Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 20 • 1872’

The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 20 • 1872

The twentieth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1872.

During this year, Darwin continued to deal with correspondence resulting from the publication the previous year of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. 1872 also saw the publication of the sixth and final (and, at Darwin’s request, cheaper) edition of The Origin of Species (from which the prefix On was finally removed from the title), and the publication of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. It also saw the resumption of his studies into earthworms and insectivorous plants.

Highlights from Darwin’s correspondence for 1872 include:

  • Darwin’s son William reporting measuring ridges and furrows and the depth of Stonehenge stones to assist in Darwin’s earthworm studies.
  • Darwin asking his niece Lucy Caroline Wedgwood to measure wormholes with knitting needles.
  • Joseph Dalton Hooker worrying about Thomas Henry Huxley, and thinking he should be put in charge of setting up the new Natural History Museum.
  • Darwin finally getting so pissed off with St George Jackson Mivart that he requests no further correspondence from him, later comparing the degradation of his relationship with Mivart to that with another former friend, Richard Owen. (For more on this topic, see Newsletter No. 18).
  • Darwin attempting to answer a complex question on butterfly mimicry, and a lengthy reply from Raphael Meldola, invoking both natural selection and sexual selection.
  • Bartholomew James Sulivan sending news of former HMS Beagle shipmates.
  • Darwin finishing updating the sixth (and final) edition of On the Origin of Species, being anxious the book should be cheaply priced, with its pages cut.
  • Darwin receiving a weird letter concerning the scientific mystic Andrew Jackson Davis.
  • Darwin providing a preface for a new French edition of On the Origin of Species, taking the opportunity to distance himself from Mme. Clémence Auguste Royer’s earlier editions.
  • Asa Gray, who knows Darwin so well, urging him not to get sidetracked into some new project until he has published his research on insectivorous plants. (Gray was America’s foremost botanist, so somewhat biased.)
  • Darwin agreeing with Anton Dohrn that “the cause of Wallace’s sad falling away” was his attempt to combine natural selection with spiritualism.
  • Darwin modestly suggesting that writing The Descent of Man was possibly as a mistake, “but any how it will pave the way for some better work”.
  • Friedrich Hildebrand pointing out that Darwin’s works have inspired questions and observations nobody would have dreamt of before.
  • Darwin claiming evolution (as opposed to natural selection) is now generally accepted throughout Europe, except in France.
  • William Darwin sending his father a holder for Russian cigarettes.
  • Darwin saying many British scientists disagree with his idea of female choice in sexual selection, thinking it absurd.
  • Darwin writing, “As far as I can judge, very few naturalists believe in [sexual selection]. I may have erred on many points, and extended the doctrine too far, but I feel a strong conviction that sexual selection will hereafter be admitted to be a powerful agency.”
  • Darwin advising his sceptical friend Thomas Campbell Eyton that, if he keeps testing facts, he’s likely to become a convert to the idea of evolution, if not natural selection.
  • Francis Galton reporting he has attended a séance and cannot explain what he saw, but describing spiritualism as ‘rubbish’—apparently, Benjamin Franklin put in an appearance! (A decidedly less sceptical Galton later invites Darwin to attend a séance, but Darwin declines.)
  • Darwin giving detailed instructions for drawing an aggressive dog.
  • Darwin receiving a bizarre letter about Burmese woman who allegedly became pregnant with an ape.
  • Darwin defending his views on human evolution, citing his former friend St George Jackson Mivart in support of our relationship with simians.
  • Roland Trimen writing about Richard Owen’s inconsistency on the subject of evolution, and his jealousy.
  • Darwin adding his name to a petition for a UK-US copyright agreement.
  • Darwin providing writing advice: “Few authors, I think, strike out half enough; & I am not half severe enough on my own writings.”
  • Darwin declaring “the subject of music is beyond me”.
  • Darwin being delighted with Fritz Müller’s similar thoughts to his own regarding bees and sexual selection. He encloses a paper he wrote concerning bees’ flight paths, of which only the version Müller had translated into German survives.
  • Darwin thanking Charles Lyell for sending a copy of the 11th edition of his Principles of Geology. Darwin differs with Lyell over his views of natural selection, observing: “And I suppose that you will admit that the difference in the brain of a clever & dull man is not much more wonderful than the difference in the length of the noses of any two men.”
  • A letter from Samuel Butler explaining that his novel Erewhon has been misinterpreted by some as a satire of On the Origin of Species.
  • Darwin asking his son to ask the London Zoo superintendent to put a snake in an enclosure with a porcupine to see how the porcupine reacts, and the superintendent’s reply.
  • Darwin’s great American friend Asa Gray quoting him as being a reader of ‘trashy novels’.
  • Darwin on recognising one’s own knowledge limitations: “I fear that a man is most apt to fall into error exactly where from his ignorance he feels no doubts.”
  • - Darwin writing to Alfred Russel Wallace: “I hate controversy, chiefly perhaps because I do it badly; but as Dr Bree accuses you of “blundering”, I have thought myself bound to send the enclosed letter to Nature;”
  • Darwin on his former friend Richard Owen : “I used to be ashamed of hating him so much, but now I will carefully cherish my hatred & contempt to the last day of my life.” He later confesses, “I long to meet him to have the pleasure of cutting him dead.”
  • (Too much information…) Darwin ordering a new enema, subsequently asking for one with a shorter nozzle!
  • Darwin being impressed by Francis Galton’s recent letter to a journal about the inefficacy of prayer.
  • Darwin’s publisher John Murray expressing surprise at the success of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, blaming Darwin’s modesty for misleading him.
  • William Duppa Crotch writing about a recent huge lemming migration in Norway.
  • Darwin sending his old university friend John Maurice Herbert a copy of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, reminiscing about Cambridge days.
  • Darwin writing about his love for his dog Polly.
  • Darwin writing to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), thanking him for offering the use of Dodgson’s photograph of the girl Flora Rankin. (He did not make use of it.)
  • A correspondent reporting an anecdote about a young man who could vomit at will. (It sounds to have been something of a party-piece.)

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Richard Carter

A fat, bearded chap with a Charles Darwin fixation.

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