Posted by: Bystander PJ12 AUG 2009
Much has been written this year (2009) to mark the bicentenary of Charles Darwin. But I have yet to read anything about the influence on Darwin of Edward Blyth, who was both a naturalist and a pharmacist.
Born at the end of 1810, Blyth began his working life as a pharmacist in Tooting, south London.
From childhood he had been obsessed by natural history, and in the mid-1830s, while Darwin was travelling on The Beagle, Blyth wrote three articles on variation in organisms, in which he compared selection in nature with selective breeding.
His was a creationist view of natural selection, seeing it not as a process of evolution but as a means of stabilising species by eliminating individuals that deviate too far from God’s archetype.
Unfortunately, Blyth’s love of nature led him to neglect his pharmacy and he lost the business. He struggled for a few years to support himself by writing on natural history. Then, in 1841, he accepted a poorly paid post in India as zoological curator of the museum of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, where he was to remain for more than 20 years.
During his time in India, Blyth acquired a wealth of knowledge about the natural history of the subcontinent. He became recognised as “the father of Indian ornithology” and is remembered today in the names of several species of bird, including two that occasionally turn up in Britain as vagrants — Blyth’s pipit and Blyth’s reed warbler.
Darwin had read Blyth’s articles soon after they appeared. Later, when forging his theory of evolution, Darwin recognised the value of Blyth’s knowledge of species variation and began corresponding with him. Darwin was prompted to finalise and publish his theory by a letter from India in 1855 in which Blyth drew attention to Alfred Russel Wallace’s paper, “On the law which has regulated the introduction of species”.
A strong friendship developed between Darwin and Blyth, and the latter came to support Darwin’s theory.
Darwin’s regard for Blyth’s insight can be gleaned from ‘On the origin of species’. In Chapter I he refers to “Mr Blyth, whose opinion, from his large and varied stores of knowledge, I should value more than that of almost any one”. And in Chapter XI, he describes Blyth as an “eminently capable judge”.
Ill health forced Edward Blyth to return to London in 1863. When he died in 1873, his papers were found to include a fragment of a manuscript he had begun many years before. Its title? “On the origination of species”.