Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16, part 1 • 1868’

The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16, part I • January–June 1867

The sixteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1868. Uniquely for this 30-volume collection, Darwin wrote and received so many letters in 1868 that they had to be split across two physical books (published as a pair). The following refers to part one of volume 16, covering the months January–June 1868.

January 1868 finally saw the publication of Darwin’s two-part book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. Darwin then immediately began work of what he believed at the time would be a ‘short essay’ on human evolution. But, as so often happened with Darwin’s work, its scope rapidly expanded. His planned essay was to become two major works: his two-volume The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).

Highlights of Darwin’s early 1868 correspondence include:

  • Darwin confidently predicting the idea of common descent will soon become universally accepted—while expressing bemusement at the French in particular for currently failing to accept it;
  • Darwin expressing delight at his son George’s recent success in mathematics at Cambridge;
  • Darwin receiving an indescribably bizarre letter seemingly associating evolutionary history with the (English) names of certain localities and countries—or, at least, that’s what I think it’s trying to do;
  • Darwin asking a favour ‘which will appear the oddest ever asked’ about observing elephants crying. (Answer: They don’t cry!)
  • Darwin wistfully remarking, ‘What a splendid pursuit Natural History would be if it was all observing & no writing.’
  • Darwin’s old Beagle shipmate Bartholomew Sulivan sending him a photograph of a group of four Fuegian boys, one of whom is the son of ‘Jemmy Button’ (one of the Fuegians who travelled aboard Beagle. See also Darwin’s reply;
  • Darwin recalling ‘an extraordinary account of male[ moth]s finding females at great distances’. See also subsequent received correspondence (1, 2) suggesting the males are attracted by scent;
  • Darwin expecting a ‘blowing up’ from his friend Thomas Henry Huxley regarding his (we now know, incorrect) unpublished hypothesis of pangenesis, and later being amused by Huxley’s joke ‘Genesis is difficult to believe, but Pangenesis is a deuced deal more difficult.’
  • Darwin observing (post publication) ‘It seems that the poor infant Pangenesis will expire, unblessed & uncussed by the world, but I have faith in a future & better world for the poor dear child!’
  • Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace politely disagreeing in a series of letters about the role of (female-choice) sexual selection versus camouflage in the different colourations of male and female birds;
  • Darwin expressing distrust in himself for disagreeing with Wallace’s view that birds’ nest-building is a learnt activity, rather than instinctive;
  • naturalist John Jenner Weir informing Darwin of experimental results supporting Wallace’s hypothesis that brightly coloured caterpillars are rejected as food by birds;
  • Darwin describing himself in a photograph as ‘a hideous affair—merely a modified, hardly an improved, Gorilla’;
  • Darwin sending his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker grass seeds recovered from locust dung for identification (and Hooker’s response);
  • avid reader Darwin complaining, ‘It drives me mad & I know it does you too, that one has no time for reading anything beyond what must be read: my room is encumbered with unread books.—‘;
  • Joseph Dalton Hooker being horrified at having somehow forgotten to mention the birth of his latest daughter;
  • Darwin informing the perpetual curate of the village of Downe about the dodgy dealings of the latest incumbent.

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.

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