The First Experiment On Evolution Took Place 50 Years Before Darwin's Theory

A sacred ibis. Dave Montreuil/Shutterstock

A study conducted 57 years before the publication of On the Origin of Species has been recognized as the first experiment on evolution. Unfortunately, the results were interpreted as indicating species do not change over time, possibly setting back progress by decades.

In the early 19th century, French scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck argued that species could change and turn into others, but proposed a mechanism now largely displaced by Darwin's. Like Darwin, Lamarck faced fierce opposition to his theories, including from his colleague at the French National Museum of Natural History, Georges Cuvier.

Dr Caitlin Curtis of the University of Queensland has detailed one aspect of the Lamarck/Cuvier debate in PLOS Biology, identifying Cuvier's work as the first experiment to test the theory.

Napoleon was interested in science and archaeology, and when he invaded Egypt he had his soldiers collect vast quantities of artifacts to be shipped back to France. The most notable was the Rosetta Stone, but the fortunes of war meant the Stone ended up in the British Museum.

Among the objects returned to Paris were two mummified birds, among the millions preserved by the ancient Egyptians in their worship of the god Thoth.

European scientists initially misidentified the birds as storks, but noticed differences between them and the birds they knew. This became possible evidence the birds had evolved in the 2,000-3,000 years in between.

Curtis describes how Cuvier recognized the mummified birds were not storks at all, instead resembling certain modern specimens in the museum that were yet to be classified. Cuvier named the species Numenius ibis, although we now know it as Threskiornis aethiopicus, or the sacred ibis.

Stork (A) and sacred ibis (B). Curtis et al/PLOS Biology


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