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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin in letters, 1861: Gaining allies


George Bentham
George Bentham, Journal of Botany, British and foreign, plate facing p353
CUL Q370.c.32.13
Cambridge University Library

The year 1861 marked an important change in the direction of Darwin’s work. By then, he had weathered the storm that followed the publication of Origin of species, and felt cautiously optimistic about the ultimate acceptance of his ideas. As the year opened, he was hard at work on his study of the variations in domestic animals and plants, the first part of the more detailed exposition of the evidence for his theory that he had promised in the preface of Origin. But, important as it was to strengthen his case using the data he had compiled over twenty years, he now wished to explore the applications of natural selection that were of most interest to him, tackling problems in natural history, both new and old.

Botanical puzzles: sexuality, propagation, hybridism

These new investigations stemmed from direct botanical observations in the field that he had made during enforced absences from his portfolios of notes on variation at Down House. During the summer of 1860, he had become interested in Drosera and other insectivorous plants. His interest in dimorphism, awakened in 1860 following observations of Primula, developed into an intensive study of the phenomenon in 1861. Orchids, in particular the astonishing adaptive mechanisms by which cross-pollination is ensured, also became the subject of dedicated research. These studies, initiated as mere pastimes, became full-scale investigations of fundamental features of the natural world—of sexuality, propagation, hybridism, and other phenomena that, as Darwin said in his Autobiography, he had before thought were ‘unmeaning variability’ (p. 128). Darwin often expressed how much more he enjoyed working on these fresh projects than ‘sticking’ to ‘confounded cocks Hens & Ducks’. The letters from this year provide an unusually detailed and intimate understanding of Darwin’s problem-solving method of work and exude a sense of his confidence in the efficacy of his theory.

The third edition of Origin

That is not to say that he was not still active in promoting the acceptance of evolution and natural selection. Indeed, early in the year he acted on two fronts to consolidate and augment support for the views presented in Origin. Having learned from his publisher John Murray in November 1860 that a new edition of Origin was called for, Darwin took the opportunity to include in the third edition corrections and additions that addressed criticisms made by reviewers. He also inserted for his British audience a preface, previously published in the first American and German editions, that included a discussion of works pre-dating Origin that contained views on species transmutation, setting in proper relief his own mechanism of natural selection.

With this work behind him, Darwin took steps to convince those who opposed the theory on religious grounds that natural selection was not inconsistent with natural theology. He made arrangements with his friend Asa Gray to reprint and distribute in Britain Gray’s series of review-essays on this topic previously published in America: ‘I believe your pamphlet will do me & Natural Selection, right good service’ (letter to Asa Gray, 26–7 Februrary [1861]). Darwin drew up a carefully thought-out list of those individuals, societies, and journals to which to send a copy of the pamphlet (see Correspondence vol. 9, Appendix III). However, Darwin himself remained unconvinced by Gray’s suggestion that providence may have played a part in the appearance and selection of variations.

Although sales of Origin began to decline later in the year, scientific interest in Darwin’s views continued unabated and indeed entered a new phase in which they were subject to detailed scrutiny. The reviews of the third edition and the comments of naturalists with whom Darwin corresponded, showed that a number of specialists were beginning to examine more carefully the implications of the theory of natural selection for their particular fields. Darwin relished these explorations, whether in support of his views or against them. The review published in the July issue of the Zoologist by George Maw, for example, singled out Darwin’s explanation of the numerous instances of the ‘correlation of growth’ of certain organs and characters. Whereas for Darwin such cases exemplified the working of unknown laws of development in conjunction with natural selection, for Maw they remained notable instances of design in nature. Although Darwin, in his subsequent correspondence with Maw, chided him for having mingled science with religion in his review, he nonetheless recommended the review to several friends, most notably his faithful ‘barometer’ of scientific opinion, Charles Lyell (see letter to Charles Lyell, 20 July [1861]). One reason for Darwin’s interest in this piece may have been that Maw touched, albeit negatively, upon what Darwin considered the strongest indications of transmutation, namely the correlative growth of organs during development and embryological relationships between organisms.

