Missing link: the early years

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In a comment on my post "Metapun", John S. Wilkins traced the phrase "missing link" back, conceptually if not literally,  to the  "great chain of being" metaphor featured in Alexander Pope's 1744 Essay on Man:

[…] On superior powers
Were we to press, inferior might on ours;
Or in the full creation leave a void,
Where, one step broken, the great scale's destroyed:
From Nature's chain whatever link you like,
Tenth, or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.

Although Pope didn't use the specific word-sequence "missing link" — nor the word missing at all —  the concept is implicit in the idea of the "link" that "breaks the chain".  This morning, Victor Steinbok sent in the result of some textual sleuthing, which suggests that the collocation "missing link" was in the air of  1860 Britain with reference to links in other sorts of metaphorical chains,  neither Darwin's chain of "descent with modification" nor Pope's chain of "full creation".  Victor also turns up an example, from a widely-read work originally published in 1844, that uses "missing link" in the context of patterns of taxonomic similarity in biology.

Here's Victor's note:

You probably know that I am little more than an amateur when it comes to word sleuthing. On the other hand, unlike high-tech enterprises, it is a field that is somewhat accessible to amateurs with an inclination to research (and I have plenty of research training in rather diverse disciplines) and a desire for accuracy.

Lacking affiliation and easy research library access, at the moment, this would be a complete waste of time without Google Book Search –and these are, by all accounts, notoriously unreliable in many respects. The greatest part that is missing is context–it is often hard to place the volume, even correctly identified and dated, within the context of its contemporaneous publications. In a different field, this would be small bother–one can simply look up more books on the same subject and get a rather exhaustive picture. Not so here.

So, with this preface, I want to attempt to dig further into the "missing link"–the subject broached earlier on Language Log and on Visual Thesaurus (hence the two recipients of this email). I find it interesting that the OED entry for the "missing link" has an explicit evolutionary component:

1. Something lacking to complete a series or to form an intermediate between two things, esp. in an evolutionary process; (Anthropol.) a hypothetical animal assumed to be an evolutionary link between man and the anthropoid apes, esp. as sought by early evolutionary biologists.

The second definition is simply a variation on the first. Given the list of citations, this is not surprising. All are dealing with hominid species supposedly bridging the gap between large apes and humans. To these there should be added at least one entry from 2009–there have been quite a few pronouncing the end of the "missing link theory" with the arrival of "Ardi". In fact, similar claims have been made repeatedly with the latest finds of early hominids throughout the decade.

But this is clearly not a sufficient reason to get excited. Adding recent citations does not involve any antedating.

Now, returning to the source of the definition–largely citations of texts related to evolution. Judging from this list, it would be easy to overlook the fact that "missing link" was quite a popular expression, say, in London, circa 1860. And it had nothing to do with evolution. In fact, GoogleBooks does provide evidence of other sources–for one, a book published in 1859 in London by that very title. The exact name of the volume was "The missing link: or, Bible-women in the homes of the London poor, by L.N.R." It did not take long for the literatti to figure out that "L.N." stood for "Ellen", so that the book had actually been written by Ellen Henrietta Ranyard.

The subject of the book was, predictably, "Bible-women"–actually, women who went to the London tenements, Bible in hand, to return the masses to religion. The book appears to have been quite a hit–so much so that the London Quarterly Review turned it into the lead for the July 1860 issue. And it crossed the Atlantic as well–the New Englander and Yale Review gave it a paragraph (p. 274) in its February 1860 issue, and returned to it again (p. 1113f) in its November 1860 issue as part of the review of Ranyard's other book (both mentioned in Vol. XVIII).

The Book and its Story–The writer of this book published some time ago a little volume, to which she gave the somewhat singular title, "The Missing Link." We furnished some account of it on page 274 of the present volume. It was a simple narrative of her efforts in sending female colporteurs, or "Bible women," among that wretched class of people in London, who swarm in "tenement houses" in such places as "The Seven Dials." The success which these female colporteurs met with in circulating the Bible was suh that her account of it has been rapidly but quietly working its way into public favor and notice; and in July last, the London Quarterly made "The Missing Link" the basis of its leading Article.

