson. But did any of these thinkers ever speculate
regarding the process responsible for the progressive change evident in
the fossil record and make the leap to a transformist interpretation of
this pattern? This is the question I will be addressing next.
Neptunian Geology and Transformism
In a footnote to the introduction to his System of Mineralogy (1804),
Robert Jameson had laid out the main problems of natural history as he
saw them as the nineteenth century began. For Jameson, the most
important questions included: ‘‘Were all animals and plants originally
created as we at present find them, or have they by degrees assumed the
specific forms they now possess? Are certain species become extinct? In
what order and whither have they migrated? What change has climate
produced?’’ (Jameson, 1804, pp. xix–xx). Right at the very beginning of
his career as professor of natural history at the University of Edinburgh,
Jameson was already raising important questions regarding the history
of life on earth. First among these questions was that of the
transmutation of species. If James Secord was correct in his attribution of the
paper ‘‘Observations on the Nature and Importance of Geology’’ to
Jameson himself, by 1826 Jameson he had found an answer to his
question. As Secord has noted, ‘‘For the author of the ‘Observations,’
this progression of life is best explained through transmutation.
Lamarck’s theory is the logical consequence of Werner’s.’’ (Secord,
1991, p. 9).
The attribution of ‘‘Observations’’ to Jameson is not, however,
absolutely secure, and Pietro Corsi has suggested that the author of the
article may in fact have been Ami Bou e´ (Corsi, 2011, p. 17). Most of the
arguments in favor of Jameson would hold equally well for Bou e´, who
had attended Jameson’s classes when he was a medical student in
Edinburgh between 1814 and 1817 and, like Jameson, to whom he still
referred in his autobiography many decades later as ‘‘mon maıˆ tre’’, was
a Wernerian geologist (Boue´ , 1876, p. ii). In any case, the article shows
every sign of having been written by a Wernerian, down to the
characteristic terminology that is used throughout. That the author was
steeped in Wernerian geological theory is evident from the vocabulary
he used to discuss his subject. Whoever wrote it, the article certainly
makes the connection between Wernerian geology and transformism
quite explicit. The anonymous author comments at some length on the
progressive nature of the fossil record, before going on to link this to the
transformist theories of Lamarck. According to the author, the
‘‘doctrine of petrifactions, even in its present imperfect condition, furnishes
us with accounts that seem in favour of Mr Lamarck’s hypothesis.’’
(Anon, 1826, p. 297). The article notes the presence in the rocks of
colder parts of the globe of fossils of species only found today in hot
climates, indicating ‘‘a great change in the temperature of their former
situations’’ (Anon, 1826, p. 299). If this is so, the author maintains, it
raises an important question about the effect that such changes have on
living things. The changes that can be observed to have been wrought
on domesticated plants and animals by modifying their environment
help to provide an answer:
But are these forms as immutable as some distinguished naturalists
maintain; or do not our domestic animals and our cultivated or
artificial plants prove the contrary? If these, by change of situation,
of climate, of nourishment, and by every other circumstance that
operates upon them, can change their relations, it is probable that
many fossil species to which no originals can be found, may not be
extinct, but have gradually passed into others. (Anon, 1826, p.
This passage, which contains unmistakable echoes of the theories of the
French comparative anatomist and transformist E´tienne Geoffroy
Saint-Hilaire (1772–1844), makes clear that the author considers that
directional change in the physical environment of living things is the
ultimate cause of the transmutation of species, rather than an innate
tendency to increase in complexity as proposed by Lamarck. Directional
change in the surface of the globe, of the kind which is integral to the
Wernerian model of the history of the earth, is therefore put at the
center of this theory of transmutation.
Even if there is some doubt as to the attribution of the anonymous
‘Observations’ to Jameson, there is significant evidence from other
sources to suggest that he was sympathetic to a transformist
interpretation of the history of life. In the preface to the fifth edition of Cuvier’s
Theory of the Earth he wrote of ‘‘Geology, which discloses to us the
history of the first origin of organic beings, and traces their gradual
development from the monade to man himself’’ (Cuvier, 1827, p. vi).
