Evolving Thoughts

One of the enduring patterns of the history of the history of evolution is for historians to claim that their favourite individual, or their country’s best and brightest, invented evolution. The most recent appears to be this guy from New Zealand, claiming that evolution was actually invented by an artist, Augustus Earle, who visited Australia and New Zealand, and spent some time on board the Beagle with Darwin. Earle wrote a book entitled A narrative of a nine months’ residence in New Zealand in 1827: together with a journal of a residence in Tristan D’Acunha, an island situated between South America and the Cape of Good Hope (they really knew how to come up with snappy titles in those days, didn’t they?). It was one of a number of travel diaries published in that era, as was Darwin’s own Journal of Researches. Earle’s book is conveniently available on Google Books. Which makes it easy to debunk the claim, at least as it’s reported in the press release.

The historian, Paul Moon at Auckland’s AUT University, is reported as saying this:

“Earle spent several months in New Zealand from 1827-1828, painting scenes of Maori life, and documenting his trip in a journal,” Prof Moon said.

“It’s this journal which forms the basis of a remarkable link with Darwin.”

The significance was in the timing, he said.

“Earle completed his manuscript in 1831, and in it, he wrote of the differences between Maori and Aborigines.

“He concluded that the Aborigines were the `last link in the great chain of existence which unites man with the monkey’.

“The statement not only suggests humans evolved from monkeys but also talks about the idea of a missing link.”

I fear that, if Professor Moon has been correctly quoted, this is a classic case of someone whose speciality lies elsewhere simply not understanding what he is reading. Here’s the full passage from Earle’s narrative:

I have often tried, in vain, to account for there being such a decided dissimilarity between the natives of New Holland and New Zealand. So trifling is the difference in their situation on the globe, and so similar their climates, ? both having remained so long unknown to the great continents, and so devoid of intercourse with the rest of the world, ? that one would be led to imagine a great resemblance must be the result. But the natives of the former seem of the lowest grade ? the last link in the great chain of existence which unites man with the monkey. Their limbs are long, thin, and flat, with large bony knees and elbows ; a projecting forehead, and pot-belly. The mind, too, seems adapted to this mean configuration: they have neither energy, enterprise, nor industry; and their curiosity can scarcely be excited. A few exceptions may be met with; but these are their general characteristics. While the natives of the latter island are “cast in beauty’s perfect mould:” the children are so fine and powerfully made, that each might serve as a model for a statue of “the Infant Hercules:” nothing can exceed the graceful and athletic forms of the men, or the rounded limbs of their young women. These possess eyes beautiful and eloquent, and a profusion of long, silky, curling hair: while the intellects of both sexes seem of a superior order; all appear eager for improvement, full of energy, and indefatigably industrious, and possessing amongst themselves, several arts which are totally unknown to their neighbours.


Anyone familiar with the history of biology recognises what this is – your classic or garden variety Great Chain of Being. There’s no temporal progression here, just the scale from simple to complex, with Europeans at the top. It was cast this way repeatedly in the century or so before Darwin, most influentially by Blumenbach, but the notion of such a scale, races notwithstanding, goes back to the late medieval era, and was especially influential via Raymond Lullius. This is no more evolution than Jacob’s Ladder. It is clear from the full text that Earle expected no transition in time or space between these races.

And anyway, Darwin would have been more familiar with Great Chain versions of evolution via his tutor Robert Grant at Edinburgh, who was a devotee of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s version of Lamarckian evolution, which was itself a temporal version of Charles Bonnet’s ladder of nature, shown at the right. So this is simply a bad mistake, made public by the PR department of AUT. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, remains a fallacy even in modern historiography.


  1. #1 sbh
    May 3, 2008

    Google books links appear to have changed. Try


    for Earle’s book.

  2. #2 Brian English
    May 3, 2008

    John, another great analysis.

    Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, translates to:
    After Darwin, therefore Darwin caused the Holocaust….
    or….well, you know what it means. 😀

  3. #3 Thony C.
    May 3, 2008

    When I first read this post whilst drinking my early morning tea, as soon as I read the phrase He concluded that the Aborigines were the ‘last link in the great chain of existence which unites man with the monkey’ my brain went “ka’chung” like a cash register and the phrase that appeared in the display was “Great Chain Of Being”. What’s wrong with modern historian, don’t they get a basic education any more? It’s not as if the Great Chain of Being was some sort of cultural secret or something. Even normal historians who have nothing to do with the history of evolution should be well informed about the Great Chain of Being, which is one of the formative concepts of European society from the Ancient Greeks up to and including the 19th Century. 60’s rock culture even has a reference with one of Jefferson Airplane’s most successful albums Crown of Creation.

  4. #4 John Pieret
    May 3, 2008

    Didn’t you know that it was that great American, George Washington, who invented evolution? … Right after he chopped down the cherry tree because it was in the way of Ben Franklin flying his kite.

  5. #5 pough
    May 3, 2008

    Not to mention the fact that Darwin didn’t invent evolution, either. His grandfather mentioned it, which should be a bit of an indication how long it was around (at least) before Chuck was traipsing the globe on a Beagle with Earle.

    Evolution really is one of the most ubiquitous but poorly-understood bits of science.

  6. #6 John S. Wilkins
    May 3, 2008

    In the first link in the post, I give my reasons for thinking that the first person to propose a theory of evolution was Pierre Maupertuis in 1743. A recent biography of Maupertuis gives more information.

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