D. M. S. Watson

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Prof David Meredith Seares Watson FRS[1] FGS HFRSE LLD (18 June 1886 – 23 July 1973) was the Jodrell Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at University College, London from 1921 to 1951.


Early life[edit]

Watson was born in the Higher Broughton district of Salford, Lancashire, the only son of David Watson, a chemist and pioneering metallurgist, and his wife, Mary Louise Seares.[2]

He was educated at Manchester Grammar School 1899 to 1904 then studied Sciences at the University of Manchester. He specialised in geology and began to study plant fossils in coal deposits. In 1907, his final year, he published an important paper on coal balls with Marie Stopes (who had an early career as a paleobotanist); after graduating with first class honours he was appointed as a Beyer fellow at Manchester and went on to complete his MSc in 1909.

After his MSc, Watson continued to develop his wide interest in fossils and studied intensively at the British Museum of Natural History in London, and on extended visits to South Africa, Australia, and the United States. In 1912 he was appointed as a Lecturer in Vertebrate Palaeontology, at University College London by Professor James Peter Hill.

His academic work was eventually interrupted in 1916 by World War I when he took a commission in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He was later transferred to the nascent Royal Air Force where he worked on balloon and airship fabric design.

Marriage and children[edit]

In 1917 Watson married Katharine Margarite Parker, and had two daughters: Katharine Mary and Janet Vida.

Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy[edit]

After World War I, Watson returned to academic study and in 1921 he succeeded Hill as the Jodrell Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy and the curator of what is now the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL. He devoted his energy to the development of the Zoology department there and consolidated his position as a respected academician. In 1922 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, where he gave the Croonian Lecture in 1924. Four years later, he was invited to give the Romanes Lecture at the University of Oxford; he spoke on "Paleontology and the Evolution of Man".

He was appointed to the British government's Agricultural Research Council in 1931, which involved spending time in the United States where he lectured at Yale University in 1937. At the outbreak of World War II he returned to Britain to supervise the evacuation of the UCL Zoology department to Bangor, Wales, and then became Secretary of the Scientific Subcommittee of the Food Policy Committee of the War Cabinet.

After the war he continued to teach and to travel widely. He received many awards and academic honours including the Darwin Medal from the Royal Society, the Linnean Medal from the Linnean Society, the Wollaston Medal from the Geological Society of London, and honorary degrees from many universities in Britain and elsewhere. In 1941 Watson was awarded the Mary Clark Thompson Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.[3]

He was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1949 having previously won the Society's Makdougall-Brisbane Prize for the period 1936-38.[4]

He retired from his chair in 1951, but continued to study and publish at UCL until his full retirement in 1965. He was awarded the Linnean Society of London's prestigious Darwin-Wallace Medal in 1958.

His scientific research, besides his early original work on fossil plants and coal balls, was chiefly concerned with vertebrate palaeontology, especially fossil reptiles. He amassed a large collection of fossils from his wide travels to Africa and Spain.

He died on 23 July 1973 in Midhurst, Surrey.

DMS Watson Library[edit]

The Science library, known as the DMS Watson library, of University College London is named in his honour. It is UCL's second largest library and is in Malet Place adjacent to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

Famous quotes[edit]

This quotation of Watson is often used in Creationist writings in an attempt to show that Watson, and thus by extension promoters of evolution in general, dismiss creationism due to antitheistic bias. A slightly different version of the quotation, derived from a secondhand source,[5] is sometimes used (e.g., by C. S. Lewis[6]):

Sometimes the words in square brackets are incorrectly incorporated into the quotation, and/or the ellipsis is omitted.[7]

Watson's original statement first appeared in a 1929 article, "Adaptation," in the journal Nature:[8] The second version of the quotation, given above, is formed by combining parts of two similar passages in Watson's paper, one from the first page and one from the third. The first passage reads:

The second passage reads:

The ellipses in the second version of the standard quotation from Watson elide his statement in [1] that evolution fits "all the facts" of taxonomy, paleontology, and geographical distribution. They also omit his statement, which directly follows quotation [1] above, that "Whilst the fact of evolution is accepted by every biologist, the mode in which it has occurred and the mechanism by which it has been brought about are still disputable."

Watson thus considered evolution a fact, belief in which was supported by its fit to a wide range of other facts. He thought "special creation" unbelievable and the mechanisms of evolution disputable (his article was devoted to emphasizing the inadequacy of contemporary theories of adaptation, and mentions "special creation" only in passing). This was in 1929, several years before the inception of evolutionary biology's modern synthesis, which integrated Mendelian genetics into Darwinian thought and produced widespread scientific consensus about basic evolutionary mechanisms. Stephen Jay Gould describes 1900–10 as “the period of greatest agnosticism and debate about evolutionary mechanisms” and adds that even the 1920s were still “not happy times of consensus for evolutionary theory in general.”[11] Julian Huxley referred to that era as "the eclipse of Darwinism".

When it was made, over 80 years ago, Watson's complaint that the mechanisms of evolution were poorly understood was accurate. His statement that evolution was believed "because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible" was a provocative exaggeration, contradicted by his own remarks (i.e., evolution already "fit all the facts" of several major knowledge fields).

Published works[edit]


  1. ^ Parrington, F. R.; Westoll, T. S. (1974). "David Meredith Seares Watson. 1886-1973". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 20: 482. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1974.0021.
  2. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5.
  3. ^ "Mary Clark Thompson Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Archived from the original on 29 December 2010. Retrieved 14 February 2011.
  4. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5.
  5. ^ "Science and the B.B.C.," The Nineteenth Century and After, April 1943.
  6. ^ C. S. Lewis, "Is Theology Poetry?", in Hooper, Walter (ed.), Screwtape Proposes a Toast (William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, Glasgow, 1978), p. 56; also in C. S. Lewis, "The Funeral of a Great Myth," in Hooper, Walter (ed.), Christian Reflections (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1971), p. 85.)
  7. ^ E.g,. here: http://theevolutioncrisis.org.uk/to-the-reader.php
  8. ^ D.M.S. Watson, "Adaptation," Nature, Vol. 124, 10 August 1929, 233. The article also appears in the Report of the Ninety-Seventh Meeting British Association for the Advancement of Science (Office of the British Association: London, 1929), 88-99 and can be accessed at https://archive.org/details/reportofbritisha30adva . The quote discussed here is on page 95.
  9. ^ D.M.S. Watson, "Adaptation," Nature, Vol. 124, 10 August 1929, p. 231
  10. ^ D.M.S. Watson, "Adaptation," Nature, Vol. 124, 10 August 1929, p. 233.
  11. ^ Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 391, 412.

External links[edit]