Tag Archives: darwin correspondence

20-Feb-1835: Darwin witnesses an earthquake

On 20th February, 1835, Charles Darwin was lying down in a wood having a rest in Valvidia, Southern Chile, when he experienced a major earthquake. A few weeks later, he described what happened in a letter home to his sister Caroline:

[Off Valparaiso]

March 10th.

My dear Caroline,

[…] We are now on our road from Concepciòn.— The papers will have told you about the great Earthquake of the 20th of February.— I suppose it certainly is the worst ever experienced in Chili.— It is no use attempting to describe the ruins—it is the most awful spectacle I ever beheld.— The town of Concepcion is now nothing more than piles & lines of bricks, tiles & timbers—it is absolutely true there is not one house left habitable; some little hovels built of sticks & reeds in the outskirts of the town have not been shaken down & these now are hired by the richest people. The force of the shock must have been immense, the ground is traversed by rents, the solid rocks are shivered, solid buttresses 6–10 feet thick are broken into fragments like so much biscuit.— How fortunate it happened at the time of day when many are out of their houses & all active: if the town had been over thrown in the night, very few would have escaped to tell the tale. We were at Valdivia at the time the shock there was considered very violent, but did no damage owing to the houses being built of wood.— I am very glad we happened to call at Concepcion so shortly afterwards: it is one of the three most interesting spectacles I have beheld since leaving England—A Fuegian savage.—Tropical Vegetation—& the ruins of Concepcion— It is indeed most wonderful to witness such desolation produced in three minutes of time.

Remains of the Cathedral in Concepción

The remains of the Cathedral in Concepción by John Clements Wickham (1798–1864); Engraving: S. Bull (fl. 1838–1846). Source: Wikipedia

Darwin also recorded a detailed account of the event in his Beagle diary, which was later adapted into a passage in ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’:

February 20th. - This day has been memorable in the annals of Valdivia, for the most severe earthquake experienced by the oldest inhabitant. I happened to be on shore, and was lying down in the wood to rest myself. It came on suddenly, and lasted two minutes, but the time appeared much longer. The rocking of the ground was very sensible. The undulations appeared to my companion and myself to come from due east, whilst others thought they proceeded from south-west: this shows how difficult it sometimes is to perceive the directions of the vibrations. There was no difficulty in standing upright, but the motion made me almost giddy: it was something like the movement of a vessel in a little cross-ripple, or still more like that felt by a person skating over thin ice, which bends under the weight of his body. A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid; - one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced. In the forest, as a breeze moved the trees, I felt only the earth tremble, but saw no other effect. Captain Fitz Roy and some officers were at the town during the shock, and there the scene was more striking; for although the houses, from being built of wood, did not fall, they were violently shaken, and the boards creaked and rattled together. The people rushed out of doors in the greatest alarm. It is these accompaniments that create that perfect horror of earthquakes, experienced by all who have thus seen, as well as felt, their effects. Within the forest it was a deeply interesting, but by no means an awe- exciting phenomenon. The tides were very curiously affected. The great shock took place at the time of low water; and an old woman who was on the beach told me that the water flowed very quickly, but not in great waves, to high- water mark, and then as quickly returned to its proper level; this was also evident by the line of wet sand. The same kind of quick but quiet movement in the tide happened a few years since at Chiloe, during a slight earthquake, and created much causeless alarm. In the course of the evening there were many weaker shocks, which seemed to produce in the harbour the most complicated currents, and some of great strength.

Witnessing such a powerful earthquake and its aftermath at first-hand, along with numerous subsequent observations, convinced Darwin that the whole western coast of South America was gradually rising. In this, he went further than Charles Lyell, who, in volume 1 of Principles of Geology—a book which Darwin devoured during the Beagle voyage—had claimed that a section of Chile's coast had undergone recent elevation. On his return to England, Darwin published his findings in The Proceedings of the Geological Society of London, in an 1837 paper entitled Observations of proofs of recent elevation on the coast of Chili, made during the survey of His Majesty's Ship Beagle commanded by Capt. FitzRoy R.N. This paper provided Lyell with considerable ammunition in an ongoing geological dispute he was having with George Bellas Greenough concerning evidence of elevation of the Chilean coast.

Lyell and Darwin were to become fast and close friends. The two men are buried next to each other in Westminster Abbey.

