Constantine Rafinesque’s Anticipation of Evolutionary Theory

The opening paragraph of the Wikipedia entry for Constantine Rafinesque notes that he was:

[A] nineteenth-century polymath who made notable contributions to botanyzoology, the study ofprehistoric earthworks in North America and ancient Mesoamerican linguistics.

It then continues:

Rafinesque was eccentric, and is often portrayed as an “erratic genius”.[1] He was an autodidact who excelled in various fields of knowledge, as a zoologistbotanist, writer and polyglot. He wrote prolifically on such diverse topics as anthropology, biologygeology, and linguistics, but was honored in none of these fields during his lifetime. Today, scholars agree that he was far ahead of his time in many areas.[2][3]

Indeed. One of most notable ways in which he was thus “far ahead” is noted by John Jeremiah Sullivan in his essay “Lahwineski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist” (collected in Pulphead: Essays):

 [H]e saw much of what Darwin saw, could feel with his antennae the knowledge that would be Darwin’s glory…Darwin himself acknowledges Rafinesque in The Origin of Species. He quoted a sentence from New Flora and Botany of North-America, albeit begrudgingly. In a letter to a colleague, Darwin writes: “Poor naturalist as [Rafinesque] was, he has a good sentence about species and var[ietie]s, which I must quote in my Historical Sketch and I sadly want the date at once.” The good sentence was this: “All species might have been varieties once, and many varieties are gradually becoming species by assuming constant and peculiar characters.”

But in reality Darwin had little idea how far Rafinesque had gone. In a letter of 1832 to Torrey, Rafinesque wrote:

The truth is that Species and perhaps Genera also, are forming in organized beings by gradual deviations of shapes, forms and organs, taking place in the lapse of time. There is a tendency to deviations and mutations through plants and animals of gradual steps at remote irregular periods. This is a part of the great universal law of perpetual mutability in every thing. Thus it is needless to dispute and differ about new Sp[ecies] and varieties. Every variety is a deviation which becomes a Sp. as soon as it is permanent by reproduction.

One reason the scope of Rafinesque’s ideas in this area wasn’t known to Darwin or anyone else for so long is that Rafinesque had buried their boldest expression in his unreadable poetry. The lines dealing with evolution are in fact some of his least awful, as you feel him, for a second, stop versifying and start thinking: “Just like a tree, with many branches, most Of genera produce the various kinds of Or[sic] species; varieties at first, like buds Unfolding, and becoming species, when By age, they may acquire the proper forms.”

The proper forms-you see his needle start to twitch there. Also, “constant characters,” in the sentence Darwin references. He got close. Often when he approaches this question you can watch him–with a sudden flourish of meaningless, euphonious adjectives–trace a broken silhouette around the answer, as when he talks about “the natural evolution of spontaneous vegetable life exerted in wisdom thro’ ages” or about “fixed forms, and those that may vary to produce breeds or proles, until these assume the specific rank by important features, united to permanency, multiplicity of individuals or insulation in distinct climes.” Distinct climes! He was almost there–but the interior of the silhouette remains forever a vista of fog.

A remarkable anticipation of the central principles of evolutionary theory, even if not clearly and distinctly articulated.

Might Same-Sex Relations Be Evolutionarily Advantageous?

A prominent fallacious argument used against same-sex marriage is the good ‘ol ‘we’re only protecting our species’ one. I referred to it in a post a while ago:

[R]oughly, same-sex marriage is problematic because a) marriage is all about procreation and the raising of children and because b) evolution tell us that reproductive success is important, therefore: Gay marriage should be frowned upon.

I then went on to note the naturalistic fallacy committed by the proponents of this argument.

But there is a flip-side to this argument against same-sex relations from a supposedly evolutionary perspective. Might same-sex relations be evolutionarily advantageous? A affirmative answer to this question would not, of course, imply that same-sex relations were thereby to be understood as morally praiseworthy; that would be committing a naturalistic fallacy of its own. Rather, quite simply, it might show that contributions to evolutionary ‘success’–a poorly understood notion at best–can take many more forms than just the mere reproduction of offspring and thus defuse, in yet another fashion, the so-called ‘arguments from evolution against gay marriage.’

In reviewing Lisa Cohen‘s All We Know: Three Lives (a biography of Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland), Terry Castle writes:

For same-sex desire [Cohen] implies, has as much to do with introspection as it does with carnality, and in the ‘inopportune ardour’ of her subjects she recognises the potential for a certain radical mental freedom. It makes sense: to embrace one’s sapphic feelings – to come out to oneself – is necessarily to rethink the world. For not only is one made at once to confront one’s apparently permanent alienation from the ‘normal’ or mainstream, one finds one has to adjudicate, in the most piercing and personal way, on a raft of ethical, religious and scientific questions. Are one’s desires felonious or unnatural, as most traditional belief systems (distressingly) continue to insist? Or are they something rather more benign – simply a ‘variant’ expression of human sexuality? If the latter is the case, couldn’t one view same-sex passion, in turn, as a perhaps useful evolutionary adaptation? As an age-old demographic reality, possibly hardwired into the souls of some, that actually enriches and diversifies human civilisation? [From ‘You Better Not Tell Me You Forgot‘, London Review of Books, 27 September 2012]

Castle reminds us that reproductive success in producing offspring might not be the only way to understand successful ‘evolutionary adaptations’. Perhaps members of the species can, through their ‘variant expressions of human sexuality’ contribute to the ‘success’ of their species in other ways? The ‘radical mental freedom’ of the same-sex members of our species might spark an efflorescence of activities–perhaps artistic, scientific, literary, cultural–that make possible its  adaptive success in a variety of environments. (Think Tchaikovsky, Wilde, Woolf, Turing – the list goes on and on.) Indeed, these activities by: enriching our lives, making them worth living, enabling us to find meaning in this world, might even(!) facilitate the reproductive success of the species.  (Some might think, of course,  that the excessive devotion paid to Turing’s children–the modern electronic computer–does no such thing.) Viewed in this light,  the presence of species members who do not partake in opposite-sex relations–with or without producing offspring–might come to appear as a positive characteristic of the species.