Read the Original Letters Where Charles Darwin Worked Out His Theory of Evolution

darwin letter2

So much has been writ­ten about hand-writ­ten let­ters, most­ly lament­ing their death. What else can be added about the beau­ti­ful vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of hand­writ­ing and the sat­is­fy­ing feel of paper sta­tion­ary and envelopes, not to men­tion the mir­a­cle of let­ter deliv­ery? Think of all those heart­sick sol­diers in wars old and mod­ern receiv­ing an actu­al let­ter from home, thou­sands of miles away.

The only news about let­ter writ­ing is that we con­tin­ue to dis­cov­er its val­ue. Just recent­ly Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty pub­lished some 1,200 let­ters exchanged between Charles Dar­win and his clos­est friend, the botanist Joseph Dal­ton Hook­er. The let­ters span 40 years of Darwin’s work­ing life, from 1843 to his death in 1882, and join the oth­er let­ters in the Dar­win Cor­re­spon­dence Project.

There is so much to appre­ci­ate about these let­ters. Call it 19th cen­tu­ry bro­mance, if you must, but the cor­re­spon­dence between Dar­win and Hook­er touched on near­ly every sub­ject, sci­en­tif­ic and per­son­al. Dar­win wrote Hook­er for his help nego­ti­at­ing with pub­lish­ers, for his opin­ion about whether seeds from islands with­out four-legged ani­mals are ever hook-shaped, and for his sup­port after his 6‑year-old daugh­ter Maria died.

From a sci­en­tif­ic point of view the most impor­tant let­ter may be the one Dar­win wrote Hook­er on Jan­u­ary 11, 1844. Writ­ing from his home, Down House in Kent, Dar­win fires ques­tions at Hook­er about seeds, seashells and Arc­tic species—his mind obvi­ous­ly a blur of activity—and then describes that his work has tak­en a “pre­sump­tu­ous” turn. After years of research and col­lect­ing spec­i­mens, he was begin­ning to form an idea that “species are not (it is like con­fess­ing a mur­der) immutable.”

Fif­teen years lat­er Dar­win pub­lished On the Ori­gin of Species. (Find it on our Free Audio Books and Free eBooks col­lec­tions.)

In his let­ters to Hook­er, him­self a great botanist and explor­er, Dar­win works out and wor­ries over his ideas. In one let­ter he express­es impa­tience with all oth­er exist­ing expla­na­tions for the geo­graph­i­cal dis­tri­b­u­tion of plants.

The Cor­re­spon­dence Project has archived more than 7,500 of Darwin’s let­ters alto­geth­er, includ­ing the mail he sent home while at sea aboard The Bea­gle. Dar­win was 22 when he joined a team to chart the coast of South Amer­i­ca, a trip that was planned for two years but which stretched into five. After a bout of sea­sick­ness, Dar­win wrote home to his father.

A quick aside to those who long for the days of long let­ters and who believe that our IQs drop a point with each text: Take note of Darwin’s lib­er­al use of amper­sands, numer­als and quaint 19th cen­tu­ry con­trac­tions (sh’d for should, etc.). IMHO, these are all just Vic­to­ri­an short­cuts to speed up the process of hand­writ­ing when the mind can work so much more quick­ly.

Kate Rix writes about edu­ca­tion and dig­i­tal media. Vis­it her web­site: .

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