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 is 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 judgement 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 neither 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.

Unless there is a yet undiscovered anticipation of natural selection by some Dr. Wright, hidden somewhere, 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.

Anyway, this episode shows how low the standards of reference and citation used to be at that time. Today, an author could screw the name and year of a citation, but we'd still find it as long as the source, volume and pages were given correctly. An author could alternatively screw the source and volume, but we'd still find the paper looking for the author, year and title. Apparently, Georgian and Victorian scientists could simply drop names and assume that their contemporary readers knew exactly which publication they referred to.

To clinch that case of poor citation standards, Adams (1814) referred to Colonel Humphreys as Colonel Humphries at page 34, though he got the name right in the note 18 on page 84. But neither in the main text nor the note does Adams tell, where to look for said publication. I happened to find it by chance, when searching the Philosophical Transactions of the year 1813 for the ominous paper by Dr. Wright that does not seem to exist.

3 comments:

  1. I agree about the unusual nature and format of Adams' book. He was a curmudgeonly side-figure in his time, I believe. I think his citation was to a Chauncey Wright, who is also referenced (note on p 313) in Lauren Eiseley's book Darwin's Century. Actually I had made marginalia notes in Adams at the place you also noted, and then had gone to Eiseley and had marginalia brackets there, too.

    But I never followed up on these trails nor read Wright. But the Wikipedia entry for Wright seems to confirm these trails, and someone with a real historian's bent, like Eiseley, working in a slower, calmer era in science and scholarship would have had the patience to dig through the literature then available.

    That's all I know!

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    Replies
    1. Dear Ken,
      thanks for the comment.

      I'm sorry, but the only Chauncey Wright I could find on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chauncey_Wright) was born in 1830, whereas Adams died in 1818.

      No connection there then, although Chauncey Wright seems to have been an early proponent of Darwinism after 1859.

      I'll check Eiseley next. Thanks for the tip.

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    2. Nope. Eiseley (1958. Darwin's Century. pp.310ff) discusses Wallace's break from Darwinism, when it came to explaining the human brain in 1869. The intellectual powers of humans (modern, savage or prehistoric) were far in excess of what was needed for survival and could, Wallace thought, not be accounted for by natural selection. At the same time, Wallace seems to have speculated about cultural evolution (material progress) culminating in scientific knowledge. This is, where Eiseley (1958, note 56 at page 313) mentions Chauncey Wright:

      "The idea [of cultural evolution] was hailed by most of the leading thinkers of the period, including Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Chauncey Wright, James McCosh, Edward S. Morse, E. Ray Lankaster, and many others. In the words of John Fiske "It seemed to open up an entirely new world of speculation." (A Century of Science, Boston, 1899, p. 104)."

      The chapter on predecessors is much earlier (Eiseley 1958, ch. v, "The Minor Evolutionists" pp. 117-140) and only covers Lamarck, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Cuvier, Wells, Matthew, and Chambers.

      Nothing on Joseph Adams (1814) in Eiseley (1958) and nothing on the elusive Dr. Wright.

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