These words would appear to express a fundamentally transformist
interpretation of the fossil record. In an appendix ‘On the universal
deluge’ published the same edition the Theory of the Earth Jameson
went on to add the following telling observation: ‘like the formation of
the rocks, we observe a succession of organic formations, the later
always descending from the earlier, down to the present inhabitants of the
earth, and to the last created being who was to have dominion over
them.’ (Cuvier, 1827, p. 431). These passages would clearly seem to
indicate that Jameson interpreted the succession of fossil forms found in
the geological record in genealogical terms rather than as a series of
progressive but separate creations.
The ‘Observations’ was not the only article that proposed a
transformist interpretation of the history of life against the background of a
directional theory of the earth to be published in the Edinburgh New
Philosophical Journal during the 1820s. The following year, Jameson’s
journal published an article entitled ‘‘Of the changes which life has
experienced on the globe’’. This has received less attention than the 1826
article discussed above, although it has been suggested by Adrian
Desmond that it might have been by Grant (Desmond, 1989). While
Grant is certainly a possible candidate as the author, there is no
concrete information that would allow authorship to be confidently
assigned. It was unlikely to be by Jameson, as the references to the
important role of volcanism and ‘‘the original igneous state of the
earth’’ would be incompatible with his orthodox Wernerian views on
the original aqueous state of the globe (Anon, 1827, p. 299). This would
not, perhaps, necessarily entirely rule out Bou e´, who himself admitted
he was not as zealous a Wernerian as Jameson.6 The article opens with a
reference to the important role of fossils as evidence of ‘‘the history and
successive changes of the various races that existed before the present’’
(Anon, 1827, p. 298). The author then goes on to establish two types of
causes at work in the natural world. The first and most important act
gradually but inexorably: ‘‘The differences which vegetables and
animals exhibit at the present day, according to the various climates or
situations in which they occur, have been gradually established under
the predominating influence of a small number of natural causes, and
constitute at length the order of distribution which life now presents at
the surface of the earth.’’ (Anon, 1827, pp. 298–299). He then proceeds
to establish the nature of these causes:
These gradual variations in the temperature, the lowering of the
general level of the seas, the equally successive and gradual
diminution of the energy of volcanic phenomena arising from the
original igneous state of the earth, as well as the strength and power
of atmospheric phenomena, and of the tides – such were the
regular, general, and continued natural causes of the modifications
which life has undergone … (Anon, 1827, p. 299).
The author then calls the fossil record as a witness to ‘‘the successive
and gradual change which we have pointed out.’’ (Anon, 1827, p. 300).
The second and less significant type of cause to which the author then
turns consists of ‘‘the irregular, and more or less violent and perturbing
secondary causes of the partial vicissitudes experienced by animal and
vegetable life.’’ (Anon, 1827, pp. 299–300). This model of double
causation is reminiscent of that of Lamarck, whose theory included both a
continuously acting innate tendency towards progressive change and a
secondary mechanism that depended on the effects of
unpredictable environmental changes, which disrupted the simple pattern of
development that would otherwise have prevailed. It differs radically
from Lamarck, however, over the nature of the primary cause of
transmutation, which is attributed to the effect of directional
environmental change rather than an innate tendency of living things to become
more perfect even in a constant environment. In this the anonymous
author seems more inclined towards a Wernerian view of the history of
the earth than Lamarck, who in geology was essentially a
uniformitarian (Burkhardt, 1977, p. 111). Finally, the author expresses his
overwhelming confidence in the correctness of his theory and appeals to
its compatibility with natural law as confirmation: ‘‘Our theory, which
is founded on all the facts that have been established, cannot but prevail
over the systems hitherto established, for it is in harmony with the
natural laws of order and permanency which rule the universe’’ (Anon,
1827, pp. 300–301).
