Edward Blyth

Edward Blyth

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.

Early life and work

Blyth was the son of a clothier and initially worked as a pharmacist but quit in 1837 to seek a living as an author and editor. He was offered the position of curator at the museum of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1841. He was so poor that he needed an advance of 100 pounds to make the trip to Calcutta. In India, Blyth was poorly paid (the Asiatic Society did not expect to find a European curator for the salary that they could offer), with a salary of 300 pounds per year that was unchanged for twenty years and a house allowance of 4 pounds per month. He got married in 1854 and tried to supplement his income by writing under a pseudonym to the "Indian Sporting Review" as well as trading live animals between India and Britain catering to wealthy collectors both in Britain and India. In this venture he sought the collaboration of various eminent people including Charles Darwin and John Gould, both of whom declined these offers.Brandon-Jones, Christine 1997. Edward Blyth, Charles Darwin, and the animal trade in Nineteenth-Century India and Britain. "Journal of the History of Biology" 30:145-178]

Although a curator of a museum with multiple areas of work, he contributed largely to ornithology, often forsaking other areas of work. His employers were unhappy in 1847 at his failure to produce a catalogue of the museum. There were also factions in the Asiatic Society that were against Blyth and he complained to Richard Owen in 1848:

His work on ornithology led him to be recognized as the "father of Indian ornithology" a title which was later transferred to Allan Octavian Hume. [Murray, James A. 1888. "The avifauna of British India and its dependencies". Truebner. Volume 1]

On natural selection

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". [Dobzhansky, Theodosius (1959) Blyth, Darwin, and Natural Selection. The American Naturalist 93(870):204-206.] These articles were published in "The Magazine of Natural History" between 1835 and 1837. [Blyth, E., "The Magazine of Natural History" Volumes 8, 9 and 10, 1835–1837.] [ [http://www.wku.edu/~smithch/biogeog/BLYT1835.htm 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] " by Edward Blyth (1835) "Magazine of Natural History" Volume 8 pages 40-53.] 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!" [Shermer, Michael. 2002 "In Darwin’s shadow : the life and science of Alfred Russel Wallace". Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514830-4]

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..." [Darwin, Charles, [http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/origin/chapter1.html "The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection"] , Third Edition, 1861]

Loren Eiseley claimed that "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". [Eiseley, L. 1979. "Darwin and the Mysterious Mr X". Dutton, New York. p55] [Eiseley L. 1959. Charles Darwin, Edward Blyth, and the theory of natural selection. "Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society" 103:94–114.] 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. However, the subsequent discovery of Darwin's notebooks has "permitted the refutation of Eiseley's claims." [Mayr E. 1984. "The growth of biological thought". Harvard. p489] Both Mayr and Darlington interpret Blyth's view of natural selection as maintaining the type::"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..." (Mayr, op cit):"What was the work of Blyth?... Blyth attempts to show how [selection and the struggle for existence] can be used to explain, not the change of species (which he was anxious to discredit) but the stability of species in which he ardently believed." [Darlington C.D. 1959. "Darwin's place in history". Blackwell, Oxford. p34]

Natural selection, in this negative formulation, acts only to preserve the type, constant and inviolate, by eliminating extreme variants and unfit individuals who threatened to degrade the essence of created form. The theologian William Paley had earlier presented this argument, doing so to refute (in later pages) a claim that modern species preserve the good designs winnowed from a much broader range of initial creations after natural selection had eliminated the less viable forms: "The hypothesis teaches, that every possible variety of being hath, at one time or other, found its way into existence (by what cause of in what manner is not said), and that those which were badly formed, perished".Fact|date=September 2008

The way in which Blyth himself argued about the modification of species can be illustrated by an extract concerning the adaptations of carnivorous mammals: :"However reciprocal...may appear the relations of the preyer and the prey, a little reflection on the observed facts suffices to intimate that the relative adaptations of the former only are special, those of latter being comparatively vague and general; indicating that there having been a superabundance which might serve as nutriment, in the first instance, and which, in many cases, was unattainable by ordinary means, particular species have therefore been so organized (that is to say, modified upon some more or less general "type" or plan of structure,) to avail themselves of the supply." [Blyth, E. 1840. Editorial footnote in "Cuvier's Animal Kingdom" Orr, London. p67]

Like the other proto-evolutionary biologists, Blyth grasped part of the story, but he rejected the critical part, the production of new species.

Return from India

Blyth returned to London on March 9, 1863 to recover from ill health. He was to get a full year's pay for this sick leave. He however had to borrow money from John Henry Gurney and continued his animal trade. Around 1865 he began to help Thomas C. Jerdon in the writing of the "Birds of India" but had a mental breakdown and had to be kept in a private asylum. He was a corresponding member of the Zoological Society and was elected an extraordinary member of the British Ornithological Union, nominated by Alfred Newton. He later took to drinking and was convicted for assaulting a cab driver. He died of heart disease in December 1873.

Other works

Blyth edited the section on 'Mammalia, Birds, and Reptiles' in the English edition of Cuvier's "Animal Kingdom" published in 1840, inserting many observations, corrections, and references of his own. His "Catalogue of the Mammals and Birds of Burma" was published posthumously in 1875. [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/2725 Blyth, Edward (1810-1873), zoologist] by Christine Brandon-Jones in Dictionary of National Biography online (accessed 21 July 2008)]


External links

* [http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/darwin/search/advanced?query=author:%22Blyth%2C+Edward%22+addressee:%22Blyth%2C+Edward%22 Archives of Charles Darwin and his correspondence with Blyth]
* [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/2725 Blyth, Edward (1810-1873), zoologist] by Christine Brandon-Jones in Dictionary of National Biography

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