Sunday, May 03, 2009

What's in a name ?

Edward Blyth (December 23, 1810 - December 27, 1873) was an English zoologist and pharmacist. He was one of the founders of Indian zoology.

Blyth was born in London in 1810. In 1841 he travelled to India to become the curator of the museum of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. He set about updating the museum's catalogues, publishing a Catalogue of the Birds of the Asiatic Society in 1849. He was prevented from doing much fieldwork himself, but received and described bird specimens from Hume, Tickell, Swinhoe and others. He remained as curator until 1862, when ill-health forced his return to England. His The Natural History of the Cranes was published in 1881.
Species bearing his name include Blyth's Hawk-eagle, Blyth's Reed Warbler, Southern Blyth's Leaf-Warbler and Blyth's Pipit.

Edward Blyth wrote three articles on variation, discussing the effects of artificial selection and describing the process of natural selection as restoring organisms in the wild to their archetype (rather than forming new species). He however never used the term "natural selection".
These articles were published in The Magazine of Natural History between 1835 and 1837.
He was among the first to recognise the significance of Wallace's paper "On the Law which has regulated the introduction of Species" and brought it to the notice of Darwin in a letter written in Calcutta on December 8, 1855: "What think you of Wallace’s paper in the Ann. N. Hist.? Good! Upon the whole! Wallace has, I think, put the matter well; and according to his theory, the various domestic races of animals have been fairly developed into species. A trump of a fact for friend Wallace to have hit upon!"

There can be no doubt of Darwin's regard for Edward Blyth: in the first chapter of The Origin of Species he writes "...Mr Blyth, whose opinion, from his large and varied stores of knowledge, I should value more than that of almost any one..."
"The leading tenets of Darwin's work – the struggle for existence, variation, natural selection and sexual selection – are all fully expressed in Blyth's paper of 1835". He also cites a number of rare words, similarities of phrasing, and the use of similar examples, which he regards as evidence of Darwin's debt to Blyth. "Blyth's theory was clearly one of elimination rather than selection. His principal concern is the maintenance of the perfection of the type. Blyth's thinking is decidedly that of a natural theologian..."
Like the other proto-evolutionary biologists, Blyth grasped part of the story, but he rejected the critical part, the production of new species.
Loren Eisely wrote: "But let the world not forget that Edward Blyth, a man of poverty and bad fortune, shaped a key that dropped half-used from his hands when he set forth hastily on his own ill-fated voyage. That key, which was picked up and reforged by a far greater and more cunning hand, was no less than natural selection."(20)

When Blyth died in London on December 27, 1873, found among his papers was a fragment of an old manuscript that he had once been preparing, titled "On the Origination of Species".

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