Albin Roberts BURT (1783 – 1842) “Zerah Cobourn”. A portrait of a youthful Oxford academic bedecked in his gown, possibly an American as no British census records exist for the name Zerah Cobourn.
Some of the writing on the rear is hard to read, but Zerah Cobourn (for Colburn) can be read at the top. He was born on 1 September 1804 and died on 2 March 1839, being a child prodigy of the 19th century who gained fame as a mental calculator. There is more about him at Zerah Colburn (math prodigy) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia He also wrote a book about his life which is available at A memoir of Zerah Colburn: written by himself.
Albin Burt began his career as an engraver being a pupil of Robert Thew and Benjamin Smith. However, finding himself unable to excel in this department, he took to painting portraits. He worked at various locations and in 1817, the date of this miniature, his studio was at 113 High Street, Oxford. He often signed his miniatures verso, AR Burt or simply Burt followed by a date and place. He was a successful miniaturist charging upwards of 3 guineas for a portrait on ivory. Burt exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1807 and 1830.
Previous to the discovery of this portrait, the only known image of him was as a young boy in an engraving depicting Zerah Colburn at age nine, from a drawing done by F. Baily, Esq., done in London. In a close up of the portrait it is possible to see that, like his father and two brothers, Zerah was born with 24 digits. His six fingers are detectable in and enlargement of his left hand.As mentioned below, the extra fingers were removed by the polymath and surgeon, Sir Anthony Carlisle in 1815.
Colburn was born in Cabot, Vermont, in 1804. He was thought to be intellectually disabled until the age of seven. However, after six weeks of schooling his father overheard him repeating his multiplication tables. His father wasn't sure whether or not he learned the tables from his older brothers and sisters but he decided to test him further on his mathematical abilities and discovered that there was something special about his son when Zerah correctly multiplied 13 and 97. Colburn's abilities developed rapidly and he was soon able to solve such problems as the number of seconds in 2,000 years, the product of 12,225 and 1,223, or the square root of 1,449. When he was seven years old he took six seconds to give the numbers of hours in thirty-eight years, two months, and seven days. 1481
Zerah Colburn and his family were studied in detail by Sir Anthony Carlisle (1768-1840), one of the unsung heroes of the study of evolution who deserves far more attention than he has received. The following are some extracts from more research into Carlisle's study of evolution. Sadly, his personal papers are lost, so it has only been possible to determine the nature of his research from his published papers. Carlisle stressed the risks of inter-breeding and its consequent effect on species, in letters he wrote in 1838 to Alexander Walker where Carlisle used the phrase 'selecting the fit', twenty-six years before Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) wrote of 'survival of the fittest' in his "Principles of Biology" of 1864, and twenty years before Darwin wrote "On the Origin of Species".
The highly interesting subject upon which you are writing is remarkably suited to the passing time in our country. Our aristocracy, by exclusive intermarriages among ancient families, proceed blindly to breed in contempt of deformities, of feeble intellect, or of hereditary madness, under the instigation of pride or the love of wealth, until their race becomes extinct; while another portentous cause, that of unwholesome factories, threatens to deteriorate the once brave manhood of England. I believe that, among mankind, as well as domesticated animals, there are physical and moral influences which may be regulated so as to improve or predispose both the corporeal and moral aptitudes, and certainly the most obvious course is that of selecting the fit [my emphasis] progenitors of both sexes.i
i Carlisle, A, quoted in Walker, Alexander, Intermarriage, London, John Churchill, 1838, p ii
Much earlier, in fact 25 years earlier, prior to Christmas December 1813, Carlisle tabled a paper, which included mention of the Colburn family, to the Royal Society, On Monstrosity in the Human Species;
The following account of a family having hands and feet with supernumerary fingers and toes, and the hereditary transmission of the same peculiarity to the fourth generation appears to be worth preserving, since it displays the influence of each of the propagating sexes: the male and the female branches of the original stem having alike reproduced this redundancy of parts. ...