The only transformist articles published in the Edinburgh New
Philosophical Journal in the 1820s which appeared under their author’s
name were by Robert Grant. Grant was principally an invertebrate
zoologist, and most of his published papers in this period dealt with
marine invertebrates. It is well known and has been thoroughly
documented by a number of scholars that Grant was one of the most
significant transformist thinkers in Britain in the 1820s and 1830s (see in
particular Desmond, 1984; Secord, 1991). At the time he wrote the
articles he was resident in Edinburgh and was a leading figure in natural
history circles in the city. As noted above, he had been a student of
Jameson and there is some evidence in these articles that he adhered to
an essentially Wernerian view of the history of the earth and saw the
transmutation of species as occurring in the context of an earth
undergoing gradual, directional change. He published a series of 16
papers between 1825 and 1827 in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal
and its successor the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal. These papers
mostly dealt with aspects of the biology of the invertebrate animals he
had collected from the Firth of Forth. However, two of them contain
explicitly transformist themes. It is in a paper published in 1826 ‘‘On the
structure and nature of the Spongilla friabilis’’ that we find the first
statement in print of Grant’s transformist views. Towards the end of the
article, he speculated regarding the relationship between the freshwater
sponge Spongilla and the more complex marine sponges:
From this greater simplicity of structure and internal texture, we
are forced to consider it as more ancient than marine sponges, and
most probably their original parent; and, as its descendants have
greatly improved their organization, during many changes that
have taken place in the composition of the ocean, while the
spongilla, living constantly in the same unaltered medium, has retained
its primitive simplicity, it is highly probable that the vast abyss, in
which the spongilla originated and left its progeny, was fresh, and
has gradually become saline, by the materials brought to it by
rivers, like the salt lakes of Persia and Siberia. (Grant 1826a, pp.
Grant here gave a concrete example of the principle expounded by
Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in his ‘‘Organisation des gavials’’ that when the
‘‘physical and chemical agents’’ to which an organism is exposed remain
the same, so does the development of the organism, but when conditions
change, the development of the organism exposed to these new
conditions will be modified by them, provided the change is not so great as to
kill it (Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 1825, pp. 151–152). Grant then went on
to give his evidence for the alleged primitive character of this freshwater
sponge, based on the siliceous nature of its skeleton, noting that ‘‘its
aptness for secreting silica, and the abundance of that earth in its
skeleton, show the period of its creation to have been nearly
synchronous with that of the siliceous or primitive rocks.’’ (Grant, 1826a,
p. 284). The implication here is that these primitive creatures first came
into being in an ocean rich in silica, which was in the process of
precipitating out to form the crystalline primitive rocks. Wernerians had
long been aware that silica was soluble only in hot basic liquids, of the
kind they imagined constituted the primordial ocean (Laudan, 1993, p.
181). The silicate rocks would therefore be the first to precipitate out as
the ocean cooled and its chemical composition changed over time.
Grant’s clear espousal of this model is strong evidence that his
transformist views were integrated with a fundamentally Wernerian model of
Later the same year Grant repeated his views on the evolution of
sponges in a paper on the structure of siliceous sponges published in the
first number of the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal. Here Grant
suggested a family tree of sponges based on the form of the spicula which
make up the skeletons of many species. He traced the development of the
spicula from the simple forms found in freshwater sponges through three
stages of increasing complexity, first to forms where ‘‘the unnecessary and
probably hurtful embedded point has been removed’’ and finally to the
most complex jointed speculum (Grant, 1826b, p. 350). Grant relates these
changes directly to function, as he considered that the more advanced
forms were better suited for defending the sponge against predators, as ‘‘at
the time of its formation, animalicules of larger magnitude swarmed in the
heated ocean’’ (Grant, 1826b, p. 350). Here Grant also made it clear that
he believed that the oceans of earlier epochs had been hotter than at
present and that the earth had consequently experienced progressive
cooling during its geological history. Although there is strong evidence
that Grant admired the theories of Lamarck, his belief that directional
change in the physical environment played a role in driving the
transmutation of species brought him closer both to Wernerian geology and to
the theories of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. We know that Grant was an
enthusiastic disciple of Geoffroy’s views on unity of form in comparative
anatomy and had got to know him well during his trips to Paris in the
1820s (Desmond, 1989, p. 56). Unlike Lamarck, whose views on geology
were essentially uniformitarian, Geoffroy believed that there had been a
gradual but profound change in the composition of the atmosphere over
geological time, and that this was the motor for the transmutation of
species (Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 1831, p. 79).
