Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation

 

An assessment of rival British theories of biogeography, 1800-1859 Public Deposited

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  • At the beginning of the nineteenth century most theorizing British naturalists supported a Biblical account of the distribution of life which was based upon the notion that life had been dispersed from the resting place of the ark. This implied a relatively even dispersion of life about the Earth, but explorations found life to be regionalized into several major geographical areas, each of which contained a distinct fauna and flora. The Biblical account became untenable when it was unable to explain this regionalization phenomenon and several other phenomena, such as; the presence of life on remote islands, discontinuous distributions of some species, and finally, the fact that distributions of extinct and extant life often differ. British natural theologians (those who attempted to merge science and religion) adopted the theory of catastrophism to explain the problems facing biogeography. Catastrophism allowed the natural theologians to explain the phenomenon of regionalization as the result of several areas of creation. A major goal of the natural theologians, from James C. Prichard (1786-1848) to Philip L. Sclater (1829-1913), became the attempted delineation of the design of the regions of creation. Their theory could not be supported as new data demonstrated a lack of design in the distribution of life. The rival tradition of explanation was provided by those British naturalists who were interested in positing a non-miraculous, natural theory. Pre-Darwinian evolution was scientifically unacceptable to this tradition, therefore the only scientific alternative was the theory based upon the natural creation (spontaneous generation) of species. This theory was proposed by Charles Lyell (1797-1875), R. B. Hinds (1812-1847), and others. The lack of a mechanism for the natural creationists' scheme kept the theory from being widely accepted in Britain. Both rival theories framed the problems that had to be answered by the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution, the foundations of which were in part constructed by the natural theologians and the natural creationists.
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