Geographical distribution and the origin of life: The development of early nineteenth-century British explanations

Conclusions

By the 1840s and 1850s biogeographical theory had polarized into two opposing views — both of which had their origins in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. At issue in this polarization was the question of God's involvement with His creation. At one end of the spectrum were Sclater, Agassiz, Kirby, and others who saw a neatly designed world in which geographical distributions were planned and executed by the hand of God at creation. For most of these naturalists, organisms were created en masse within the regions they now occupy. Disjunct distributions were proof to them that God had indeed created species in situ as many individuals. These naturalists hoped to reveal God's biogeographical plan by discovering His regions of creation. They had hoped to demonstrate a neatly devised set of regions of creation which might be applicable to all creatures, but in attempting to do so, they arrived at conflicting sets of delineations — thus helping to undermine their conceptions of nature in which design (both idealist and utilitarian) played an important part.93

At the other end of the biogeographical spectrum were the theoretical ideas of Prichard and Lyell, who viewed a more remote God — one who allowed His creation to be shaped and modified by secondary laws. Lyell in particular wished to leave considerations of design aside, hoping to demonstrate that the shape of the present creation is due to natural laws. Prichard and Lyell saw God's role in the creation of species (and distributions) as being extremely limited. In fact, the regions of creation seen today are in actuality only natural artifacts produced by migrations and barriers. They saw distributions being in constant flux, as was the rest of nature.

Those supporting the views of Prichard and Lyell spent a great deal of effort in attempting to remove a major obstacle in their paths — disjunct distributions. If disjunct distributions were indeed the products of separate creative acts, as Sclater and others claimed, then the arguments of Prichard and Lyell would be negated. For if the creation of a species was shown to be the product of multiple creations, then what was the need of migrations and dispersal mechanisms? Also at stake, of course, was the concept of species based upon generation. Darwin was well aware that if the supernatural implications of disjunct distributions could not be refuted, then his evolutionary system — founded upon a species concept based on descent — would be in peril.94

A further barrier to the acceptance of the Prichard/Lyell view was the fact that those sympathetic to a nonsupernatural explanation of disjunct distributions could not agree upon a natural explanation for those anomalies, and an internal debate between naturalists within this group raged for decades.95

By 1859 a biogeographical stalemate had occurred. Sclater and others, supporting their static view of nature, continued to look for regions of creation, pointing to disjunct distributions in support of their arguments, while those favorable to the views of Prichard and Lyell continued to search for natural explanations for such biogeographical anomalies.

The key needed to resolve the biogeographical debate was a credible theory for species origins. By 1858 there were essentially three options for British naturalists: supernatural creation, Lamarckian transmutation, or natural creation. A few British naturalists grasped at these straws, but most workers preferred the option of remaining silent until a more viable explanation for the origin and distribution of species could be advanced.96 And not until the publication of Darwin's theory did that explanation become available.

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Abstract

  1. 1.

    Some of the more useful works dealing with biogeography are: Philip J. DarlingtonJr., “Darwin and Zoogeography,” Proc. Amer. Phil. Soc., 103 (1959), 307–319; Frank N. Egerton, “Studies of Animal Populations from Lamarck to Darwin,” J. Hist. Biol., 1 (1968), 225–259; John C. Greene, The Death of Adam: Evolution and its Impact on Western Thought (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1959), particularly pp. 272–279; Michael T. Ghiselin, The Triumph of the Darwinian Method (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), particularly pp. 32–45; R. A. Richardson, “The Development of the Theory of Geographical Race Formation: Buffon to Darwin,” Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1968; Camile Limoges, La sélection naturelle: étude sur la première constitution d'un concept (1837–1859) (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1970), particularly pp. 26–85; Philip F. Rehbock, “Organisms in Space and Time: Edward Forbes (1815–1854) and New Directions for the Early Victorian Natural History,” Ph.D. Diss. Johns Hopkins University, 1975; Martin Fichman, “Wallace: Zoogeography and the Problem of Land Bridges,” J. Hist. Biol., 10 (1977), 45–63; and Gareth Nelson, “From Candolle to Croizat: Comments on the History of Biogeography,” J. Hist. Biol., 11 (1978), 269–305.