To say the least, London, specifically, and English readers, more broadly, had been well primed by this little volume. With that in mind, Hopkins's line

But then, where are the missing links in the chain of of intellectual and moral being?

may well take on a somewhat different meaning. Although the citation is sandwiched by two Lyell quotations that have an undoubtedly evolutionary meaning, the two are actually quite removed from each other. Meanwhile, Hopkins wrote his article in Frasier's precisely around the time when the book was making rounds, explaining how the women were providing the "missing link" in the moral development of the wretched classes.

My proposition is a mere speculation, but, I don't believe, we can simply ignore the context here. Of course, there are two more things to consider. First, Lyell's 1851 citation is still earlier than Ranard's book. So there is no primacy claim. Rather, I am suggesting that the use in the anti-evolutionary circles might have arisen from the blend of the two tomes published, quite coincidentally, in the same year.

Second–and this is more important–the use of the expression in the title suggest that it was not quite as "singular" as the Yale Review suggests. In fact, it may well have been a play on a more familiar use and that surely was not the one exemplified by Lyell. Note, for example another 1860 periodical (November) using the phrase in a way similar to Ranyard's:

The Arabs of the street and of the city are being gathered into ragged schools, the social evil is being grappled with at midnight, "the missing link" of woman's gentle hand is now bringing up from the dregs of society into the genial influences of regenerating love and truth the most hideous shapes of lost humanity.

Here, GoogleBooks fails. This is precisely the limitation that I mentioned earlier–simply having access to a number of scanned books cannot provide a live context. Yet, it does offer a glimpse, even though most of the sources in question are not actually available.

Obviousness is a term of art in patent law that describes a type of invention that would have been inevitably discovered through regular use and adaptation of existing patents and, therefore, does not allow for a patent of its own. Certainly, the combination "missing link" is obvious in this sense. (See, for example, The Head of the Family, by Dinah Maria Craik, 1852, p. 67)

By far the more interesting use of "the missing link" is in genealogy. In particular, WorldCat has a pointer to an 1810 title My ancestors to the missing link, or, The family tree of Pierson Worrall Banning (Chicago). There is a GoogleBooks entry, but it lacks the text. Yet, the meaning within the title appears to be rather similar to that used later in evolutionary arguments.

The link between genealogical use and evolutionary use of the expression should by no means be ignored! Widener (Harvard) holds another 1860 London volume that provides an interesting text. (p. 51)

The internal structure of the stem, and the character of the seed-vessels, show them to have been a link between single-lobed and double-lobed plants–a fact worthy of note, as it favours the idea of a progress in vegetable creation, in the line of an improved organization. It is also curious to find a missing link of so much importance in a genus of plants which has long ceased to have a living place upon earth.

The volume is the 11th edition (!) of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation [apparently] by Robert Chambers. Note, in particular, that the text does not refer merely to a "link" but to a "missing link". The text also appears to have been adopted from earlier editions, as additional materials are [bracketed] (e.g., on p. 54). The text cites Murchison and Agassiz rather heavily. (There is a citation to Lyell's Elements of Geology on p. 88 and a reference to Darwin's Journals on p. 81.) It is interesting that when the author gets to "the origins of the animated tribes", the text turns to religion. Evolution is only brought up in the appendix ("Proofs, Illustrations, Authorities, etc."). But the same "missing link" phrase is found on p. 62 of the 1845 2nd New York edition, which claims to be "from the third London edition, greatly amended by the author".

This makes perfect sense–it is highly unlikely that the phrase "the missing link" would have been adapted as satire on evolutionary claims had its normal use not been already well established in paleobotany or a related discipline. The connection to genealogy makes perfect sense.

I've done little more than some preliminary work, in an attempt to trace the possible formation and evolution of the expression prior to its use in the debates on evolution. I really don't know if anyone else will care for extending the origin of the phrase back anywhere from 6 to 50+ years, even though the meaning is not precisely the same. In fact, there appear to be two meanings — one is the genealogical one, referring to some unidentified, near-mythical ancestor, the other the connection between the Great Unwashed and the "intellectual and moral development", i.e., religion and/or the Bible. Both of these appear to have merged in the debate on evolution, giving it the necessary ironic twist.

[Above is a guest post by Victor Steinbok.]

