Cunningham, Joseph Thomas

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(b. London. England. 4 April 1859; d. London. 5 June 1935)

zoology, marine biology.

Cunningham was an embryologist and marine bi ologist who from 1890 to the early 1930’s was one of the leading English exponents of neo-Lamarckian evolutionary theory.

The son of William Henry Cunningham, a solicitor. Cunningham attended St. Olave’s Grammar School in Southwark. He then went to Balliol College, Oxford, as Brackenbury science scholar (1878–1881), obtaining first-class honors in mathematical moderations and natural science. In 1882 he was elected to a fellowship at University College, Oxford.

Cunningham’s career began at a time when British biologists were seeking to establish a marine biological laboratory comparable with Anton Dohrn’s celebrated zoological station at Naples. The British perceived that a marine station of their own would be the ideal place for studying (1) the embryological development of marine organisms and (2) the food. habits, and life histories of British food fishes and mollusks. Cunningham studied at the Naples zoological station in the winter of 1882–1883. In 1883 he became assistant to the Regius professor of natural history at Edinburgh, James Cossar Ewart, who was interested in promoting marine biology.

When in 1884 a small-scale floating marine laboratory was set up by John Murray at Granton. near Edinburgh, under the auspices of the Scottish Meteorological Society. Cunningham was made its director. The Marine Biology Association of the United Kingdom was founded in the same year, and three years later, when it created a position for a naturalist at the marine laboratory being established at Plymouth, Cunningham was selected for the job. He served as naturalist to the Marine Biology Association for ten years (eight years at Plymouth and two at Grimsby), then took a position with the Cornwall Technical Instruction Committee, lecturing to fishermen about scientific means of improving their livelihood.

Cunningham moved to London in 1902 and taught zoology at Chelsea Polytechnic. In 1909 he conducted a study of the fisheries of St. Helena. He was appointed lecturer in zoology at East London College (Queen Mary College), University of London, in 1917, a position he held until his retirement in 1926. In the course of his career he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and of the Zoological Society and the Linnean Society of London. Cunningham married Sophie Crossfield in 1886; they had one son. who was killed in World War I.

Cunningham’s early papers consisted primarily of studies of (1) the embryology of teleostean fishes, a subject he pursued in hopes of shedding light on the primitive ancestry of the vertebrates. and (2) the occurrence and reproduction of British food fishes. His first book, A Treatise on the Common Sole (Solea vulgaris), appeared in 1890.

Early in his career Cunningham concluded that the primary explanation of evolution was to be found in the origin of individual variations rather than in their selection. His study of flatfishes led him to the Lamarckian view that adaptive variations arose as the result of stimulations or irritations to the body brought about by habits or external conditions. He first made his position explicit in the preface to his translation of Gustav H. T. Eimer’s Organic Evolution as the Result of the Inheritance of Acquired Characters According to the Laws of Organic Growth (1890). Cunningham believed that such phenomena as the distortion of the skull and the asymmetry of the eyes in flatfish and the lack of pigment on the fishes’ lower sides could be readily explained as the result of the inherited effects of habits maintained over many generations.

In letters to Nature in the 1890’s, Cunningham attacked the views of August Weismann and the English neo-Darwinists, and declared himself a disciple of Herbert Spencer. Though he believed there was ample inductive evidence to support neoLamarckism, he undertook experimental studies of pigment change in flatfishes to test whether the whiteness of the fishes’ lower sides was due to selection or to their lack of exposure to light. The results he obtained tended, in his view, to support the latter hypothesis.

In his book Sexual Dimorphism in the Animal Kingdom (1900), Cunningham maintained that secondary sexual characters could best be explained as the result of habits and the inheritance of acquired characters. In an article in Roux’s Archiv (1908) he suggested that the role provisionally ascribed by Darwin to “gemmules” in his “provisional hypothesis of pangenesis” was actually performed by hormones. Hormones were the substances through which somatic modifications affected the gametes. The findings of Thomas Hunt Morgan and other geneticists in the next two decades—and his own Mendelian experiments on fowls in the 1910’s— did not change Cunningham’s mind about neoLamarckism. He believed that the mutations Morgan and others were finding in Drosophila and other organisms had nothing to do with adaptation. In his book Hormones and Heredity (1921). he maintained that there were two kinds of variation in evolution, one somatogenic, due to the influence of external stimuli on body cells, and the other gametogenic. due to changes in chromosomes. Only the somatogenic variations were adaptive.