Further reading:

Charles Darwin to Charles Lyell, 10th January, 1860

Our ancestor was an animal which breathed water, had a swim-bladder, a great swimming tail, an imperfect skull & undoubtedly was an hermaphrodite! Here is a pleasant genealogy for mankind.-

The full text of this letter is available on the Darwin Correspondence Project website

I have seriously cool friends (part 3)

My wonderful, long-suffering partner, Jen, filled a gaping hole in my Darwin-groupie library this Christmas:

Darwin-groupie's library

The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Vol. 19 (1871) (middle shelf, far right)

How on Earth did you guess?

19th April, 1882: Charles Darwin dies

On Wednesday, 19th April, 1882, at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, at Down House in Kent, Charles Darwin died in the arms of his loving wife, Emma.

Darwin's life must surely be the most well-documented of any scientist, thanks to his notebooks, Beagle diary, and phenomenally copious correspondence. But the shortest, saddest entry in his life's unofficial journal was recorded by Emma:

Emma's diary entry

Emma Darwin's diary entry, dated 18th (sic) April, 1882.

From the corrections made to her subsequent diary entries, it would appear that Emma missed a day somewhere, which explains why her husband's death is incorrectly recorded as falling on Tuesday 18th April, 1882, rather than on Wednesday 19th.

We all have to go some time.

The world will not see his like again.

Two triumphant predictions for science

Today marks the completion of the planet Neptune's first orbit of the sun since it was discovered by astronomers on 23 September, 1846.

The discovery of Neptune is one of those neat stories often used to illustrate the predictive capabilities of science. Englishman John Couch Adams and Frenchman Urbain Jean-Joseph Le Verrier independently calculated the orbit of the inferred new planet, based on known irregularities in the orbit of Uranus. And, sure enough, when astronomers pointed their telescopes where Adams and Le Verrier said, there shone Neptune! Interestingly, though, these astronomers were probably not the first to observe Neptune: Galileo, Lalande and Herschel are each thought to have seen the it earlier, but none of them seems to have realised that they were looking at a new planet.

Another frequently told story of a scientific prediction proving correct comes courtesy of Charles Darwin. (You must have known I'd be getting to him eventually.) In his snappily titled book On the Various Contrivances by which British And Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing, Darwin famously predicted the existence of a moth with an extremely long proboscis, which would be the pollinator of a strange Madagascan orchid with an extremely long nectary, writing:

I fear that the reader will be wearied, but I must say a few words on the Angræcum sesquipedale, of which the large six-rayed flowers, like stars formed of snow-white wax, have excited the admiration of travellers in Madagascar. A whip-like green nectary of astonishing length hangs down beneath the labellum. […]

I could not for some time understand how the pollinia of this Orchid were removed, or how it could be fertilised. I passed bristles and needles down the open entrance into the nectary and through the cleft in the rostellum with no result. It then occurred to me that, from the length of the nectary, the flower must be visited by large moths, with a proboscis thick at the base; and that to drain the last drop of nectar even the largest moth would have to force its proboscis as far down as possible.

Xanthopan morganii praedicta

Xanthopan morganii praedicta
(Image: cc kqedquest on Flickr)

Darwin's prediction was seen as a bold one by at least one of his correspondents. In 1862, just 16 years after the discovery of Neptune, Edward Cresy Jr went so far as to compare Darwin's prediction with that of Adams and Le Verrier, writing to Darwin:

I think your anticipation by analogy of a Madagascar moth with a probiscis ten inches long equals Adam's & Leverrier— What a triumph it will be to find him—

Unlike Adams and Le Verrier, Darwin did not live to see his prediction confirmed. It was not until 1903 that a new sub-species of the African hawk moth was discovered in Madagascar. As Darwin had predicted, the moth feeds from the nectaries of Angraecum sesquipedale with its extremely long proboscis. The new sub-species was given the very appropriate scientific name Xanthopan morganii praedicta in recognition of yet another triumphant prediction for science.

Postscript [02-Dec-2011]: …although, apparently (see comments), Xanthopan morganii praedicta was named in honour of Alfred Russel Wallace's similar prediction, not Darwin's.

How to read Darwin - by Darwin

On 6th March, 1860, Charles Darwin advised a scientist whom he correctly believed to be sceptical of his views how to go about reading On the Origin of Species:

The fair way to view the argument of my book, I think, is to look at Natural Selection as a mere hypothesis (though rendered in some degree probable by the analogy of method of production of domestic races; & by what we know of the struggle for existence) & then to judge whether the mere hypothesis explains a large body of facts in Geographical Distribution, Geological Succession, & more especially in Classification, Homology, Embryology, Rudimentary Organs The hypothesis to me does seem to explain several independent large classes of facts; & this being so, I view the hypothesis as a theory having a high degree of probability of truth. All turns on whether the above classes of facts seem to you satisfactorily explained or not.