In 1829 Jameson published an anonymous report in the Edinburgh
New Philosophical Journal of a memoir read by Geoffroy before the
French Academy of Sciences and published in the Me´moires du Muse´um
d’Histoire Naturelle the previous year (Anon, 1829b, pp. 154–155).7 This
report was attributed to Grant by Desmond in a 1984 paper (Desmond,
1984, pp. 201–202). However, Pietro Corsi has recently demonstrated
beyond doubt that the paper is in fact a direct translation of an
anonymous article which appeared earlier the same year in the French
newspaper Le Globe.8 The article gives a detailed account of Geoffroy’s
transformist theories and supports his belief that changes in the
composition of the atmosphere drove the transmutation of species. The
content of this paper was clearly of great interest to Jameson, as on 25
April 1829 he ‘‘gave an account of the doctrines of Geoffroy St Hilaire
on the analogy between extinct animals and those now living’’ to the
Wernerian Society, although sadly no record of exactly what Jameson
had to say about Geoffroy’s ideas has survived to enlighten us as to the
opinions he expressed on that occasion (Wernerian Natural History
Society, 1808–1858, vol. 1, f. 297). However, from the brief description
of the talk from the minutes quoted above it seems almost certain that
his paper focused principally on Geoffroy’s transformist theories, which
would surely have been congenial to Jameson, based on what we know
about his own views. Given the coincidence of dates between Jameson’s
paper to the Wernerian Society and the publication of ‘‘Of the
continuity of the animal kingdom’’ in his journal, which appeared in the
April–June 1829 number, it seems highly probable that the paper he
gave was largely based on that article.
We have seen above that Ami Bou e´ wrote an article on the
progressive nature of the history of life and its relationship with the
Wernerian model of the history of the earth which appeared in the
Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal in 1826. While the picture of the
history of life presented in this article is open to a transformist
interpretation, it stops short of making any explicitly transformist claims.
However, as Goulven Laurent has demonstrated, there is significant
later evidence from other sources that Bou e´ was indeed a transformist
and an admirer of the theories of Lamarck and Geoffroy (Laurent,
1993). His credentials as a transformist are left in little doubt by a
‘‘r e´sum e´ of the progress of geological sciences during the year 1833’’ he
wrote for the Bulletin de la Socie´te´ Geologique de France. In this work he
The naturalist who restricts the circle of his ideas to the short
duration of his life will necessarily be directed to the ancient idea of
the species as a being sui generis formed once for all time, which
must perpetuate itself as such, at least as long as the present laws of
nature remain in effect. The authority of scholastic writings and the
most ancient legislators also corroborate this opinion, engraved in
the memory from the most tender infancy. On the other hand, in
examining the whole scale of creations, living as well as fossil, in
ignoring individual instances in order to see the whole, set in
motion by a subtle material that is disseminated everywhere, one easily
It has recently come to light that another of Jameson’s students, Henry H.
Cheek (1807–1833), who studied medicine at Edinburgh between 1826
and 1832, also openly espoused transformist views (Jenkins, 2015). While
Cheek was bitterly critical of Jameson’s teaching as professor of natural
history, the opinions he expressed in his writings on transformism are very
much in harmony with the ideas we have seen were current in the circle
around Jameson. In a key paper he published in 1830 in the Edinburgh
Journal of Natural and Geographical Science, a journal he himself edited
between 1829 and 1831, Cheek outlined his transformist ideas, concluding
that ‘‘Adaptation of the law by which organized bodies change with the
variation of the conditions of existence; and separation of the functions of
relation, and concentration of the vital functions, seems to be the mode of
perfection.’’ (Cheek, 1830, p. 65). His wording might be rather obscure, as
is the case with much of his writing, but the suggestion that changes in the
‘conditions of existence’ are the driving force for the transmutation of
species is clear. Cheek’s ideas seem to derive more from the theories of
Geoffroy St Hilaire, whose theories he vociferously defended in his
journal, than from Wernerian geology. Nonetheless, they do go to show
how commonplace the idea that the transmutation of species was linked to
directional environmental change of the kind that was integral the
Wernerian model was in the Edinburgh of the late 1820s and early 1830s.
It would therefore appear that there is significant evidence that
transformist ideas were widely discussed and relatively uncontroversial
in Edinburgh natural history circles, at least up until the early 1830s,
and that they were closely linked to directional, broadly Wernerian
theories of the earth. However, evidence for transformist opinions in
Edinburgh becomes scantier from the early 1830s onwards. The next
section will make some suggestions as to why this might have been.
