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Essays in Natural History and Evolution

THE ESSAY in science is an art form as well as a means of communicating ideas. All scientists publish their findings somewhere, but relatively few produce books or monographs. Even fewer produce essays. Modern readers who are interested in evolution or natural history usually recognize the names Gould, Zimmer and Dawkins as essayists. But relatively few are those who have read Mayr, Simpson, Dobzhansky and many older writers. All of these authors are worth reading today. In some cases they are worth reading not only for the beauty of their prose and the forcefulness of their argument, but also to discover what earlier generations of scientists once thought. Darwin and Wallace are omitted here on purpose. You will find them on my Darwiniana Page.

Carl Zimmer — 1966-

Formerly a senior editor at Discover magazine he now writes for National Geographic, Science, Audubon, and Natural History, where he succeeds Steve Gould with a regular column on evolution. His journalism prizes include the Pan-American Health Organization Award for Excellence in International Health Reporting, the American Institute Biological Sciences Media Award, and the Everett Clark Award for science writing.

After a Lost Balloon : Chapter 1 from At The Water's Edge : Fish with fingers, whales with legs, and how life came ashore but then went back to sea. The story of vertebrate evolution and the closing of Romer's Gap. book details.

Nature's Criminals : Chapter 1 from Parasite Rex. Inside the bizarre world of nature's most dangerous creatures. Many books provoke a visceral reaction, but few really make you itch. Parasite Rex does just that. book details.

Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, a companion piece to the epic PBS series of the same name. The book, lavishly illustrated with photos of our distant cousins, anatomical diagrams, and timelines, is as beautiful as it is enlightening. book details.

On the Trails of Macroevolution : From At the Water's Edge [1998]. In 1972 Stephen Jay Gould attacked the puzzle of varying evolutionary rates with one of his most controversial theories, which he proposed with Niles Eldredge of the American Museum of Natural History. In the fossil record, species often appear suddenly, hang on relatively unchanged for millions of years, and then vanish.

Essay Archive : On Zimmer's website are 35 essays that have appeared in Natural History, Science and numerous other publications. The breadth of topical matter illustrates his genius as a science writer and his ability to convey to a lay audience science made simple.

The Rise and Fall of the Nasal Empire : From Natural History [2002]. Among humans current estimates put the total number of olfactory receptor genes at 900, and of those genes, only 320 or so work. In other words, almost two-thirds of our olfactory genes are broken.

The Hidden Unity of Hearts : From Natural History [2000]. Over the past several years, scientists have gone a long way toward figuring out how this complex and vital organ [the heart] evolved. Includes an online extra: The Virtual Heart, with movie clips and other links.

Kenneth R. Miller — 1948-

A professor of cell biology at Brown University, Dr. Miller wears a number of other hats. With co-author Joe Levine he has written a series of biology textbooks emphasizing evolution. His book Finding Darwin's God is an excellent response to the creationism and intelligent design movements. His essays, participation in creationism debates, and appearances in PBS and other documentaries on evolution give him a high public profile.

Dr. Miller's Home Page

Life's Newest Mystery : The most exciting thing to an experimental biologist, make no mistake about it, is an unsolved problem, a puzzling result, an unexplained observation. The most beautiful thing in science? It is just as Einstein said, a genuine mystery.

Barbara McClintock and the Jumping Genes : Science, we are sometimes told, is all about facts. Science is a method of finding out facts, and studying science is an exercise in learning those facts. Good science students, presumably, know lots of facts, and can recite them upon demand.

The Fire Within: The Unfolding Story of Human Mitochondrial DNA : Nearly every cell of the human body contains scores of mitochondria, tiny organelles that play a key role in releasing cellular energy. Every student of biology learns (some more willingly than others) that mitochondria are home to a complex series of biochemical pathways, including the Krebs cycle and the electron transport chain.

The Protein that Wasn't There: The Discovery of Ribozymes : If we were challenged to describe, in layman's terms, what makes living matter different from non-living matter, I suspect that many of us would focus on nucleic acids. Their ability to encode information, to replicate, and their passage from one generation to the next is part and parcel of what makes life special. Ironically, if one examines an organism carefully and observes what makes it alive, nucleic acids turn out to have very little direct effect on living matter.

