Tag Archives: darwin correspondence

24th August

On 24th August, 1831, Charles Darwin's great friend and mentor, John Stevens Henslow, sat down at his desk, took up his pen, and wrote what turned out to be one of the most important letters in the history of science. More here »

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.

Correspondence Vol. 17 is out

Those frankly wonderful people at the Darwin Correspondence Project have announced the publication of volume 17 of their stupendously researched series of books. The latest volume contains the full texts of more than 500 letters Darwin wrote and received during the year 1869. The project has also announced that volume 15 of the correspondence is now online.

Forget all the biographies, and Darwin's own Autobiography; if you want to get to know the real Charles Darwin, you should be reading his correspondence.

I don't have many ambitions in life, but one of them is to live long enough to read the complete set of Darwin's correspondence. To be frank, it's touch-and-go whether I'll make it: they aren't exactly knocking these books out once a fortnight. It has taken 23 years to publish the first 17 volumes, and there will be approximately 30 volumes in the complete series. The final volume is due to be published around 2025.

Darwin groupie's study

My suddenly (and alarmingly) incomplete set of volumes of Darwin's Correspondence.

I'll be off to my local bookshop to order my copy of volume 17 this morning.

The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 7

Last week, I finished reading volume 7 of the Correspondence of Charles Darwin, which deals with the years 1858–1859 (i.e. the lead-up to the publication of On the Origin of Species). As with all the other volumes in the series, it is a magnifient piece of research work, and a must-buy for any Darwin groupie.

Expect several posts over the next few weeks inspired by this fantastic book.