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  2. 2.

    A scholarly treatment of the tradition of Noah's ark is Don C. Allen, The Legend of Noah: Renaissance Rationalism in Art, Science, and Letters (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949). A related work is Herbert Wendt, Out of the Ark: The Story of Man's Discovery of the Animal Kingdom, trans. M. Bullock (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959).

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    As early as 1589 Jose de Acosta (1539?–1600), a Jesuit missionary to Peru, had noted this problem as a result of his travels to the New World. See his Natural and Moral History of the Indies (London: Grimstone, 1604; rpt. ed., London: Hakluyt Society, 1880), I, 277. In Britain Robert Burton (1577–1640) also pondered this problem of endemic New World species. “Were they created in the six days, or even in Noah's ark? If there, why are they not dispersed & found in other countries? ... no Greek, Latin, Hebrew ever heard of them before, and yet as differing from our European animals, as an egg and a chestnut.” Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. F. Dell and P. Jordan-Smith (rpt. ed., New York: Tudor, 1955), p. 415; this 1955 reprint is based upon the sixth edition of 1651.

  4. 4.

    An indication of the amount of new biological data can be seen in A. Cailleaux, Progression du nombre d'espèces des plantes déscrites de 1500 à nos jours,” Rev. Hist. Sci., 6 (1953), 42–49; W. T. Stearn, “Botanical Exploration to the Time of Linnaeus,” Proc. Linn. Soc. London, 169 (1958), 173–196; and R. Wagner, “The Numerical Relations of Animals from Linnaeus to the Present Day,” Edinburgh New Phil. J., 15 (1833), 221–227.

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    Useful discussions of the deluge controversy in the eighteenth century are the articles, “Deluge,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 3rd ed. (1797), V, 726–747, and Rhoda Rappaport, “Geology and Orthodoxy: The Case of Noah's Flood in Eighteenth-Century Thought,” Brit. J. Hist. Sci., 11 (1978), 1–18.

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    For example, E. A. Zimmermann, Specimen Zoologiae Geographicae (Leipzig: Weidmann, 1777), and C. L. Willdenow, Grundriss der Kräuterkunde zu Vorlesungen Entworfen (Berlin: Haude and Spener, 1792). Some of these early theories are discussed in Hans Gadow, “Geographical Distribution of Animals,” in Darwin and Modern Science: Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of the Birth of Charles Darwin, ed. A. C. Seward (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), pp. 319–336.

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  8. 8.

    James L. Larson, Reason and Experience: The Representation of Natural Order in the Work of Carl von Linné (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), pp. 95–97. Linnaeus' biogeographical ideas first appeared in his Oratio de Telluris Habitabilis Incremento (Lugduni Batavorum: Haak, 1744).

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    For discussions of his species concept see Larson, Reason and Experience: The Representation of Natural Order in the Work of Carl von Linné (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971, 94–121, and J. Ramsbottom, “Linnaeus and the Species Concept,” Proc. Linn. Soc. London, 150 (1938), 192–219.

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    Matthew Hale, The Primitive Origination of Mankind (London: Shrowsbery, 1677), pp. 198–203, noted in D. C. Allen, Legend of Noah (1949), p. 130.

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    Georges Buffon, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (Paris, 1749–1789), IX, 146–147. John Greene has a good discussion of Buffon's biogeography in his Death of Adam, pp. 151–157. Also see Nelson, “From Candolle to Croizat,” for the importance of Buffon's work to later naturalists.

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    Paul L. Farber, “Buffon and the Concept of Species,” J. Hist. Biol., 5 (1972), 259–284.

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    Thomas Pennant, Arctic Zoology (London: Hughs, 1784–1785), pp. clxv-clxvi. Pennant in 1769 had asked the Selbourne naturalist Gilbert White about distributional problems. White had no answers, but did advise against the use of land bridges. “The question that you put with regard to those genera of animals that are peculiar to America, viz. how they came there, and whence? is too puzzling for me to answer; and yet so obvious as often to have struck me with wonder ... The late writers [notably Buffon] ... stock America from the western coast of Africa and the south of Europe; and then break down the Isthmus that bridged over the Atlantic. But this is making use of a violent piece of machinery; it is a difficulty worthy of the interposition of a god! ‘Incredulus odi.’” White, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, ed. L. C. Miall and W. W. Fowler (New York: Putnam's Sons, 1901), pp. 55–56.

