My Dear Fellow Species


May 20, 2007

"The Origin of Species" is almost 150 — a fit survivor of the science canon even if not everyone has seen fit to jump from the Ark to the Beagle on the matter of evolution (three Republican presidential candidates, for example). But Darwin himself was slow to come to his ideas, and slower still to disclose them to a skeptical public. Last week, the Darwin Correspondence Project, based at Cambridge University, put about 5,000 letters to and from Darwin, some of them previously unpublished, online at, with thousands more to follow. The searchable database lets anyone track the painstaking development of his research and thinking – on all kinds of topics, personal and professional, and with a huge array of correspondents.

The first surviving letter shows Darwin as a 12-year-old boy, acting like one, as he complains to a friend about his sister's interrogations on his hygiene in 1822:

Just as I was going, she said she must ask me not a very decent question, that was whether I wash all over every morning – no – then she said it was quite disgusting – then she asked me if I did every other morning, and I said no – then she said how often I did, and I said once a week, then she said of course you wash your feet every day, and I said no, then she begun saying how very disgusting and went on that way a good while. … so then I went and told erasmus, and he bust out in laughing and said I had better tell he to come and wash them her self, besides that she said she did not like sitting by me or Erasmus for we smelt of not washing all over, there we sat arguing away for a good while.

Darwin's father wanted him to be a doctor but the son apparently didn't like blood. His squeamishness shows – as does his compassion and meticulous concern for the practicalities – when he solicits an Angora rabbit from William Tegetmeier, a poultry expert, in 1856:

Could you get the Porter to stick her, for I do not want her alive, & she would get knocked about & half-starved in our cross country Roads.

I find that it ruins the skull to kill a rabbit in the ordinary way by a blow, & I should. think it would be difficult to break the neck below the atlas. – I really do not wish or expect you to do so disagreeable task as to stick the poor beast, but I daresay the same Porter whom you employ to carry her … would do it.

At Cambridge, when he was meant to be studying for the clergy (redirected after medicine didn't work out), he was more into competitive beetle collecting. To his cousin, in the jaunty prose of the college man, in 1829:

I have caught Mr. Harbour letting Babington have the first pick of the beetles; accordingly we have made our final adieus, my part in the affecting scene consisted in telling him he was a d––d rascal, & signifying I should kick him down the stairs if ever he appeared in my rooms again: it seemed altogether mightily to surprise the young gentleman.

It was at the end of a letter to the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, Darwin's closest friend, that, building slowly, he dropped his bombshell of a notion in 1844, 15 years before "Origin":

I have been now ever since my return engaged in a very presumptuous work & which I know no one individual who wd not say a very foolish one. – I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms & with the character of the American fossil mammifers, that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact, which could bear any way on what are species. – I have read heaps of agricultural & horticultural books, & have never ceased collecting facts – At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable. Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a "tendency to progression" "adaptations from the slow willing of animals" … but the conclusions I am led to are not widely different from his – though the means of change are wholly so – I think I have found out (here's presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends.

It was also to Hooker that he turned after one of the savage reviews of "Origin," in 1859:

I cannot help it, I must thank you for your affectionate & most kind note. My head will be turned. By Jove I must try, & get a bit modest. I was a little chagrined by review. I hope it was not Woodward. As advocate he might think himself justified in giving argument only one side. But the manner in which he drags in immortality, & sets the Priests at me & leaves me to their mercies, is base. He would on no account burn me; but he will get the wood ready & tell the black beasts how to catch me.

The American botanist Asa Gray was a lifelong correspondent. The two shared scientific observations, but also discussed the Civil War. Darwin was passionately antislavery, as in this 1861 letter:

I cannot believe that the South would ever have fellow-feeling enough with the North to allow of government in common. Could the North endure a Southern President? The whole affair is a great misfortune in the progress of the World; but I should not regret it so much, if I could persuade myself that Slavery would be annihilated. … I sometimes wish the contest to grow so desperate that the north would be led to declare freedom as a diversion against the Enemy. … But Heaven knows why I trouble you with my speculations; I ought to stick to Orchids.

Not that orchids always satisfied. To the Scottish geologist Charles Lyell in 1861:

But I am very poorly today & very stupid & hate everybody & everything. One lives only to make blunders.– I am going to write a little Book for Murray on orchids & today I hate them worse than everything so farewell & in a sweet frame of mind, I am.

Gray supported Darwin on evolution but believed also in a guiding design. Darwin would have none of it, and suggested in an 1861 letter that his own large nose, of which he was not fond, was something no designer could have created:

Your question what would convince me of Design is a poser. If I saw an angel come down to teach us good, & I was convinced, from others seeing him, that I was not mad, I should believe in design. – If I could be convinced thoroughly that life & mind was in an unknown way a function of other imponderable forces, I should be convinced. If man was made of brass or iron & no way connected with any other organism which had ever lived, I should perhaps be convinced. But this is childish writing.

I have lately been corresponding with Lyell, who, I think, adopts your idea of the stream of variation having been led or designed. I have asked him (& he says he will herafter reflect & answer me) whether he believes that the shape of my nose was designed. If he does, I have nothing more to say.

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