9 The original French text reads : ‘Le naturaliste qui restreint le cercle de ses id e´es a`
la courte dur e´e de sa vie, sera ne´ cessairement porte´ a` l’ide´ e ancienne que l’esp e`ce est un
eˆtre sui generis forme´ une fois pour toutes, et devant se perp e´tuer tel, aussi long-temps
du moins que dureront les lois actuelles de la nature. L’autorite´ des e´crits scolastiques et
des l e´gislateurs les plus anciens vient encore corroborer cette opinion grave´ e dans la
m e´moire de la plus tendre enfance. D’un autre coˆ t e´, en parcourant toute l’e´ chelle des
cr e´ations, tant vivantes que fossiles, et en ne´ gligeant les individualit e´s pour ne voir qu‘un
tout mis en mouvement par une matie` re subtile diss e´mine´ e partout, on arrive ais e´ment
avec les Lamarck, les Geoffroy, et autres grands naturalistes, a` une tout autre
The Eclipse of Transformism in Edinburgh
After 1832 open advocacy of progressive, gradualist visions of the
history of life become increasingly rare in Edinburgh natural history
circles.10 Wernerian geology itself found few defenders after the mid-1820s,
and Robert Jameson, the high priest of neptunism, became an
increasingly isolated figure among geologists. Cuvierian catastrophism,
championed in England by such figures as William Buckland, William
Conybeare and Adam Sedgewick, for a time carried all before it.
Buckland, for example, in his Bridgewater Treatise, suggested that the
history of life on earth had been punctuated by ‘‘revolutions and
catastrophes, long antecedent to the creation of the human race’’ that
were apparent in the geological record (Buckland, 1836, vol. 1, p. 130).
In his Discourse on the Studies of the University Sedgwick also asserted
that ‘‘our globe has been subject to vast physical revolutions’’
(Sedgwick, 1834, pp. 25–26). Sedgwick went on to make clear that the
creatures of the new creations that followed these revolutions showed a
radical discontinuity with previous forms, and ‘‘though formed on the
same plan, and bearing the same marks of wise contrivance, oftentimes
[are] as unlike those creatures which preceded them, as if they had been
matured in a different portion of the universe and cast upon the earth by
the collision of another planet.’’ (Sedgwick, 1834, p. 30).
Catastrophism, implying as it did a more or less complete turnover of
flora and fauna at the time of each catastrophe, was fundamentally
incompatible with the picture of the gradual development of life driven
by environmental change that Wernerian geology had suggested to
many earlier geologists. Ironically, Jameson had done much to promote
catastrophist ideas as the editor of successive editions of Cuvier’s
Theory of the Earth, for which he also provided extensive notes. However,
the picture of the history of the earth presented in the Theory of the
Earth may not have seemed to Jameson to challenge the Wernerian
picture of gradual, progressive change in living things, as Cuvier himself
admitted that marine organisms had undergone transmutations brought
about by changes in the properties of the medium in which they lived.
There is a striking statement of this in Jameson’s translation for the fifth
edition of the Theory of the Earth (1827), where, closely following the
original French text, it is noted that: ‘‘There has, therefore, been a
succession of variations in the economy of organic nature, which has
been occasioned by those of the fluid in which the animals lived, or
10 A late reference to progressive development from 1836 is to be found in
Cunningham, 1838, p. 9.
which at least corresponded with them; and these variations have
gradually conducted the classes of aquatic animals to their present
state’’ (Cuvier, 1827, p. 14).11 Despite this, the majority of British
geologists interpreted the obvious, radical discontinuities in the fossil
record as evidence that an entire world of living things had been swept
away and replaced with a new creation. Hugh Miller, one of the leading
Scottish advocates of discontinuity the history of life, was to write that
‘‘The curtain drops at his command over one scene of existence full of
wisdom and beauty – it rises again, and all is glorious, wise and
beautiful as before, and all is new.’’ (Miller, 1841, p. 102).
As the quotation above makes clear, it was not just Miller’s
catastrophist views on the history of life that led him to reject any slow
transformation of life over geological time, but also the evangelical faith
that underlay them. Miller was utterly opposed to the idea of gradual,
progressive development, which he saw as denying God’s power to
create new species by supernatural intervention. In his Old Red
Sandstone he asserted that:
There is no progression. If fish rose into reptiles, it must have been
by sudden transformation; – it must have been as if a man who had
stood still for half a life-time should bestir himself all at once, and
take seven leagues at a stride. There is no getting rid of miracle in
the case (Miller, 1841, pp. 44–45).
