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Forbes, Edward, Jr.

Forbes, Edward, Jr.

(b. Douglas, Isle of Man, England, 12 February 1815; d. Edinburgh, Scotland, 18 November 1854)

biogeography, invertebrate zoology, invertebrate paleontology.

Both parents were natives of the Isle of Man. His father was involved in local fishery and lumber businesses, but he later switched to banking. His mother, Jane Teare Forbes, owned Manx property, some of which Edward was to inherit. He was the eldest of eight children surviving infancy. A brother, David, became a geologist.

As a child, Edward became deeply engrossed in the natural world which he found on the island and its shores. He also liked to draw, and in 1831 he went to London to study art. Since he did not show sufficient talent, in November of that year he went to Edinburgh to study medicine instead. There he was strongly influenced by Robert Graham in botany and Robert Jameson in geology, but he never channeled his enthusiasm for zoology and botany into an interest in their medical applications. After his mother’s death in 1836 he abandoned his medical education. He went to Paris for the winter of 1836–1837 and attended the biological lectures of Henri M. D. de Blainville and Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

Forbes was remarkably friendly and enjoyed a wide popularity. At Edinburgh he organized a social club which, although rather puritanical compared with typical college fraternities, was a source of lifetime friendships. After 1842 he assumed the responsibility of annually persuading naturalists to attend meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and he organized younger members of the natural history section into a club called the Red Lions. Forbes enjoyed drawing whimsical animal cartoons and composing poems and songs, the best remembered being “The Song of the Dredge” (1839):

Down in the deep, where the mermen sleep,
Our gallant dredge is sinking;
Each finny shape in a precious scrape
Will find itself in a twinkling!
They may twirl and twist, and writhe as they wist,
And break themselves into sections,
But up they all, at the dredge’s call,
Must come to fill collections.

He married Emily Marianne Ashworth on 31 August 1848 and remained devoted to her until his death. They had a son and a daughter. After his death, she married Major William Charles Yelverton in 1858.

The range of Forbes’s interests was always broad, although from the start most strongly focused upon marine animals and the distribution of species. These interests early inspired him with a desire to travel, and in May 1833 he sailed with a friend to Norway, where he observed the distribution of vascular plants and mollusks. On that voyage and on later trips he concentrated on those groups because of the ease with which they could be collected. They could serve as indicators of the extent of biogeographical provinces. He published brief biogeographical papers in 1835, but more notable were his observations in 1837, “On the Comparative Elevation of Testacea in the Alps” (Magazine of Zoology and Botany, 1 , 257–259), which listed the species that appeared in four vegetation zones. This was a small step toward the concept of biotic communities.

He published five papers on mollusks and their distribution in 1839 and then a monograph on British starfish which appeared serially in 1839–1841. In the introduction he divided the British seas into eleven provinces and indicated in a table the distribution of each species within these provinces. Another table indicated the number of species in six families of starfish which are found in four depth zones. He also began studying the relationship between the distribution of fossil and living species, the importance of which subject Charles Lyell had capably expounded in volume II of his Principles of Geology (1832).

After leaving medical school Forbes lived on a yearly allowance of £150 from his father, supplemented by fees from occasional teaching and lectures. Gradually he became unhappy because of his inability to find a permanent position as a naturalist. In February 1841 he heard that Captain Thomas Graves of the Royal Navy, who was charged with surveying the coastal waters of Greece and Turkey, wanted a naturalist to accompany him. Like Charles Darwin before him, Forbes jumped at the opportunity for exploration—after asking his father. On this voyage, which began 1 April, Forbes carried out probably the most extensive and systematic dredging for marine animals ever conducted. Along coasts that naturalists had seldom visited since the time of Aristotle he discovered unknown species, both living and fossil. He also studied the rock formations, flora, and fauna of the islands and coastal regions. He planned extensive publications on his findings but was never able to produce them on the scale he desired.

While Forbes was in the Mediterranean, his father notified him that, because of financial reverses, his allowance must cease. His situation was worsened by a serious attack of malaria. Consequently, when his friend John Goodsir arranged for his appointment to the chair of botany at Kings College, London, Forbes reluctantly returned to London, arriving 28 October 1842.

During the next decade Forbes worked long and hard to earn a living as a naturalist. His professorship paid less than £100 per year, and therefore he also accepted the position of curator for the Geological Society of London. This job, which paid £150, involved managing the society’s collections and library and editing its journal. He had scant time to prepare his Near Eastern researches for publication, and sickness, apparently the return of malaria, hampered him further. Nevertheless, in 1843 he managed to prepare a report for the British Association, “On the Molluscs and Radiata of the Aegean Sea, and on Their Distribution, Considered as Bearing on Geology.” The generalizations in it were important for biogeography and paleontology and carried him closer to the concept of biotic communities. Extrapolating from his data, he postulated an “azoic zone” below 300 fathoms, but later research has revealed that animal life did exist below that depth. These generalizations were more explicitly stated in another paper the following year, “On the Light Thrown on Geology by Submarine Researches; Being the Substance of a Communication Made to the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Friday Evening, the 23d February 1844” (Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, 36 [1844], 318–327).

