Dr Alison Pearn, Darwin Correspondence Project & Malcolm Love
Ben - It’s 150 years this week since Charles Darwin presented his ideas to the Linnean society – marking the first public outing of his theory of evolution. I went to visit Dr Alison Pearn, from Cambridge University to learn a bit more about the man behind the theory. Alison is behind the Darwin Correspondence Project, so I started by asking just what the project is…
Alison - It’s pretty much what it says on the tin, really. There are about 14,500 letters written both from and to Charles Darwin. We are publishing complete transcripts of them. They are available in hard copies and they are also going up on the web.
Ben - We have the books that Darwin wrote. The books would be the distilled essence of what he wanted to communicate. Why would we need all the letters or the rough drafts?
Alison - The books are meant for public consumption. They are the final, finished product. There’s a whole back-story. An extremely interesting story of how those books came into being. Darwin was not a lone genius who suddenly had an epiphany of an idea and suddenly wrote it down. Darwin was somebody who worked away for many years and in enormous detail talks about amassing great quantities of facts. He did that largely through the medium of correspondence – the medium of letters.
Ben - Can we trace the development of his theories using his correspondence?
Alison - To a large extent, yes we can. There were certain of his scientific colleagues with whom he did discuss ideas and certainly went into detail. In particular in correspondence with Joseph Dalton Hooker who was director of the botanic gardens at Kew and Darwin’s closest friend. And with Charles Lyell who’d been an early mentor it is possible to see Darwin begin to discuss his ideas and collecting the evidence to support the arguments he was making.
Ben - Darwin and Wallace presented their ideas together to the Linnean society in July 1858 but if the correspondence shows he was discussing aspects of it only months before, what was it that galvanised him into presenting his findings instead of the long, painstaking work he’d been doing?
Alison - Well, famously it was the arrival of a letter from Alfred Russell Wallace who was out in the field in Malaysia. Wallace had also written a paper which Darwin describes as being so uncannily like his own theory. In some ways it was as if Wallace had actually seen his manuscript. He actually panicked. He immediately writes to Charles Lyell and to hooker, and is really is asking them what he should do. It’s actually Darwin’s friends who were pushing to finish in what, to him, was an unseemly hurry.
When the papers were read at the Linnean Society neither Wallace nor Darwin was actually there. Wallace was still out in Malaysia and Darwin was struggling with a completely different crisis in his life. Two of his children were ill with scarlet fever. Through the detail of the letters it’s possible to see the alternating hope and despair as the children get sicker. He’s explaining to people that he can’t respond to their letters, including Hooker, who is trying to get him to publish. He’s completely distracted by the illness of his children. Just before the two papers were read at the Linnean Society his youngest child who was a baby, Charles Darwin, died.
Ben - A personal tragedy like that must have been awful for him. It must have almost made him give up.
Alison - It did. It was only because it was his closest friend who had asked him to send the papers and a close friend with whom he could discuss his feeling on the death of his child that he was able to send the papers. He writes a postscript to a letter in which Darwin, as an afterthought, says I’ve just realised that you want these papers now but I dare say I don’t really care.
Ben - It was about this time that Darwin’s abstracts were presented to the Linnean society. How did he react about this. How did he feel?
Alison - Personal life was still included in a very big way during this whole period. He was very concerned that the rest of the family might become sick and he writes to Hooker a few days after the paper. The first thing that he’s keen to say is that they have evacuated the children and they’ll move their daughter as soon as she’s well enough to go.
Ben - Family was still at the forefront of his mind?
Alison - Absolutely. In all the letters in this period once the first child has become sick it’s the family that are there first. It’s the first thing he mentions to everyone he’s writing to at this point. He does thank Hooker very sincerely for having watched his back and gone to so much trouble to make sure his name was associated with Wallace’s in writing of the papers. Although he says he’s really ashamed of himself now for having cared about whose name was given.