In my current Taki’s Magazine column, I mention in passing a minor discovery I made Tuesday morning in the history of evolutionary thought, which is probably the central development of English-language thinkers, such as Adam Smith and Charles Darwin, over the last several hundred years.
For several years, I’ve been wondering if the undesigned evolution of Scottish golf courses over hundreds of years (before Allan Robertson began consciously revising and improving the ancient St. Andrews links around 1840) served as an inspiration for the British thinkers like Smith and Darwin who pointed out that complex functionality could emerge without central planning. (Somebody who has had a similar hunch about some kind of interaction between the Scottish Enlightenment and the Scottish national game is golf course architect Forrest Richardson.)
The pre-history of golf course architecture seems to serve as testament to the virtues of decentralized decisionmaking.
While Continental thinkers tended to look back to the peace and prosperity imposed from Rome, the British tended to search out arguments conducive to why they should be in charge of their own affairs, while still being allowed to participate in trade with the Continent. Paul Johnson calls this “the offshore islanders’ advantage:” that natural sea defenses against the violent chaos of land war allow for a relaxation of political and social controls intended to prevent violence. Shakespeare extolled the islander advantage in Richard II:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
— This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
A theme that runs through much of the most interesting advances made by thinkers working in English are the virtues of decentralization, competition, and voluntary cooperation. The idea that liberty does not mean chaos, but that life can self-organize into impressive degrees of complex functionality without a top-down plan from the Continental central authority in Rome or Madrid or Paris or Berlin appealed to the offshore islanders. Of course, it’s all more complicated than that, but that’s a start.
The lack of an original creator is an inevitable problem in thinking about the history of golf course architecture. We have records of golf being played over Scottish linksland going back 600 years, but we don’t know of any golf course architects until less than 200 years ago. And yet, the earliest known architects, who emerged at St. Andrews in the 19th Century in revamping the already ancient Old Course, were highly skilled, with a deep understanding of how different landforms affected the game.
The only explanation that makes sense is that golfers at St. Andrews and elsewhere had been playing and arguing the game for generations over roughly the same ground, picking out classic challenges and subtly altering the emerging links through their decisions to play along one path rather than another.
For example, St. Andrews has a number of famous old bunkers located most inconveniently in the low spots of the terrain that attract balls rolling anywhere near them. Perhaps sheep sought out these low spots to get out of the wind and cropped the grass down close to the underlying sand. Golfers finding their balls in these depressions would take divots from the grass, exposing the sand, which the wind might blow over the adjoining grass, killing it. Over time, the exact place you’d most want to hit your ball on this customary hole has become a bunker of sand difficult to escape from.
Thus, the Old Course at St. Andrews seems like a testimony to the Smithian/Darwinian world view.
Eventually in the 19th Century, golfers began to design new links courses, improvising on the lessons learned from the study of the old ones like St. Andrews. Around 1900, Scotsman Willie Park started building the first great inland courses in the sandy countryside west of London. Over time, designers learned how to install enough drainage to allow adequate courses to be built on clay and other less than ideal soil, but the ideal remains a sandy base like at Pinehurst, North Carolina, where Donald Ross, who had apprenticed at St. Andrews, designed the No. 2 course from 1901-1948 that’s hosting the U.S. Open today.
Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to link any of the major British thinkers to the links. Adam Smith, it is true, often went for long walks over the linksland, but I haven’t found any record of him noticing the customary golfing grounds he probably tromped through.
I have now, however, discovered a minor but influential thinker in this historical chain who was a fanatical devotee of the St. Andrews golf course — even writing a series of sonnets about each hole — who also wrote the most discussed advocacy of evolution in the English-speaking world in the 15 years before Darwin published The Origin of Species. I wrote in Taki’s:
While golf can be an enormously expensive sport today due to extravagant real estate, construction, and greens-keeping budgets, it started out centuries ago in Scotland as merely something cheap to do on coastal sand dunes that couldn’t grow crops.
