In 2009 schoolchildren in Devon wrote letters addressed to Darwin as part of an initiative organised by the University of Exeter and South West schools. Sample letters and introductory material were provided by the Darwin Correspondence Project to help teachers and children with the project. The organisers chose two letters out of many submissions to be published on our website. The letters were written by Griselda Shipp and Annabelle Clarke from Sidmouth.
The winning letters:
3rd January 1860
Mr. Charles Darwin
I must first regretfully inform you that this letter is not one of congratulations on the publication and success of your Book – regretfully, I say, as I feel you are deserving of congratulations. Upon reading said Book, I found myself in a state of great understanding, as though each word had wiped away some of my former ignorance.
There are friends of mine, of the highly religious persuasion, who find themselves greatly affronted by your Theory. Of course, there is widespread affection for the notion that such Theories conflict directly with the fundamental convictions of Christianity; consider, if you will, the story of Genesis. However, after finding myself torn between two such fervours, it came upon me that the two may find a symbiosis, where the elementary principles of each may not conflict, but harmonise in such a way that Religion and Evolution are not the accepted standard and the offensive problem, but are rather the idea, and the explanation of it. Where before I saw holes in the fabric of Belief, such Theories as yours have, at least for myself, reinforced Faith. As such, I found much truth in your publication, and therefore feel bound to apologize for this letter, which, I hope, is not perceived as one of attack, merely of query, and one which has troubled me greatly.
My problem lies with the basic notion of your Natural Selection Theory – that the success of life on our Earth depends on the relentless and unforgiving conflict between, and amongst, Her species. The publication of this Theory, I fear, may have the potential to cause great strife within Human society.
I worry, for example, of the implications held in your text – that, perhaps, putting a value on conflict as a means of survival and success, may also encourage it. I fear that there are those who may take this to mean something quite sinister – to let the strongest live and the weakest die.
Here is where my quandary lies. For what if this was the ideal of a nation? It would be the ultimate rationale for War, I fear. For if the attacker were to lose, they could duly console themselves that they deserved to lose, humanity then being set back onto the most successful evolutionary path. But if they won … I can only foresee a violent and fatal competitive struggle; this indeed would be a great, great War – and a terrible one.
I have also another matter which I have pondered over of late, although this concerns Nature itself. I found myself wondering about the very process of Evolution by means of Natural Selection, and another moral dilemma presented itself. If, in our time, we should see the environment around us gradually changing, or perhaps even changed by Man or our Industrialisation, should we allow those species who are “unfit” to die off absolutely, so as to permit Evolutionary success? And, even more worrying, could this too apply to us Humans? Perhaps, even, this Selection suggests that we should stop helping the weak, the vulnerable within our society, or even other societies, all for this success of our species. This I find most disturbing indeed.
For animals, at least, should we not try to conserve, protect them from extinction, even if this goes against the struggle of Natural Selection itself? We have already lost millions of species, many of such a weird and wonderful Nature, like of the burgess shale, which – on a purely selfish note for Man – could have benefited us also. I’m sure that many of the solutions to Man’s numerous obstacles, be these disease or in our ever-growing advances in design, lie within Nature. Perhaps then, we should find a way of conserving species en masse, perhaps even storing the essential component for plant life – seeds. Surely therefore, losing species due to Natural Selection, or even when pressurised by Man’s activities, should be prevented if ever possible.
In terms of your Theory, I therefore find myself torn, twixt the need for The World to access such Truth as portrayed in your Book, and the potential catastrophe of its announcement. As such, I felt duty bound to ask you, Sir, not whether your Theory has Truth, but whether it is Right? Should the un-fit for conflict, for War, the weak or vulnerable, be destroyed? This question has troubled me greatly, and though I do not wish to impose such a burden on yourself, I feel this is the best means of resolving my quandary.
I am very much grateful for your time, and wish not to encumber you with fantastical prophecies – if you feel mine are so.
In good faith, Sir,
Dear Charles Darwin,
Since your idea on the tree of life was published, scientists have created a timeline of all the known species which ever existed. This diagram starts off with the first suspected life forms and branches off into different species over time creating a tree like structure. It shows how closely related current species are due to how recently they shared a common ancestor. There have been many variations on your original including circular trees and lists rather than branches but in general until now, it has been a popular and widely known theory
However, this phylogenetic tree has only been drawn on the basis of vertical gene transfer whereby genes (a unit of heredity in organisms) are passed from parent to offspring so that species cannot interbreed successfully.
Since DNA (double helix containing genes) was discovered in 1953, as well as electron microscopes enabling us to examine minute species and their behaviour, our way of classifying organisms has changed so that instead of five kingdoms there are three domains. This means that previously thought unrelated species might now actually be related in some way suggesting that the old tree of life may not work for all species.
Another reason for this theory is horizontal gene transfer (HGT), whereby genetic material is passed from one species to another. Although this mainly occurs in bacterial organisms and viruses, there are examples where it occurs in Eukaryotes (non-bacterial organisms) such as between algae. In B. natans, during phagocytosis, some foreign DNA may not get digested and so can become part of the alga itself.
This could mean that all previously thought links in the tree and relationships between species may be wrong. For instance, if a bacterium had acquired DNA from another species via HGT, then they would be related. But with the old tree of life it might show these too species as being distantly related, so not giving a correct view of the relationships. As HGT has been known to occur across different kingdoms then all species not just bacteria may be more closely related than the tree shows. If these HGT lines were present on the tree of life then it would get very complicated and more like a web than a tree. There would be lines linking species everywhere, as some snake DNA has been found in cows and as viruses are the most likely reason for this and as they can spread between many species, to create a tree of life would be a jumble and very difficult to interpret.
Nevertheless, your tree is important to biology and classification, so although it might not now be entirely valid, it plays a major role in science today. Even though your tree was based on similar characteristics and we now know that DNA is responsible for relationships, a tree can still be drawn just in a different format. When initially learning about relationships, the tree can provide a simple view and help develop knowledge of classification. The tree can still be used for Eukaryotes as they rarely do HGT and it had initially allowed us to try and determine the links between all living organisms.
In conclusion, I believe that your ideas were incredible and your fundamental research has led on to many great discoveries in the realms of science. The idea of a tree of life was critical in the timeline of discovering evolutionary relationships between species and without we would be behind compared to our current knowledge. It was a pioneering concept and has changed history but like evolution concepts are constantly changing and so the tree of life is losing its ability to survive among up and coming contemporary theories.