Letters reveal Darwin’s caring, comic side – in between agonising about his
database includes Beagle messages and notes to colleagues
James Randerson, science
Thursday May 17, 2007
– more than any other – opened up a long-standing rift between the sciences and
religion. Now a database of Charles Darwin’s correspondence with colleagues,
family and friends has made it possible to follow the evolutionist’s thinking as
his ideas took shape, and he agonised about the consequences of them. At the
same time, the letters, which are going online, give a rich and moving portrait
of Darwin as a compassionate and caring family man.
which contains the full text of 5,000 letters sent to or from Darwin up to 1865,
includes correspondence home from the five-year expedition round the world on
HMS Beagle, as well as tentative notes to colleagues in which he floated his
scientific bombshell. In one famous letter in 1844 to his close friend, the
botanist Joseph Hooker, he described coming out with the theory of evolution as
"like confessing to a murder".
"We are incredibly fortunate that so much of this material has survived,"
said Alison Pearn at the Darwin Correspondence Project, based at Cambridge
University Library (Darwinproject.ac.uk). "There’s a huge
interest in Darwin and one of the great things about the letters, unlike the
published work, is that they are very accessible, so it is a very good route in
for all sorts of people."
Great and good
The collection, which is part of a project started 30 years ago, contains
letters to and from many of the great and the good of Victorian society,
including public figures, thinkers and naturalists. The list includes the
eminent geologist Charles Lyell, the physician to Queen Victoria, Henry Holland,
and the novelist George Eliot.
The letters are invaluable for scholars aiming to trace the origin of
Darwin’s ideas. He is constantly asking friends and colleagues for observations
and evidence that will support or refute his ideas – and the correspondence
reveals that he didn’t always get it right. "There are discussions of emerging
theories, including ones that didn’t really fly," said Dr Pearn. "You can follow
not just the things that worked that we all know about, but the things that
In one case he wrote an extremely embarrassed letter to the banker,
politician and naturalist John Lubbock after an idea about the evolution of bees
turned out to be wrong. In the grovelling note, dated September 3 1862, he
apologised for asking Lubbock to make observations of clover flowers and bees
for him that turned out to be useless. "I do so hope that you have not wasted
any time for my stupid blunder – I hate myself, I hate clover and I hate bees."
On November 27 1863 he responded movingly to Hooker’s letter about his son
Willy contracting scarlet fever. Both men had already lost children to illness.
"I grieve to hear about the Scarlet-Fever: my poor dear old friend you are most
unfortunate. The tide must turn soon … Much love much trial, but what an utter
desert is life without love."
Darwin’s grandson, Randall Keyes, said that passage and many others reveal a
very different side to Darwin from the popular image of the austere scientist
whose views were interpreted by some as a cold, "every man for himself" view of
"That is Darwin speaking from the heart to his closest friend about what
matters to him more than anything, and it is completely opposite to what people
think that Darwin is about," he said. "Darwin is remembering his feelings when
his own daughter died."
In a happier moment in June 1854 Darwin jokes to Hooker when he hears of the
botanist’s wife’s successful labour: "Did you administer the Chloroform? When I
did, I was perfectly convinced that the Chloroform was very composing to oneself
as well as to the patient." Darwin the cad is also there in a letter to a
university mate called Charles Whitley as he is about to embark on the Beagle
voyage. He reminisces on student high jinks at the "Glutton club" which he calls
"that day of victory and triumph and inward glorying which some call sublime".
In the same letter dated November 15 1831 he looks forward to what would turn
out to be perhaps the most significant gap break in history. "The scheme is a
most magnificent one. We spend about two years in S America, the rest of time
larking round the world."
The letters are also a great resource for anyone interested in the concerns
and politics of the Victorian age. In a letter from a stop-off on the Beagle
voyage at Rio de Janeiro in May 18 1832 he denounces the Tories "on account of
their cold hearts" and declares that slavery is a "scandal to Christian
Along with the 5,000 letters published in full there are summaries on the
database of a further 9,000 which will be added in the future.
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Norwich, G(reat) B(eagle),
P.D.MATEMATICA. ¿Cuál es el cociente entre los bienes (monetarios o inmobiliarios) del Cártel de Sinaloa en México y los EUA?