Workshop in the History and Philosophy of Biology, Aberdeen, 21 May 2011

Dr White, from the Darwin Correspondence Project,  is speaking on Darwin and the evolution of sympathy at a workshop in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen.

The event will focus on the moral and religious debates surrounding evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century and the implications of evolutionary theory for modern ethics and psychological models of the self.

Workshop in the History and Philosophy of Biology

Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine
and Department of Philosophy

Divinity Library, King’s College
University of Aberdeen

Saturday, May 21st 10:00-17:30

Robert J. Richards, (Chicago)
Darwin’s Principles of Divergence and Natural Selection: Why Fodor was Almost Right
Paul White (Cambridge)
Becoming an Animal: Darwin and the Evolution of Sympathy
Pietro Corsi (Oxford)
Idola Tribus: Lamarck, Politics and Religion in the Early Nineteenth Century
Kevin Brosnan (Cambridge)
Do the Evolutionary Origins of our Moral Beliefs Undermine Moral Knowledge?
Catherine Wilson (Aberdeen)
From Biological Selves to Psychological Selves
The workshop is free and open to all. Registration is required via a note to

Top 10!

Image credit Tom Morgan Jones


Are humans inherently generous and sympathetic to others?

Is there such a thing as an “instinct for truth” ?

How do people around the world express their emotions?

All these questions are discussed in Darwin’s correspondence. Darwin also writes about the continuity in moral behaviour between humans and animals, evoked  the religious implications of his theory, and the wider significance of human progress in light of the eventual extinction of life on earth …

We have selected 10 letters,  written between 1830 and 1871, to give you a glimpse  of Darwin’s wide-ranging reflections on human nature

Discover what Darwin thought about animal behavior, the evolution of aesthetic taste and moral sensibility, the origin of the human races, and the implications of evolution for human progress … and let us know what your favourite letter is!

It’s all in the language !

How can an English bishop and a French évêque help Darwin explain his theories about species and natural selection?


In the middle of the nineteenth century, linguists were concerned with establishing genetic relationships between the English language and cognates (words that have a common etymological origin) in various other Indo-European languages.


Hensleigh Wedgwood , Emma Darwin’s brother and Charles’ cousin was a philologist, barrister and original member of the Philological Society, which had been created in 1842. In 1857, while Wedgwood was preparing a dictionary of English etymology, he wrote to Darwin suggesting that the common origin of the French “chef” and the English “head” and “bishop” illustrated the parallels between extinct and transitional forms in language and palaeontology.


Hensleigh’s cousin must have appreciated the comparison, for he used the case of ‘bishop’ and evêque’ in a chapter about the difficulties presented by his theory in Natural selection, in order to show how apparently dissimilar animals could be derived from a common source, just like etymology could show words to be : “to one who knew no other language, dead or living, besides French & English, how absurd would the assertion seem, that evêque & bishop had both certainly descended from a common source, & could still be connected by intermediate links, with the extinct word episcopus.


Charles Darwin dropped the bishops, but used the analogy again in Origin, and eventually in the in the Descent of Man, where he wrote soberly that “the formation of different languages and of distinct species and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process are curiously the same.”

Darwin and phrenology

19th century phrenology chart

According to the phrenological doctrine, as elaborated by Franz Joseph Gall, the shape of the skull reflects the `organs’ or faculties of the brain.

Phrenology attained considerable popularity in England: by 1832 there were 29 phrenological societies and an influential journal edited by George Combe.

Yet the theory is almost never mentioned by Darwin, who did not discuss it,  nor mentioned in any of the two editions of the Descent of Man the experiments which by then had demonstrated that some movements hitherto attributed to free will could be produced by localised electrical simulation of the brain - (although a section on the brain was added to the second edition in 1874).

Darwin’s early doubts about one of the most popular Nineteenth-century theories of nature  can be found in the correspondence: In 1830, a young Charles wrote to his cousin and friend William Darwin Fox  “I forgot to mention, I dined with Sir J. Mackintosh & had some talk with him about Phrenology, & he has entirely battered down the very little belief of it that I picked up at Osmaston.”

