Monday, 6 April 2015

Ralph Palin (1822) on artificial selection

The general themes of variation under domestication, artificial selection, natural selection, and even species transformation are as old, at least, as Buffon's 36 volumes of Histoire Naturelle published between 1749 and 1788 (see here, here and here). To show that the particular theme of apple tree varieties and Golden Pippins was a staple food of thought for British naturalists, I cite from Ralph Palin (1822) Observations on the influence of habits and manners upon the health and organization of the human race. London: T. Hookham Jun. and Co.
"But while cultivation suppresses some qualities it creates others of the most valuable kind, as we see in the conversion of the crab into the golden pippin, and of the common colewort into the improved forms of the cabbage and cauliflower. Even the vegetable which furnishes us with what we term the staff of life, is, according to Buffon, a factitious production raised to its present state by the art of agriculture. From this we may deduce that those persons who would persuade us to feed our offspring on vegetable food, on the idea that such is the simple order of nature, reason upon a somewhat false theory; since even on vegetable nutriment, we may make great deviations from a natural diet, according as the original properties of vegetables are changed by cultivation, and climate." (p. 130)
Just one example to show, how widespread this Buffon–artificial selection–Golden Pippin topos has been. At 29th of October 1827, Joseph E. Muse delivered an address to the third annual exhibition and fair of the Dorchester Agricultural Society, which has been published in the American Farmer, Vol. 9 (No. 36: pp. 281-283). In it we find Buffon, factitious wheat and the Golden Pippin again, and a vision to change useless vegetables into food by culture that is clearly not science but propaganda, contains some questionable factual claims, but nevertheless shows that the Golden Pippin and all that has been a topos regurgitated at any other possibility. Darwin can have received it from anywhere:
"By the influence of culture, many of our indigenous plants, now useless, and even poisonous, may be metamorphosed into wholesome and nutritive food; we have the authority of Buffon, for the fact, that wheat is a factitious production, from a worthless weed, by the force of culture: and Columella states, that the peach possessed deleterious qualities, when first introduced, from Persia, into the Roman empire; it is well known, that the potato, a native of South America, (there a wild and common weed,) "bearing small tubers, too bitter for use," has been reclaimed by cultivation; and ranks among our choicest vegetables.      In the language of an acute enquirer into the arcana of nature, if there be any who feel sceptical upon the subject of such metamorphoses, let him visit the fairy bowers of horticulture, and he will there perceive, that her magic wand has not only converted the tough coriaceous covering of the almond, into the soft and melting flesh of the peach; but, by her spells, the sour aloe, has ripened into the delicious plum; and the austere crab, of our woods, into the golden pippin; the acrid and poisonous apium gravolens, has been changed into delicious celery; and the common colewort, appears, by culture, under the improved forms of cabbage, savoy and cauliflower."