Artificial intelligence reveals authors of anonymous 19th-century texts on evolution

Charles Darwin (Photo: Pixabay CC0)Charles Darwin (Photo: Pixabay CC0)

Some anonymously published papers on evolution far predate the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). With the help of modern AI software, Koen Tanghe (UGent) and Mike Kestemont (UAntwerpen) have revealed the authors of two of these papers. This work may help to foster interest in those early, intriguing publications on evolution, their authors and their possible influence on Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin did not invent the idea of evolution. It already flourished in Edinburgh in the first decades of the 19th century. The city where, for two years (1825-1827), he studied medicine. Because of their speculative and controversial nature, several articles on evolution were published anonymously during this early but influential blossoming of evolutionary
thought. Two particularly remarkable articles about evolution were published in 1826 and 1827. They are among the first academic publications on evolution in Great Britain and are likely to have influenced and maybe even inspired the young Darwin. However, the question of the authorship of these texts has always remained open, although many modern historians believe Robert Jameson, a Scottish geologist, to be the most likely candidate author of the 1826 article, the first academic publication on evolution in Great Britain.

Koen Tanghe (UGent) and Mike Kestemont (UAntwerpen) have now turned to artificial intelligence to investigate this mystery from a totally new angle. In the field of stylometry, algorithms are developed to attribute anonymous texts to authors on the basis of stylistic patterns in writing, such as word frequencies. By using a state of the art method for authorship verification, they have succeeded in confirming content-based conjectures about the identity of the authors of these anonymous texts: Jameson was indeed the author of the first article (1826) while the second article (1827) was written by one of his disciples and friends, the Austrian geologist Ami Boué. These results thus affirm what several scholars suspected but could not prove beyond doubt: Robert Jameson, Darwin’s natural history and geology professor at Edinburgh University, was a pivotal figure in the early history of British evolutionary thought.

Value in resolving cases

Computational stylometry has already proven its value in resolving cases of disputed authorship in literary works, and will, in the future, undoubtedly also further advance the history
of science. Koen Tanghe emphasizes the importance of these findings for our understanding of the early history of British evolutionism: “The identification of the authors of these
articles may help to draw attention to the still little-known efflorescence of evolutionary thinking in Edinburgh in the early decades of the 19th century and particularly to the role that
Robert Jameson played in it. We still don’t really know very well to which extent Edinburgh’s most famous student, Charles Darwin, was influenced by it. It is possible that it formed
an inspiration for his paleontological research during his voyage with HMS Beagle (1831-1836).”

Mike Kestemont explains: “Much advance has recently been made in applying artificial intelligence to historiographical problems. However, these techniques remain experimental,
and it is always reassuring to see how closely the results of a computational analysis sometimes align with the opinion of scholars.”