Charles Darwin

Early Evolutionists

William Herbert


1795 (age 17)

Painted by Sir William Beechey

This portrait appears to be the only extant image of William Herbert, and was painted when he was a student at Eton. In one of the few biographical pieces on Herbert, Worsley writes that "no great man in modern times has left fewer personal records that can be easily traced than has William Herbert." Despite the fact that before he died, he had risen to be Dean of Manchester, his burial site remains unknown.

William Herbert (1778 - 1847) was an accomplished scholar, poet, Amaryllis breeder, and clergyman who eventually rose to the position of Dean of Manchester. In 1822, he wrote an important paper on the evolution of the constituent species of plant genera from a common ancestor. This paper, "On the Production of Hybrid Vegetables" is extraordinarily forward-thinking and uses the results of hybridization experiments between species as a basis for creating an essentially biosystematic concept of plant relationships. These ideas would be reiterated in his seminal book Amaryllidaceae (1837) and in two papers that were published in 1847. Herbert's final thoughts on evolution, and his frustration with biblical literalists, appear in a poem (with an extensive footnote) in 1846 entitled "The Christian." Here, he would argue that god created kinds (e.g., plants, fish, reptiles, insects, birds, quadrupeds and humans) and that they were "impressed" with a "principle of change and developement" that would lead to their ultimate evolutionary diversifications.

Plate from William Herbert's masterpiece, Amaryllidaceae. The evolutionary passages can be found on pages 16 - 20 and 335 - 348. Click here to read this book.