The Evangelical Party within the Church of Scotland included many
prominent scientists and natural historians among its ranks, including
John Fleming and David Brewster as well as Miller. Some of these
Evangelical figures, such as Fleming and Brewster, had been close
associates of Jameson. Brewster co-edited the Edinburgh Philosophical
Journal with Jameson until he broke with him in 1824 to found his own
journal, the Edinburgh Journal of Science. Its increasing militancy in the
decades before their definitive split with the Established Church to form
the Free Church of Scotland in the Disruption of 1843 had a profound
influence on cultural developments in the period, not least in natural
history (Baxter, 1993). In the two decades leading up to the publication
of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844 attacks against
transformism from Edinburgh natural historians came almost
exclusively from among the ranks of the Evangelicals and their allies, and
11 The original French text reads: ‘Il y a donc eu dans la nature une succession de
variations que ont e´ te´ occasionne´ es par celles du liquide dans lequel les animaux vivaient
ou que du moins leur ont correspondu ; et ces variations ont conduit par degre´ s les
classes des animaux aquatiques a` leur e´tat actuel’ (Cuvier, 1825, p. 14).
even after the publication of that book led to more widespread
condemnation of transformist ideas they very much led the charge in
Scotland. A very early Evangelical response to Lamarckian
transformism comes from the pages of the Memoirs of the Wernerian Society.
This took the form of a paper by the Evangelical minister James
Grierson (1791–1875), given to the Society in February 1824. Here
Grierson rejects Lamarckian transformist theories ‘‘which, if they do not
evince much power of observation, or great accuracy of deduction,
certainly shew no deficiency in power of fancy.’’ (Grierson, 1823–1824,
p. 404). The dismissal of transformism as mere fanciful speculation was
to be a principal mode of attack for the Evangelical opponents of
Although John Fleming seems to have supported a progressive
history of life on earth in his Philosophy of Zoology of 1822, by 1829 he was
completely denying any evidence for the progressive appearance of the
different orders of animals in a review of J.E. Bichino’s Systems and
Methods in Natural History (1827), published in the Quarterly Review.
He claimed that the fossil record did not after all present a picture of
progressive development, but that in fact the remains of ‘‘zoophytes and
mollusca, along with the bones of vertebrated animals, and the stems of
dicotyledonous plants’’ could all be found in rocks from every geological
epoch where there was evidence of life ([Fleming], 1829, p. 321). The
main focus of his attack, however, was on Lamarckian transformism,
asking why God could not have created ‘‘Man directly, as easily as a
Monas’’ ([Fleming], 1829, p. 320). Fleming’s later estrangement from
Jameson and rejection of Wernerian geology and the progressive view of
the history of life raises many questions, although it certainly bore some
relation to his religious beliefs. Fleming was a deeply religious man and
a minister of the Evangelical Party of the Church of Scotland, and after
the Disruption of 1843, of the Free Church of Scotland. Like many
Evangelicals with scientific interests he was horrified by the use made of
geological and biological theories in the Vestiges of the Natural History
of Creation, which he saw as an appalling assault on the principles of
true religion.12 Based on the testimony of his inaugural address quoted
above, he had clearly come to believe that the dangerous ‘‘development
hypothesis’’ outlined in that book had its roots in the Wernerian
geology favored by Jameson and his associates, including Fleming himself in
his younger days. Fleming’s personal relationship with Jameson may
also have deteriorated over the years. Jameson was a complex and
12 For a masterly account of the reactions of the Scottish Evangelicals to Vestiges, see
Secord (2000, pp. 261–296).
difficult character, who succeeded in alienating many of those he had
dealings with during his long career through his high-handed manner
and arbitrary behavior. Fleming’s later estrangement from Jameson is
quite evident in a quotation found in John Duns’ memoir of Fleming,
only published in 1859 after the deaths of both men, where Fleming is
quoted as describing Jameson as ‘‘irregular, cold, and distant’’ (Duns,
1859, p. xl). Whatever the reasons, Fleming in later years became one of
the most implacable enemies of transformism and progressivism in
British geology. By the early 1830s, the rise of catastrophist geology, the
evidence for discontinuity in the fossil record and the concerted
opposition of influential Evangelical natural historians would seem to have
made gradualist, developmental theories of the history of life on earth
appear increasingly untenable and support for such theories, at least in
public, died away.
