BOOK: Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters

The Darwin Correspondence Project has published their first book of letters resulting from one of their thematic research avenues, on Darwin and gender.


Samantha Evans, ed. Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 298 pp.

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Publisher’s description Darwin and Women focuses on Darwin’s correspondence with women and on the lives of the women he knew and wrote to. It includes a large number of hitherto unpublished letters between members of Darwin’s family and their friends that throw light on the lives of the women of his circle and their relationships, social and professional, with Darwin. The letters included are by turns entertaining, intriguing, and challenging, and are organised into thematic chapters, including botany and zoology as well as marriage and servants, that set them in an accessible narrative context. Darwin’s famous remarks on women’s intelligence in Descent of man provide a recurring motif, and are discussed in the foreword by Gillian Beer, and in the introduction. The immediacy and variety of these texts make this an entertaining read which will suggest avenues for further research to students.

ARTICLE: The letters between James Lamont and Charles Darwin on Arctic fauna

A 2015 article from Polar Record might be of interest to some readers, espeically since it’s freely available as a PDF:

The letters between James Lamont and Charles Darwin on Arctic fauna

C. Leah Devlin

Abstract In the summers of 1858 and 1859, the Scot Sir James Lamont of Knockdow embarked on two cruises to Svalbard (referred to by Lamont as Spitzbergen [sic]) to hunt, make geographical surveys, and collect geological and biological specimens. Lamont’s return from these voyages coincided with the publication of the joint Charles Darwin-Alfred Russel Wallace paper, ‘On the tendency of species to form varieties; on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection’ by the Linnean Society in August 1858 and, a year later, the publication of Darwin’s On the origin of species. Profoundly influenced by Darwin’s ideas, Lamont initiated a correspondence with the naturalist, relating examples of what he considered to be natural selection, observed during his hunting expeditions. In his Svalbard travelogue, Seasons with the sea-horses, Lamont expounded specifically upon walrus and polar bear evolution, ideas inspired by sporadic yet encouraging letters from the renowned naturalist.

BOOK: The Correspondence of Charles Darwin: Volume 20, 1872

Then end of June will see the publication of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin: Volume 20, 1872:

This volume is part of the definitive edition of letters written by and to Charles Darwin, the most celebrated naturalist of the nineteenth century. Notes and appendixes put these fascinating and wide-ranging letters in context, making the letters accessible to both scholars and general readers. Darwin depended on correspondence to collect data from all over the world, and to discuss his emerging ideas with scientific colleagues, many of whom he never met in person. The letters are published chronologically: volume 20 includes letters from 1872, the year in which The expression of the emotions in man and animals was published, making ground-breaking use of photography. Also in this year, the sixth and final edition of On the origin of species was published, and Darwin resumed his work on carnivorous plants and plant movement, finding unexpected similarities between the plant and animal kingdoms.

I’d love to add this volume to my shelf, along with volumes 1-19!

Get to Know Darwin

Carl Zimmer blogged about some new resources from the Darwin Correspondence Project, “Creating Young Darwins.” Based on a university course at Harvard, “Get to Know Darwin” equips educators (and parents!) curriculum for teaching students (or children!) about Darwin’s many experiments. Through some of his papers and letters, they can learn why Darwin did them, how they were conducted, his results, and the context of their connection to his theoretical work.

Integrating Darwin’s correspondence with exercises in experimental science and study of his published work has been a great success. For students in the course, reading the letters enriched their understanding of Darwin’s life and work. The letters provided “a glimpse of his thought process” and “brought the other works we were looking at to life, and gave much context to who Darwin was from childhood to old age, as a father and a husband, and ultimately as a scientist.” They showed students “what excited him, what his hobbies were, and what went on in his daily life.” This kind of historical texture was not merely incidental to students’ learning. As one student in the course put it, “These details may not be present in On the Origin of Species, but they are, in my opinion, an integral part of the full comprehension of it. Knowing that Darwin was a devoted family man, meticulous observer, and a charming individual is more than just interesting – it gives his published work more purpose.”

Here’s the list of available topics: Early Days, Barnacles, Biogeography, Variation Under Domestication, Orchids, Instinct and the Evolution of Mind, Insectivorous Plants, Climbing Plants, Floral Dimorphism, Power of Movement in Plants, and Earthworms.

Bringing the history of science alive for education. I love it!

Busy busy busy

Apologies for the scarcity of posts recently. Between work, being a dad, and a forthcoming daughter (due date is August 11th), I haven’t posted much. Here’s Catherine and her bump watering in our garden:

Less than a month away

I’ve also been focusing more of my energy into my Portland nature blog, and so been neglected this here blog. I continue to share Darwin and evolution related content through my Twitter and Facebook pages (see the handy new social media logos on the right). A few things to share:

The Darwin Online project has revamped their website!