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    Karl Ludwig Willdenow, Grundriss der Kräuterkunde (1792). This was translated as The Principles of Botany and of Vegetable Physiology (Edinburgh: The University Press, 1805). See pp. 371–407 of his Principles for his biogeographical ideas.

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    According to Georg Gmelin (1709–1755), dramatic evidence of life's regionalism could be seen in Siberia: “After passing to the eastward of this river [the Jenisei], the traveller sees every thing under new appearances: a new and unusual vigour reigns in the vegetable creation ... New animals, the Argali, Musk, and others, begin to show themselves. The plants of Europe disappear, and Nature begins suddenly to display a creation of vegetable tribes peculiar to Asia.” From Gmelin's introduction to his Flora Sibirica (Petropoli: Academiae Scientiarium, 1747–1769), 4 vols., translation from J. C. Prichard, Researches into the Physical History of Mankind, 4th ed. (London: Houlston and Stoneman, 1851), I, 32.

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    Rapoport, “Geology and Orthodoxy,” p. 14.

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    The existence of disjunct species posed no problem for those who supported a biblically based scheme such as Pennant's. Pennant would have expected the same species to occur in different regions.

  19. 19.

    John Ray, for example, was aware of plants “having no locomotive Power ... and yet those of the same Species to be found in far distant Places, and on the Tops of high Mountains, as remote from each other, as the Helvetick and Austrian Alps.” John Ray, Three Physico-Theological Discourses, 3rd ed. (London: William Innys, 1713) p. 47. Also see Nils von Hofsten, “Zur älteren Geschichte des Diskontinuitätsproblems in der Biogeographie,” Zool. Ann., 7 (1919), 197–353.

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    Useful studies of this debate are: William Stanton, The Leopard's Spots: Scientific Attitudes toward Race in America, 1815–1859 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960); Earl W. Count, “The Evolution of the Race Idea in Modern Culture during the Period of the Pre-Darwinian Nineteenth Century,” Trans. N. Y. Acad. Sci., 2nd ser., 8 (1946), 139–165; R. A., Richardson, “Development of the Theory of Geographical Race Formation: Buffon to Darwin”, Ph.D. Diss., University of Wisconsin, 1968; Edward Lurie, “Louis Agassiz and the Races of Man,” Isis, 45 (1954), 227–242; and John Greene, Death of Adam, pp. 221–247. Two works on the earlier history of the controversy are: Margaret T. Hodgen, Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964), and Michèle Duchet, Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des lumières: Buffon, Voltaire, Rousseau, Helvétius, Diderot (Paris: François Maspero, 1971).

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    Other workers dealing with the question of man's origin might be included here, but Prichard's biogeographical work was perhaps the most comprehensive and earliest of any British naturalist.

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    Good discussions of Prichard's ethnological work are in Greene, Death of Adam, pp. 238–244, and George W. Stocking, From Chronology of Ethnology: James Cowles Prichard and British Anthropology,” in Prichard, Researches into the Physical History of Man (London, 1813; rpt. ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), pp. ix-cxliv.

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    This originally was published as his dissertation, entitled De Humani Generis Varietae (Edinburgh, 1808). The second edition of 1826 will be used here because its biogeographical discussion is more extensive than that of the 1813 edition, and because it had not been influenced by the work of Charles Lyell, which will be discussed later.

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    An early example of such questioning occurs in St. Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, book 16, chap. 7 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), V. 39–41.

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    For example, the eminent Swiss naturalist Alphonse de Candolle in his Géographie botanique raisonée (Paris, 1855) advocated natural dispersal mechanisms when possible, but for some species with difficult distributions, like Phryma leptostachya, native only to Nepal and the United States, he resorted to special creation. This was noted by W. J. Hooker in “Notices of Books,” Hooker's Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany, 8 (1856), 116.