Click on books covers for reviews and purchasing details at

Top Ten Facts about the Human Genome : This is a short course by Professor Miller that might whet your appetite for more information about human genetics and DNA

Life's Grand Design 1994 : A 1994 essay and a 2001 update/revision at PBS Life's Grand Design 2001.

The Flagellum Unspun : The Collapse of Irreducible Complexity. The great irony of the flagellum's increasing acceptance as an icon of anti-evolution is that fact that research had demolished its status as an example of irreducible complexity almost at the very moment it was first proclaimed. A response to Michael Behe.

The following essays appear to have been stimulated by the book,Icons of Evolution, by John Corrigan (Jonathan) Wells, a fundamentalist opponent of the teaching of evolution.

Haeckel's Embryos : Although not labelled as such, I think this is Miller's response to Jonathan Wells.

Charges of Fraud are Misleading : I blame Dr. Jonathan Wells, who wrote the article cited as a source of information. While he has done no work on industrial melanism, he has written opinion about the work. To one outside the field, he passes as a scholar with Ph.D. Unfortunately, Dr. Wells is intellectually dishonest.

Ten Answers to Jonathan Wells' Questions about Evolution : These answers were prepared by the National Center for Science Education

Stephen Jay Gould — In Memoriam 1941-2002

Dr. Gould succeeded Dr. Mayr in the teaching chair at Harvard. Through his many books and monthly essays in Natural History magazine he became the foremost popularizer of evolution in the United States. His incisive wit and pugnacious character, not to mention his polymath brilliance, cast him in the roll of the teacher you had to love or hate. His last book, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory was far too long. His life was far too short.

Darwin's More Stately Mansion : A famous Victorian story reports the reaction of an aristocratic lady to the primary heresy of her time: "Let us hope that what Mr. Darwin says is not true; but, if it is true, let us hope that it will not become generally known."

Nonoverlapping Magisteria : Science and religion are not in conflict, for their teachings occupy distinctly different domains. Carl Sagan organized and attended the Vatican meeting that introduces this essay; he also shared my concern for fruitful cooperation between the different but vital realms of science and religion.

On Facts and Theories in Science : In science "fact" means "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent."

CancerGuide: The Median Isn't the Message : Using statistics in the preservation of life. This essay by Gould was written after his first bout with cancer twenty years ago.

Primordial Beasts, Creationists and the Mighty Yankees : There are two things that European intellectuals don't understand about Americans, I find. One was Bill and Monica, or, our obsession with it. The second is how you can possibly have an anti-evolution movement in a modern scientific country.

Bright Star Among Billions : in Science 275 (5300):599 [1997]. With the death of Carl Sagan we have lost both a fine scientist and the greatest popularizer of the 20th century, if not of all time. In his many books, and especially in his monumental television series Cosmos—our century's equivalent of Scheuchzer's Physica sacra and the most widely viewed presentation in the entire history of science—Carl explained the method and content of our discipline to the general public.

Shades of Lamarck : from The Panda's Thumb [1980]. The inheritance of acquired characters usually goes by the shorter, although historically inaccurate, name of Lamarckism. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744- 1829), the great French biologist and early evolutionist, believed in the inheritance of acquired characters, but it was not the centerpiece of his evolutionary theory and was certainly not original with him.

The Stephen Jay Gould Archive : This library contains more than 50 essays by Gould and about an equal number by a variety of authors writing either about Gould or commenting on the subjects he wrote about.

See my separate page on Gouldiana for more essays, a list of his books, and some rejoinder to criticism from colleagues.

Richard Dawkins — 1941-

To my mind Dr. Dawkins has been to the UK what Dr. Gould has been to the USA, its finest teacher of evolution. Equally witty and pugnacious, I consider Dr. Dawkins' essay The Forty-fold Path to Enlightenment (in his book Climbing Mount Improbable) one of the finest pieces of writing in natural history. Dawkins holds the Charles Simonyi Professorship in the Public Understanding of  Science at Oxford University.

An Open Letter to Prince Charles : Your Reith lecture saddened me. I have deep sympathy for your aims, and admiration for your sincerity. But your hostility to science will not serve those aims; and your embracing of an ill-assorted jumble of mutually contradictory alternatives will lose you the respect that I think you deserve.

