“Dear Old Darwin”: Hooker-Darwin correspondence to be published

The BBC News reports that a collection of 1400 letters between Charles Darwin and his pal and colleague Joseph Hooker, many of them personal and intimate (no, not that way!), will soon be published by The Darwin Correspondence Project.  This site, set up by people at Cambridge University, is a gold mine for Darwiniana: you can search for letters or topic using phrases, and the site is beautifully set up. For example, there are several letters referring to “cats”: here’s one of them expressing Darwin’s lack of interest in felids (he liked d-gs).  Darwin had an extensive correspondence, and letters are still being added to the site; I think they’re up to 1871 now (Darwin died in 1882).

At any rate, the newly published letters show a more emotional side of Darwin, although we always knew that he had one. Hooker, a famous botanist, was perhaps Darwin’s closest confidante.

But in contrast to what the BBC implies, some of their correspondence has already been published, including this famous letter from 1844 (15 years before The Origin was published), in which Darwin admits to Hooker that disclosing his ideas about evolution via natural selection was like “confessing a murder”. Darwin knew well the ruckus that publishing his ideas would arouse! An excerpt (my bold):

Besides a general interest about the Southern lands, 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 &c &c & with the character of the American fossil mammifers, &c &c that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact, which cd 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” &c,—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.— You will now groan, & think to yourself ‘on what a man have I been wasting my time in writing to.’— I shd, five years ago, have thought so.— I fear you will also groan at the length of this letter—excuse me, I did not begin with malice prepense.

But there were lots of personal exchanges as well:

  • A few years earlier [before 1876], Hooker had written to him of the death of his own daughter, addressing him as “Dear old Darwin,” and going on to say: “I have just buried my darling little girl and read your kind note.” Darwin is at pains to remember his friend’s feelings in their shared grief.

He writes: “I thank you for your most kind and feeling letter. When I wrote to you at Glasgow (which letter I have heard was sent too late) I did not forget your former grief, but I did not allude to it, as I well knew that it was wrong in me to revive your former feelings, but I could not resist writing to you.”

A letter from Darwin to Hooker, who of course lived at Kew

A letter from Darwin to Hooker, who of course lived at Kew

  • In one poignant letter, written in 1876, Darwin writes of the death in childbirth of his son Francis’ wife.

    “Poor Amy had severe convulsions due to wrong action of the kidneys; after the convulsions she sunk into a stupor from which she never rallied,” he writes.

    “It is an inexpressible comfort that she never suffered and never knew she was leaving her beloved husband for ever. It has been a most bitter blow to us all.”

Darwin and Hooker were friends for four decades, and Darwin’s life was never easy. He was almost always ill; he lost a daughter and other relatives, and he fretted constantly about publishing his theories. But Hooker was a great friend and source of solace. Their friendship was undergirded by Hooker’s role as a sounding board for many of Darwin’s “heretical” ideas. The letters will be a goldmine for historians of science, as well as for us interested tyros.

The BBC adds this:

The two men saw each other occasionally, but their friendship was mainly conducted through letters. According to Paul White, editor and research associate at the Darwin Correspondence Project, the letters provide an intimate window onto Darwin’s emotional life.

“It’s a wonderful set of documents not only about Victorian science but about the social bonds that could be forged in correspondence, and the emotional bonds that could flow between two men,” he says.

. . . Mr White suggests the letters help “to give a different picture of both Darwin and the scientific enterprise, in showing it as intensely collaborative, and that it is not divorced from private life”.

In part, this was a result of the very different characters of the two men, says Mr White.

He says: “Hooker seems quite irascible, he comes across as being hot tempered and gossipy, and Darwin really loved that stuff – there was a liberating quality to their letters. He was more reserved – he had a formality and politeness. But possibly because of this he expressed things he wouldn’t have otherwise.”

It is this openness – as well as the light they shed on Darwin’s work – that give the letters their fascination.

In 2009 I was asked by Oxford University Press and the BBC to write my own letter to Charles Darwin in honor of his 200th birthday, and I put down the things I’d like to tell CD about how evolutionary biology had progressed since his time. The printed version of my letter is here, and the BBC show where I read it is here.

Letters between the two men

Letters between the two men

h/t: Geoff

11 Comments

  1. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    “malice prepense”
    What an exquisite phrase! I shall pilfer it immediately and search for an opportunity to inject it into regular conversation.

    • Posted March 27, 2013 at 5:43 am | Permalink

      Haha, I thought the same :)

    • Posted March 27, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Great phrase, yes! I have pilfered it :)

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted March 27, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

        I came close to being punched. The world is truly full of barbarians, Visigoths, Ostragoths and even the unjustly-maligned Vandals.
        “Some day, a flame-thrower is going to come to these streets, and burn all the trash away.”
        Or something not too dis-similar.

  2. Duncan
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    Alas it appears your letter being read is no longer available. Good job we’ve got the text version.

  3. gbjames
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    I hadn’t seen your letter to Darwin from 2009. Kind of a nice way to honor the old fellow.

  4. Pete Moulton
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    Huzzah! A gold mine for the creationist quote-miners, and not a moment too soon. They’re in desperate need of some new material.

  5. Alex Shuffell
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    Mammifers is an excellent word. I’ve only heard Charlie say it before in Beagle or Origin. Why was it changed? Or is it a word only he used?

  6. Monika
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    That was a lovely letter to read! I loved the quip about the earthworms.

  7. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    “Species are not immutable”

    A great t-shirt slogan for science types.

  8. David Duncan
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    Just a small quibble. You might want to capitalise Hooker here:

    “…in which Darwin admits to hooker that…”

    Oh, one other thing. Are there any data on what proportion of famous evolutionists prefer d*gs as against cats?


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