In every department of animal nature, accumulation of facts must always be desirable, that more reasonable inductions may be established concerning the laws which direct this interesting part of creation: and it might be attended with the most important consequences, if discovery could be made of the relative influence of the male and female sex in the propagation of peculiarities, and the course and extent of hereditary character could be ascertained, [my emphasis] both as it affects the human race in their moral and physical capacities, and as it governs the creatures which are subdued for civilized uses. Nor is it altogether vain to expect, that more profound views, and more applicable facts await the researches of men, who have as yet only begun to explore this branch of natural history, by subjecting it to physical rules. [my emphasis] … Though the causes which govern the production of organic monstrosities, or which direct the hereditary continuance of them may for ever remain unknown, it still seems desirable to ascertain the variety of those deviations, and to mark the course they take, where they branch out anew, and where they terminate. There is doubtless a general system in even the errors of nature, as is abundantly evinced by the regular series of monstrosity exhibited both in animals and vegetables. [my emphasis] … That local resemblances, such as those of external parts, the hands, the feet, the nose, the ears, and the eye-brows, are hereditary, is well known; and it is almost equally evident, that some parts of the internal structure are in like manner transmitted by propagation: we frequently see a family form of the legs and joints, which gives a peculiar gait, and a family character of the shoulders, both of which are derived from an hereditary similarity in the skeletons. Family voices are also very common and are ascribable to a similar cause. i
Instances of supernatural formation were traced by Carlisle through four successive generations from Zerah Colburn to his great grandmother. This woman had five fingers and a thumb on each hand, and six toes on each foot. She had eleven children, ten of whom are said to have had the same peculiarity complete; but one daughter, the grandmother of the Zerah, had one of her hands naturally formed. Of the next generation there were four persons. Abiah, the boy's father, and two others, had the peculiarity complete; but one of his uncles was like the grandmother, with one hand natural. The generation under study were eight in number, of whom four were naturally formed as their mother; the rest, including Zerah the calculator, had the peculiarity complete, with the exception of his eldest brother, who had one of his feet naturally formed. Carlisle had observed they were peculiar structures of hereditary decent and was acknowledging it was a natural event, whereas many at that time were taught by the Church it was punishment by a Divine Being for human actions. Carlisle surgically removed the extra fingers from Zerah in 1815ii and Carlisle, Basil Montagu, and Humphry Davy helped Zerah write an autobiography.iii
i Carlisle, Anthony, Philosophical Transactions for 1814, London, 1814, p 94-101
ii Colburn, Zerah, A Memoir of Zerah Colburn, Springfield, Merriam, 1833, p 72
iii The Scots Magazine, Edinburgh, 1813, p 886
In his 1813 paper, Carlisle anticipated genetic analysis and genetic variation, when he stated;
In particular breeds of animals the characteristic signs are generally continued, whether they belong to the horns of kine, the fleeces of sheep, the proportions of horses, the extensive varieties of dogs, or the ears of swine. In China the varieties of gold or silver fishes are carefully propagated, and with us what are vulgarly called 'fancy pigeons' are bred into most whimsical deviations from their parent stock. As wild animals and plants are not liable to the same variations, and as all the variations seem to increase with the degree of artificial restraint imposed, and as certain animals become adapted by extraordinary changes to extraordinary conditions, it may still be expected that some leading fact will eventually furnish a clue by which organic varieties may be better explained. [my emphasis] A few generations of wild rabbits, or of pheasants, under the influences of confinement break their natural colours, and leave the fur and feathers of their future progeny uncertainly variegated. The very remarkable changes of the colour of the fur of the hare, and of the feathers of the partridge, in high northern latitudes, during the prevalence of the snow, and the adaptation of that change of colour to their better security, are coincidences out of the course of chance [my emphasis] and not easily explained by our present state of physical knowledge.i
Carlisle elaborated on extreme variation from the feral state in fancy pigeon breeding;
A paper has been read at the meeting of the Royal Society, by Anthony Carlisle, Esq. On Monstrosity in the Human Species. The author detailed a number of examples of monstrosity , hereditary in particular families, and propagated from one generation to another. All monstrosity he conceives to take place only in cases where artificial civilization of man has interfered. Thus varieties of dogs, pigeons, &c. are easily propagated.ii
Carlisle discounted the importance of artificial breeding fancy pigeon varieties as an explanation for the natural variations in species. However, when Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published “On the Origin of Species” in 1858, the first chapter he discusses the breeding of pigeon varieties by breeders as a foundation of his theory. In doing so, Darwin rejected Carlisle's view of the importance of differentiating between natural and artificial breeding. On 20 November 1815, Carlisle delivered his second RA lecture demonstrating common links between man and animals, and indicating the breadth of his study, later a building block for Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) and Darwin. The lecture being given eight years before Wallace was born, and when Darwin was only six years old.
