We all know Charles Darwin, his contribution to humanity will never be forgotten; his theory of human evolution is taught in schools the world over. But very often in the tale of his accomplishments, an important character is easily left out without whom perhaps Charles Darwin might not have become whom he was. His name is John Edmonstone.
John Edmonstone was an African taxidermist who taught taxidermy to Edinburgh university students; this included Charles Darwin.
A Painting of John Edmonstone Teaching Charles Darwin Taxidermy
John Edmonstone was born into slavery in Demerara, Guyana. His master was Charles Edmonstone. He learned taxidermy from his master’s son in law and British naturalist Charles Waterton, with whom it is recorded he went on bird collecting expeditions with and was assigned the task of stuffing the captured birds during those missions.
His master Charles Edmonstone brought him to Glasgow in 1807 and shortly after freed him. A free John Edmonstone lived in Glasgow for a while working as a taxidermist in the Natural History Museum before later moving to Edinburgh where he taught taxidermy to Edinburgh University students.
A young Charles Darwin coming from a lineage of doctors arrived Edinburgh in 1825 to study medicine just like his father and grandfather before him. Although he was not keen on studying the subject, his passion had always been nature and living things.
He met John whom he paid one guinea an hour daily to teach him Taxidermy. They became very good friends, in his memoir Charles Darwin described John as “a very pleasant and intelligent man” and went on to say how he spent many hours conversing with him.
With all the time they spent together the two men inevitably conversed about the institution of slavery and exchanged views, which probably might have left the impression on Darwin that the prosperity difference between the white masters and black slave was a social creation and not a biological inevitability, the later was a very popular notion in the 17th and 18th centuries, backed by some scientists at the time. But John and Darwin did not only talk about slavery; John must have intrigued and inspired Darwin’s interest in nature and life with exciting accounts of his bird collecting expeditions, plantation life and the plush rainforests teeming with varieties of wildlife.
Edinburgh University 1820
Darwin must have been impressed, and his appetite for explorations and discoveries whetted further when he learned that John accompanied Waterton during his expeditions to Guyana, which inspired Waterton’s hugely popular new book at the time “Wanderings in South America.” Because soon afterward Darwin dropped out of medical school and embarked on the now famous and historic five-year voyage on the S.S. Beagle. That voyage changed the life of Charles Darwin, he would never have achieved success without the skills taught him by John Edmonstone. Who knows, he might have become just another doctor.
Before Charles Darwin’s theory on evolution, influential thinkers of each generation had always been enmeshed in controversies over the origin of life forms. Different generations came up with different theories that were always controversial, not scientifically proven and largely unpopular. These theories probably have their roots from archaic theological human belief that life forms and species were infinite and have all already been divinely created. This was like a sought of backbone to most ancient biologists who never thought of evolvement of a new specie but rather tried to devise methods of a systematic grouping. They never entertained the thought that many different species might have originated from an earlier common specie. This was prevalent in 17th and 18th-century European biology which described and grouped plants and animals as they were, without giving much thought on how they got to be that way.
1856 Classification of Mankind By Nott and Gliddon
It was not until the late 18th century that some scientists began to subtly imply that life forms might not be permanently fixed. This was the dawn of the theory of the transmutation of species which preceded Charles Darwin’s theory of origin of speicies by natural selection, and it was still highly controversial. French mathematician and scientist and naturalist Comte de Buffon was an early advocate of this theory, he believed in adaptation: that living things change over time but can never evolve into another specie.
The late 17th and early 18th century brought about many first-time encounters of Europeans with different races from other countries, this was largely due to colonial expansion, discoveries, overseas explorations, and expansion of trade routes. Many people could not fathom the idea of having a common ancestry with people of other races because of their profound physical differences. Many scientists and explorers embarked on voyages to far-off nations to observe and study different races. With their naive observations and so-called evidence, they went back to their countries to publish books of their findings which gave more credence to the theory of polygenism.
