- Darwin's Man in Brazil: The Evolving Science of Fritz Müller by David A. West
David A. West, a distinguished biologist for many years at Virginia Tech, has written a fascinating biography of nineteenth-century German naturalist Fritz Müller (1822–1897). Although he is best known for his work on mimicry in butterflies, Müller deserves further study because his studies of Brazil's flora and fauna provided further evidence for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Müller kept a steady correspondence with Darwin from 1865 until his death in 1882, in addition to corresponding with many other scientists in Europe and the United States. A traveling naturalist, he also studied plants and animals surrounding his home in Santa Catarina, Brazil. Müller recorded his observations in letters to his many contacts, reports to the archives of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, and publications in European scientific journals.
In 2003, West published an English-language biography of Müller using the naturalist's letters, writings, and scholarly publications to highlight current scientific issues. An invitation to an international colloquium in 2004 on the history of Darwinism in the Atlantic World led West to expand his biographical research on Müller by going into Brazilian archives and libraries. This new biography widens the scope of the first book, focusing on Müller's correspondence with Darwin and emphasizing their unique relationship. Indeed, this biography of a scientist central to shaping the development of evolution during the nineteenth century reflects an impressive amount of research in [End Page 426] multiple languages that draws on archival records from Germany, Brazil, England, and the United States.
The biography focuses on Müller's relationship with Darwin. After receiving a copy of On the Origins of Species in 1861, Müller set out to further test Darwin's theory. He examined crustacea, studying crabs and prawns along the Brazilian coast during his time as a teacher in Desterro (Santa Catarina), the provincial capital (today, Florianópolis). Müller's work, Für Darwin, published in 1864 and translated into English as Facts and Arguments for Darwin (1869) provided substantial evidence for Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. The ensuing correspondence between Darwin and Müller focused on both naturalists' observations and the latest scholarship from Europe.
Müller studied a wide range and variety of subjects in the German and Brazilian natural worlds, from his examination of leeches for his doctoral dissertation to crabs, prawns, orchids, insects, ants, honeybees, bromeliads, and most notably butterflies. At times, Darwin urged Müller to publish more of the scientific findings he reported in the letters that he sent the British naturalist. West deftly places Müller and his writings within the debates over Darwinism during the mid to late nineteenth century, showing that Müller, through his scientific studies, deserved Darwin's praise as "the prince of observers" and demonstrating how he became the famous English naturalist's "man in Brazil."
The themes of science and religion and the relationship between religion and the state intersected throughout Müller's life. Although he was the son of a pastor, Müller renounced Christianity publicly in 1846 and moved toward atheism. In the wake of the revolutions of 1848 and the tightening of civil liberties by the Prussian monarch, Müller's declaration in favor of freedom of conscience caused him professional difficulties. For example, he was unable to obtain a medical license because he refused to take a Christian graduation oath. Given that the naturalist's views inhibited his prospects for finding gainful employment in Prussia, he decided to emigrate in 1852 to the German colony of Blumenau in the Brazilian interior of Santa Catarina.
In Brazil, he held an appointment as a teacher at the newly established secular school in Desterro, but his position became untenable after the Jesuits gained control of the school and its curriculum in 1864...