Darwin also found the review by the young geologist Frederick Wollaston Hutton particularly striking. As he told his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker, Hutton was one of the few reviewers who clearly understood that the theory of natural selection could not be ‘directly proved’ (see second letter to J. D. Hooker, 23 [April 1861]). Darwin continued to stress to his correspondents, as he had done since the publication of Origin, that his theory, like the wave theory of light in physics, only gained credence by its ability to explain and harmonise a number of otherwise disparate and unexplained classes of facts.

Gaining allies

It is not surprising, then, that Darwin was pleased that the methodology followed in Origin was singled out for praise in 1861. He had been disappointed to learn of John Frederick William Herschel’s initial cool response to his argument; he was gratified, however, when Herschel, in a newly published text, Physical geography, partially endorsed his views, though demurring with regard to man and maintaining that nature offered more evidence of design than Darwin was willing to admit. With the growing confidence of a committed crusader, Darwin wrote to Herschel, on 23 May [1861]: 'You will think me very conceited when I say I feel quite easy about the ultimate success of my views, (with much error, as yet unseen by me, to be no doubt eliminated); & I feel this confidence, because I find so many young & middle-aged truly good workers in different branches, either partially or wholly accepting my views, because they find that they can thus group & understand many scattered facts. This has occurred with those who have chiefly or almost exclusively studied morphology, geographical Distribution, systematic Botany, simple geology & palæontology.'

Moreover, Darwin found an important philosophical ally in John Stuart Mill. Through Henry Fawcett, a young Cambridge political economist and convert to his theory, Darwin learned of Mill’s view that the reasoning throughout Origin was ‘in the most exact accordance with the strict principles of Logic’ and that Darwin’s methodology was ‘the only one proper to such a subject’ (letter from Henry Fawcett, 16 July [1861]). Mill in fact included a brief statement to this effect in a footnote to the fifth edition of his System of logic (Mill 1862, p. 18 n.). Later in the summer Fawcett himself made Darwin’s methodology the subject of a lecture given before the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He subsequently sent Darwin a copy of the manuscript and some newspaper reports of the discussion that ensued wherein there had been criticism of Darwin’s hypothesising. Darwin commented to Fawcett: ‘How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!’ (letter to Henry Fawcett, 18 September [1861]).

Darwin added some new names in 1861 to the list of ‘young & middle-aged’ naturalists whom he counted among his supporters, including that of one of the ‘very best of the younger geologists’, Archibald Geikie. Geikie had approved of Darwin’s chapter on the imperfection of the geological record (see letter to George Maw, 19 July [1861]). The American palaeontologist Joseph Leidy also sent word of his ‘approbation’ ofOrigin, but of even greater import was the news that he had some interesting facts ‘in support of the doctrine of selection’ that he planned to report ‘at a favourable opportunity’ (letter from Joseph Leidy, 4 March [1861]). However, the publication of Leidy’s study of the remains of the most complete series then known of the ancestors of the horse was interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War.

Undoubtedly, the news that most excited Darwin was word from Henry Walter Bates, recently returned from an eleven-year scientific expedition in the Amazonian river basin, that he would soon publish empirical evidence in support of natural selection. Like his friend Alfred Russel Wallace, who had independently formulated the hypothesis of natural selection, Bates was a firm believer in the involvement of selection in determining the form and habits of living organisms. He was convinced that the materials he had collected in South America, particularly adaptively marked insects, provided some of the best support to date for the working of selection in nature. As Bates boldly stated: ‘I think I have got a glimpse into the laboratory where Nature manufactures her new species’ (letter from H. W. Bates, 28 March [1861]).


Bates' clear understanding of the operation of natural selection and its consequences for the study of natural history was evident. He told Darwin in his letter of [1 December] 1861:

I think the whole tenour of your book teaches . . . that the welfare of species is the object of all structures & forms. All species exist by virtue of some endowment enabling them to withstand adverse circumstances.