Papers and Commentary by Dawkins : This page contains many of Richard Dawkins' articles for news-papers, magazines, and so forth. For his more academic work, you may find the bibliography page more useful.

Click on a book cover to see reviews and purchasing details at

Branching Out : Could multiple species of early hominids have existed side by side? This is a review by Dawkins of the book Extinct Humans by Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey H. Schwartz.

Ignorance Is No Crime : It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).

Michael Ruse — 1940-

Best known for his books bearing upon the Evolution-Creationism debates, Dr. Ruse is a polymathic philosopher and historian of science, particularly with respect to the history of evolutionary thought. Based largely on his testimony, "Creation Science" was defeated in Arkansas in 1981 as being devoid of science. His book Can a Darwinian be a Christian should be required reading for all fundamentalists.

Darwinism and Atheism: A Marriage Made in Heaven? : Somewhat immodestly let me elevate myself up to the status of Wilson, Dawkins, Dennett, and Lewontin, and consider a Darwinism-based argument which I have myself put forward against Christian belief.

Speaking Out for Paleontology : from Mystery of Mysteries [1999]. Out at supper that night, someone struck up a hymn. No voice was louder than that of Stephen Jay Gould: paleontologist, skeptic, Jew, New Yorker, Harvard professor, baseball fanatic. But then, no voice is ever louder than that of  Steve Gould, which is a major reason why he is the best-known evolutionist in America today.

Click on a book cover to see reviews and purchasing details at

Darwin's New Critics on Trial: Irreducible Complexity : from Taking Darwin Seriously [1999]. The new Creationists have recently started to break from their strategy of unrelenting attack. Thanks to biochemist Michael J. Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution [1996], they have started to lift the veil from their own beliefs about origins qua science.

Double-Dealing in Darwin : Are intellectuals allowing dogma in science but not in religion?

Is Darwin in the Details? : Enough Speculation. Allen Orr's critique of Darwin's Black Box is devastating and, assuming that there are some out there who find the book plausible and yet have open minds, might do some good. For me, although I did not need convincing, there is the sheer pleasure in seeing an expert in his field take on the ignorant and arrogantly presumptuous. However, I do feel that Orr failed to raise the most important issue of all: Did Behe have the right, in the first place, to appeal to design?

Donald R. Forsdyke — 1938-

Probably unheard of by most readers of this website, Dr. Forsdyke is unusual among modern essayists in science. While he has published a great deal in technical journals of science and has two recent books to his credit, his work as an essayist is presented almost exclusively on his own academic website in well written and highly illustrated pages. It is to be hoped that this body of work will survive his tenure in academia.

Dr. Forsdyke's Homepage

Evolution: Selected Papers and Commentary : At the bottom of this page you will find a number of links to historical essays by Darwin, Hooker and others that Dr. Forsdyke has presented beautifully on his website.

Haldane's Rule : This amounts to a good introductory course in genetics.

Speciation: Two Levels of Information in DNA : in J. Theoretical Biology 201, 47-61 [1999].

Evolutionary Bioinformatics  (Newly released, 2006, by Springer)  From the publisher: "Books on bioinformatics which began appearing in the mid 80s primarily served gene-hunters, and biologists who wished to construct family trees showing tidy lines of descent. Given the great pharmaceutical industry interest in genes, this trend has continued in most subsequent texts. These deal extensively with the exciting topic of gene discovery and searching databases, but hardly consider genomes as information channels through which multiple forms and levels of information, including genic information, have passed through the generations. This book identifies the types of information that genomes transmit, shows how competition between different types is resolved in the genomes of different organisms, and identifies the evolutionary forces involved. The early chapters relate the form of information with which we are most familiar, namely written texts, to the DNA text that is our genome. This lends itself well to introducing historical aspects dating back to the nineteenth century."

Edward O. Wilson — 1929-

Pellegrino University Research Professor and Honorary Curator in Entomology at Harvard University, Wilson is the author of 18 books, 2 of which have received the Pulitzer Prize; an ardent defender of the liberal arts; and a promoter of global conservation of species and natural ecosystems. Founded the discipline of Sociobiology, more commonly called Evolutionary Psychology today, and cofounded the study of island biogeography.

