Blyth, Edward

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Blyth, Edward

(b. London, England, 23 December 1810; d. London. 27 December 1873).

natural history.

Like his father, a native a Norkfolk. Blyth had great love of nature and an extraordinary memory. When his father died in 1820. Blyth’s mother took charge of the four children and immediately sent Edward, the oldest boy, to Dr. Fennell’s school at Wimbledon. Although he displayed great intellectual ability, Blyth was frequently truant to go on scientific expeditions to the nearby woods; and in 1825 Dr. Fennell suggested that Mrs. Blyth, who had planned a university career and ultimately the ministry for her son, should send him to study chemistry in London with a Mr. Keating. Blyth thought the chemist was unsatisfactory, however, and upon coming of age, he invested in a small druggist’s business in the town of Tooting, Surrey. This venture was doomed to failure because of his indifference: the real object of his affections was natural history. When not reading extensively in the British Museum, he collected butterflies, stuffed birds, or perhaps studied German–rising as early as three or four in the morning to do so.

While barely managing to exist, Blyth established an excellent reputation as a diligent and accurate naturalist. From 1833 until 1841, he contributed numerous notes and articles to scholarly journals, especially The Magazine of Natural History. In 1836 he published an edition of Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, and he both translated and annotated the sections on mammals, reptiles, and birds for an edition of Georges Cuvier’s The Animal Kingdom (1840). As a result of his scientific reputation (and perhaps as a result Of an article on sheep in which he discussed Indian specimens). Blyth was offered a job as curator for the Royal Asiatic Society Of Bengal Despite the extremely low pay of 250 rupees per month,1 he accepted the otter when his doctor advised him to seek a more salubrious climate for his delicate health. After arriving in Calcutta in September 1841, he worked with great industry for the society and published numerous reports, articles, and monographs, with particular emphasis on mammals and birds. The great English ornithologist John Gould observed that Blyth was “one of the first zoologists of his time, and the founder of the study of that science in India.”2 and Allan Hume described him as “the greatest of Indian naturalists.”3

In 1854 Blyth married Mrs. Sutton Hodges, a widow whom he had known in England, but this extremely happy marriage ended in December 1857, when his wife died. This great shock further weakened his chronically frail health, which led him to return to England in the summer of 1862, before learning whether he had received a government pension for his long and faithful service.4 After returning to his homeland, in addition to his other scholarly works he contributed extensive notes and articles to Land and Water and The Field under the pseudonym “Zoophilus.” or “Z.” Unfortunately, Blyth found it extremely difficult, as his early rambling articles indicate, to complete his own longer wafts, for there were always more facts to be gathered and additional hypotheses to test. Some of these hypotheses were grandiose indeed, and in 1865 he attempted to explain, according to A. R. Wallace, “everything by the Precession of the Equinoxes,” which led Wallace to comment that Blyth was “certainly very queer.”5

Nevertheless, his scientific abilities were recognized in 1865 by his election as honorary member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. He was also a corresponding member of the Zoological Society of London and various other scientific academies and societies in Turin, Norway, Batavia, Moselle, and Philadelphia. He died from heart disease shortly after his sixty-third birthday.

At the time of his death. Blyth was preparing a work entitled “The Origination of Species.” Although he was one of the very early converts to Darwin’s theory of natural selection.6 Blyth had long entertained ideas of his own on the species question. In 1833 he published the first of two excellent articles that discuss variation, the struggle for existence, sexual selection, and natural selection in terms that have a Darwinian sound.7 Although Blyth was equivocal, he conceded that a better adapted organism might survive the struggle for existence and “transmit its superior qualities to a greater number of offspring”: that there is a decided tendency in nature for peculiarities to increase when two similar animals mate: that in human races if nontypical variations were propagated, they “would become the origin of a new race” and that by selection man can Produce breeds “very unlike the original type.” But he also thought that the law allowing differences to be propagated “was intended by Providence to keep up the typical qualities of a species.” Without man’s intervention, domestic breeds would revert to the original type. In nature simple variations “are generally lost in the course of two or three generations” by the swamping effect of blending inheritance. He erroneously believed that the “original from of a species,” not a subsequent modification, was “unquestionably” better adapted to its “natural habits.” When he wrote these words, Blyth was not an evolutionist despite limited concessions that species may depart form the original type.8

On the other hand, Blyth’s perceptive observations on variation in nature bear an interesting resemblance to Darwin’s ideas, and, in fact, Darwin’s copies of Blyth’s articles in The Magazine of Natural History are heavily marked. While Blyth was in India, they corresponded frequently, and Blyth’s lengthy letters were filled with detailed information, comments, and recommendations. One interesting example occurred in 1855 when he suggested that Darwin read his two papers of 1835 and 1837.9 Although these articles were obviously germane to Darwin’s work, and despite the fact that he had already read, marked, and taken notes on them, he apparently never cited them in print, which is one reason Darwin has been accused of Plagiarizing the idea of natural selection from Blyth.10 while the evidence indicates that Blyth Probably did influence Darwin far more than most scholars have previously recognized, no one has established precisely when Darwin first read Blyth’s works and what he found of interest there. Blyth no doubt provided Darwin with many insights and possibly reconfirmed certain ideas, but it was Darwin’s On the Origin of Species which seems to have revolutionized Blyth’s ideas on species, and not vice versa.11 on the other hand, he was keenly aware of the issues in question and warmly recommended A. R. Wallace’s first evolutionary paper, “On the Law which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species” (Sept. 1855), to Darwin; this was perhaps Darwin’s first clear warning of Wallace’s work on evolution.12 Blyth’s influence on Darwin, however, does not affect the epochal importance of On the Origin of Species.


