Charles Darwin - In his own words...

Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution were presented to the Linnean society on the 1st of July, 1858. 150 years on, we look through Darwin's...
29 June 2008

Interview with 

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...

Portrait of Charles DarwinAlison - 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.

Sir Joseph Dalton HookerCharles LyellAlfred Russel Wallace
Sir Joseph Dalton HookerCharles LyellAlfred Russel Wallace

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.

"My dearest Hooker,

You will, and so will Mrs Hooker, be most sorry for us when you hear that poor Baby died yesterday evening. I hope to God he did not suffer so much as he appeared. He became quite suddenly worse. It was scarlet fever. It was the most blessed relief to see his poor little innocent face resume its sweet expression in the sleep of death. Thank God he will never suffer more in this world.

I have received your letters. I cannot think now on subject, but soon will. But I can see that you have acted with more kindness and so has Lyell even than I could have expected from you both most kind as you are.

I can easily get my letter to Asa Gray copied, but it is too short.

Poor Emma behaved nobly & how she stood it all I cannot conceive. It was wonderful relief, when she could let her feelings break forth.

God Bless you. You shall hear soon as soon as I can think

Yours affectionately

C. Darwin"

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.   

"I daresay all is too late. I hardly care about it.

But you are too generous to sacrifice so much time and kindness. It is most generous, most kind.

I really cannot bear to look at it. Do not waste much time. It is miserable in me to care at all about priority.

God Bless you my dear kind friend. I can write no more."

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.

"My dearest Hooker.

We are become more happy and less panic-struck, now that we have sent out of the house every child and shall remove Etty, as soon as she can move. You may imagine how frightened we have been. It has been a most miserable fortnight.

Thank you much for your note, telling me that all had gone on prosperously at the Linnean Society. You must let me once again tell you how deeply I feel your generous kindness and Lyell's on this occasion. But in truth it shames me that you should have lost time on a mere point of priority.

I do not in the least understand whether my letter to Asa Gray is to be printed; I suppose not, only your note; but I am quite indifferent, and place myself absolutely in your and Lyell's hands.

I can easily prepare an abstract of my whole work, but I can hardly see how it can be made scientific for a Journal, without giving facts, which would be impossible. If the Referees were to reject it as not strictly scientific I would, perhaps publish it as pamphlet.

We thank you heartily for your invitation to join you; I can fancy nothing which I should enjoy more; but our children are too delicate for us to leave; and I should be mere living lumber.

If you see Lyell will you tell him how truly grateful I feel for his kind interest in this affair of mine. You must know that I look at it, as very important, for the reception of the view of species not being immutable, the fact of the greatest geologist and [botanist] biologist in England, taking any sort of interest in subject: I am sure it will do much to break down prejudices.

Yours affectionately

 Darwin's Signature

With many thanks to the
Darwin Correspondence Project and
Malcolm Love.


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