A Global Biodiversity Map : Commentary in Science 289 (5488):2279 [2000]. As genomics and biomedicine are to human health, so ecology and conservation biology are to the planet's health. Unfortunately, compared with their sister disciplines, ecology and conservation biology are still disadvantaged.

The Bottleneck : in Scientific American. We have entered the Century of the Environment, in which the immediate future is usefully conceived as a bottleneck: science and technology, combined with foresight and moral courage, must see us through it and out.

Click on a book cover to see reviews and purchasing details at

The Biological Basis of Morality : in The Atlantic [1998]. Do we invent our moral absolutes in order to make society workable? Or are these enduring principles expressed to us by some transcendent or Godlike authority? Efforts to resolve this conundrum have perplexed, sometimes inflamed, our best minds for centuries, but the natural sciences are telling us more and more about the choices we make and our reasons for making them.

The Future of Life : from the book [2002]. The totality of life, known as the biosphere to scientists and creation to theologians, is a membrane of organisms wrapped around Earth so thin it cannot be seen edgewise from a space shuttle, yet so internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered.

Ernst Mayr — 1904-2005

Dr. Mayr helped establish the neodarwinian synthesis and was a tireless teacher of evolution. His work, combined with that of Dobzhansky and Simpson who are also represented here, established the basis for the modern theory of evolution. In addition to careers in Ornithology, Taxonomy and Systematics, he was a Professor of Zoology and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard and director of  its Museum of Comparative Zoology. Ernst Mayr died on February 3, 2005, at the age of 100.

What is a Species, and What is Not? : The Old Man of American Biology reviews the variety of species concepts, especially his Biological Species Concept, and responds to his critics. Originally published in Philosophy of Science 63:262-277 [1996] and here borrowed from the AAAS website.

Speciational Evolution or Punctuated Equilibria : in The Dynamics of Evolution [1992]. The widespread neglect of the role of speciation in macroevolution continued until Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould (1972) proposed their theory of punctuated equilibria. Whether one accepts this theory, rejects it, or greatly modifies it, there can be no doubt that it had a major impact on paleontology and evolutionary biology.

Click on a book cover to see reviews and purchasing details at

Darwin's Influence on Modern Thought : This article is based on 1999 lecture that Mayr delivered in Stockholm on receiving the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Science. Great minds shape the thinking of successive historical periods. Luther and Calvin inspired the Reformation; Locke, Leibniz, Voltaire and Rousseau, the Enlightenment. Modern thought is most dependent on the influence of Charles Darwin.

See my separate page What Evolution Is for commentary about Dr. Mayr, more of his essays, and a complete list of his books.

George Gaylord Simpson — 1902-1984

Dr. Simpson was a paleontologist and taxonomist whose influential text The Principles of Classification and a Classification of the Mammals [1945] remained the standard for treatment of the subject for many years. His was the last of a series of major publications, by authors from several different disciplines, that became known as the neodarwinian synthesis, the foundation for modern-day evolutionary biology.

Relationships of Local and Continental Mammalian Faunas : Jour. Paleontology 10 (5): 410-414 [1936].

Antarctica as a Faunal Migration Route : in Proc. 6th Pac. Sci. Cong. 2: 755-768 [1940].

Mammals and Land Bridges : Jour. Wash. Acad. Sci. 30 (4): 137-163 [1940].

Mammals and the Nature of Continents : Amer. Jour. Sci. 241 (1): 1-31 [1943].

History of the Fauna of  Latin America : American Scientist 38: 361-389 [1950].

Simpson's Field Notebooks archived at the AMNH are an interesting glimpse into his research.

Theodosius Dobzhansky — 1900-1975

Born in Russia where he trained as an entomologist, Dr. Dobzhansky emigrated to the USA where his research with fruit flies led to many publications in genetics. He was one of the principle founders of the neodarwinian synthesis and trained many students in biology, genetics and evolutionary theory. In contradististinction to some other noted scientists of his time, Dr. Dhobzhansky never relinquished his religious orthodoxy.

Evolution in the Tropics : American Scientist 38 (2): 209-221 [1950]. Natural selection augments the frequency of favorable types and reduces the frequency of unfavorable types. Populations thus react to changes in their environment by adaptive modifications. This is one of the rare occasions when evolutionary changes taking place in nature under the influence of natural selection can actually be observed in the process of happening.