There is much that is new with Alfred Russel Wallace. The correspondence project for his letters continues to work away at transcribing (I’ve done a few myself), a campaign is set up for the 100th anniversary of his death in 1913, there is a fund to contribute to if you’re willing for a Wallace statue, and a new blog to check out.

And check out the archives list in the sidebar here to get your fix for recent history of science blogging.

Did Darwin respond to Wallace regarding pitcher plants?

UPDATE (9/14): It dawned on me yesterday that while I have provided here at The Dispersal of Darwin many examples of anti-evolutionists claiming Darwin said something when he did not (quote-mining), this post is an example of Darwin having written something and then it being claimed that he did not. Interesting.


In 1875 Darwin published his book about plants that eat insects, Insectivorous Plants. It was rather technical in nature, so did not receive the popular readership as did his Journal of Researches (1839, later The Voyage of the Beagle), On the Origin Of Species (1859), or the later (and last book) The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms (1881). Like many of his books, Insectivorous Plants was a continuation of Darwin’s theory of transmutation project. Specifically, the book is a study of the adaptations of such plants to impoverished conditions. Darwin wrote of it in his autobiography:

During subsequent years, whenever I had leisure, I pursued my experiments, and my book on Insectivorous Plants was published July 1875,—that is sixteen years after my first observations. The delay in this case, as with all my other books, has been a great advantage to me; for a man after a long interval can criticise his own work, almost as well as if it were that of another person. The fact that a plant should secrete, when properly excited, a fluid containing an acid and ferment, closely analogous to the digestive fluid of an animal, was certainly a remarkable discovery.

A remarkable discovery indeed, but a fellow naturalist, whom Darwin shared the discovery of the theory of natural selection with, was concerned that some would not find natural selection a suitable explanation for the adaptations of carnivorous plants. In a letter to Darwin on July 21, 1875, Alfred Russel Wallace wrote:

Dear Darwin,–Many thanks for your kindness in sending me a copy of your new book [Insectivorous Plants]. Being very busy I have only had time to dip into it yet. The account of Utricularia is most marvellous, and quite new to me. I’m rather surprised that you do not make any remarks on the origin of these extraordinary contrivances for capturing insects. Did you think they were too obvious? I daresay there is no difficulty, but I feel sure they will be seized on as inexplicable by Natural Selection, and your silence on the point will be held to show that you consider them so! The contrivance in Utricularia and Dionaea, and in fact in Drosera too, seems fully as great and complex as in Orchids, but there is not the same motive force. Fertilisation and cross-fertilisation are important ends enough to lead to any modification, but can we suppose mere nourishment to be so important, seeing that it is so easily and almost universally obtained by extrusion of roots and leaves? Here are plants which lose their roots and leaves to acquire the same results by infinitely complex modes! What a wonderful and long-continued series of variations must have led up to the perfect “trap” in Utricularia, while at any stage of the process the same end might have been gained by a little more development of roots and leaves, as in 9,999 plants out of 10,000!

Is this an imaginary difficulty, or do you mean to deal with it in future editions of the “Origin”?–Believe me yours very faithfully,

Letters to and from Darwin of 1875 are not yet available through the Darwin Correspondence Project, but this letter can be found on pages 233-34 of Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences (edited by James Marchant, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1916). Wallace’s words in this letter have been taken up by intelligent design proponents as a way to criticize Darwin. Remember, Wallace is the new poster boy for the Discovery Institute. In “Carnivorous plants eat Darwin” (August 18, 2011), Denyse O’Leary (also blogging about this at The ID Report) writes for Uncommon Descent:

University of Bonn geneticist Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig will soon have a new book out, on the 200-year-old headache that carnivorous plants pose for Darwinism. Briefly, how does a plant evolve in slow, Darwinian steps, toward making insects part of its normal diet? Like the pitcher plant, for example.

O’Leary quotes Granville Sewall in the post:

In every family of the plant and animal kingdoms there are species whose sudden appearances and whose irreducibly complex features pose problems for neo-Darwinism. But certain carnivorous plants pose these problems in such a spectacular way that they are a focal point of the Darwinism debate, ever since Alfred Wallace warned Darwin about the problems posed by Utricularia, saying “I feel sure they will be seized on as inexplicable by Natural Selection” and implored him to address these difficulties in a future edition of his book “On the Origin of Species.”

