on 22 September 2013
This is a fascinating selection of letters written by Charles Darwin, a man who is summed up by Stephen Jay Gould in the Foreword as being "radical in his scientific ideas, liberal in his political and social views, and conservative in personal lifestyle..."
The letters in this volume cover the period stretching from his childhood up to the publication of "On the Origin of Species" in 1859, including letters sent while on his voyage round the world on the Beagle. ("...if it was not for sea-sickness the whole world would be sailors.")
The letters give us an insight into Darwin's personal life as well as the development of his ideas. For example, there is the moving letter that Darwin wrote to his wife Emma in 1851 informing her of the tragic death of "Our poor dear dear child" Annie. (Darwin was at Annie's bedside in Malvern where she was undergoing treatment, but Emma was at home in the late stages of another pregnancy).
We again see Darwin preoccupied by the death of another child ("poor Baby") in 1858 when his friends Hooker, Lyell and Huxley were arranging the joint presentation of papers on natural selection written by Darwin and by Alfred Russel Wallace.
There is plenty of ammunition in these letters to shoot down the ridiculous conspiracy theory which claims that Darwin stole the credit for the theory of natural selection from Wallace. Wallace certainly deserves credit for independently coming up with the same idea, but Wallace himself was always happy to play second fiddle to Darwin. For example, in 1908 Wallace made a speech to the Linnaean Society in which he explicitly defended Darwin's priority, pointing out that "...the idea occurred to Darwin in October 1838, nearly twenty years earlier than to myself (in February 1858); and that during the whole of that twenty years he had been laboriously collecting evidence..."
So, for example, in a letter of 1844 Darwin tentatively lets his friend Hooker in on his secret theorising and research: "...I am almost convinced...that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable...I think I have found out (here's presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends." He also sets out the theory in an 1857 letter to Asa Gray.
Darwin probably started thinking seriously about "transmutation" on the last stretch of his Beagle voyage in 1836. He certainly opened his first notebook on the subject in 1837, and the idea of natural selection as the mechanism of evolutionary change came to him, after reading Malthus, in 1838.
In 1842 he wrote what he called the "pencil sketch of my species theory", and in 1844 he wrote a fuller and more polished version. We can here read the letter/note he wrote to Emma asking her to see to it that the 1844 essay was published in the event of his death.
The letters in this book, taken together with Darwin's notebooks and the two essays/sketches, show beyond question that all the key ideas that Darwin made public in 1859 in "On the Origin of Species" had already been developed by him much earlier.
There is a second volume of letters available (entitled "Evolution") covering the period from 1860 to 1870, but Cambridge does not yet seem to have published a third volume covering Darwin's later years.