Darwin had spent three weeks with Fox at Osmaston Hall, the Fox Family’s home, in the summer of 1829.  Sir James Mackintosh (1765-1832) was a philosopher and historian who had studied medicine at Edinburgh; he and Josiah Wedgwood of Maer married two of the Allen sisters, so there was connection by marriage between the families. Darwin wrote about fist meeting Mackintosh during one of his visits to Maer in 1827 and later referred to him as `the best converser I ever listened to’ (The autobiography of Charles Darwin, p. 55)


Charles’ letter to Fox is both interesting in showing how a popular subject such as phrenology could be “picked up” or not, by young minds, but also how easily a conversation was enough to “batter down” any belief in it !

Darwin’s hobby-horse

When does a hobby become a scientific subject ?

Thanks to Darwin’s correspondence, we can get an insight  into what  Darwin called “an uncommonly curious subject” and his very own “hobby-horse”.

Expression of emotions

The “uncommonly curious subject” was the expression of emotions in animals and humans; Darwin spent almost forty years thinking, taking notes and inquiring about it, gathering observations and anecdotes from the most remote places on earth as well as from his own domestic surroundings.

As early as the 1830s, Charles Darwin had begun to record and make observations on expressions, noting the behaviour of animals as well as humans. In another example of Victorian women involved in scientific observations and experiments, the soon-to-be-married Emma was also contributing to the project; months later, Darwin began recording the expressions and behaviour of his own children, starting with his “little animalcule of a son, William Erasmus by name”.


Over the following years, Darwin’s interest did not vanish, but he was being cautious about his research. In January 1860, he wrote to Charles Lyell: “On that subject I have collected a good many facts & speculated: but I do not suppose I shall ever publish”, although he had, only a few days earlier, proved his continuous interest by sending a first formal query about Fuegians and Patagonians to the missionary Thomas Bridges. In 1862, he informed the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker that: “Expression is one of my hobby-horses; I have got some funny notions on subject” ; a few years later, Darwin had resolved to send other circulars with questions similar to the 1862 questionnaire and was writing more confidently to William Bowman: “Expression in animals & men is at present a hobby of mine & I think I shall probably utilize my notes made during several years.”

In 1872, thirteen years after the Origin and Species and one year after the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin eventually published his work on the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.  It was an immediate best-seller,  although the first edition was not exhausted during Darwin’s lifetime.  It remains, with the correspondence pertaining to it and as expressed by Paul Ekman in the  introduction to the third edition of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals “a most fascinating example of “Darwin’s attempts to obtain more systematic evidence on the question of universality”.

The Darwin and Human Nature twitter feed

The Darwin and Human Nature twitter feed (DarwinHuman) offers the opportunity to discover Darwin’s correspondence in an exciting and unexpected way.

Discover  Darwin’s routine on a typical day for instance, or read his advice to his son William on how to be good. You can also enjoy anecdotes about snobbish parrots and other vain birds …

We look forward to bringing you new insights into Darwin’s work, life, and surroundings.

The ‘Darwin and Human Nature’ Project is under way !

Dr Sophie Defrance has been appointed research associate for the ‘Human Nature’ stream of the Darwin CorrespondenceProject.


Among the areas of interest for the ‘Darwin and Human Nature’ project are:

* The development of Darwin’s theory of human origins
* Ideas about human evolution during the second half of the nineteenth-century
* The relevance of Darwin with respect to racial theory, Empire, gender, and human biology
* The relationship between evolutionary theory, ethics and religion
* The concept of “human progress”
* The role of religion and culture in the foundations of moral behaviour

In extending his theory of evolution to humans, Darwin greatly expanded his network of correspondents, using letters to pursue a wide range of researches.  This blog offers the exciting chance to share in comments and observations made by Darwin and his many and varied correspondents.