Monday, 6 October 2014

Anticipating natural selection—the case of the mysterious Dr. Wright

In his Historical Sketch, Charles Darwin mentioned:
"In 1813, Dr. W. C. Wells read before the Royal Society 'An Account of a White Female, part of whose skin resembles that of a Negro'; but his paper was not published until his famous 'Two Essays upon Dew and Single Vision' appeared in 1818. In this paper he distinctly recognises the principle of natural selection, and this is the first recognition which has been indicated; but he applies it only to races of man, and to certain characters alone."
Darwin probably got that information from an 'Advertisement' situated between an autobiographical memoir of Wells that opens the book and the table of contents. It announced that the Account of a Female of the White Race [...], was "read before the Royal Society in 1813, but was never printed until now. It was put by the author into the hands of the editor, with an express permission to publish it" (Advertisement in Wells 1818, p. lxiii). The exact dates of reading and printing this account are interesting, because it is the part in which Wells anticipated the idea of natural selection (see section on Wells here).

In my previous post, however, I highlighted another anticipation of the idea of natural selection in A Treatise on the Supposed Hereditary Properties of Diseases by Adams (1814). Naturally, it would be interesting to know whether any connection between Adams (1814) and Wells (1813/18) existed. On this question Kenneth M. Weiss (2008. "Joseph Adams in the judgment of Paris" Evolutionary Anthropology 17: 245-249) has mused:
"One of life's ironies is that if he [Adams] had his wish and had been a member of the Royal Society he might have been present in 1813, the year before his book was published, to hear Wells read his paper on the origin of human racial variation. In that paper he [Wells] suggested, in the passage I quoted from earlier, that dark skin color had evolved in the ‘‘middle regions of Africa’’ as a byproduct of adaptation to some tropical disease. Adams might have stood up at Question Time and expressed his more focused (and correct) explanation. Instead, history remembers Wells."
Looking for hints of a connection myself, the treatise by Adams (1814) turned out to consist of 32 pages of main text (pp. 9-41) followed by 80 pages of notes (pp. 45-125). His excuse for this imbalance is in the preface:
"The work being intended for the general reader, every technical expression is carefully avoided; and in order that the attention may not be distracted from the chain of reasoning, every thing not necessary to illustrate the doctrine is added, in the form of Notes, at the end." (Adams 1814, p. vii)
Unfortunately, the main text does not contain any references to the notes. Instead, a note quotes the passage of the main text upon which it expands in italics. The notes refer back to the main text, but the main text does not refer to the notes. The notes can easily be overlooked, when concentrating on the main text. Anyway, page 79 of Adams (1814) contains his note 17 that refers back to a passage on page 33 (quoted in italics) and goes as follows:
"Note 17, Page 33.—" By these means a race is gradually reared with constitutions best calculated for the climate: a law which, I suspect, has been too much overlooked, in our inquiries after the causes of the more marked varieties in the human species."
The last volume of the Philosophical Transactions contains a very full and ingenious dissertation on this subject, by Dr. Wright. It cannot be necessary, if the reader is satisfied with the attention that has been paid to the work before him, to hint, that though Dr. Wright's paper appeared earlier than the present publication; yet, that this part of the question had not been overlooked by the author."
Apart from the cryptic language and complex construction of the passage crediting Dr. Wright, I could find nothing of the sort in the Philosophical Transactions from around 1814—neither on the subject nor by a Dr. Wright.

I tentatively conclude that Adams (1814) has written out of memory and gotten the name of Wells wrong. In that case, however, Adams must somehow have known of Wells's reading before the Royal Society in 1813 (contrary to what Kenneth Weiss 2008 concluded). Maybe the Royal Society made the read papers available to visitors before printing them and Adams concluded that this paper by Wells must end up in the next volume of the Philosophical Transactions.

[Update, 14.12.2016:]
Adams was a physician to the Hospital for Small-pox, Inoculation and Vaccination in London and aware of the publications on smallpox. He was an admirer of Mr. John Hunter and an adamant advocate of Dr. Jenner's newly invented vaccination method (see Adams 1814, p. vi and Note 2, pp. 47-57). Furthermore, Adams (1814, p. 63) referred to a paper by John Hunter, published in the Philosophical Transactions, which suggested that children born with the smallpox were probably infected as a fetus by the mother (Hunter 1780, "Account of a Woman Who Had the Small Pox during Pregnancy, and Who Seemed to Have Communicated the Same Disease to the Foetus." Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 70: 128-142; doi:10.1098/rstl.1780.0008). Hunter's publication stimulated a response by William Wright (1781, "Account of a Child Who Had the Small-Pox in the Womb. In a Letter from William Wright, M. D. F. R. S. to John Hunter, Esq. F. R. S." Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 71: 372-373; doi:10.1098/rstl.1781.0047) that corroborated Hunter's hypothesis.

In trying to remember the name of William Charles Wells, Joseph Adams probably mixed it up with the similar name of William Wright, who had published a paper on the topic that was Adam's profession in response to John Hunter, who was one of Adam's role models.