Opposing the notion that mutation and selection explained the evolution of all characters, and also opposing the notion that all the characters that distinguish species from one another are adaptive, Cunningham stressed the importance of the effects of external stimuli upon the development of living tissue, regarding this to be an essentially Lamarckian position. At the same time, he was skeptical of some of the claims offered on behalf of Lamarckism, including some of those set forth by the Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer. Cunningham’s final book. Modern Biology (1928), showed him to be a thoughtful critic of contemporary biological concepts and theories.

His years in retirement were not restricted to theoretical efforts, however. In 1930 Cunningham embarked on an expedition to the island of Marajó, at the mouth of the Amazon, to study the function of the external vascular filaments on the pelvic limbs of male lungfish (Lepidosiren) that develop during the breeding season. True to his Lamarckian position, he interpreted these filaments and their function as an adaptation that was explained better by the direct influence of environmental conditions than by mutation and selection.


I. Original Works. No complete bibliography of Cunningham’s writings has been collected. Most of his papers published up to 1900, however, are listed in the Royal Society’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers, IX (1891). 618; XIV (1915), 429–431.

His books are A Treatise on the Common Sole (Solea vulgaris), Considered Both as an Organism and as a Commodity (Plymouth, 1890); The Natural History of the Marketable Marine Fishes of the British Islands (London, 1896); Sexual Dimorphism in the Animal Kingdom. A Theory of the Evolution of Secondary Sexual Characters (London. 1900); The Preservation of Fishing Nets (London. 1902); Hormones and Heredity: A Discussion of Adaptations and the Evolution of Species (London, 1921); and Modern Biology. A Review of the Principal Phenomena of Animal Life in Relation to Modern Concepts and Theories (London, 1928).

Cunningham’s articles through 1900 include “Review of Recent Researches on Karyokinesis and Cell Division,” in Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science, 22 (1882), 35–49; “Note on the Structure and Relations of the Kidney in Aplysia” in Mittheilungen aus der zoologischen Station zu Neapel, 4 (1883), 420–428; “The Zoological Station in Naples,” in Nature, 27 (1883), 453–455; “Critical Note on the Latest Theory in Vertebrate Morphology,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 12 (1884), 759–765; “The Significance of Kupffer’s Vesicle, with Remarks on Other Questions of Vertebrate Morphology,” in Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science, 25 (1885), 1–14; “On the Relations of the Yolk to the Gastrula in Teleosteans. and in Other Vertebrate Types,” ibid., 26 (1886), 1–38; “Dr. Dohrn’s Inquiries into the Evolution of Organs in the Chordata,” ibid., 27 (1887), 265–284; “Studies of the Reproduction and Development of Teleostean Fishes Occurring in the Neighbourhood of Plymouth,” in Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 1 (18809–1890), 10–54; and “An Experiment Concerning the Absence of Colour from the Lower Sides of Flat-fishes,” in Zoologische Anzeiger, 14 (1891), 27–32.

Cunningham’s articles after 1900 include “The Heredity of Secondary Sexual Characters in Relation to Hormones, a Theory of the Heredity of Somatogenic Characters,” in Archiv für Entwicklungsmechanik der Organismen, 26 (1908), 372–428; “On the Marine Fishes and Invertebrates of St. Helena,” in Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1910), 86–131; “Mendelian Experiments on Fowls,” ibid. (1912), 241–259: “Results of a Mendelian Experiment on Fowls. Including the Production of a Pile Breed,” ibid. (1919). 173–202; “On the Nuptial Callosities of Frogs and Toads from the Lamarckian Point of View,” in Journal of the Linnean Society of London. Zoology, 36 (1927), 431–437; “The Vascular Filaments on the Pelvic Limbs of Lepidosiren, Their Function and Evolutionary Significance,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B105 (1929), 484–493; “Adaptive Evolution, with Special Reference to Metamorphosis and Sex-Limited Characters,” in Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London (1929–1930), 165–186; “Experimental Researches on the Emission of Oxygen by the Pelvic Filaments of the Male Lepidosiren, with Some Experiments on Symbranchus marmoratus,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. B110 (1932), 234–248, written with D. M. Reid; “Experiments on the Interchange of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide Between the Skin of Lepidosiren and the Surrounding Water, and the Probable Emission of Oxygen by the Male Symbranchus,” in Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1932), 875–887.

II. Secondary Literature. On Cunningham’s life and career, see E. J. A., “Mr. J. T. Cunningham,” in Nature, 136 (1935), 13; and D. M. Reid. “Joseph Thomas Cunningham (1859–1935),” in Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London (1935–1936), 205–207.

Richard W. Burkhardt, Jr.

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Cunningham, Joseph Thomas

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