Darwin’s World-Wide Web
Charles Darwin exchanged letters with around 2000 individuals over his lifetime. After returning from the Beagle voyage, he soon settled into a quiet life in the country and conducted almost all of his scientific research from his home at Down House. He rarely attended meetings of scientific societies, typically spent only two weeks a year in London, and only occasionally received fellow scientists into his home. And yet he was arguably one of the best informed scientists of the day and was able to collaborate with colleagues throughout the world through the medium of correspondence. How did Darwin use letter-writing to further research? In just about every way he could. He cajoled fellow scientists into pursuing lines of research that complemented his own projects. For example, he encouraged the young Hermann Müller to do a study of insect adaptations for flower pollination which was a corollary of his own study of flower adaptation, Orchids. Darwin exchanged more than ideas; he frequently received and sent experimental material, most often seeds, through the post. In one study of self-sterility in the California poppy, he exchanged seeds with colleagues in Brazil and Germany over several years. Darwin made use of his large network in truly innovative ways. He devised a questionnaire on human expression which was circulated in every corner of the globe and provided him with important data for his book Expression of the emotions in man and animals. The key to Darwin’s success in mobilising his own world-wide web was 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.