In 1844 Forbes became a paleontologist for the Geological Survey, under Henry de la Beche, at £300 per year. He was elected a fellow of the Geological Society in 1844 and of the Royal Society in 1845. Although his new position often carried him afield, he still managed to conduct some classes, give lectures, and write articles and book reviews. He was coauthor, with Lieutenant Thomas A. B. Spratt of the Royal Navy, of the two-volume Travels in Lycia (London, 1846), but scientifically more important was Forbes’s long paper of that year, “On the Connexion Between the Distribution of the Existing Fauna and Flora of the British Isles and the Geological Changes Which Have Affected Their Area” (Memoirs of the Geological Survey of England and Wales, 1 , 336–432). In this paper he emphasized hypothetical former land connections with the Continent and also glaciation to account for the discontinuous distribution of species. In 1848–1852 he published with Sylvanus Hanley a four-volume monograph, The History of British Mollusca.

An industrious worker who achieved broad experience and knowledge in both field and museum, Forbes was not always fortunate in the conclusions he drew from his studies. The nature of species was of great interest to him, but his thoughts on the subject were entangled by contemporary metaphysical ideas on typology and by his Anglican religion. He believed that his studies of living and fossil species had enabled him to discover God’s plan for creating species, which he named “the principle of polarity.” Forbes explained this principle in his presidential address to the Geological Society in February 1853 (Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 10 [1854], xxii-lxxxi, esp. pp. lxxvii-lxxxi). He believed that there existed, or had existed, a continuity of forms of species, but this continuity was supposedly the result of a creation plan rather than of evolution. He postulated two major periods of creation, which he labeled “palaeozoic” and “neozoic.” He believed that there was a functional parallel between the species of these two epochs, that there had been a “replacement of one group by another, serving the same purpose in the world’s economy.” In reaction to this paper Alfred Russel Wallace published his paper of 1855 on the replacement of species as evidenced by the geological record. Forbes had earlier attacked the concept of evolution in two anonymous reviews, one on Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of Creation (Lancet [1844], pp. 265–266), and the other on Adam Sedgwick’s Discourse (Literary Gazette [4 January 1851], reprinted in Forbes’s Literary Papers [London, 1855], pp. 10–24).

In April 1854 Professor Jameson’s death resulted in the long-awaited vacancy in the Regius chair of natural history at Edinburgh, and Forbes was appointed to it. He now had the opportunity—it would prove short-lived—to teach and publish as he wished. He soon became sick with diarrhea and vomiting, and before fully recovering he was further weakened by exposure to a hard rain during a field trip. His death, reportedly from a kidney disease, soon followed.

In 1848 Forbes had begun a significant paleontological and stratigraphic study for the Geological Survey and he was just starting to write the report at the time of his death. This report, On the Tertiary Fluvio-Marine Formation of the Isle of Wight, was completed by several of his former colleagues at the Survey, most notably Henry William Bristow, and was edited by Forbes’s literary executor, Robert Godwin-Austen (London, 1856).

One of Forbes’s most important works was the posthumous The Natural History of European Seas (London, 1859). He wrote the first five chapters (126 pages); it was completed by Robert Godwin-Austen. Published in the same year as Darwin’s Origin of Species, it contained one of the last confident defenses of the idea of centers of creation. On the other hand, it was also a pioneering work, the first general study of oceanography. Although the chapters were organized mainly according to geographical regions, those by Forbes emphasized biogeography and those by Godwin-Austen emphasized physical aspects of oceanography, thereby providing a broad introduction to the science as a whole.

In spite of Forbes’s antievolution commitment, it is a tribute to the value of his work that Darwin found numerous occasions to cite him with approval when writing the Origin of Species.


Considering that he died at the age of thirty-nine, Forbes published a great many works. Some of those having particular theoretical interest are mentioned in the text. Almost all of his publications are listed in the short-title bibliography provided by George Wilson and Archibald Geikie, Memoir of Edward Forbes, F.R.S., Late Regius Professor of Natural History in the University of Edinburgh (Cambridge-London-Edinburgh, 1861), pp. 575–583, the only extensive study on Forbes.

Several shorter essays and necrologies provide additional information and assessments. Two that contain bibliographies are G. T. Bettany, “Forbes, Edward (1815–1854),” in Dictionary of National Biography; and Daniel Merriman, “Edward Forbes—Manxman,” in Progress in Oceanography, 3 (1965), 191–206.

See also Nils von Hofsten, “Zur alteren Geschichte des Discontinuitatsproblems in der Biogeographie,” in Zoologischen Annalen, 7 (1916), 197–353, esp. 301–306.

Frank N. Egerton III

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