These words are indeed from Wallace, in the letter to Darwin above. The way they are being used, however, seems to imply that Wallace finds natural selection an unconvincing explanation, whereas he is only stating that others might criticize Darwin for this (Wallace remarked, “I daresay there is no difficulty”). Moreoever, O’Leary writes in her post, in response to Wallace imploring Darwin “to deal with it in future editions of the Origin,” that “Darwin never did.” To state that Darwin never responded to Wallace’s question in a later edition is to imply that Darwin gave no response at all.

If one were to look in the historical record more deeply, they would find that Darwin did indeed respond to Wallace. On July 22, 1875, one day after Wallace’s letter about Utricularia, Darwin wrote to Wallace that he had “thrown some light on the acquirement of the power of digestion in Droseraceae,” another group of carnivorous plants (unfortunately there is no full text of the letter available until the DCP publishes the 1875 letters; they are currently readying 1871 for print). Darwin is referring to pages 361-63 of Insectivorous Plants:

The six genera of the Droseraceae very probably inherited this power from a common progenitor, but this cannot apply to
Pinguicula or Nepenthes, for these plants are not at all closely related to the Droseraceae. But the difficulty is not nearly so great as it at first appears. Firstly, the juices of many plants contain an acid, and, apparently, any acid serves for digestion. Secondly, as Dr. Hooker has remarked in relation to the present subject in his address at Belfast (1874), and as Sachs repeatedly insists, the embryos of some plants secrete a fluid which dissolves albuminous substances out of the endosperm; although the endosperm is not actually united with, only in contact with, the embryo. All plants, moreover, have the power of dissolving albuminous or proteid substances, such as protoplasm, chlorophyll, gluten, aleurone, and of carrying them from one part to other parts of their tissues. This must be effected by a solvent, probably consisting of a ferment together with an acid.† Now, in the case of plants which are able to absorb already soluble matter from captured insects, though not capable of true digestion, the solvent just referred to, which must be occasionally present in the glands, would be apt to exude from the glands together with the viscid secretion, inasmuch as endosmose is accompanied by exosmose. If such exudation did ever occur, the solvent would act on the animal matter contained within the captured insects, and this would be an act of true digestion. As it cannot be doubted that this process would be of high service to plants growing in very poor soil, it would tend to be perfected through natural selection. Therefore, any ordinary plant having viscid glands, which occasionally caught insects, might thus be converted under favourable circumstances into a species capable of true digestion. It ceases, therefore, to be any great mystery how several genera of plants, in no way closely related together, have independently acquired this same power.

So when asked by Wallace how to account for the evolution of one particular group of carnivorous plants, Darwin responded that his thoughts about another group should answer the question, it is understandable that Darwin need not have addressed this issue in a future edition of On the Origin of Species.

In his book, available as a PDF here, Lönnig quotes Wallace on page 145, and states (this is a Google translation from German), “I am not aware that Darwin has replied…” Well, to set the record straight, he did reply.

As I am not one to go into the actual biology of this issue, see Nick Matzke’s comments on O’Leary’s post and two others about carnivorous plants. The Darwin Correspondence Project has many letters to and from Darwin on carnivorous plants (Drosera and Utricularia), and some from Mary Treat about Utricularia have been published online ahead of print as part of the project’s Darwin and Gender initiative.

Great news from the Darwin Correspondence Project

From Cambridge University Library:

Red letter day for Darwin Correspondence Project

04 May, 2011

The project mapping Charles Darwin’s life and work in the 15,000 letters he wrote or received during his extraordinary lifetime will be completed after a £5 million funding package was announced.

The awards, announced today by Cambridge University Library and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), will ensure the full completion of the definitive, award-winning edition of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin.

More than 15,000 currently known letters written by or to Darwin will be published, in full, by 2022. The edition is the work of the Darwin Correspondence Project, widely acknowledged as the greatest editorial project in the history of science, and one of the major international scholarly projects of the past half-century.

It is jointly managed by the University Library and ACLS. By the time the edition is complete, locating, researching, and editing the letters will have taken several teams of scholars more than forty years. Summaries of all known letters are freely available to the public through the Project’s website

The letters, exchanged with around 2000 correspondents, take in every stage of Darwin’s life from school and student days, through the voyage of HMS Beagle, the publication of On the Origin of Species and the controversies that followed, his later publications on the implications of his theories for humans, right up to his death. They offer unparalleled, intimate insight into every aspect both of Darwin’s scientific work and of his personal life – including his thoughts on marriage – and also into the lives and work of many of his contemporaries.

Project Director Dr Jim Secord said: “Darwin’s conclusions about how all living things have evolved and are interconnected are among the most important ever made. Unlike his published works, Darwin’s letters are vitally important in showing how science is done, with the constant gathering of new data, and the testing and questioning of theories and ideas.”

