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Darwin Correspondence Project – making Darwin’s letters freely accessible

2 Jun, 2009
Letter from Charles Darwin to Dr.George E.Shuttleworth

Letter from Charles Darwin to Dr.George E.Shuttleworth (Medical Superintendent, Royal Albert Asylum, Lancaster) concerning the children of first cousins. 17 February 1874.

The Darwin Correspondence Project, which received ten years’ funding (1996-2006) through Wellcome Trust programme grants, aims to annotate and transcribe Darwin’s extraordinarily revealing letters, making them freely available online.

Charles Darwin was a prolific letter-writer, exchanging ideas with around 2000 correspondents across the globe. These letters are a major source of what we know about 19th-century science. The Darwin Correspondence Project aims to annotate and transcribe Darwin’s letters, making them freely available on the project website.

Through his seminal work, ‘On the Origin of Species’, published in 1859, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) showed that all organisms have evolved over time from common ancestors through the process of natural selection. He formulated his theories after returning from his five-year voyage to South America on the HMS Beagle, when he moved his family to Down House in Kent to escape the pressures of London life. He spent the next 40 years of his life operating from there: conducting scientific research, publishing the results of his experiments and writing letters.

“The letters have a close relationship to email today,” says Professor Jim Secord who is leading the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge University Library (researchers and editors in the USA are also involved). “There were several deliveries a day then, so Darwin could exchange multiple letters with one correspondent in a day. It was a great postal system, and Darwin was very dependent on it.”

When the Project was originally planned in the 1970s, the aim was to publish only the letters from Darwin. However, says Professor Secord, this proved to be too one-sided, so the researchers decided to include letters written to Darwin as well. These reveal how Darwin developed his theory on evolution through collaboration and cooperation, not in isolation.

Professor Secord feels that too much attention is paid to Darwin’s singular genius. “We forget that he depended on a much wider network of correspondence – including professional scientists, schoolteachers, colonial settlers, plant and animal breeders, missionaries and even clerics – to formulate his ideas. Science is a dialogue, and the letters show it in action.”

All the letters are being transcribed from handwriting that is often hard to read, provided with explanatory footnotes, and dated. As many of the letters are undated, Professor Secord describes the effort as akin to a 19th-century CSI. “We have to look for clues. Sometimes there’s a reference to a news article with a date. Or a reference to a page number in a book published on a certain date. Or someone might refer to his younger son’s success in his exams, so we try and identify the son, his age, and when he would have taken the exams.”

So far, the Project has located around 15 000 letters exchanged by Darwin and his correspondents. Visitors to the Project website are able to read the full texts of over 5000 letters and find information on the remainder, thanks to a searchable calendar and database. There are also extensive supporting materials for teachers and researchers, notably on ecological science and the relations between science and religious belief.

Nine volumes of Darwin’s correspondence, as published by Cambridge University

Nine volumes of Darwin’s correspondence, as published by Cambridge University

Cambridge University Press is also publishing authoritative transcriptions, in chronological order, as the complete edition of the correspondence of Charles Darwin. Volume 17 is due to be published in July 2009 and there will be approximately 30 volumes in total. The final volume is scheduled for publication in 2025. During the current anniversary year, two volumes of selected letters have appeared, as well as an illustrated edition of all the letters to and from Darwin on the Beagle voyage, and it has just been announced that the first eight volumes of the set will be issued in paperback this summer.

New letters continue to be discovered, and the Project is now engaged in an active hunt for others so that the website and publications will be as comprehensive as possible.

Why are the letters important?

“We get a huge insight into a crucial era in the history of science, both in terms of evolutionary debates and the practice of science in relation to the broader culture,” says Professor Secord. He points out that until recently, evolution was important primarily to biologists concerned with organic diversity. “Now that’s changed. Gene sequencing is making it more central to molecular biologists, biochemists and those in biomedical science who weren’t previously so engaged in evolution.”

“The letters bring Darwin to life. You feel you know him, you get the impression that he’s engaged and curious and keen to pass his knowledge on. And he’s modest, in particular compared to Herbert Spencer and Thomas Henry Huxley, who were also exploring the big issues of the day. Darwin stresses the subject he’s talking about – he’s not pushing himself forward. He’s ambitious and self-aware, but ultimately what matters to him are the issues.”

Darwin’s longest correspondence was with Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and one of the greatest British botanists and explorers of the 19th century. Hooker kept page proofs of Darwin’s Beagle voyage journal under his pillow, and read it before his own trip to the Southern Oceans in search of botanical specimens. “They discussed how plants migrate to other countries, their dispersal across land and seas by birds and how new species come into being.”

Mobilising his network

Key to Darwin’s success in mobilising his own world wide web were his ability to interest others in his research, his scrupulous attribution of information he received, and his willingness to reciprocate by providing colleagues with rare experimental material as well as thoughtful and incisive advice.

“Darwin’s letters read like a manual of how to write congenial emails that get people to do what you want,” says Professor Secord. “He also cajoled fellow scientists into pursuing lines of research that complemented his own projects.”

In addition to his letters, Darwin frequently received and sent experimental material through the post. They were most often seeds, but he also received pigeon skins from India and locust dung from South Africa. The British Empire made this possible. It was a time of exploration, and missionaries, travellers and explorers – even those who disagreed with his theories – were happy to send him samples from remote corners of the globe.

Darwin also mobilised his forces behind the scenes. “He includes lists of people who were for and against him in his correspondence, which shows gaining support was very important to him. He engineers reviews in good places, and conducts highly effective campaigns. He ensures he helps his supporters in their careers, as a reward, but their science had to be good. So we can see the Darwinian party develop partly through his correspondence,” says Professor Sebord.

Thomas Henry Huxley (grandfather of the writer Aldous Huxley) was a very important operator in London society, and much more engaged in the rough and tumble of London scientific life. “Darwin was always using Huxley, who was much more aggressive.” Huxley became known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, allowing Darwin to remain innocuously in the background while others fought his battles, as in Huxley’s legendary confrontation with the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce (son of William Wilberforce, the famous British politician and opponent of the slave trade). Samuel Wilberforce opposed Darwin’s explanation while Hooker and Huxley argued strongly for Darwin.


Interestingly, many religious authorities viewed the Bishop’s reaction as over the top and out of control. “They saw him as a rogue cleric and felt that it was bad form to have open hostility about something that needed careful and thoughtful debate,” says Professor Secord. And this, he adds, highlights one of the most surprising lessons that emerge from the correspondence.

“We describe the Victorian reaction as violent and hostile. But that wasn’t true. The letters are the closest we can get to 19th-century conversation and how debate was managed – and what is striking is the civility. Darwin received virtually no hate mail. Even if the writers profoundly disagreed with him, they were trying to understand, they were curious, not slashing. Most people agreed Darwin had a good character, even if they disagreed with his theory. The Victorians believed you should have a platform for debate but give the issues careful consideration. On the internet today we tend to have polarisation, people see things in black and white. The Victorians were good at grey. We could learn from that.”

Image credits: Wellcome Images
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