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution : American Biology Teacher [1973].

J. B. S. Haldane — 1892-1964

A mathematician perhaps best known for Haldane's Dilemma, he was one of the major synthesizers of evolutionary theory in the 1930s. Unfortunately, not many of his writings are currently on the Internet. Those that are tend toward his viewpoints on politics and religion. He has been enshrined in the mythology of science for remarks attributed to him about "God's fondness for beetles—He made so many of them.".

On Being the Right Size : Haldane's essay is widely anthologized and frequently quoted, at least when the subject of biological scaling crops up.

Daedalus, or, Science and the Future : As I sit down to write these pages I can see before me two scenes from my experience of the late war. The first is a glimpse of a forgotten battle of 1915. It has a curious suggestion of a rather bad cinema film.

A Dialectical Account of Evolution is followed by Haldane replies to A.P. Lerner. Evolution is pretty generally accepted as an historical fact. But some biologists and many popularizers of biology believe that Darwin's account of how and why it happened is incorrect. This is of course true in one sense. Darwin was not infallible. The difficulties which biologists encounter in explaining evolution are of two kinds. One arises from the time scale. The other is more serious. Discoveries of different workers seem to contradict each other flatly.

See also this thorough analysis of Haldane's Rule at Donald R. Forsdyke's Homepage.

R. A. Fisher — 1890-1962

Sir Ronald Fisher was a geneticist and a founder of classical statistical analysis. His book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection in 1930 helped pave the way for the modern Darwinian synthesis, giving it strong mathematical and statistical support. He was Galton Professor of Eugenics at the University of London and later Balfour Professor of Genetics at the University of Cambridge. He ended his career in Australia.

Collected Papers of R. A. Fisher Relating to Genetics, Evolution and Eugenics : These are all large files in .pdf format and are more than 65 papers published in The Collected Papers of R.A. Fisher edited by J.H. Bennett and published in five volumes by the University of Adelaide between 1971 and 1974. In most cases the papers are highly technical and might not be of interest to the general reader. One might at least view the list of titles to see the breadth of research that Fisher conducted.

Thomas H. Huxley — 1825-1895

A tireless advocate of Evolutionary Theory, Professor Huxley took on Richard Owen, Bishop Wilberforce—any and all of Darwin's critics—even though he did not fully accept all of Darwin's ideas. He was also a tireless advocate for secular public education and the professionalization of science. Like A. R. Wallace he was outspoken on a wide range of issues. He is credited with having coined the term agnosticism.

Thirty-two Essays by Thomas H. Huxley : A fair library of Huxley's writings. 32 files listed.

The Origin of Species : A review in The Westminster Review [1860].

The Darwinian Hypothesis : An early review in the London Times [1859].

On the Reception of On the Origin of Species : A retrospective written 20 years later.

Asa Gray — 1810-1888

America's leading botanist in the mid-19th century, and Darwin's strongest early supporter in the USA, in 1857 he became only the third scientist (after Hooker and Lyell) to learn of the theory from Darwin. He debated L. Agassiz between 1859 and 1861 on variation and geographic distribution. His discovery of close affinities between East Asian and North American floras was a key piece of evidence in favor of evolution.

Natural Science and Religion : I am invited to address you upon the relations of science to religion, in reference, as I suppose, to those claims of natural science which have been thought to be antagonistic to religion, and to those assumptions connected with the Christian faith which scientific men in our day are disposed to question. [1880].

Review of On the Origin of Species : in the American Journal of Science and Arts [1860].

Darwin and Design : Excerpts from Darwiniana [New York. D. Appleton, 1876]. Whatever Mr. Darwin's philosophy may be, or whether he has any, is a matter of no consequence at all, compared with the important questions, whether a theory to account for the origination and diversification of animal and vegetable forms through the operation of secondary causes does or does not exclude design.....

Forest Geography and Archeology : Amer. Jour. Sci. Arts 16 (3rd ser.): 85-94, 183-196 [1878]. Here, then, we have reached a fair answer to the question how the same or similar species of our trees came to be so dispersed over such widely separated continents. The lands all diverge from a polar center, and their proximate portions—however different from their present configuration and extent, and however changed at different times—were once the home of those trees, where they flourished in a temperate climate.