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    Although some naturalists were drawing various conclusions about the origins of man, based upon the distributions of animals, others saw little value in such comparisons. For example, William Lawrence discussed the distribution of animals, but felt that the study would not help to illuminate man's origins. Lawrence, Lectures on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man, Delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons (London, 1819), p. 234.

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    Charles Darwin noted of Prichard's discussion of geographical distribution, “How like my book all this will be!” Francis Darwin, ed., More Letters of Charles Darwin: A Record of His Work in a Series of Hitherto Unpublished Letters (New York: Appleton, 1903), I, 46.

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    Excellent discussions of natural theology in Britain are in Richard S. Westfall, Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958); Charles C. Gillispie, Genesis and Geology: A Study of the Relations of Scientific Thought, Natural Theology, and Social Opinion in Great Britain, 1790–1850 (New York: Harper & Row, 1959); Limoges, La sélection naturelle (1970); and Robert K. Merton, “Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth Century England,” Osiris, 4 (1938), 360–632.

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    In 1800 he stated his goals explicitly in a letter: “my aim is to unite two sisters, that through the fault of the admirers of one of them, have long been separated, and the consequence has been much mischief: I mean, Religion and Natural History. The author of Scripture is also the author of Nature ... To make the naturalist a religious man ... may this in some measure be the fruit of my work.” John Freeman, Life of the Rev. William Kirby, M.A., F.R.S., etc., Rector of Barham (London: Longman, 1852), p. 179.

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    W. F. Cannon has identified a loose affiliation of British scholars which he has termed the “Cambridge Network.” This group was influential in removing discussions of utilitarian design from British science. As Cannon points out, this scholarly group was “careful to distinguish natural science from natural theology, natural theology from Revelation, and Revelation from Biblical literalism. They did not usually mix up geology and Christ in the same book.” Cannon, “Scientists and Broad Churchmen: An Early Victorian Intellectual Network,” J. Brit. Stud., 4 (1964), 65–88. A related article is Milton Millhauser, “The Scriptural Geologists: An Episode in the History of Opinion,” Osiris, 11 (1954), 65–86.

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    Richard Bentley (1662–1742), for example, in a Newtonian polemic against materialism, held that nature “is above the fortuitous Hits of blind material Causes, and must certainly flow from that eternal Fountain of Wisdom, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, who always acts Geometrically, by just and adequate numbers and weights and measures” (italics his). Bentley, A Confutation of Atheism from the Origin and Frame of the World. The Third and Last Part ... (London: Mortlock, 1693), p. 364.

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    Swainson's mentor, MacLeay, saw biogeography as potential evidence for verifying his system. Around 1821 he wrote to William Kirby, “I look upon the geography of insects as a powerful instrument in the hands of the person who may be engaged in the search of the Natural System.” John Freeman, Life of the Rev. William Kirby, M.A., F.R.S., etc., Rector, of Barham (London: Longman, 1852), p. 400.

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    Newman was the editor of the Entomologist, the Zoologist, and the Phytologist and was a president of the Entomological Society. His septenary system of classification was first introduced in his Sphinx Vespiformis (London: Westley & Davis, 1832), and was later defended and elaborated upon in his “Further Observations on the Septenary System,” Entomological Magazine, 4 (1837), 234–251.

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    The fact that Robert Chambers' infamous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (London, 1844) embraced the quinary system may have contributed to the demise of numerology.

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    His regions are: the Nearctic, Neotropical, Palaearctic, Aethiopian, Indian, and Australian. Ibid., pp. 134–136.

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    Lyell's species concept is discussed in William Coleman, “Lyell and the ‘Reality’ of Species, 1830–1833,” Isis, 53 (1962), 325–338, and in Wilson, “Introduction”, in Lyell's Scientific Journals, pp. xv–lxi. The concept of variation of a species within a “type” is treated in Paul L. Farber, “The Type Concept in Zoology during the First Half of the Nineteenth Century,” J. Hist. Biol., 9 (1976), 93–119.