1. Allan Hume was especially bitter about Blyth’s low pay. “In Memoriam, Rdquo; in Stray Feathers, 2 (1874), n, p.

2. John Gould, The Birds of Asia (London, 1850–1853) III, Pt. 26, Pl 41.

3.Op. cit.

4. His request was at first denied, but through the efforts of sir P. Cautley and Dr. Falconer, he finally received a pension of £150 per year. See Grote, P. xii.

5. Letter, Alfred Russel Wallace to Alfred Newton, 9 November 1865, at the Balfour Library, Cambridge. The italics are Wallace’s.I wish to thank A. J. R. Wallace and R. R. Wallace for permission to quote from their grandfather’s MSS.

6. The Asiatic Society of Bengal received a copy of Darwin’s Originin February or March 1860. Shortly thereafter Blyth commented favorably on Darwin’s views, and at the meetings of November 1860 he staunchly defended his ideas. See Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 29 (1860), 86, 283, 383, 385, 428–438, esp. 436–438.

7. These two articles were published in three parts each in The Magazine of Natural History. The first had a different title for each part: Pt. 1, “An Attempt to Classify the ‘Varieties’ of Animals, With Observations on the Marked Seasonal and Other Changes Which Naturally Take Place in Various British Species and Which Do Not Constitute Varieties” in 8 (1835), 40–53; pt. 2 “Observations on the various Seasonal and Other External Changes Which Regularly Take place in Birds. More Particularly in Those which Occur in Britain; With Remarks on Their Great Importance in Indicating the True Affinities of Species; And Upon the Natural System of Arrangement,” in 9 (Aug, 1836), 393–409; Pt. 3.“Further Remarks on the Affinities of the Feathered Race; and Upon the Nature of Specific Distinctions.” ibid. (Oct. 1836), 505–514. The second article, “On the Psychological Distinctions Between Man and All Other Animals; And the Consequent Diversity Of Human Influence Over the Inferior Ranks of Creation From Any Mutual and Reciprocal Influence Exerised Among the Latter,” Appeared i three consecutive parts all under the same title, ibid., n.s. 1(Jan. 1837). 1–9; (Feb, 1837), 77–85; (Mar, 1837), 131–141. Loren Eiseley has reprinted these articles in “Charles Darwin, Edward Blyth, and the Theory of Natural Selection,” in Proceedings of the American philosophical Society, 103 (Feb, 1959), 94–158; see 114–150.

8. Blyth (1835), pp. 41, 46–49.

9. The books and MSS referred to are at the University Library, Cambridge. For Blyth’s remark see the Darwin Papers, Box 98, MSS headed “Notes on Lyell, Vol. 2, Edit, 1832” (1855), p. 48.

10. See Eiseley, op. cit., 102–103. His arguments are repeated and elaborated in “Darwin, Coleridge, and the Theory of Unconscious Creation,” in Daedalus, 94, no. 3 (summer 1965), 588–602.

11. Darwin to sir Charles Lyell, (1 June 1860). In The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, II (1887), 314–316; see 316.

12. Letter, Blyth to Darwin, 8 Dec. 1855, Darwin Papers, Box 98, Cambridge University. The Letter probably arrived in England about Feb. 1856.


1.Original Works. In addition to the articles referred to in the Notes, Blyth wrote an enormous number of notes, articles, and monographs. Many of these are listed by A. Grote with his memoir of Blyth prefaced to “Catalogue of Mammals and Birds of Burma,” in of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Pt. 2, extra no. (Aug. 1875), iii-xxiv, esp. xvii-xxiv;reprinted without bibliography in Eiseley (1959). Since Grote used Blyth’s letters (then in the possession of his sister but now missing) as well as his own recollections, his biography of Blyth is the most valuable one available. Some of Blyth’s letters to Darwin are in the Darwin Papers, Cambridge University, but his handwriting was frequently very poor, and these valuable letters have not yet been fully utilized.

II. Secondary Literature. Other than Grote’s biographical sketch, the obituaries of Blyth—such as those in nature, 9 (1874), 191, and The Field (3 Jan. 1874), 3—are of little value. H.D. Geldart’s “;Notes on the Life and Writings of Edward Blyth” (read 28 Oct. 1979), in Transactions of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists Society, 3 (1884), 38–46, used Grote exclusively, except for excerpts from and comments on Blyth’s 1835 article which Grote omitted. H. M. Vickers also cited this perceptive article by Blyth in “An Apparently Hitherto Unnoticed ‘Anticipation’ of the Theory of Natural Selection,” in Nature, 85 (16 Feb, 1911), 510–511, Recently, attention has been directed to Blyth Eiseley (1959). Perhaps the tenor of the replies to Eiseley has been established by Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Blyth, Darwin, and Natural Selection,” in the American Naturalist, 93 (1959). 204–206. He stresses that Darwin’s thinking processes were not totally free from “subconscious components” and asked, “Might not even Darwin have been mistaken about the sources of some of his ideas?” Eiseley replied in 1965 (see n. 10).

H. Lewis MCkinney