The funding has been given in recognition of the potential that the completed edition of Darwin’s letters will have – not only as a foundation and catalyst for further scholarship, but for education in all aspects of evolution and its history, at all levels. The lead gift to the University Library of £2.5 million from the newly established Evolution Education Trust is matched by generous grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Isaac Newton Trust.

Added Secord: “We are deeply grateful for this visionary support. The greatest threat to long running projects in the Arts and Humanities is that it’s almost impossible to secure long term funds, and so much project time is taken up in applying for and managing short term grants. Now we can concentrate on finishing the job.”

You can follow the Darwin Correspondence Project on Facebook.

“Captured by C. Darwin, Esq”

Darwin's Room, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Darwin's Room, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Darwin, from his autobiography, on beetles:

But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow. I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one. [MB: for this passage using the names of the species he lost, go here]

I was very successful in collecting and invented two new methods; I employed a labourer to scrape during the winter, moss off old trees and place [it] in a large bag, and likewise to collect the rubbish at the bottom of the barges in which reeds are brought from the fens, and thus I got some very rare species. No poet ever felt more delight at seeing his first poem published than I did at seeing in Stephen’s Illustrations of British Insects the magic words, “captured by C. Darwin, Esq.” I was introduced to entomology by my second cousin, W. Darwin Fox, a clever and most pleasant man, who was then at Christ’s College, and with whom I became extremely intimate. Afterwards I became well acquainted with and went out collecting, with Albert Way of Trinity, who in after years became a well-known archæologist; also with H. Thompson, of the same College, afterwards a leading agriculturist, chairman of a great Railway, and Member of Parliament. It seems therefore that a taste for collecting beetles is some indication of future success in life!

I am surprised what an indelible impression many of the beetles which I caught at Cambridge have left on my mind. I can remember the exact appearance of certain posts, old trees and banks where I made a good capture. The pretty Panagæus crux-major was a treasure in those days, and here at Down I saw a beetle running across a walk, and on picking it up instantly perceived that it differed slightly from P. crux-major, and it turned out to be P. quadripunctatus, which is only a variety or closely allied species, differing from it very slightly in outline. I had never seen in those old days Licinus alive, which to an uneducated eye hardly differs from many other black Carabidous beetles; but my sons found here a specimen and I instantly recognised that it was new to me; yet I had not looked at a British beetle for the last twenty years.

The words “captured by C. Darwin, Esq.” did not really appear as such, for Darwin was probably summarizing his many mentions in Stephen’s work. Much information about Darwin and his early beetle-collecting is available at Darwin Online, including the 1987 monograph “Darwin’s insects: Charles Darwin’s entomological notes, with an introduction and comments by Kenneth G. V. Smith.”

Beetles, Finches and Barnacles, University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

Beetles, Finches and Barnacles, University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

The above passage reflects Darwin’s passion for insects, and for the thrill of discovery – outside, in nature. Following his time at Cambridge was of course his time on and off HMS Beagle, followed by work in London to organize and research his collections from the voyage. Once he got heavy into his transmutation ideas, Darwin focused on collecting facts and writing, writing, writing in notebooks. In 1846, he turned to a study of barnacles, for several reasons: he felt he needed to cement his status as a naturalist, and he felt that a taxonimc study of a group of marine invertebrates would give insight to his developing transmutation theory. He thought the study would take him a year. Barnacles became such a part of not only Darwin’s life, but his family’s as well that, according to Darwin’s son Francis, one of the children once inquired of a friend, about his father, when visiting their home, “Then where does he do his barnacles?” Darwin expressed in letters to his botanist friend Joseph Dalton Hooker that he saw no end to this work, “but do not flatter yourself that I shall not yet live, to finish the Barnacles & then make a fool of myself on the subject of Species.” In the end, the barnacle work took him eight years, and produced 4 volumes, which resulting in his being awarded the Copley Medal from the Royal Society. Done with barnacles, Darwin was surely tired of sitting at a table peering through a microscope. He reflected in his autobiography:

My work on the Cirripedia possesses, I think, considerable value, as besides describing several new and remarkable forms, I made out the homologies of the various parts—I discovered the cementing apparatus, though I blundered dreadfully about the cement glands—and lastly I proved the existence in certain genera of minute males complemental to and parasitic on the hermaphrodites. This latter discovery has at last been fully confirmed; though at one time a German writer was pleased to attribute the whole account to my fertile imagination. The Cirripedes form a highly varying and difficult group of species to class; and my work was of considerable use to me, when I had to discuss in the Origin of Species the principles of a natural classification. Nevertheless, I doubt whether the work was worth the consumption of so much time.