[(myl): Here's a description of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, from the publisher's blurb for a  recent reprint:

Originally published anonymously in 1844, Vestiges proved to be as controversial as its author expected. Integrating research in the burgeoning sciences of anthropology, geology, astronomy, biology, economics, and chemistry, it was the first attempt to connect the natural sciences to a history of creation. The author, whose identity was not revealed until 1884, was Robert Chambers, a leading Scottish writer and publisher. Vestiges reached a huge popular audience and was widely read by the social and intellectual elite. It sparked debate about natural law, setting the stage for the controversy over Darwin's Origin. In response to the surrounding debate and criticism, Chambers published Explanations: A Sequel, in which he offered a reasoned defense of his ideas about natural law, castigating what he saw as the narrowness of specialist science. With a new introduction by James Secord, a bibliography of reviews, and a new index, this volume adds to Vestiges and Explanations Chambers's earliest works on cosmology, an essay on Darwin, and an autobiographical essay, raising important issues about the changing meanings of popular science and religion and the rise of secular ideologies in Western culture.

This reprint, whose version of Vestiges is a facsimile of the 1844 original, has the same passage ("It is also curious to find a missing link of so much importance in a genus of plants which has long ceased to have a living place upon earth").  This seems to indicate that a taxonomic meaning of "missing link", indeterminate between creationist and evolutionary interpretations, was well established before the publication of Darwin's work in 1859.]


  1. John Cowan said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

    Nobody on these threads seems to have mentioned Lovejoy's original book, though the presumably-pseudonymous John S. Wilkins alludes to it by capitalizing "Great Chain of Being". He spends many pages explaining how the original static scala naturae concept, which has mediaeval roots, was transformed into an evolutionary one in the course of the 19th century.

  2. Cameron said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

    The scala natura concept has roots in late antiquity. The basic idea is present in the philosophical systems we now call "neoplatonist" – these systems describe a system whereby the One generates the many, through a chain of formal causation, which generates a sequence of intermediaries, according to the principal that "every producing cause brings into existence things like to itself before the unlike" (that's from Proclus' Elements of Theology). These neoplatonic thinkers deeply influenced the medieval theologians, and profoundly colored their views even after the medieval rediscovery and appropriation of Aristotle's thought. (This partly explains why medieval theology never got rid of the notion of angels – but that's another discussion.)

    In the early modern period, the continuity requirement was famously expressed by Leibniz as la nature ne fait jamais des sauts (that's from the preface to the New Essays – the only book-length work Leibniz published in his lifetime.) The same idea was also expressed in a well-known book by Linneaus. His formulation (pretty much the same as Leibniz's) was very famous: natura non facit saltus. The latter occurs in a discussion of botany that would certainly have been familiar to Chambers and Darwin.

    [(myl) Familiar to Darwin, but not necessarily congenial — consider the "circular theory" of (pre-Darwin) Thomas Henry Huxley, or the "quinary theory" of William Sharp MacLeay, discussed here, and by Huxley himself here; or Lorenz Oken's "transcendental morphology".]

  3. Victor said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 11:03 pm

    I've considered the possibility–in fact, it was the first thought I had after reading Mark's post yesterday. However, the issue is the specific expression, not just its metaphorical lineage. Does Lovejoy use the specific phrase "the missing link" (or the taxonimic "a missing link")? It's certainly worth considering how the expression came about and what its metaphorical roots are, but the primary question in my mind was antedating the expression, provided at least some rhetorical continuity.

  4. Janet said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 10:54 pm

    I'm pretty sure that 1810 date for the Pearson Worrall Banning book on WorldCat is a cataloger's error. If you search WorldCat by the author's name you'll find several books on genealogy and other topics all published in the early 1900s. So it should probably be 1910.

  5. Victor said,

    March 8, 2010 @ 2:42 am

    Returning to this very late, I see that there was a suggestion that the Banning book's date is a Google Books (not a cataloger's, as Janet wrote) error. I will readily accept this. But even if the link (no pun intended) does not trace back to 1810, it does fall back at least to 1844, so the larger point still stands. Google Books is notorious for date and other tagging errors. I've devised a number of ways to combat it in cases where at least searchable snippets are available. But all these fail if Google has no search for the content of a book at all. WorldCat is the next available alternative, but even that is fraught with danger. WorldCat is not perfect either.

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