Review of “Evolution: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin, 1860-1870″

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Review of Evolution: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin, 1860-1870, edited by Frederick Burkhardt, Samantha Evans and Alison Pearn.

Evolution contains letters from, as the editors say "The decade immediately following publication of On the origin of species in 1859 to the eve of publication of Descent of man […] arguably the most intense and productive of Charles Darwin's life."


Darwin was an exceptionally productive writer of letters – with sometimes up to ten pieces per day – holding correspondence with hundreds of people all across the world, whom he usually never met in person. Thus, the collection in this book, letters written by as well as written to Charles Darwin, presents only a fraction of his correspondence during that period (the years 1860-1867 alone fill seven volumes in the complete edition). However, the selection appears well considered and representative of the whole. The highlights are all there – the Wilberforce Debate, for instance, and Darwin's famous "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars" (p.11) – and a lot more. It's a balanced mixture, giving insight into Darwin's work, relations, private affairs, and the historic reaction to his ideas. It will satisfy any reader interested in the man behind the name, which was my reason at least for picking it up. Here is what I learned:

1. The man was sick. Awfully sick. In other books, I had come across lots of speculation about why Darwin never defended his theory in public – was he to shy, didn't he want to upset his strongly religious wife? The real and very simple reason seems to be: He was in ill health. Nobody knows what caused his disease (Wikipedia has a whole entry on it, "Darwin's sickness", listing the possibilities) but one fact comes clear across from the letters: It probably wasn't fun. He was flat on his belly for 8 months from September 1863 to April 1864, and "recovering" meant "The vomitting is not now daily". This was not a unique fit, just the low mark of a chronic disposition. For nearly all his adult life, he was smitten by constant nausea, stomach and digestive problems, rashes and headaches, to name but a few things, and could travel only under great personal cost. Presumably he thought that a speaker periodically puking on the floor wasn't what the audience wanted.

2. Nevertheless, the man was a workaholic. Well, one might have guessed. Books like The Origin with their tremendous amounts of observation and data, as well as ten letters per day, don't come from nothing. Here was someone who dearly loved his work, and couldn't do without it. The letters show that, too, as well as the feverish effort necessary for his writings: For Darwin used the mail to make inquiries, sitting like a spider in the web of his vast correspondence. To gather information of other scientists was the main reason to write all these letters. So they don't just mention his work, allowing glimpses of it – they are his work, exchange after exchange with people he questions about biological details.

3. He was humble, pleasant and utterly harmless. Nowhere in the letters (a big part of which are addressed to close friends, so the necessary intimacy would have been given) is a sign of hate or bad temperament, let alone a swearword (though that may only reflect victorian conventions). The harshest words apply to Richard Owen, "the sole one [of my enemies] who has annoyed me" – that is the closest he gets to abusing someone. To repeat it, he might have been more uninhibited in conversation, but the overall impression is that of a very gentle nature. As for being humble: The German naturalist Fritz Müller had written a book in support of evolution, Für Darwin, which, on Darwin's behest, was translated into English, appearing in 1869. In a letter to the author, Darwin apologized for his name being more conspicuous on the book cover than Müller's. When I read that passage, my eyes actually brimmed with tears of affection.

4. He had a sense of humour. I suspected so. If for the only reason that every great thinker or artist seems to have had one, if you look closer. It just seems to come with an agile and inquisitive mind. As I said, he was a pleasant man and a harmless one, so his humour is very mild and good-natured. For example, this lovely bit of self-irony in a letter to his friend Joseph Hooker (p.60): "Now do you agree thus far? if not, it is no use arguing, we must come to swearing, & I am convinced I can swear harder than you. .·. I am right. Q.E.D." (So apparently he knew some swearwords!)

Or, my favourite one, an exclamation every scientist should be able to empathize with: "Eheu Eheu, what much better fun observing is than writing." (p.38).

5. In person, he probably was rather bland. Sorry. He must have been a stubborn maniac to accomplished that much despite being that ill. His obsessive curiosity about the world comes across as rather singular, however, and I'm afraid that despite the topic of biology (oh, and geology) he would not have made for an interesting conversation partner. But there were enough of those around in that days, and only one Darwin (two, if you count Wallace). Speaking of which:

6. He was pals with Wallace. The letters between the two are cordially, and, with Wallace being as humble as Darwin, shaped by an "After you." "No, after you!" – attitude about who deserves more credit in coming up with the theory. So much for the claim that their relation was not as frictionless in private than it was exhibited in public.

 

From a point of craftmanship, the book is equally good. Each letter is meticulously transcribed, with every typo and odd spelling, carefully annotated and accounted for – the scholarly enterprise which is the Darwin Correspondence Project, of which this book is an offspin, shines through. It's wonderfully crafted, with perfect layout, printed on thick, shiny paper. A joy for everyone who likes books for their appearance as well as their content.

Do buy it. You won't regret.

 

Frederick Burkhardt, Samantha Evans & Alison Pearn (eds.): Evolution: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin, 1860-1870. Cambridge University Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-521-87412-0 hardback.

Written By: Robert Seidel
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3 COMMENTS

  1. I read this book a few years ago and was touched by Darwin’s gentleness and by his fortitude in the face of his relentless illness. He was indeed very ill and the treatments he subjected himself to sound hellish by today’s standards. But throughout this he maintained a correspondence which was more than just civilised – it was overwhelmingly thoughtful, intelligent and perceptive. The letters written to him are also revealing about the great esteem in which he was held in all quarters of Society.

    A real eye-opener and well worth reading.

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