Darwin then in September 1854 moved on “to arranging my huge pile of notes, to observing, and experimenting, in relation to the transmutation of species.” One such series of experiments were on the germination ability of various seeds after their immersion of saltwater, for Darwin desired to know how plants could disperse across oceans to islands. Like the barnacles, this work was also crucial for On the Origin of Species, in the chapters on geographical distribution. Studying seeds in 1855, however, was no more exciting for Darwin than barnacles. He complained in a letter to his cousin Fox: “Seeds will sink in salt-water – all of nature is perverse & will not do as I wish it, & just at present I wish I had the old Barnacles to work at & nothing new.” To Hooker he called them “horrid seeds” and “ungrateful rascals.” Darwin tired of the whole process. “Thanks, also, for your little note with all the terrible wishes about the seeds,” he wrote to a skeptical Hooker, “in which I almost join for I begin to think they are immortal & that the seed job will be another Barnacle job.” Again, Darwin’s work became a family affair, for the children asked their father if he “should beat Dr. Hooker?!!”

Darwin worked tirelessly in his home outside of London. Down House became a “country house” laboratory for his scientific endeavors, and he utilized many areas of the house and its grounds for his experiments. Yet while he worked away on his “one long argument,” all he really wanted to do was get outside. To the entomologist John Lubbock, also Darwin’s neighbor, he wrote in 1854:

I do not know whether you care about Beetles, but for the chance I send this in a Bottle, which, I never remember having seen, though it is excessively rash to speak from a 26 year old remembrance. Whenever we meet you can tell me whether you know it.—

… I feel like an old war-horse at the sound of the trumpet, when I read about the capturing of rare beetles— is not this a magnanimous simile for a decayed entomologist. It really almost makes me long to begin collecting again.

Darwin’s move to Downe marked an event in his life that had lasting influence. This transition in physical location mirrors the transition, although in an opposite direction, of his work from stationary barnacles to mobile seeds. Darwin biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore suggested in Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1992, p. 232) that thinking about transoceanic dispersal in the seed experiments allowed a solitary and confined Darwin to travel once more. “Thinking about blue seas took him back to the voyage,” they wrote. “During those years island-hopping himself, he would have given his right arm to be home. Now he was dreaming himself back to the sea again.” We return to Carson’s passage about dispersal in The Sea Around Us, and we can envision Darwin imaging himself as one of those plants “drifting on the currents” or an animal “rafting in on logs.” It seems daydreams sailing upon seeds were not enough to satiate a shut-in naturalist.

Caricature of Darwin by fellow beetle collecter Albert Way (from the Darwin Correspondence Project website: By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library. Copyright CUL)

Darwin continued to reminisce about beetle-collecting. To Charles Lyell’s sister-in-law, Katharine, Darwin wrote in 1856: “With respect to giving your children a taste for Natural History, I will venture one remark, viz that giving them specimens, in my opinion, would tend to destroy such taste. Youngsters must be themselves collectors to acquire a taste; & if I had a collection of English Lepidoptera, I would be systematically most miserly & not give my Boys half-a-dozen butterflies in the year. Your eldest Boy has the brow of an observer, if there be the least truth in phrenology.” If he could not go back to collecting, he surely encouraged others to. In 1858, he shared with Fox, “I am reminded of old days by my third Boy having just begun collecting Beetles, & he caught the other day Brachinus crepitans of immotal Whittlesea-mere memory.— My blood boiled with old ardour, when he caught a Licinus,—a prize unknown to me.” To his caricaturist Way, in 1860: “It is a very long time since we met.— Eheu Eheu, the old Crux Major days are long past. I sincerely hope that you are well in health.” And finally, in 1862 Darwin wrote to Fox: “About two years ago I stumbled at Down on a Panagæus crux major: how it brought back to my mind Cambridge days! You did me a great service in making me an entomologist: I really hardly know anything in this life that I have more enjoyed that our beetle-hunting expeditions; Prince Albert told Lyell, that he looked back with more pleasure to collecting insects, than he had ever found in stag-shooting.”

Texas Trip Day 2

So happy that my son is curious and willing to pick things up!

New Darwin letter found

From Harvard Gazette:

pair 605

“I was a little excited, but a bit skeptical that it would actually be new,” said Myrna Perez, who, alongside lecturer Alistair Sponsel stumbled across a previously unknown letter from Charles Darwin to his colleague and later nemesis, zoologist Richard Owen.

Across 160 years, Darwin speaks

Discovery of letter sheds light on murky part of the naturalist’s life

While in Houghton Library, sorting through stacks of old manuscripts and letters from the great naturalist Charles Darwin, history of science graduate student Myrna Perez and lecturer Alistair Sponsel stumbled across something extraordinary: a previously unknown letter from Darwin to his colleague and later nemesis, zoologist Richard Owen.

