Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16, part 2 • 1868’

The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16, part II • July–December 1867

The sixteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1868. Uniquely for this 30-volume collection, Darwin wrote and received so many letters in 1868 that they had to be split across two physical books (published as a pair). The following refers to part two of volume 16, covering the months July–December 1868.

In the second half of 1868, Darwin continued his research into human evolution, human emotions and sexual selection. Near the end of the year, he also began work on revising On the Origin of Species for its fifth edition. Highlights from this period include:

  • Darwin reporting that, although he has had the manuscript for the next volume of his planned ‘big book’ on species almost ready for several years, he has decided to amuse himself by writing a ‘short volume’ on Man;
  • Thomas Henry Huxley enquiring on behalf of Prof. Kühne about the ‘possibility of paying his devotions at the Shrine of Dr. Darwin’. (The letter is illustrated with a cartoon by Huxley.)
  • Louis Agassiz explaining to Darwin that his disagreement with Darwin is not personal;
  • Alfred Russel Wallace’s detailed objections to female choice in sexual selection (as opposed to protective colouration through camouflage) as an explanation of the different colours of certain male and female birds—and Darwin’s response;
  • Darwin’s later letter to Wallace on the same subject, saying: ‘I grieve to differ from you, & it actually terrifies me & makes me constantly distrust myself’—and Wallace’s reply;
  • Joseph Dalton Hooker reporting he has been selling photographs, chiefly of Darwin, at the British Association for the Advancement of Science on behalf of photographer Julia Margaret Cameron;
  • Darwin opining, ‘I am not sure whether it wd not be wisest for scientific men quite to ignore the whole subject of religion’;
  • An affectionate letter from the ageing anti-evolutionist Adam Sedgwick, who had taken the young Darwin on a geological tour of North Wales, and Darwin’s reply;
  • Darwin declaring, ‘I believe that almost every book wd be improved by condensation’;
  • Darwin claiming to be trembling at Ernst Haeckel’s boldness at proposing a detailed evolutionary tree, but agreeing with Thomas Henry Huxley that ‘some one must be bold enough to make a beginning in drawing up tables of descent’;
  • Darwin complaining he is ‘undergoing the purgatory of sitting for hours to Thomas Woolner’ for a bust sculpture;
  • Darwin humorously referring to claims by physicists that the world is not old enough for his theory of evolution to be correct: ‘The brevity of the world troubles me, on account of the pre-silurian creatures which must have lived in numbers during endless ages, else my views wd be wrong, which is impossible — Q.E.D.—’;
  • Darwin, while working on the latest edition, complaining he is sick of correcting ‘that everlasting Origin’;
  • Darwin reporting he has installed Joseph Dalton Hooker’s photograph over his chimney piece so he will never be bold enough to make theoretical wriggles under his gaze. (Making such wriggles was a running joke between the two friends.)
  • Darwin complaining about Richard Owen misquoting him, saying ‘he puts words from me in inverted commas & alters them’;
  • Darwin on the difficulty of reconciling evolution with the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient creator;
  • Ernst Haeckel jokingly comparing his newborn son to a ‘quadrumane’.

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Richard Carter, FCD

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteNewsletterMastodonetc…

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