Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 18 • 1870’

The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 18 • 1870

The eighteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1870.

Darwin spent most of this year continuing work on his next book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. During this period, he finally accepted that this would be a large (two-volume) book, and that his research into human emotions would need to wait for a separate book in its own right.

Highlights from Darwin’s correspondence for 1870 include:

  • Darwin arranging to send duplicate and unwanted books to the Linnean Society.
  • Darwin expressing delight at the woodcuts for ‘The Descent of Man’, and later admitting he has been gloating over them.
  • Darwin groaning at his friend Alfred Russel Wallace (who had come to differ significantly from Darwin on human evolution) for writing ‘like a metamorphosed (in retrograde direction) naturalist’, despite Wallace having been ‘the author of the best paper that ever appeared in Anth[ropological] Review!’
  • Wallace, shortly before publication of ‘The Descent of Man’, subsequently joking, “I look forward with fear & trembling to being crushed under a mountain of facts!”
  • Darwin writing to his daughter Henrietta regarding her role proof-reading ‘The Descent of Man’: “I fear parts are too like a Sermon: who wd ever have thought that I shd. turn parson?” (Henrietta’s response is similarly light-hearted.)
  • An American correspondent sending Darwin an account of Canadian pond-weed invading Britain.
  • Darwin summing up his scientific education.
  • A correspondent predicting the migration of species between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea through the newly opened Suez Canal. (He originally intended this as a joke, but his prediction was taken sufficiently seriously to initiate a scientific expedition, and turned out to be correct. It is now known as the Lessepsian migration.)
  • Darwin congratulating his friend, near-neighbour and scientific protégé John Lubbock on being elected a Member of Parliament.
  • Darwin being pestered to provide content for new journal, ‘Academy’.
  • Darwin’s best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker, advising him not to get wound up by William Thomson and other physicists’ claims that the earth was not sufficiently old for the current diversity of life to have evolved.
  • The sculptor Thomas Woolner sending Darwin a drawing of the small atavistic bump on the rim of the human ear, dubbed by Darwin the Woolnerian tip, but now known as Darwin’s tubercle.
  • Darwin receiving detailed observations of human emotions from the West Riding Lunatic Asylum.
  • A series of letters ( 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) from Darwin’s second cousin Francis Galton describing blood-transfusion experiments performed on rabbits to test Darwin’s hypothesis of pangenesis.
  • Darwin humorously comparing himself unfavourably with Immanuel Kant: “the one man a great philosopher looking exclusively into his own mind, the other a degraded wretch looking from the outside thro’ apes & savages at the moral sense of mankind.”
  • Darwin writing to Wallace about their friendship: “Your modesty and candour are very far from new to me. I hope it is a satisfaction to you to reflect,—& very few things in my life have been more satisfactory to me—that we have never felt any jealousy towards each other, though in one sense rivals. I believe that I can say this of myself with truth, & I am absolutely sure that it is true of you.”
  • St George Jackson Mivart, a religious scientist, expressing his esteem for Darwin while making clear his irritation at how natural selection is being applied, and comparing Thomas Henry Huxley’s ‘Man’s Place in Nature’ to ‘obscenities’.
  • A medical officer at Sussex Lunatic Asylum partially blaming one unfortunate patient’s condition on masturbation.
  • Darwin declining to review an essay collection, saying, “it is an immense relief to me to be able to say that I never write reviews”.
  • Darwin reporting having met his old geology tutor Adam Sedgwick at Cambridge, and having been tired out by him: “Is it not humiliating to be thus killed by a man of 86, who evidently never dreamed that he was killing me.”
  • Darwin admitting that his latest book, ‘The Descent of Man’, is “as usual running to much greater length than I expected”.
  • Darwin requesting observations on vomiting.
  • Darwin describing his views on predestination and design to Hooker: “Your conclusion that all speculation about preordination is idle waste of time is the only wise one: but how difficult it is not to speculate. My theology is a simple muddle: I cannot look at the Universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficent design, or indeed of design of any kind in the details.— As for each variation that has ever occurred having been preordained for a special end, I can no believe in it, than that the spot on which each drop of rain falls has been specially ordained.—“.
  • Darwin unsuccessfully attempting to have a question about cousin marriages included in the national census. (More here.)
  • Darwin making a clear distinction between the fact of evolution and the theory of natural selection that attempts to explain it: “I see in the last number of the Révue that M. Edwards is inclined to believe that existing species are the modified descendants of extinct species. Such an admission seems to me very much more important than whether natural selection has been a more or less efficient means of change; though for my own part I shd never have been able to admit the evolution of species, unless I cd have partly explained to myself how the innumerable & beautiful adaptations, which we see all around us, had originated.”
  • Darwin, on holiday in Torquay, joking, “I admire the beautiful scenery more than could be reasonably expected of an acknowledged descendent of an Ape.”

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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