“We initially went [to Houghton] to confirm that a few letters we thought were here at Harvard were actually here,” said Sponsel, who, like Perez, is an affiliate of the Darwin Correspondence Project, whose American editorial office is at Harvard.

“We were not really looking for a new letter,” Perez said. “One of the editors … noticed there were some discrepancies between the letters that the project believed to be at Harvard, and what she could tell from the Harvard catalogs themselves.”

After cross-checking the British lists and the Harvard catalog, Perez came across a letter that couldn’t be found on any of the lists.

“I was a little excited, but a bit skeptical that it would actually be new,” she said. “And then when I got it, I spent a long time looking through our project databases, had Alistair check what I did, and we finally concluded that it was a letter unknown to the project.”

According to Sponsel, Darwin wrote the undated letter in April 1848, long before his landmark book “On the Origin of Species” was published. Darwin would have been 39 years old, but he was already famous as a voyager and author. Owen had previously contributed to Darwin’s book “The Zoology of the Voyage of the HMS Beagle.”

“We can tell with fairly good confidence which Sunday in 1848 he wrote this,” Sponsel said. “The two [Owen and Darwin] were working on a publication for the British Navy, a handbook for people on voyages to teach them how to make scientific observations.”

Perez added, “The letter, and the entire exchange, gives a perspective on the collaborative process of their work and the kind of instructions that Darwin felt were appropriate for new naturalists on naval expeditions. He makes some interesting comments in the letter, saying that he would have loved to have had this kind of manual on his own Beagle voyage.”

“Unknown letters don’t come up very often, maybe about 10 a year,” said Darwin scholar Janet Browne, Aramont Professor of the History of Science and Harvard College Professor. “This letter is unusual in that it is a letter from early in Darwin’s life, before ‘On the Origin of Species’ was written, and with a particular individual with whom he became almost sworn enemies.”

It was “On the Origin of Species” that changed Darwin and Owen’s relationship. After its publication, Owen wrote a cruel review of the book, and the relationship disintegrated.

The discovery comes as part of Perez and Sponsel’s work for the Darwin Correspondence Project, an endeavor begun in the mid-1970s by American scholar Frederick Burkhardt and now based at the University of Cambridge. Participants there and at Harvard are dedicated to cataloging, editing, and publishing Darwin’s correspondence from throughout his life. To date, Browne said, the project has cataloged about 15,000 letters from “unexpected people in all sorts of categories, including women scientists and African colonial administrators.”

“Historians have found principally through this large publishing project that correspondence is a significant element of what scientists used to do,” Browne said. “It turns out that someone like Darwin was writing letters as a way of collecting information. It was part of his scientific method.”


New book of interest, The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff, comes out in November. Richard has a blog for the book, and he tweets @RichardConniff

Rush Limbaugh “tackles evolution” – here’s a sneak peek:

RUSH: Of course creationism is — but Darwinism is faith, too. That’s my whole point. Darwinism is presented as absolute science, inarguable science, and it’s faith as well. CALLER: It is science. It is science, Rush. There’s a lot of evidence — RUSH: Well, then I’m going to say creationism is a science, intelligent design is a science. If you say my faith isn’t a science, I’m going to say yours isn’t.

And again!

Niles Eldredge: How Systematics Became “Phylogenetic” [pdf]

Nature: The Lost Correspondence of Francis Crick (review)

Whewell’s Ghost (@beckyfh): Government funding for ‘pure’ research: an extremely brief and gappy history

Whewell’s Ghost (Will Thomas): Good History and the Virtue of Sisyphus

All You Need to Know About Dinosaurs, courtesy of the ICR

NCSE shares: images of an intelligent design vs. evolution board game from Ray Comfort – go to their Facebook page; Darwin and Scopes in new poll on knowledge of religion; and a Blast From the Past video, “The Case of the Texas Footprints”:

Dinosaur Tracking: The Dinosaurs of Industry

Laelaps: Giraffes – Necks for food or necks for sex?

Paleontology and history of science blogger Mike Bertasso looks like he’s back to blogging since summer is over…

Kele’s Science Blog: Personal Beliefs’ Impact Upon the Synthesis

Read More

Darwin and Gender: Darwin, Henrietta and Tennyson & Female Censorship?

David Quammen: Being Jane Goodall

Info on a (potentially free) book about the postal Darwin (stamps, that is), here

Down the Cellar: Shoehorning science: Darwin and group selection

Darwin has “manly notebooks”

JF Derry: Rich Pickings (about Darwin and whether or not he had Victorian sensibility) & Wars of the Words

The Bubble Chamber: Is Sam Harris on to something? Can science answer moral questions?