We have seen that there was a significant circle of figures promoting
progressivist and transformist theories of the history of life associated
with the Edinburgh natural history circle around Robert Jameson,
Edinburgh’s professor of natural history, in the early decades of the
nineteenth century. Of those we have concrete evidence for, Grant and
Jameson himself were resident in the city, while Bou e´ had left
Edinburgh for France after graduating, although it seems he continued to
keep in touch with Jameson and his circle. Cheek, while not part of
Jameson’s circle and deeply critical of the professor himself, shared
many of their opinions. There are likely to have been others, some
represented perhaps by the anonymous articles in the Edinburgh New
Philosophical Journal, but it is impossible to identify these with
certainty. We have also seen that these transformists generally accepted a
directional model of the history of the earth rooted in Wernerian
neptunist geology and saw the gradually changing environment as a
primary motor for the transmutation of species. In addition, we know
there existed a wider circle of other Wernerians among Jameson’s
associates and correspondents who accepted a relationship between a
directional history of the earth and a progressive history of life that
must surely have strongly suggested a transformist interpretation,
although they may not have made the final leap to accepting
transformism themselves; in the 1820s these probably included John Fleming
in Edinburgh and Jens Esmark in Norway.
Grant, who was certainly a committed transformist, is sometimes
portrayed as a radical figure on the margins of mainstream natural
history circles (see in particular Desmond, 1989). This seems to have
been very far from the case in the Edinburgh of the 1820s, where he
appears to have maintained cordial relations with many of the key
figures in scientific and natural history circles, including Jameson and
Fleming, who were both very much establishment figures in their
different ways. Grant seems to have been a particular friend of Fleming,
who even named a newly discovered species of sponge Grantia in his
honor (Fleming, 1828, p. 524). Both Jameson and Fleming supported
Grant’s successful application for the post of professor of comparative
anatomy at University College London in 1827, as did a number of
other key figures from the Edinburgh medical and scientific
establishment ([Wakley], 1850, p. 690). Grant provides a shining example of how
an openly transformist thinker could be fully integrated into the
network of patronage and friendship that existed in Edinburgh natural
history circles in the 1820s. His ability to publish articles in a respected
journal openly avowing his transformist views surely must lead us to
question any interpretation of him as a radical outsider at that time,
even if, as Desmond has suggested, his situation in London after his
move there in 1827 may have been very different (Desmond, 1984).
Charles Darwin, who was a medical student at Edinburgh between
1825 and 1827, had no time for Jameson’s Wernerian geology (Darwin,
2002, p. 26).13 It has been suggested by a number of scholars that the
development of Darwin’s evolutionary theory may have been more
deeply influenced by the transformist ideas he must have encountered in
Edinburgh that has conventionally been accepted, or than Darwin
himself was prepared to admit (see, for example, Secord, 1991; Hodge,
2014). However, while he may have been influenced by the ideas he
would have heard discussed by Grant and some of his student
contemporaries, Jameson’s Wernerian geology does not seem to have been
among the influences pushing him towards his theory of evolution.