Mr Carlisle here continued his miscellaneous observations on the utility of anatomy, particularly that branch called comparative, to students in art, and illustrated the system of the bones and skeleton, comparing the human frame with those of animals, birds, and fishes. This collection, he observed was a very small one, part of a larger that was open to the students every Monday, but was sufficient for his purpose. The analogy between the race of men and of apes was very striking, [my emphasis] and in all the others very apparent; particularly the joints of the neck, which in all quadrupeds amount, to seven. The cameleopard [giraffe], whose gigantic frame support a neck ten feet in length, has but seven vertebrae in the neck; and the mole, whose neck is scarcely a quarter of an inch in length, has also seven. He continued his comparisons much farther, and we regret that our limits will admit of no more than a few examples. Man and the other climbing animals have the clavicle, or collar bone; and prone, or creeping quadrupeds, are destitute of it. Many animals which appear destitute of certain limbs or organs have them imperfectly developed; as the lump-like tail of the seal, a skeleton of which he exhibited, contain the elements of legs and a tail, but hidden by a fat webby membrane; the fin-like feet of the turtle contain the bones of the carpus and metacarpus, mid the bones of the fingers or toes; and the wings of most birds the bones of the upper arm and the two bones of the forearm and the five bones of the fingers that spread the wings and give them a motion similar to the pronation and supernation of the human arm.iii
Hence unlike Darwin, Carlisle was unafraid to describe man as just one of the natural species. The next year, 1816, Carlisle inferred again that man was just one among numberless species;
We shall do more justice to it by presenting, as nearly as possible in the Professor's own words, the following remarks on the classification of natural objects, with which he premised an account of the natural history of man. “The animal creation presents an immense series of beings, linked together by various points of family resemblance, and again subdivided into different species, by distinguishing marks. [my emphasis] From the earliest periods of civilization, men have attempted to class and name the several creatures which surround them. Increasing leisure has brought the most minute and apparently the most insignificant cant animals under rational consideration; and a relation and harmonious dependence has been discovered among the whole, contrary to that seeming confusion which ignorance attributes to misrule or to chance. The beautiful order of nature has tempted the vanity of man into a belief that he might catalogue all the objects of creation, and unite his arts to the laws of unvarying power. These are the dreams of philosophy. Experience informs us, that the numberless species of natural objects are assimilated to each other by shades of connection, which the gross organs and the limited intellect of man are unable to discriminate. It is impossible to distinguish and name the several specimens of creation, as if they had been formed into distinct sets, and were well marked different links of a definite chain; instead of being as they are a continuous series. The infinite approaches of similitude in natural things, and the endless deviations which are discovered by every attempt to class them together, only adds another convincing proof of the immeasurable qualities of infinite power. Nor has the idle epithet of imperfect creatures, as applied to simple animals, any better foundation than the vulgar nickname of monster, as applied to every strange and unfamiliar living thing. In the great work of infinite wisdom, there is no imperfection: each object is exactly fitted to its destiny; and the immense order of successive generation moves on with unerring, irresistible, unchanging precision”.iv
Although Carlisle refers to 'unchanging precision', it is clear from his other comments he recognised that variations to this 'unchanging precision' could, and did, arise within the embryo. At this time, even Sir Joseph Banks accepted the wording of the Bible. Reading between the lines of a letter of January 1816 written by Banks it appears Carlisle submitted a paper to the Royal Society which addressed evolution, but it was rejected by the Society, thereby causing a rift;
Thus, the noble creature man, is the destined prey of the head louse, the body louse & the crab louse, neither of which can exist in any other situation than on the human body. Of course, as man was the last work of Creation, he must have maintained all these animals until he had a wife who might release him from supporting one or two of them; but till Abel, the younger brother of Cain, was born, there were not more men than lice destined to feed upon them. But enough of this nonsense. Until an actual experiment has taught us that an animal can proceed from another without having been created or begotten, what inducement can we have for believing that possible from abstract reasoning which appears impossible from actual experiment? Carlisle has not entered my house since the Committee of Papers of the RS refused to print a paper of his, [my emphasis] &, I am told, has declared that he never will. I hear that he is employed in hatching a publication in which countenance will be given to those equivocal doctrines, but I do not hear of one experiment he has to produce in favour of his doctrine.v
i Carlisle, Anthony, Philosophical Transactions for 1814, London, 1814, p 498
ii The Universal Magazine, London, Sherwood, 1814, p 320
iii New Monthly Magazine, London, Henry Colburn, 1815, p 439-440
iv Elmes, James, Annals of the Fine Arts for MDCCCXVI, London, 1817, p 365
v Banks, Joseph, The Letters of Sir Joseph Banks, London, Imperial, 2000, p 320-321
At age 70, in 1838, only two years before his death, he presented a paper worthy of careful study, although a difficulty is that Carlisle was so much at the forefront of research, he needed to coin words and phrases to fit his concepts. For example he refers to “embrystic evolution” [evolution of the embryo] showing his belief the divergence of species was initiated by changes at an embryonic level. His term “embrystic evolution” is startlingly similar to modern definitions of the evolutionary process, such as; biological evolution, genetic evolution, or organic evolution. His view 'they always originate under physical direction', foreshadows modern genetic science, as we are now taught new species occur from random, natural, mutations in reproduction of the DNA genetic strand.
For the advancement of natural knowledge, and for the improvement of organic physiology, it may be useful to collect and to collate various evidences, in order to establish the laws which direct the formation of similar figures in different bodies. … For the better understanding of physiological, and consequently of pathological phenomena, it is very important to distinguish between physical causes of general influence, and the especial or peculiar causes termed vital, which belong conjointly to organized living bodies; and the facts now submitted must, I believe, lead to more exact and practical discriminations as to the causes of embrystic evolution, the growth of organized parts, the reparation of lesions, and morbid deviations from natural structure. If it be granted that arborescing vessels are only gross accommodations or appliances of convenience in animal function, and that they always originate under physical direction, [my emphasis] and not from a vital or mysterious necessity, we may assume to have made one step further in natural knowledge.i
Given Carlisle's keen study of inherited mutations and his interest in arborescing vessels, it seems clear he saw a connection between them. That is, he was thinking about inherited traits, and how they sometimes reappear in following generations, and sometimes disappear, leading to permanent physiological changes, or even to extinction, implicitly in both human and animal lines of descent.
i Barker, Edmund Henry, Literary Anecdotes, London, Smith, 1852, p 254