Another video, “About the British Geological Survey | 175 years of geoscience”:

And to end, I thoroughly enjoyed this tweet from @theselflessmeme:


UPDATE: Wallace Correspondence Project

In February 2009, George Beccaloni announced that he was working on getting a project to transcribe the correspondence of Alfred Russel Wallace (see here). George just informed me of great news, which will get the project up and running:

George Beccaloni (me!) and Judith Magee (Curator of the Natural History Museum (London) Library’s Rare Books Room collection) have been awarded a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund phase 1 of the Wallace Correspondence Project (WCP) – see . The total cost of this part of the project is £200,730 over a three year period, with funding awarded on a yearly basis. Phase 1 aims to locate and digitize all surviving correspondence to and from Wallace held in institutions and private collections worldwide. First to be digitised will be the c. 1200 letters  in the NHM ‘s Wallace Family Archive, a collection which George has played a key role in developing over the last nine years. Scans of the letters will be made publicly available on the Internet via an innovative Web database system that will enable online transcription of the documents as an experimental ‘citizen science’ project. The Mellon grant will pay the salary of an Archivist to work on the project full time for three years and it will also enable George to spend one day per week working on the project as its director.

The Mellon Foundation also provided grant money for the Tyndall Correspondence Project, which I have worked on. George and Judith are also seeking an archivist, to:

1. Locate all letters sent to or written by Alfred Russel Wallace held in the archives of institutions and in private collections worldwide and negotiate to obtain copies of these documents
2. Arrange for all correspondence to be digitised, either by the document owners or in –house
3. Catalogue each item using the project’s database system and enter scans of the documents into this system
4. Prepare a summary of each letter in agreed format
5. Carry out due diligence with regard to copyright

I am applying for this position… which is in London.

Article request

This article, published online in advance from Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology:

Darwin the Scientist

J[anet] Browne

Abstract Charles Darwin’s experimental investigations show him to have been a superb practical researcher. These skills are often underestimated today when assessing Darwin’s achievement in the Origin of Species and his other books. Supported by a private income, he turned his house and gardens into a Victorian equivalent of a modern research station. Darwin participated actively in the exchange of scientific information via letters and much of his research was also carried out through correspondence. Although this research was relatively small scale in practice, it was large scale in intellectual scope. Darwin felt he had a strong desire to understand or explain whatever he observed.

Thanks in advance!

JOB: Education & Outreach Officer (Darwin Correspondence Unit)

From the University of Cambridge:

Education & Outreach Officer (Darwin Correspondence Unit)

University Library
Vacancy Reference No: VE06515  Salary: £27,319-£35,646
Limit of tenure applies*

The Darwin Correspondence Project ( is a small externally-funded team of researchers and editors, based in Cambridge University Library, which is making available complete transcripts of all known letters written by or to the naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-82). The post of Education and Outreach Officer is a new, temporary post funded as part of a sub-project on ‘Darwin and Gender’ supported by a grant from The Bonita Trust, and is the equivalent of a two-year full-time post.

Working with the Project editors, and with a web development team at the University’s Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies, the postholder will be responsible for researching, creating, and delivering educational resources – chiefly web based – using Darwin’s correspondence, and for publicising their existence and maximising their use in schools and by the general public.

Applicants should be educated to degree level in a relevant field, have working knowledge of current educational practice, including the use of technology, knowledge of nineteenth-century history and history of science, and of issues in gender studies. They must possess excellent written and verbal communication skills, research and IT skills, and have the ability to work both on their own and as part of a team.

Informal enquiries are welcomed by Dr Alison Pearn, Assistant Director, Darwin Correspondence Project, on 01223 339770, e-mail:

This post is available with immediate effect. Further details can be downloaded from or are available from the Librarian’s Personal Assistant, Cambridge University Library, West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DR. Tel: (01223) 333045. E-mail:

Applications should include a CV, contact details for three professional referees, and a completed form PD18 downloadable from and should be sent to Dr Alison Pearn, Assistant Director, Darwin Correspondence Project, University Library, West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DR (

* Limit of tenure: 2 years from date of appointment

Closing date: 29 April 2010.

