Darwin Correspondence

The Writings of Charles Darwin on the Web is an amazing resource which allows you to search the texts–including, at an offshoot site, some of his correspondence! When I was writing my honours dissertation I had to stop myself reading the letters obsessively, seeing if I could glean some overlooked insight about language buried in amongst the natural history anecdotes and Darwin’s bleating about his poor health.

This letter (reference only) to his sister Caroline was a great find. In it, Charles used the hypothetical age of the Indo-European languages, and their differences from Chinese to agree with Herschel that yes, the earth must indeed be older than 6000 years as argued by the Bible.
I also love this one (below) that CD wrote to Thomas Henry Huxley. I confess to being a bit of a Huxley fan myself, but their mutual admiration society makes me smile…

Down, March 19 [1869].

My dear Huxley,

Thanks for your ‘Address.’* People complain of the unequal distribution of wealth, but it is a much greater shame and injustice that any one man should have the power to write so many brilliant essays as you have lately done. There is no one who writes like you…If I were in your shoes, I should tremble for my life. I agree with all you say, except that I must think that you draw too great a distinction between the evolutionists and the uniformitarians.

I find that the few sentences which I have sent to press in the ‘Origin’ about the age of the world will do fairly well…

Ever yours,

1 thought on “Darwin Correspondence”

  1. That THH site is fabulous! As is his relationship as “general agent” to CD, god I love them. I’m especially enamoured of his reaction to reading “Origin”, which I think we understand better than most — dammit! why didn’t I think of that first!?

    Speaking of language in relation to these two: I’m reading this small essay by Stephen Gould about “Man’s Place in Nature” (“The Natural Status of Science as Literature”), and he holds Huxley and Darwin up as the first real “literary scientists”. He talks about the use of the passive voice in most scientific theses in order to retain some semblance of modesty, but that it ends up making everything too immodest in a weird way. He talks about his students asking him if they can see a copy of the “real” Origin, not the “watered down version” that was presented for laymen. And he has to tell them, this is it!

    We’re so used to science being presented as dry. I wish there were more collections of correspondence like these, and like the ones THH’s son put together after his death. The process is just as important as the end result, as, in the case of Darwin especially, often their findings were their LIVES, not just what was recorded as a published work.


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