Bates had investigated cases in several genera of butterflies and other insects, such as the hover-fly Volucella, of what he called ‘analogical resemblance’ or mimicry (referred to today as Batesian mimicry). Applying the notion of selective advantage, Bates explained such cases as illustrations of protective adaptation, with one species assuming the adult coloration of another in order to escape, as he informed Darwin, the ‘persecution by insect enemies from which the other set is free’ (letter from H. W. Bates, 30 September 1861). As Peter Bowler has commented, mimicry provided natural selection its ‘greatest triumph in explaining adaptations’ (Bowler 1983, p. 29).

Darwin suggested that Bates write a popular account of his travels, somewhat in the genre of his own Journal of researches, believing that it would be a ‘very valuable contribution to Nat. History.—’ (letter to H. W. Bates, 4 April [1861]). He also advised that the public appreciated ‘a good dose of reasoning’, ‘new & curious remarks on habits, final causes &c’, and ‘Monkeys,—our poor cousins.—’ (letter to H. W. Bates, 3 December [1861]). Darwin volunteered to read some of the chapters and recommended that Bates offer the manuscript to the publisher John Murray with a view to obtaining ‘large distribution’ for the work (letter to H. W. Bates, 25 September [1861]). Nevertheless, many naturalists were not convinced of the ability of natural selection to explain organic phenomena that had hitherto been their favoured instances of the working of design in nature and of special creation. Supported by such authorities as Richard Owen and Louis Agassiz who provided critical evidence, naturalists like Cuthbert Collingwood and laymen such as the physician Charles Robert Bree and the Scottish divine Gilbert Rorison published tracts in opposition to Darwin’s theory.

Humans and apes: the hippocampus debate

The effect of these attacks, however, was mild in comparison with the controversy between Richard Owen and Thomas Henry Huxley concerning the anatomical differences between human and ‘anthropoid’ brains. Conducted in the Athenæum, in the ‘mildly episcophagous’ Natural History Review, and in other periodicals of the day, the so-called ‘hippocampus’ debate, although not directly concerned with Darwin’s theory, was recognised by most as being of crucial importance to the question of an evolutionary relationship between the human species and the higher apes. Owen had given anatomical lectures to accompany the exhibition in February at the Royal Geographical Society and later at the Royal Institution of Great Britain of the remarkable gorilla specimens brought back from West Africa by Paul Belloni Du Chaillu. Owen, while pointing out the similarities between the skeletons of apes and humans, maintained that their brain structures were strikingly dissimilar. Huxley pointed out, publicly and acerbicly that Owen was mistaken in his interpretations and even in his citation of anatomical facts. The clash between the two great authorities in comparative anatomy and physiology provided the scientific and lay communities alike with much material for both serious and satirical commentary. (A humorous spoof on the topic was published in Punch, (see Correspondence vol. 9, Appendix VIII).)

For his part, Darwin enjoyed Huxley’s sparring with Owen, though periodically concerned at the strongly polemical tone of Huxley’s attacks. On reading an article by Huxley that criticised Owen’s views on the brain, Darwin complimented him on producing ‘a complete and awful smasher’ (letter to T. H. Huxley, 3 January [1861]). Ever since Owen’s highly critical and, Darwin felt, unfair review of Origin, he had nursed a growing animosity toward the man; as he told Huxley at the beginning of the year, he did not wish for ‘open quarrel’, but he and Owen would ‘never be friends again’ (letter to T. H. Huxley, 3 January [1861]).

Friends and family

The bond between Huxley and Darwin was consolidated in 1861 on a personal as well as scientific level. Early in the year, when Darwin learned that Huxley’s wife Henrietta Anne, recuperating from the birth of her fourth child, remained desolate over the death in September 1860 of their first-born, Noel, he and Emma invited her and the children to Down House. The empathy shown by Emma Darwin, who had lost a daughter ten years earlier, formed a lasting bond between the two women.

