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Race before Darwin: Variation, adaptation and the natural history of man in post-Enlightenment Edinburgh, 1790–1835

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 June 2020

BILL JENKINS*
Affiliation:
School of History, University of St Andrews, St Katharine's Lodge, The Scores, St Andrews, Fife, KY16 9BA, UK. Email: whwj@st-andrews.ac.uk.

Abstract

This paper draws on material from the dissertation books of the University of Edinburgh's student societies and surviving lecture notes from the university's professors to shed new light on the debates on human variation, heredity and the origin of races between 1790 and 1835. That Edinburgh was the most important centre of medical education in the English-speaking world in this period makes this a particularly significant context. By around 1800 the fixed natural order of the eighteenth century was giving way to a more fluid conception of species and varieties. The dissolution of the ‘Great Chain of Being’ made interpretations of races as adaptive responses to local climates plausible. The evidence presented shows that human variation, inheritance and adaptation were being widely discussed in Edinburgh in the student circles around Charles Darwin when he was a medical student in Edinburgh in the 1820s. It is therefore no surprise to find these same themes recurring in similar form in the evolutionary speculations in his notebooks on the transmutation of species written in the late 1830s during the gestation of his theory of evolution.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2020

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Footnotes

I would like to thank John Henry, Sarah Frank, Aileen Fyfe, Clare Button and Catherine Laing for taking the time to read and comment on a draft version of this paper. Thanks are also due to the BJHS's two reviewers for their extremely helpful and constructive comments and suggestions for improvements. Any remaining faults are, of course, my responsibility alone.

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