Louis Agassiz — 1807-1873

A zoologist and paleontologist, Agassiz came to the USA in 1846, becoming a professor at Harvard in 1848. He acquiring funding for and built the Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1860. He urged the creation of a National Academy of Sciences, becoming a founding member in 1863, and was appointed a regent of the Smithsonian Institution. Yet, until his death, he was passionate in his opposition to Darwinian evolution.

Geographical Distribution of Animals : Christian Examiner and Religious Miscellany 48 (2):181-204 [1850].

Darwinism - Classification of Haeckel : This is chapter 7 from De l'Espece et de la Classification en Zoologie. pp.375-391 Part 3 [1869]. "I have for Darwin all the esteem which one has to have; I know the remarkable work that he has accomplished, as much in Paleontology as in Geology, and the earnest investigations for which our science is indebted." [This is a very rough translation from the French.]

Evolution and Permanence of Type : From The Atlantic Monthly, pp. 92-101 [1874]. Many of his arguments (published posthumously), are central tenets of creationism today. Oddly his statement "Philosophers and theologians have yet to learn that a physical fact is as sacred as a moral principle," did not lead him to infer from the facts of the fossil record that it is a record of ancestry, even though he drew branching diagrams of lineages.

Fossils and Geologic Time : An interesting depiction of the distribution of fossils in the geological strata.

Professor Agassiz on the Origin of Species : Amer. Jour. Sci. 30:143-147. 149-150 [1860]. This appears to be a collection of substantial excerpts from an originally longer essay.

Richard Owen — 1804-1892

The leading anatomist and paleontologist in England during the period of  Darwin's voyage and later writings, Darwin turned over to Owen the fossils he collected for description. Owen was later a leading opponent of Darwin's ideas about evolution and engaged in lengthy and acrimonious public debates with Thomas Huxley, Darwin's principle defender. Owen's review of On the Origin of Species is available here.

Review of On the Origin of Species : In the Edinburgh Review 3:487-532 [1860].

Robert Chambers — 1802-1871

In October of 1844, a small bomb went off in the world of British science. The bomb took the form of a 400-page book with the grand title Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, presenting a comprehensive account of the history of the Earth, from the formation of the Solar System through the development of plant and animal life, up to the origins of humankind. Strangely, there was no author's name on the cover.

Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation : [1844 1st ed. in HTML format] : (anonymous). J. Churchill, 390 pp., [1844]. This was a book that everyone seemed to criticize. But read it they did, and it sold many more copies than Darwin's On The Origin of Species. A number of noted personalities were "evolutionists" before Darwin published, based on the reading of this book. President Abraham Lincoln was one of them. Also available as Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation : [1857 ed. as full-page photos]

Charles Lyell — 1797-1875

During Darwin's lifetime Lyell was the world's leading exponent of geology and one of the principle influences on Darwin's thinking. Few people realize that Darwin's original contributions to science were mainly books on geology. Lyell was Darwin's main sounding board during the 20 years he spent developing the Theory of Evolution, but Lyell never completely agreed with Darwin about natural selection or the descent of man.

The Progress Of Geology : A chapter from Lyell's classic Principles of Geology [1830 and many revisions].

Uniformity Of Change : Another chapter from the same work.

The Student's Elements of Geology : This is a complete downloadable book.

Charles Babbage — 1792-1871

Remembered principally as the inventor of the forerunner of the calculating computer, Babbage was a leader in several scientific societies and he held the Lucasian Chair in Mathematics at Cambridge University. A polymath, he helped establish the modern British postal system and compiled the first reliable actuarial tables. He also participated in the pre-Darwinian debates in natural theology, contributing to the Bridgewater Treatises.

The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise : 2nd Ed., London, [1838]. The first class of truths then (those of Pure Mathematics) appears to rest on necessity. The second, (the Laws of Nature,) on necessity and our external senses. The third, (those of Natural Religion,) on our external senses and internal consciousness. The last, (those of Revelation,) on human testimony. I have placed them in the only order which, in my opinion, is consistent with truth; convinced that it is more injurious to religion to overrate, than to undervalue the cogency of the evidence on which it rests.

Decline of Science in England.

