Review: Evolution. Selected Letters of Charles Darwin 1860-1870

This was originally written for the Palaeontological Association in their newletter. All of them can be downloaded at http://www.palass.org/modules.php?name=palaeo&sec=newsletter&page=17

Down House
Darwin’s study in Down House, in Kent, where most of his letters where written.

Evolution is a tightly edited volume of correspondence between Darwin and his contemporaries penned immediately following the publication of On the Origin of Species up to just before the publication of The Decent of Man in 1871, and presents a wholly engaging insight into the machinations of the great man.

Darwin, as Sir David Attenborough reminds us in the anthology’s introduction, was an extremely ill man. His poor health and almost absolute inability to travel meant that letters were the primary agents through which he defended his work.

The defence of his own ideas, however, is not over‐represented in this collection as Darwin’s colleagues, including (and especially) T. H. Huxley, took it upon themselves to spread the word, which an embarrassed Darwin was simultaneously delighted and humbled by. But so much is already known. Scarcely six months after Origin’s publication (though two more editions would be rolled out by the end of the year) he was already complaining to Charles Lyell that

“There has been a plethora of reviews and I am really quite sick of myself”.

Suffice to say 2009 would not have been a year favoured by Charles Darwin. By the end of last year the entire country was a C.D. expert and I was fearful that this slight anthology was surely just going to add a little more unnecessary girth to an already swollen sack of books published within the last few months. I was, however, utterly mistaken.

Thanks to the efforts begun by Frederick Burkhardt with Sydney Smith in 1974, all of Darwin’s correspondence up to 1867 (some 6,000 of a known 15,000 items) are now available to be searched or browsed through on the Darwin Correspondence Project’s website. Through the continuing heroic work of this small team all the known letters recovered, dated and contextualized are also being gradually published as The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, which has this year swelled to 17 (of a planned 30) tome-like green volumes. Although an incredible resource for philosophers and historians of science, the sheer volume of material can be intimidating for the casual reader on a lunch break. The genius of Evolution is that, thanks to the editing work of Burkhardt and his colleagues, I read ten years’ worth of Darwin’s most salient letters in just a couple of evenings. Evolution is “a clear, accurate, and readable text containing necessary background information; and succinct and eloquent introductory material and annotations” which were the very conditions met by The Correspondence of Charles Darwin in 1991, enabling it to receive the Morten N. Cohen award from the Modern Language Association of America. The Tolstoy-esque biographical register (Carpenter, Gray, Haeckel, Hooker, Huxley, Lyell, Sedgwick and some two hundred others) makes keeping track of the who’s who of 1860s academia a doddle, and in addition the reader is further supported by excellent introductory paragraphs before most of the letters which help contextualize them within Darwin’s personal and political landscape. This is all on top of the bibliographical list of every academic work mentioned in the letters and in addition to the index.

The letters are not ordered in topics as they are on the project’s website, but chronologically, resulting in one of the first criticisms Darwin received (from an old entomology rival he had known in Cambridge) kicking things off. As the years progress I found this was the first of only a few argumentative letters included, although this minority helped indicate that the apparent failings of the theory reported were mainly due, at least at first, to semantics. For instance, the perception of the term “Natural Selection” led some to the mystical conclusion that Nature was herself selecting intelligently.

Evolution, though, is much more than a book of spite and, indeed, such a collection would soon have grown repetitive and dull. The letters instead cover all corners of Darwin’s polymath‐like endeavours, and the geneses of the eight works that were to appear after Origin, including The Descent of Man, are all present. We find them in the private correspondence between researchers on the facial muscles of hospital patients and in the role natural and sexual selection may have had on the evolution of man. Also included are experimental design protocols written for Asa Gray to perform on carnivorous plants, explanatory notes to gentleman farmers, journalists and amateur naturalists, bemusement at the inferred evolutionary pathways of dwarfs, elves and fairies, and more practical advice for the nineteenth century naturalist such as how not to irritate plate illustrators and how to look after your horse. Don’t think there isn’t any light relief, though. Joseph Hooker’s gossipy account of the bashing Bishop Samuel Wilberforce received at the 1860 Oxford debate is a highlight:

“My blood boiled, I felt myself a dastard; now I saw my advantage”

which evidently worked out rather well for Joseph:

“… and plenty of ladies flattered me.”

It’s through Darwin’s correspondences with Asa Gray that we begin to move into the more intimate aspects of Darwin’s family life, including pet names for his son bitten by the collecting bug (though it was stamps not beetles in his pockets) and grave concern for those whose support of Origin may have hindered their own careers (the emigration of John Scott to Calcutta at Darwin’s expense is a shocking revelation of the extent to which he felt responsible for anyone’s misfortune due to their support of his theory). It’s here, in the balance between his genius and his ‘ordinariness’, that we find the key to the book’s success. Between the revealing reports of publishing and experiments, I would turn the page and find a couple still sending love letters after 22 years of marriage, Thank You letters to his daughter Henrietta whose edits probably explain why we can read his works so easily today, heartbreaking replies to bereaved friends, boasts about a luxuriously long beard he was just beginning to grow (“do I not look venerable?”), or sarcastic banter between Darwin and Huxley’s wife concerning the merits of Tennyson’s poetry.

Evolution tells an engaging story, but for all its humour, tenderness and historical value it was Darwin’s subtle but pervasive sense of frustration that affected me the most and is uncomfortably evident in the extent of his illnesses, here laid bare. He was unable to travel to see his old professor of botany on his deathbed and, tragically, his own sister on hers. He suffered from depression, dizziness, problems with vision, vomiting, headaches, exhaustion and at times couldn’t even stand to be read to let alone read for himself, whilst on top of this he had to withstand the lashings of a small but vicious group of contemporary academics. He wrote to Hooker

“It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me… I shall never forget his cordial shake of the hand, when he was writing as spitefully as he could against me”.

He grew weary of researching too heavily on one topic of interest and complained

“One has no time for reading anything beyond what must be read: my room is encumbered with unread books”.

By 1870 he was concerned over Wallace “backsliding from the Darwinian theory” and so ill he was unable to travel even to Oxford to receive an honorary degree. One of the last letters of the collection finds him wishing he “had got a little more strength. I feel that each job as finished must be my last”. His isolation in Down House hindered his work, but the palpable frustration in the painstakingly slow accumulation of facts on sexual selection for The Descent and behavioural experiments for Expressions pales in comparison to his desperate grasping at ‘pangenesis’ in order to describe a mechanism for heredity. Indeed Sir David Attenborough ends his foreword by lamenting Gregor Mendel’s lack of use of the Czech Republic’s postal service, and I’m sure anyone reading this excellent collection will at once recognize – perhaps as the editors intended to hint at – just how good we have it now. Waiting over three months to hear of the end of the American Civil War seems as alien to us today as a monk dabbling with the secret of life would have seemed to Darwin.

Finally, it is worth noting that in addition to the restrained editing of the Darwin Correspondence Project staff the book is, of course, carried along by Darwin’s pen. Whatever the subject matter, he wrote with a grace (although he wasn’t averse to using the odd ‘poop‐pooh’) that makes it hard for us to believe he had – as he maintained – “lost all love for music, poetry and literature”. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the gentlemanly exchanges between himself and A. R. Wallace contained within this volume.

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