By the 19th century, the theory of polygenism of the human race had become widespread in Europe; there was a sharp shift from civilization to downright barbarism as many European nations justified their forced acquisition of foreign territories and enslavement of people of other races. Many scientists and biologists like Josiah Clark Nott and George Robert Gliddon even classified human beings into a polygenist orchard of three separate species; Negroid, Mongoloid, and Caucasoid or black, yellow and white respectively. The European originators of this classification proposed that themselves the Caucasoid or white were at the apex both in physical appearance with their white skin and in intellectual ability as well, while the negroid was at the bottom. Mongoloid was used as a pegorative to refer to both the intermediate race and Caucasoid offspring with disabilities such as Down Syndrome or perceived idiocy. This theory of polygenism was controversial, it had no scientific support and was based purely on physical characteristics of individuals. Even though it gained some level of acceptance in Europe, it was mostly among Europe’s racist and supremacist population.
Charles Darwin’s theory of human evolution was the only theory that was widely accepted by the science community. For the first time, there was a general acceptance of the theory of evolution. Darwin supported his theory with compelling evidence. And even today it is regarded as a foundational concept in science.
Inspired by John Edmonstone, Darwin embarked on an adventure in 1831 to the Galapagos on the S.S. Beagle assuming the position of a “gentleman’s companion” to keep the captain company and engage him in conversations and not just as a mere collector.
The journey although forecasted to last two years ended up taking five years. Charles Darwin spent most of the time on land collecting and studying natural life. He noticed distinct differences between the finches found on the different islands and many other similar occurrences. The skills he learned from John Edmonstone was invaluable in the expedition. On his arrival in 1836, he carried out extensive studies of his findings and proposed the theory of evolution through natural selection. In 1859 he published all his scientific findings and works in a scientific journal “The Origin of The Species”. He provided lots of evidence proving that various species of living things originated from common ancestors including humans and that over time they evolve through the process of natural selection. He proved that all of mankind originated from a common ancestor, evolved and adapted to their different environments through the process of natural selection.
Darwin’s Finches used in His Work During Trip to Galapagos
Charles Darwin was an abolitionist; he abhorred slavery and its evils and was outspoken with his views. Having come from a line of prominent abolitionists; his two grandfathers Erastus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood openly condemned slavery and were outspoken supporters of putting an end to slavery all over the world; this perhaps contributed in driving Charles to seek proof that all human beings are the same. Ironically today, the term “Social Darwinism” coined from Darwin’s principle of natural selection, is a gross misrepresentation of what Charles Darwin stood for and represented. His “origin of the Species” restored a certain degree of humanity to the world, strengthened those fighting against the dehumanization of other races and forced many supremacists to have a rethink.
John Edmonstone is among a long list of Africans whose notable achievements have been relegated to the background and robbed of their deserved recognition. Without the teachings and motivation of Edmonstone, Darwin might not have ventured out and made his world changing discoveries at the time he did. There is no record of the time of his death or where he was buried, but for his mention by Charles Darwin in his memoir the memory, the contribution of John Edmonstone might well have been lost forever. We in no way seek to diminish the brilliance of Charles Darwin but to simply draw attend to the contributions of Africans to humanity.
A lot of the public with both below graduate level and graduate level knowledge of science hold the mistaken belief that the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection was a complete theory. Most are unaware that it was an incomplete theory, although a brilliant theory backed with substantial evidence. Darwin’s theory proposed “decent with modification”. He proposed that nature selected from existing variations amongst existing life forms and provided reproduction advantages at random to life forms with the best adapted characteristics. Natural selection only selects from existing genetic information but does not create new genetic information.
The concept of evolution by mutations is an alternative to Darwin’s theory and not attributable to Darwin himself. Mutations tend to be due to errors introduced during DNA repair, molecular decay, errors induced by mutagens and naturally occurring error-prone replication of DNA.
Many ideas have been tagged onto Darwin’s theory that are yet to be proven. One example is the idea of chemical evolution, in which an inanimate to animate transition occurred to create life from space debris.
In respect of humans, the current belief is that there is one species. Race is only considered a social construct within biology. Due to founder effect, all non-African gene pools of humans are simply less diverse genetic code carriers of founder gene pool – Africa.
- Guyana Times International. John Edmonstone; September 25, 2015. Retrieved on 10/03/19.
- John P. Jackson, Nadine M. Weidman Race, Racism, and science: social impact and interaction, Rutgers University Press, 2005, See sections on polygenism