Follow @sotherans
Follow Me on Pinterest

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Shelf Life 2

Our second Shelf Life feature sees us opening the door of the science cabinet and taking a look at the top row of books. There, in the middle, is a run of books that, taken together, tell a story of intellectual revolution, argument, friendship and rivalry centred around the learned societies of nineteenth century Britain.

What we might call the era of evolution – the period in which science has largely rejected the Biblical Creation – can be said to have started in 1858, with the delivery of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace’s joint paper to the Linnean Society. This event was the catalyst for a radical adjustment in how people see the world, and it is only fitting that we try to stock works by these two great men. After recent catalogue sales, we are without copies of Darwin’s two greatest works, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, but we do have a lovely early edition of his book on insectivorous plants and a number of reprints and biographical works that represent his enormous contribution to modern thought. As he did in life, Wallace has receded into the background, for now at least -   we often have his books in stock, and his influence is seen in Hickson’s A Naturalist in North Celebes, in which the author retraces some of Wallace’s steps through the Malay Archipelago.

Yet it continues to be Darwin who is the icon of the theory of natural selection, and this is reflected in titles by John Fiske, an early American disciple of evolution, and by Edward Aveling, the son-in-law of Karl Marx who co-opted Darwinism to the socialist cause (and also caused scandal in the Marx family through his womanising and spendthrift ways, though that’s quite another story). It seems right that they should be rubbing shoulders with Robert Chambers, the Edinburgh publisher who paved the way for the theory of natural selection with his Vestiges of Creation, which propounded an early version of evolution. So professionally dangerous were his ideas that his books on the subject were published anonymously during his lifetime, and therefore on this shelf he is incognito.

His reticence is understandable when we look at the neighbours to the right on the shelf. William Buckland and John Kidd, both stars in the Oxford firmament and guardians of geological and biological science, are here represented by their contributions to the Bridgewater treatises, works commissioned in the 1830s to uphold the Biblical view of the Creation through science. Beyond them lie four even more problematic characters: Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Winchester who led the Church’s attacks on Darwin; Philip Gosse, the wonderfully talented naturalist whose strict beliefs led him to concoct a theory that saw God placing fossils in the earth to make it look older than it really was; Richard Owen, the difficult man who coined the term ‘dinosaur’, founded the Natural History Museum, and regarded Darwinism as a personal slight; and the Swiss Louis Agassiz, another hugely gifted naturalist and geologist who dismissed natural selection as humbug.

A modern book by Adrian Desmond, Darwin’s biographer, on dinosaur anatomy divides this quadrumvirate from another mid-nineteenth geologist, Gideon Mantell. This is perhaps just as well, for Mantell fell foul of Richard Owen in the fight to claim precedence as Britain’s foremost palaeontologist. Owen took the credit for Mantell’s discovery of the iguanodon and spent the rest of his career dismissing the other man as mediocre, even after Mantell’s early death in 1852. Such personal conflict was common in the intellectual circles of the time; there were many battles being fought on many fronts, scientific, religious and personal. Yet from that time of uproar great advances emerged, and these can be seen in the work of scientists who came afterwards, such as Archibald Geikie, who continued the work of Darwin and Lyell into the early twentieth century, and Alfred Kinsey, whose controversial studies in the 1940-50s on human sexuality were born out of a Darwinist desire to examine and understand Man as an animal.

Right at the end of this section is a reminder of where it all started. Before Darwin, before Owen and Buckland, there was Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern biology, and here we have his autobiographical sketches, in his native Swedish, to show us that this very British revolution of ideas had its origins far across the sea.

For full descriptions of these books, please follow the link below:

No comments:

Post a Comment

We value your input. If there are any comments you would like to make about our blog, please post them below. Alternatively, if you have a question concerning any of the items advertised above, don't hesitate to call us on 020 7439 6151 between 9:30-6 Mon-Fri.