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Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 189–223 | Cite as

Robert E. Grant: The social predicament of a pre-Darwinian transmutationist

  • Adrian Desmond
Article

Conclusion

Wakley in 1846 called Grant “at once the most eloquent, the most accomplished, the most self-sacrificing, and the most unrewarded man in the profession.”128 I have shown some of the reasons why this was so, and I have suggested that his Lamarckism was one of a number of factors that served to alienate him from the conservative scientific community in the 1830's and 1840's. I have further shown the need for a fundamental rethinking of Grant's position in the history of biology. There is little profit in seeing him as a precursor of Darwin. His importance lies as a teacher of philosophical anatomy and as the disseminator of Geoffroy's views in London. With the recent interest of historians in the emergence of a non-Paleyite approach to design in the 1830's (that is, an approach stemming from a unity of plan), a reassessment of Grant along these lines seems in order.

Also, by understanding Grant's professional and transmutational threat, we can more fully appreciate the anti-Lamarckian ploys of leading scientists like Owen and Lyell. These scientific and social tactics reinforced the isolation Grant suffered as a result of his radical, materialistic, and antimonopolist views. Together with the laissez-faire arrangements at the joint-stock university, they led to his financial collapse — and to the decline of his scientific output that Darwin found so inexplicable. Beddoe described Grant as a disappointed man. “Alas!” wrote Wakley. “Who would be an English Cuvier?”129

Keywords

Scientific Community Recent Interest Scientific Output Financial Collapse Social Tactic 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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    Ironically, he was elected to the Geological Society council in the year that Lyell's anti-Lamarckian Volume 2 of Principles of Geology was published (1832). It has been suggested that Lyell was restructuring geology to thwart the Scottish and Continental transformists. Bartholomew, “Lyell and Evolution”; Corsi, “Importance of French Transformists Ideas”; and Dov Ospovat, “Lyell's Theory of Climate,” J. Hist. Biol., 10 (1977), 317–339. Some historians have speculated that Grant might have been partially the cause. Corsi, “Importance of French Transformist Ideas,” and Bowler, Fossils and Progress, 43n64. Although neither Bartholomew (pers. comm.) nor I have found any direct evidence, it is true that Grant's synthesis would have fulfilled Lyell's worst fears, since Lamarckism was here mated to a cooling earth model to explain a progressive fossil record. Whatever Lyell thought of Grant, Grant himself, in the 1853 Swiney Lectures on “Palaeozoology,” reacted specifically against Lyell's steady-state geology.Google Scholar
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    Managers' Minutes, 1832–1853, vol. 8, ff. 307, 552, MS, Royal Institution; College Correspondence Applications, MS, UCL. Remember that Owen himself was lauded as “the Cuvier of England.” R. Owen, The Life of Richard Owen (London: Murray, 1894), I, 327.Google Scholar
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    Consider also Owen's position. At the College of Surgeons the elitist council was constantly assailed by doctrinaire radicals like Grant and Wakley, demanding democratic representation for the college's unrepresented and powerless membership. See Grant's On the Present State of the Medical Profession in England (London: Renshaw, 1841), pp. 48–52. Owen's political distance from a socially leveling democrat like Grant would have seemed unbridgeable in these politically turbulent reform years.Google Scholar
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    “Professor Grant and Mr. Wakley,” Med. Gaz., 13 (1833), 293. It did not help that Wakley opposed the Lord's Day Observance Bill in 1836, on the grounds that workingmen had only Sunday free to spend their wages. S. Squire Sprigge, The Life and Times of Thomas Wakley (London: Longmans, Green, 1899), p. 304. Grant's “satirical references to Providence” are mentioned in Rickman J. Godlee, “Thomas Wharton Jones,” Brit. J. Ophthalmol., 93 (1921), 145–181.Google Scholar
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    Ibid. This is either Lamarck's Philosophie zoologique, which was reissued in 1830, or Geoffroy's Principes de philosophie zoologique, published in the same year.Google Scholar
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    Owen, Hunterian Lectures I and 2 (1837), ff. 66–67, in Manuscript Notes, and Synopses of Lectures (1828–1841), British Museum (Natural History). Powell recalled that “the theory of ‘unity of composition’ was, in the minds of many, closely allied to that of ‘transmutation,’ which seemed to be a sort of natural sequel to it.” Powell, Unity of Worlds, p. 409.Google Scholar
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    Owen, Hunterian Lecture 3 (1837) MS, f. 34, in Owen, ibid.Google Scholar
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    On one aspect, Owen's use of Mesozoic reptiles, see Adrian Desmond. “Designing the Dinosaur: Richard Owen's Response to Robert Edmond Grant,” Isis, 7 (1979), 224–234.Google Scholar
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    See Grant's letter reproduced in Geoffroy St. Hilaire, “Considérations sur des oeufs d'Ornithorinque, formant de nouveaux documens pour la question de la classification des Monotrèmes,” Ann. Sci. Nat., 18 (1829), 157–164.Google Scholar
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    Robert E. Grant, “On the Structure and Characters of Loligopsis, and Account of a New Species (Lol. guttata, Grant) from the Indian Seas,” Trans. Zool. Soc. London, 1 (1835), 21–28; and “On the Anatomy of the Sepiola vulgaris, Leach, and Account of a New Species (Sep. stenodactyla, Grant) from the Coast of Mauritius,” ibid., pp. 77–86. Contrast these with Owen's anti-Lamarckian “On the Osteology of the Chimpanzee and Orang Utan,” ibid., pp. 343–379.Google Scholar
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    Lancet (1834–35: II), 389.Google Scholar
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    Lancet (1834–35: II), p. 199. Wakley castigated Owen for voting with the junto, in Lancet (1836–37: I), 766.Google Scholar
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    “Professors' Fees Books”, MS, UCL. Half of all earnings over £ 100 had to be repaid to the college (the penalty of teaching at a joint-stock university). I have calculated that Grant averaged £ 117 per annum in the 1830's and £ 113 in the 1840's, before deduction of the college's share. In 1834 the chair of natural history at King's College, London, was actually abolished for lack of students.Google Scholar
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    K. Lyell, ed., Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart. (London: John Murray, 1881), I, 178, 397; Edmonds, “First Geological Lecture Course,” p. 260; J. B. Morrell, “London Institutions and Lyell's Career: 1820–41,” Brit. J. Hist. Sci., 9 (1976), 142.Google Scholar
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    His friend Marshall Hall was earning £2,200 a year from his practice by 1833, although admittedly he was “the rising sun of the profession”. Charlotte Hall, Memoirs of Marshall Hall (London: Bentley, 1861), pp. 69, 120.Google Scholar
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    Grant, Present State of the Medical Profession in England (London: Renshaw, 1841), pp. 56–57, attacked the Royal College of Physicians of class, religious, and monopolistic grounds, in particular decrying the college's Oxbridge Anglican restriction for Fellowship, which biased it against the Presbyterians and the dissenters.Google Scholar
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    Lancet (1835–36: II), 844; Beddoe, Memories, p. 32.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1984

Authors and Affiliations

  • Adrian Desmond
    • 1
  1. 1.LondonEngland

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