Although he attended Jameson’s lectures during his second year in
Edinburgh, Darwin seems not to have got much out of them (Ashworth,
1935, pp. 99–100). He much later described Edinburgh’s professor of
natural history in a letter to J. D. Hooker as ‘‘that old, brown, dry stick
Jameson’’ (Darwin, 1985–, vol. 5, p. 195). In his posthumously
published autobiography he went on to claim of Jameson’s ‘‘incredibly
dull’’ lectures that ‘‘The sole effect they produced on me was the
13 An old, but still valuable account of Darwin’s studies at Edinburgh can be found in
determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology or in
any way study the science.’’ (Darwin, 2002, pp. 25–26). It is therefore
perhaps not surprising that he does not appear to have made the
connection between a directional history of the earth and the transmutation
of species that some of his older contemporaries undoubtedly did. He
was certainly exposed to transformist ideas in Edinburgh, as it is well
known that while he was there he had a short-lived but close friendship
with Robert Grant, with whom he used to go on long
invertebratecollecting trips along the Firth of Forth. Darwin famously noted in his
autobiography that Grant ‘‘burst forth in admiration of Lamarck and
his views on evolution’’ one day while they were on a collecting trip
together, although Darwin denied that this had any significant effect on
his own thinking (Darwin, 2002, p. 24). When he did come to formulate
his own theory of evolution, it was to grow not from a directional model
of geohistory, but from the, to all appearances, less fertile ground of
Charles Lyell’s uniformitarian geology, a model of earth history that
had been developed in part as a refutation of Lamarckian transformism
(see, for example, Rudwick, 2008). However, Darwin’s rejection of
Wernerian geology does not rule out the possibility that some germs of
his own theory of evolution may not have been planted during his years
Unlike the Darwinian theory of evolution, with its roots in Lyell’s
essentially unchanging, uniformitarian vision of the earth, which would
have been entirely congenial to Jameson’s Huttonian enemies in the
early decades of the nineteenth century, the transformists of the
Edinburgh of the 1820s drew inspiration from a progressive, directional
model of the history of the earth associated with Werner and his
Edinburgh followers. Corsi has pointed out that Geoffroy
Saint-Hilaire’s model of transformism, unlike Lamarck’s ‘‘had the additional
virtue of being formulated in the context of a geological hypothesis
linking the vast, progressive changes in environmental conditions to a
parallel development of living forms.’’ (Corsi, 1988, p. 215). It was just
such a fertile soil that Wernerian geology provided for transformism in
Edinburgh in the early decades of the nineteenth century. This should
perhaps come as no surprise, for, as Corsi has demonstrated, a number
of European thinkers, notably Jean-Claude Delame´ thrie (1743–1817),
made similar connections (see, for example, Corsi, 2012). Indeed, it
seems that Lamarck may have been somewhat unusual among
transformists in the early nineteenth century in espousing a uniformitarian
In this paper I have tried to show how directional theories of the
history of the earth, inspired principally by the work of Werner, opened
up the possibility of a transformist solution to the problem of the
progressive nature of the fossil record for a generation of Scottish
geologists and natural historians. These figures seem to have largely
belonged to a circle around Robert Jameson, the professor of natural
history at the University of Edinburgh and Werner’s most important
British disciple. Jameson, who was clearly sympathetic to transformist
ideas himself, taught a number of these figures as professor of natural
history at Edinburgh, provided a forum for them to air their ideas
through his editorship of the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal and
his presidency of the Wernerian Natural History Society, and also acted
as an important patron to some of his younger colleagues. This circle of
transformist and progressivist natural historians seems to have emerged
in first decades of the century before losing coherence after around 1830.
The eclipse of neptunist theories of the earth and the ascendancy of
catastrophist models less congenial to transformist interpretations of the
history of life doubtless go some way to explain this phenomenon, while
other social, religious and political factors, such as the growing
Evangelical reaction against transformism, certainly also must have played a
role. Because the transformist theories of Lamarck and Chambers did
not rely on environmental change to drive transmutation the decline of
Wernerian geology did not lead to the complete disappearance of
transformism from debates on the natural world, and geologists such as
Lyell still found it worthwhile to refute them. However, critics found it
relatively easy to dismiss Lamarck’s theory as a fanciful, speculative
system, and it did not seem to have had many adherents in elite natural
history circles after the early 1830s, while Chambers’ development
hypothesis met an almost universally hostile reception from expert
critics on its publication in 1844. Another generation would pass before
transformist ideas would once again be taken seriously by British
scientists and natural historians. And when that happened they would
reemerge in a very different context. Nonetheless, the speculations
regarding the history of life that took place among Robert Jameson’s
students and in the pages of the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal
were surely not entirely without consequence. At a time when
Edinburgh was the leading center of medical education in the
Englishspeaking world the exposure of a generation of Edinburgh students to a
gradualist, progressive vision of the history of life, fully compatible with
the transmutation of species, must surely have colored their reception of
I would like to thank John Henry and Catherine Laing for taking the
time to read and comment on an earlier draft of this paper, which is
very much the better for their suggestions and advice. I am especially
grateful to Pietro Corsi for sharing with me some important insights
regarding the ‘Edinburgh Lamarckians’. Thanks are also due to the
anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments and
suggestions. This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research
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