Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 22 • 1874’

‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 22 • 1874’

The twenty-second volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1874.

During this year, Darwin worked on the second editions of his books Coral Reefs andThe Descent of Man, and continued his extensive research into insectivorous plants.

The year also saw a second bitter dispute between Darwin and his former friend St George Jackson Mivart. (I wrote about their earlier dispute in the 18th edition of the Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter.) In an anonymous article in the Quarterly Review, Mivart made reference to Darwin’s son George’s recent paper ‘On beneficial restrictions to liberty of marriage’, seemingly accusing George of condoning prostitution. Darwin was incensed at this ‘scurrilous libel’, soon correctly identifying Mivart its author. He considered taking legal advice, and even dropping his publisher, John Murray III, who was also the publisher of the Quarterly Review. The affair dragged on for several months, with George being allowed to publish a denial in the Quarterly Review, and Mivart publishing a non-apology apology in the same edition. In the end, Darwin’s friends, Thomas Henry Huxley and Joseph Dalton Hooker were drawn into the controversy. Mivart’s ham-fisted attempt at an overdue apology resulted his being boycotted by Darwin’s friends. This side-lining was to do significant damage to Mivart’s scientific career.

Other highlights from Darwin’s correspondence for 1874 include:

  • Darwin asking the superintendent of a Yorkshire lunatic asylum to gather statistics on the number of patients whose parents were cousins.
  • Darwin reporting having absented himself before a séance, observing “The Lord have mercy on us all if we have to believe in such rubbish.”
  • Thomas Henry Huxley sending a sceptical account of a séance he attended with Darwin’s son Howard and others.
  • Darwin asking to buy the rented land containing his ‘thinking path’, the Sandwalk, from his neighbour John Lubbock.
  • Darwin’s former shipmate Bartholomew James Sulivan sending news of the three Fuegians who travelled with them on HMS Beagle.
  • Darwin saying of his former friend, now enemy, Richard Owen, “What a demon on earth Owen is. I do hate him.”
  • Darwin recalling seeing his first mistle thrush.
  • Darwin signing a petition to save giant tortoises in the Seychelles.
  • Darwin complaining about the size and spacing of the typeface in the sixth (cheaper) edition of The Origin of Species. (He also reports having had to tear the sixth edition of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology in two because of its bulk.)
  • Darwin observing, “The more I study nature, the more I feel convinced that species generally change by extremely slight modifications.”
  • Thomas Henry Huxley sending Darwin an essay comparing human and ape anatomies. The essay was for inclusion in the second edition of The Descent of Man.
  • George Darwin sending his father a quotation from philosopher John Stuart Mill describing natural selection as being an ‘unimpeachable example of a legitimate hypothesis’.
  • Darwin writing to the journal Nature about greenfinches destroying cowslips for nectar. (I wrote more about this correspondence in the 20th edition of the Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter.)
  • Darwin describing mellowing in old age: “I feel as old as Methusalem; but not much in mind, except that I think one takes everything more quietly, as not signifying so much.”
  • Darwin conceding he will never finish his planned series of books on species, “…but I have started the subject & that must be enough for me.”
  • A correspondent returning the cartilage from a cat’s ear used by Darwin in his insectivorous plants’ digestion experiments.
  • A correspondent expressing dismay at the (false) report of Thomas Henry Huxley’s death.
  • Darwin’s American correspondent Mary Treat sending field observations of the Venus fly-trap, Dionaea.
  • Darwin (the author of ground-breaking books on botany) declaring, “It is a dreadful evil to be so ignorant of botany as I am.”
  • Darwin testing cobra poison on the common sundew, Drosera rotundifolia.
  • Darwin saying to his best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker, “I care for your interest on any point more than for that of the rest of the world.”
  • Darwin reporting his wife, Emma, had a headache the day after their son Francis’s wedding. (Could she possibly have been hung-over?!)
  • Darwin providing a short tribute to Alexander von Humboldt, describing him as ‘one of the greatest men the world has ever produced’ whose writing ‘determined me to travel in distant countries, and led me to volunteer as naturalist in her Majesty’s ship Beagle in her circumnavigation of the world’.
  • The agnostic Darwin telling his friend Charles Lyell that he doesn’t believe in immortality (i.e. immortal souls) or a personal god.
  • A correspondent, somewhat bizarrely, asking Darwin to draw round his own right foot!
  • Darwin writing to Hooker following the unexpected death of Hooker’s wife, Frances.
  • Darwin reporting trying to get the government to provide Hooker with a secretary. (The initiative was ultimately successful.)
  • The ailing photographer Oscar Gustaf Rejlander sending Darwin a valedictory letter with a taxidermic arrangement of sparrows.
  • Darwin discouraging his new young acolyte, George John Romanes, from testing Darwin’s hypothesis of Pangenesis by attempting to graft rabbits’ ears!
  • Darwin receiving a letter from an anti-vaxer questioning Darwin’s statements regarding the efficacy of the smallpox vaccine. (The anti-vaxer also sent a second letter.)
  • A correspondent informing Darwin of a hen with a human face!

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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