BOOK: Darwin (Darwin College Lectures)

Darwin (Darwin College Lectures)

Darwin (Darwin College Lectures)

In 2009, Darwin College at the University of Cambridge held a lecture series on Darwin. The lectures are accessible online (why so many ways to find these lectures?). The eight lectures are now available as a book in Darwin (Darwin College Lectures):

Charles Darwin can easily be considered one of the most influential scholars of his time. His thoughts, ideas, research and writings have had a far reaching impact and influence on modern thought in the arts, on society, and in science. With contributions from leading scholars, this collection of essays explores how Darwin’s work grew out of the ideas of his time, and how its influence spread to contemporary thinking about creationism, the limits of human evolution and the diversification of living species and their conservation. A full account of the legacy of Darwin in contemporary scholarship and thought. With contributions from Janet Browne, Jim Secord, Rebecca Stott, Paul Seabright, Steve Jones, Sean Carroll, Craig Moritz and John Dupré. This book derives from a highly successful series of public lectures, revised and illustrated for publication under the editorship of Professor William Brown and Professor Andrew Fabian of the University of Cambridge.

A multi-disciplinary overview of the influence of the legacy of Charles Darwin, with contributions from the history of science, economics, philosophy and English literature as well as the biological sciences, appealing to a number of interests • Contributors are internationally-famed leading authorities from their fields, providing the most current research findings • The authors write for the general reader from the standpoint of the leading researcher, making it thoroughly accessible to the non-specialist reader


1. Darwin’s intellectual development: biography, history, and commemoration, Janet Browne
2. Global Darwin, James A. Secord
3. Darwin in the literary world, Rebecca Stott
4. Darwin and human society, Paul Seabright
5. The evolution of utopia, Steve Jones
6. The making of the fittest: the DNA record of evolution, Sean B. Carroll
7. Evolutionary biogeography and conservation on a rapidly changing planet: building on Darwin’s vision, Craig Moritz and Ana Carolina Carnaval
8. Postgenomic Darwinism, John Dupré

This will be published in August.

Darwin College, University of Cambridge

Darwin College, University of Cambridge

BOOK: Darwin in Ilkley

Darwin in Ilkley

Darwin in Ilkley

Darwin in Ilkley is a short book by Mike Dixon and Gregory Radick:

When the “Origins of Species” was published on 24 November 1859, its author, Charles Darwin, was near the end of a nine-week stay in the remote Yorkshire village of Ilkley. He had come for the ‘water cure’ – a regime of cold baths and wet sheets – and for relaxation. But he used his time in Ilkley to shore up support, through extensive correspondence, for the extraordinary theory that the “Origin” would put before the world: evolution by natural selection. In “Darwin in Ilkley”, Mike Dixon and Gregory Radick bring to life Victorian Ilkley and the dramas of body and mind that marked Darwin’s visit.

Richard Carter of The Red Notebook posted about Ilkley before – read it here.

The Correspondence of Charles Darwin: Volume 18, 1870

The Correspondence of Charles Darwin: Volume 18, 1870 is slated to be published in May 2010:

This volume is part of the definitive edition of letters written by and to Charles Darwin, the most celebrated naturalist of the nineteenth century. It is already an important source for students and scholars in many academic disciplines. Notes and appendixes put these fascinating and wide-ranging letters in context, making the letters accessible to both scholars and general readers. Darwin depended on correspondence to collect data from all over the world, and to discuss his emerging ideas with scientific colleagues, many of whom he never met in person. The letters are published chronologically: Volume 18 includes letters from 1870, as well as a supplement of more than a hundred recently discovered or redated letters from before 1870. During 1870 Darwin was making final preparations for publication of Descent of Man, as well as continuing his research on expression in humans and animals.

Who wants to get me the whole set for my birthday in June?

PODCAST: The man who taught Darwin beetles

From the podcast of Ockham’s Razor (A[ustralian]BC Radio National):

Emeritus Professor Anthony Larkum from Sydney University talks about what launched Charles Darwin into a scientific career at Cambridge and how he was given the opportunity to go on the HMS Beagle.

Larkum is the author of A Natural Calling: Life, Letters and Diaries of Charles Darwin and William Darwin Fox. Listen to the podcast here or download the mp3.

ARTICLE: Evidence for contemporary evolution during Darwin’s lifetime

In the 9 February 2010 issue of Current Biology (Vol. 20, No. 3):

“Evidence for contemporary evolution during Darwin’s lifetime”

Adam G. Hart, Richard Stafford, Angela L. Smith and Anne E. Goodenough

Abstract Darwin’s On the Origin of Species introduced the world to the most fundamental concept in biological sciences — evolution. However, in the 150 years following publication of his seminal work, much has been made of the fact that Darwin was missing at least one crucial link in his chain of evidence — he had no evidence for contemporary evolution through natural selection. Indeed, as one commentator noted on the centenary of the publication of Origin, “Had Darwin observed industrial melanism he would have seen evolution occurring not in thousands of years but in thousands of days – well within his lifetime. He would have witnessed the consummation and confirmation of his life’s work.”

Via Why Evolution Is True.

BBC: Gloucestershire biologists find hidden Darwin letter