Georges Leopold Cuvier — 1769-1832

Working at the Musee National d'Histoire Naturelle, Cuvier established the fact of past extinction, founded vertebrate paleontology as a scientific discipline and created the comparative method of organismal biology. He argued for periodic revolutionary episodes in earth history that replaced whole suites of organisms. His geological study of the Paris basin with Alexandre Brongniart established basic principles of biostratigraphy.

Discourse on the Revolutionary Upheavals on the Surface of the Globe : And on the Changes Which They Have Produced in the Animal Kingdom.

Cuvier's Elegy of Lamarck : [delayed publication 1835]

William Smith — 1769-1839

William "Strata" Smith, a civil engineer and surveyor, was well acquainted with areas in southern England where "limestone and shales are layered like slices of bread and butter." His hobby of collecting and cataloging fossil shells from these rocks led to the discovery that certain layers contained fossils unlike those in other layers. Using these key or index fossils as markers, Smith could identify a particular layer of rock wherever it was exposed.

Strata Identified by Organized Fossils : [1816-1819]. A facsimile edition in four parts with explanatory notes.

Because fossils actually record the slow but progressive development of life, scientists use them to identify rocks of the same age throughout the world. See more information about "Strata" Smith and his original geologic map of England. Information about Simon Winchester's delightful biography of Smith, The Map That Changed the World is available at Click on this map to see a larger versions of each of its 15 segments.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck — 1744-1829

Known primarily for his rejected concept of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, Lamarck was, nevertheless, one of the most important scientists of his day. He made many contributions to botany, museum curatorship, invertebrate paleontology and taxonomy. His concept of acquired characteristics was in part adopted by Darwin and retained followers within science up to the 1930s, until set aside by discoveries in genetics.

Zoological Philosophy [1809]. Of the considerations relevant to the natural history of animals; to the diversity of their organic structure and of the faculties which they derive from it; to the physical causes sustaining life in them and producing the movements which they carry out; finally, to those causes which produce feeling in some and intelligence in others endowed with it.

William Paley — 1743-1805

For many years Paley's writings in moral and political philosophy served as the basic texts and doctrines at Cambridge University. All students had to read them and Darwin was no exception. Paley's analogy of the watch requiring a watchmaker remains the central tenet for those who claim evidence of design in nature (the Intelligent Design movement). Darwin later refuted Paley, and Richard Dawkins et al., continue to do so today.

Natural Theology : or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity [12th ed. 1809]. Downloadable text file. Darwin was, during his university years, a student of Paley writings, and much of what Darwin later wrote refuted this work by demonstrating the haphazard and contingent nature of evolution.

James Hutton — 1726-1797

A Scottish geologist and naturalist, Hutton is recognized as the originator of one of the fundamental principles of geology, that of uniformitarianism, which explains the features of the Earth's crust by means of natural processes operating over geologic time. Hutton's 1785 publication led, within just a few decades, to the almost total abandonment of the concept that the Earth was formed just a few thousand years ago.

Theory of the Earth Or an Investigation of the Laws Observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe [1785]. When we trace the parts of which this terrestrial system is composed, and when we view the general connection of those several parts, the whole presents a machine of a peculiar construction by which it is adapted to a certain end. We perceive a fabric, erected in wisdom, to obtain a purpose worthy of the power that is apparent in the production of it.

Gilbert White — 1720-1793

In the tradition of science in his time, Gilbert White was a clergyman in the Anglican Church of England. Education in natural history was a normal part of the education of those persons destined to take holy orders, and much of what we think of as published science in that era was the recording by clergymen of observations made in geology and field biology. White's Natural History of Selborne is a classic of the genre.

The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne : London, B. White and Son. 468 pp., [1789].
The bulk of the work is composed of a series of letters sent to two sponsors over a period of many years.

Collections of Essays and Books

Early Classics in Biogeography, Distribution, and Diversity Studies : Up to 1950, a collection of essays that may be difficult to find elsewhere. A number of them are listed here, but there are many more.

50th Anniversary Collection : Essays about On the Origin of Speces [1909]. They cover a wide range of topics and were contributed by 25 leading scientists of the period.

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essays.htm Last Updated April 22, 2011     Links verified April 22, 2011