In other words, think of evolution by means of Natural Selection as an idea worthy of consideration, then actually consider the facts which can be explained by Darwin's idea, and decide whether you find them compelling.

You can't ask much more of a reader than that.

Unfortunately, in this case, Darwin's correspondent, the naturalist and geologist Samuel Pickworth Woodward (1821–65), found it impossible to accept Darwin's views.

Whewell sets the right tone

There has been quite a lot of debate recently about the right tone to take when disagreeing with people misguided enough to deny evolution, or believe in pseudoscience or the supernatural. My own approach is to try to avoid engaging with them at all. I don't particularly want to be rude to such people, but I don't particularly want to be polite with them either. Life is too short to spend it arguing with people you are never going to agree with.

In these days of the 140-character tweet and the ten-posts-per-day blog, it's all too easy to get into a heated arguments with someone on the strength (or weakness) of a ill-considered online blurt. I've done it myself. Our modern means of communication encourage instant feedback, often to the detriment of thoughtful reflection.

Less so in Darwin's day. This from William Whewell in January, 1860:

My dear Mr Darwin

I have to thank you for a copy of your book on the 'Origin of Species'. You will easily believe that it has interested me very much, and probably you will not be surprized to be told that I cannot, yet at least, become a convert to your doctrines. But there is so much of thought and of fact in what you have written that it is not to be contradicted without careful selection of the ground and manner of the dissent, which I have not now time for. I must therefore content myself with thanking you for your kindness.

believe me | Yours very truly | W Whewell

William Whewell

William Whewell (1794–1866)

This seems to me the right way to go about things. Whewell—a mathematician, historian and philosopher of science, who was also an Anglican priest and theologian—disagrees fundamentally with Darwin's revolutionary new theory, but is not prepared to dismiss it without more careful consideration.

I'm not sure how much careful consideration Whewell gave evolution by means of Natural Selection after his polite letter to Darwin. Not much, if their lack of subsequent correspondence is anything to go by. But at least Whewell had the decency to recognise that Darwin had provided a lot of food for thought: a position worthy of the gentleman who gave us the word scientist.

Getting to know Charles Darwin in person

Martin Amis on the latest volume of letters by the poet Philip Larkin in Saturday's Guardian:

The age of the literary correspondence is dying, slowly but surely electrocuted by the superconductors of high modernity. This expiration was locked into a certainty about 20 years ago; and although William Trevor and VS Naipaul, say, may yet reward us, it already sounds fogeyish to reiterate that, no, we won't be seeing, and we won't be wanting to see, the selected faxes and emails, the selected texts and tweets of their successors.

Larkin touched upon the death of literary correspondence himself in early 1981, writing to his friend Judy Egerton, "We may be the last generation to write to each other." This was in the days before ubiquitous email, but I'm with Amis: faxes, emails, texts and tweets can't compare to a traditional letter.

I'm no poetry groupie, but I can't resist a good collection of letters. Larkin's previously published letters are riveting. His correspondence with Martin Amis's father, Kingsley, in particular is a joy to read: humorous, warm, opinionated, and frequently filthy. Anyone only familiar with the two literary giants' published works has no idea what they were really like.

As a self-confessed Darwin groupie who loves reading other people's letters, the Correspondence of Charles Darwin is, quite simply, a must-possess, as far as I'm concerned. I own every volume published so far, and am slowly working my way through them.

Darwin groupie's bookshelf

A Darwin groupie's bookshelf.

One thing is for certain, Charles Darwin wrote and received an awful lot of letters. And the wonderful people at the Darwin Correspondence Project have done a frankly magnificent job researching each letter, and annotating them with with copious footnotes. I genuinely believe they should be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature when they eventually complete their mammoth task. I just hope I live long enough to see it! Forget the biographies. Forget the published works. If you really want to get to know Charles Darwin in person, you need to read his correspondence.

Last week, I began reading volume 8 of the Darwin correspondence, which covers the year 1860—the year following the publication of On the Origin of Species. So expect to see a few more Red Notebook posts about Darwin's 1860 correspondence over the next few months.

Darwin is sent a specimen

150 years ago today, on 2nd November, 1859, the publisher John Murray wrote to Charles Darwin in Ilkley:

By this day's post I send you a specimen copy of your book bound— I hope it may receive your approval. Please reply by return & not a moment shall be lost in getting ready the early copies—your instructions seem quite clear & shall be carefully followed.

The book in question was, of course, On the Origin of Species.

The following day, Darwin replied to Murray:

I am infinitely pleased & proud at the appearance of my child.