Golf links evolved as players trampled down the grass on the most topographically interesting targets. Early golf courses emerged like the unplanned free market economy extolled by Scottish philosopher Adam Smith. Despite the similarities between how St. Andrews developed and the central British intellectual interest in theories of self-organization, I’ve never found any evidence that Smith played golf, nor his great successor Charles Darwin, who attended medical school in Edinburgh. (Charles’ grandson Bernard Darwin did become the leading golf architecture critic of his time, though.)
However, the chief polemic for evolutionary theory in the decade before Darwin’s Origin of Species, the anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation of 1844, a book that much influenced Darwin, turned out to have been penned by the keen golfer Robert Chambers while in St. Andrews.
Chambers is a curious figure in the history of evolutionary thought. Everybody who was anybody read his book, including Abraham Lincoln. Darwin perused it carefully, relieved that Chambers hadn’t hit upon Darwin’s secret mechanism for evolution, natural selection. Alfred Russel Wallace read it with great interest and went on to independently discover natural selection, forcing Darwin to announce natural selection in a joint paper with Wallace in 1858.
Since Chambers didn’t accomplish that leap to natural selection, and since he made a number of errors that were quickly outmoded by the progress of science, his book is of interest primarily because it was the best-known statement in the English-speaking world of the general evolutionary worldview from 1844 to the publication of Darwin’s book in 1859. But Wikipedia’s extensive page on Chambers’ Vestiges shows its impact on the spirit of the age:
Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation is a work of speculative natural history and philosophy published anonymously in England in 1844. It brought together various ideas of stellar evolution with the progressive transmutation of species in an accessible narrative which tied together numerous scientific theories of the age.
Vestiges was initially well received by polite Victorian society and became an international bestseller, but its unorthodox themes contradicted the natural theology fashionable at the time and were reviled by clergymen – and subsequently by scientists who readily found fault with its amateurish deficiencies. The ideas in the book were favoured by Radicals, but its presentation remained popular with a much wider public. Prince Albert read it aloud to Queen Victoria in 1845. Vestiges caused a shift in popular opinion which – Charles Darwin believed – prepared the public mind for the scientific theories of evolution by natural selection which followed from the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859.
For decades there was speculation about its authorship. The 12th edition, published in 1884, revealed officially that the author was Robert Chambers, a Scottish journalist, who had written the book in St Andrews between 1841 and 1844 while recovering from a psychiatric illness.
Chambers was a fanatical golfer. His son, also known as Robert Chambers, went on to do some golf course architecture work in the later 19th Century. The younger Chambers, partnering with George Morris, the younger brother of the famous champion and architect Old Tom Morris, laid out the first nine holes at Hoylake (Royal Liverpool), where the British Open will be contested next month. The Royal Liverpool links was famously described by Bernard Darwin as “Hoylake, blown upon by mighty winds, breeder of mighty champions.”
The father and son Robert Chambers co-authored a poem called “The Nine Holes of the Links of St. Andrews” describing in detail each hole. Bunkers that still bedevil superstar golfers in the Open are named in the poem by the Chambers.
The linkage between golf courses and the evolutionary point of view was not unknown to the elder Chambers. J.A. Secord wrote in History, Humanity and Evolution:
Once the nebular hypothesis had led Chambers to contemplate the application of a law of progress to the whole realm of nature, he rapidly began to explore other relevant sciences. … He began to explore not only the earth sciences but zoology and botany as well. … Especially striking was the large number of articles on the origins of races, nations, languages, and civilizations. These elaborated a developmental model almost identical to that found in the chapter of Vestiges on the “Early History of Mankind.” In the essay “Gossip about Golf,” Chambers even applied the model to his favourite sport, which he argued was an inevitable result of the “existence of a certain peculiar waste ground called links.” Similarly, cricket was said to be a natural outcome of village greens in England.
So, our modern evolutionary worldview does indeed owe something to St. Andrews, golf, and psychiatric illness (assuming the later two are not the same thing).