An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge and of the Progress of Reason, from Sense to Science and Philosophy

  • James Hutton
1794Facsimile edition: Thoemmes: 1999.

Following the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, Charles Darwin learned (and duly acknowledged) that two previous authors had anticipated the theory of evolution by natural selection. The first account to come to light was by Patrick Matthew, who had briefly outlined the mechanism in an appendix to his 1831 book On Naval Timber and Arboriculture. The second was by the physician William Wells, who had speculated on selection and human evolution in 1818.

But some 50 years ago, E. B. Bailey described a still older version of the selection theory from a 1797 manuscript by the geologist James Hutton — now chiefly famous for his early appreciation of geological time. Unfortunately, this work, entitled the Elements of Agriculture, never appeared in print. Now a more complete, published account has come to light from 1794.

An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge is an intimidating philosophical treatise of three volumes, running to 2,138 pages in its original edition. Hutton's friend and biographer, John Playfair, presciently noted: “The great size of the book, and the obscurity which may justly be objected to many parts of it, have probably prevented it from being received as it deserves.” The selection theory is the subject of an entire chapter in the second volume (see supplementary information). Hutton mused:

“If an organised body is not in the situation and circumstances best adapted to its sustenance and propagation, then, in conceiving an indefinite variety among the individuals of that species, we must be assured, that, on the one hand, those which depart most from the best adapted constitution, will be most liable to perish, while, on the other hand, those organised bodies, which most approach to the best constitution for the present circumstances, will be best adapted to continue, in preserving themselves and multiplying the individuals of their race.”

For example, Hutton describes that in dogs that relied on “nothing but swiftness of foot and quickness of sight” for survival, “the most defective in respect of those necessary qualities, would be the most subject to perish, and that those who employed them in greatest perfection would be best preserved, consequently, would be those who would remain, to preserve themselves, and to continue the race”. But if an acute sense of smell was “more necessary to the sustenance of the animal”, then “the natural tendency of the race, acting upon the same principle of seminal variation, would be to change the qualities of the animal, and to produce a race of well scented hounds, instead of those who catch their prey by swiftness”.The same “principle of variation” must also influence “every species of plant, whether growing in a forest or a meadow”.

Hutton was no mere armchair theorist. He came to his principle after experiments in plant and animal breeding, some of which are described in the Elements of Agriculture manuscript. These experiments led him to distinguish between seminal variation, which occurs in sexual reproduction and is heritable, and non-heritable variation, caused by the circumstances of soil and climate.

It is important to stress, however, that while he used the selection mechanism to explain the origin of varieties in nature, he specifically rejected the idea of evolution between species as a “romantic fantasy”. Indeed, he was a deist and regarded the capacity of species to adapt to local conditions as an example of benevolent design in nature.

It may be more than coincidence that Wells, Matthew and Darwin were all educated in Hutton's home town of Edinburgh, a place famous for its scientific clubs and societies. Studies of Darwin's private notebooks have shown that he came to the selection principle independently of earlier authors, as he always maintained. But it seems possible that a half-forgotten concept from his student days resurfaced afresh in his mind as he struggled to explain the observations of species and varieties compiled on the voyage of the Beagle.