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    This term is used to differentiate Lyell's concept from that of spontaneous generation. The latter term implies an unlimited generation of individuals — usually of lower animal forms — while Lyell conceived of a limited origin and dealt with all levels of life. See Hofsten, “Ideas of Creation and Spontaneous Generation,” for a review of spontaneous generation and theories similar to “natural creation.”

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    “I have never doubted that whatever theory we may come to, the repeopling of the globe in past times & the distribution of species now has been & is governed by Laws in the same sense as the Universe is governed by laws.” Lyell, Scientific Journals, p. 123.

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    Lyell, Scientific Journals, p. 7.

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    Ibid., p. 265. Helix pisana is a species of snail. The Salvages are a small group of islands in the Madeiras off the Atlantic coast of Africa.

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    William Whewell in 1847 criticized Lyell's hypothesis for the origin of species: “The bare conviction that a creation of species has taken place, whether once or many times, so long as is unconnected with our organical sciences, is a tenet of Natural Theology rather than of Physical Philosophy.” Whewell, History of the Inductive Sciences: From the Earliest to the Present Time, new ed., rev. (London: Parker, 1847), III, 640.

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    David L. Hull has discussed the contributions of “pious Christians” to science and how these contributions helped cause the demise of their own world view. Hull, “Charles Darwin and Nineteenth-Century Philosophies of Science,” in Foundations of Scientific Method: The Nineteenth Century, ed. R. N. Giere and R. S. Westfall (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), pp. 115–132.

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    Charles Darwin, while working on his Origin of Species, expressed his frustration over disjunct distributions to his confidant J. D. Hooker. Darwin said that if he could not disprove that disjunct distributions were the result of multiple origins, then “the whole of this volume would be useless, & we should be compelled to admit the truth of the common view of ... actual creation; & that organic beings are not produced by ordinary generation, with or without modification.” Hooker's reply was “No No — whether or no do not say so — it is not to the purpose.” Quoted in R. C. Stauffer, ed., Charles Darwin's Natural Selection: Being the Second Part of His Big Species Book Written from 1856 to 1858 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 566. Hooker wrote to Asa Gray in 1854, “if you admit two centres you may as well admit all Agassiz, you cannot draw the line, and Geographical distribution is hence a vain study, the connection of life with the revolutions of our globe and with all the physics of nature is naught, and nothing can come of its pursuit but the temporary gratification of taste and ingenuity.” Leonard Huxley, Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (London: Murray, 1918), I, 474.

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    As has been discussed earlier, there were two opposing theories to explain disjunct distributions: there was the idea that these distributions were the products of multiple creative acts (the same species created in two or more widely separated areas), and there was the view that disjunct distributions could be explained by natural laws. Some of the most vigorous biogeographical debates occurred between naturalists who supported the natural-law approach. Within this group were those who advocated the use of land bridges, as codified by the work of Edward Forbes in his “On the Connexion between the Distribution of Existing Fauna and Flora of the British Isles, and the Geological Changes Which Have Affected Their Area, Especially during the Epoch of the Northern Drift,” Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain and the Museum of Economic Geology in London, 1 (1846), 336–432. Two recent works dealing with this subject are Rehbock, Organisms in Space and Time, and Fichman, “Wallace: Zoogeography.” Those opposing the “violent” mechanisms advocated by Forbes held that disjunct distributions could be explained without resorting to major changes in the present geographical configuration of the earth (see note 14 above for Gilbert White's objection to land bridges). One of the major opponents of land connections was Charles Darwin.

  96. 96.

    The reluctance of British naturalists to theorize was noted by Darwin in a letter of 1861: “About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember some one saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours.” Francis Darwin, ed., More Letters of Charles Darwin (New York: Appleton, 1903), I, 195. Hull also speaks to this issue of nontheorization by British scientists in his “Charles Darwin and Nineteenth-Century Philosophies of Science,” in Foundations of Scientific Method: The Nineteenth Century, ed. R. N. Giere and R. S. Westfall (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), p. 124.

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Kinch, M.P. Geographical distribution and the origin of life: The development of early nineteenth-century British explanations. J Hist Biol 13, 91–119 (1980). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00125355

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Keywords

  • Seventeenth Century
  • Natural Explanation
  • Internal Debate
  • Opposing View
  • Species Origin