According to Stephen Jay Gould (2002 p. 745), Hugh Falconer might be remembered as one of the greatest Victorian paleontologists if he had not died before publishing major works. However, unfortunately for Falconer’s legacy, this was not the case. Falconer died at the age of 57 in January 1865, during the last year of the violent and bloody US Civil War (for general biographical sketch, click here). Gould obviously held Falconer in high regards, even though most people today have never heard his name. Let’s take a look at why.
Falconer performed his most recognized work in India, a place he was transported to by the British East India Company in 1830 (see biographical sketch). He is remembered, if at all, for his work on the mammalian fauna of the Siwalik (also spelled Sivalik in some texts) Hills (see for example Mayor 2001 p. 133, Chakrabarti 2004 p. 72, Gould 2002 p. 745). Through his work on the Siwalik Hills fauna and his later 1863 monograph on fossil elephants, Falconer observed and noted the prevalence of “stasis” in the fossil record. By the publication of the 1863 monograph, Falconer had accepted the general premises of Darwin’s model (although he was critical of it previously…more on this later). If the term stasis brings to mind Eldredge and Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibria, it should. Eldredge and Gould’s work on punctuated equilibria was essentially a re-discovery of what Falconer had already observed; Falconer noted long-term stability of species, with an occasional sudden appearance of new species. Thus, Falconer noted a key observation of punctuated equilibrium, namely that:
“a local pattern of abrupt repalcement does not signify macromutational transformation in situ, but an origin of the later species from an ancestral population living elsewhere, followed by migration into the local region.” (Gould 2002 748)
More specifically, Falconer was referring to European fossil elephants, and placed their likely ancestral stock in India. Falconer started out critical of Darwin, so much that when Darwin sent Falconer a copy of The Origin of Species, Darwin noted in a letter that included with the book that:
“Lord, how you will long to crucify me alive! I fear it will produce no other effect on you; but if it should stagger you in ever so slight a degree, in this case, I am fully convinced that you will become, year after year, less fixed in your belief in the immutability of species. With this audacious and presumptuous conviction, I remain, my dear Falconer, Yours most truly, Charles Darwin” (quoted in Gould 2002 p. 746)
This passage illustrates a few realities. First, Darwin valued Falconer’s judgement (in fact, Falconer was one of the first scientists who Darwin described his theory to; see Gould 2002 p. 746). It also implies that Darwin and Falconer were on somewhat friendly terms. Desmond and Moore’s (Desmond and Moore 1991) biography of Darwin hints at this friendship as well, as do letters between Falconer and Darwin, for example Falconer offering specimens to Darwin, etc. Something deeper is also at work here. In Falconer, we see an early critic of Darwin who has been convinced of the strength and viability of Darwin’s model. While Falconer still viewed evolution differently than Darwin to a degree, Falconer had warmed to the strength of Natural Selection.
Falconer is less remembered for his views on Archaeopteryx. In 1863, Falconer wrote to Darwin, stating:
You were never more missed—at any rate by me—for there has been this grand Darwinian case of the Archaeopteryx for you and me to have a long jaw about…You are not to put your faith in the slip-shod and hasty account of it given to the Royal Society. It is a much more astounding creature—than has entered into the conception of the describer” (Falconer, 1863 in Correspondences vol. 11 p.5)
Thus, Falconer was aware of the relevance of the find to Darwin’s work. The above quote hints that Falconer may have viewed Archaeopteryx as some sort of “missing link”, perhaps between reptiles and birds. This passage also hints at a friendly relationship between Falconer and Darwin (for more on Darwin and Archaeopteryx, see my post on the topic here). The passage also hints at some brewing troubles between Owen and Falconer; Falconer viewed Owen’s description of Archaeopteryx as “not…well done” (Footnote 10, here)
One other facet of Falconer’s career that is often overlooked is his rough relationship with some other Victorian scientists, most notably Richard Owen. As Darwin wrote in his 1887 Autobiography (quoted here):
“Poor dear Falconer….had a very bad opinion of him, being convinced that he was not only ambitious, very envious and arrogant, but untruthful and dishonest. His power of hatred was certainly unsurpassed. When in former days I used to defend Owen, Falconer often said, “You will find him out some day, and so it has proved.”
Falconer had fought with Owen over some fossil specimens, as evidenced in this letter from Charles Darwin to James Dwight Dana. The footnotes to this letter are instructive in this case, with one stating that:
“CD probably refers to Owen’s palaeontological work on the fossil elephant Elephas columbi, and the fossil rhinoceros Rhinoceros leptorhinus. With respect to E. columbi, Owen had overlooked Falconer’s description of the fossil elephant and had renamed it E. texianus. Falconer interpreted this move as an attempt by Owen to usurp his priority in the description of the fossil, by substituting another, and in his view inferior, name (see letter to J. D. Hooker, 3 January , n. 1). Falconer’s critique of Owen’s E. texianus was published in Falconer 1863a, pp. 45–9 (see also letter to Hugh Falconer, 5 [and 6] January , and letter from Hugh Falconer, 8 January ). Falconer may also have told CD of his doubts regarding Owen’s identification of Clacton, Tuscan, and Rhenish specimens of fossil rhinoceros as R. leptorhinus (see Owen 1846b and Falconer 1868, 2: 317–20). “ (again, letter and notes available here)
Falconer challenged other scientists as well. For example, he debated with Huxley over methods of paleontology (see letter between Darwin and Hooker, here). Falconer also butted heads with Charles Lyell (see a second Darwin and Hooker letter, here). Falconer was clearly a man who was not afraid to ruffle some feathers.
However, in a society rich with scientific visionaries, it is all too often the case that some individuals get overlooked. Hugh Falconer is one of these individuals. Mention the words “Victorian” and “scientist” in a sentence, and most people will think of Darwin, Owen, Huxley, Lyell, Wallace, or some other well-known scientist. Falconer operated in the same scientific arenas as these men, and often butted heads with some of them. He was a relatively close friend of Darwin (see Desmond and Moore 1991 p. 528 on Darwin’s reaction to Falconer’s death for example). He anticipated a modern development in evolutionary theory. Yet hardly anyone knows his name.
Chakrabarti, P. Western Science in Modern India, Permanent Black, 2004
Desmond, A. and Moore, J. Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. WW Norton & Company, New York, 1991.
Falconer, H. letter of Jan. 3, 1863 to Charles Darwin. In The Correspondence of Charles Darwin Vol. 11, edited by F. Furkhardt, DM Porter, SA Dean, JR Tophan, and S. Wilmot. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999
Gould, SJ. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Belknap Harvard, Cambridge, 2002
Mayor, A. The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton University Press, Princeton,2001