In May 1861 Darwin offered consolation to his friend Hooker whose father-in-law, John Stevens Henslow, died after a brief illness. Darwin expressed his relief that Henslow’s sufferings were finally at an end, adding: ‘I fully believe a better man never walked this earth’ (letter to J. D. Hooker, 18 [May 1861]). Henslow had been a uniquely important figure in Darwin’s life. Not only had Henslow taught him the principles of botanical study, but he had also introduced him to geology, and guided him, paternally, in other matters of science. Henslow’s seminal importance in arranging Darwin’s participation in the voyage of the Beagle is well known. As late as 1860, Henslow had defended Darwin against criticism from Adam Sedgwick and Richard Owen. Darwin himself was able to recall poignantly other aspects of Henslow’s influence and relationship when he was asked to contribute to Leonard Jenyns’s Memoir of the Rev. John Stevens Henslow (see Correspondence vol. 9, Appendix X).

Hybridisation and variation

Botany became a major preoccupation of Darwin’s during the course of 1861. Projects begun the previous summer as holiday amusements developed the following year into serious scientific pursuits. In his experiments with the two flower forms Primula, he began with the hypothesis that dimorphism in the length of stamens was an indication of how dioecious forms might gradually arise, but he became convinced that it was instead an instance of the importance of achieving intercrossing between distinct individuals. He told Gray that such cases could perhaps ‘throw some light on Hybridisation’ (letter to Asa Gray, 16 September [1861]).

But it was his study of orchids that provided Darwin with the most remarkable examples of adaptations for effecting cross-pollination (see Autobiography, p. 133). Having observed orchids sporadically over many years, Darwin became more and more impressed, as he dissected both British orchids and exotic species, with the modifications they exhibited for promoting cross-pollination by insects. ‘I marvel often’, he told Hooker, ‘as I think over the diversity & perfection of the contrivances.–-’ (letter of [28 July–10 August 1861]). Later in the year, he went even further, writing to John Lindley on 17 October: ‘Orchids have interested me more than almost anything in my life’.

Darwin pursued this study doggedly throughout the summer of 1861, writing to anyone he thought might be able to provide him with a specimen of a species or tribe that he had not yet examined. Initially intending to publish his results in the journal of the Linnean Society of London, Darwin decided instead to prepare a small volume that would reach a wider public. Having approached John Murray with some hesitation, and given him realistic estimations of the limited popularity of the work, Darwin was surprised when Murray readily agreed to publish the book. Convinced that orchids, primroses, and, another subject of his botanical investigations, insectivorous plants, all had ‘some direct bearing on the subject of species’ (letter to Henry Fawcett, 18 September [1861]), Darwin conceived of the orchid work, as he told Murray, as a treatise illustrating the operation of natural selection rather than creation (see Orchids, pp. 306–7). To Hooker he confided, ‘I shall make use of my Orchid little volume in illustrating modification-of-species-doctrine, but I keep very very doubtful whether I am not doing a foolish action in publishing’ (letter to J. D. Hooker, 17 November [1861]). Nevertheless, Darwin immediately set to work to prepare the final manuscript, and Orchids was published in May of 1862.

The time spent on his botanical investigations and in preparing the results for publication left Darwin little opportunity to pursue his larger study of the variations in animals and plants upon which natural selection could operate. Demonstrating the great range of variation in animals such as domesticated fowls involved a careful osteological comparison of different forms, and on this Darwin made but slow progress. As he told a French correspondent, ‘it is such tedious work comparing skeletons—’ (letter to Jean Louis Armand de Quatrefage de Bréau, 25 April [1861]). By the end of May, however, he had completed the first drafts of chapters on most of the common domesticated animals, among them horses, rabbits, pigeons, and poultry. As he frequently admitted to friends such as Charles Lyell and interested supporters like Alfred Russel Wallace, he knew he should pursue his work on variation more assiduously, but his family’s long summer holiday in Devon allowed him to postpone the ‘tedious’ work and indulge in the pleasure of working on fresh and exciting botanical projects.

Glen Roy revisited

Although Darwin was no longer directly involved in geological investigations, geology features prominently in the correspondence of 1861. Here, it was Charles Lyell who continued to act as Darwin’s adviser. Lyell, for his part, relied upon Darwin as a sounding-board for matters arising from his own investigations. Lyell was preparing a major revision of his Elements of geology; he intended to incorporate the results of recent interest in the question of the antiquity of man and a reconsideration of the chronology of major periods of elevation, subsidence, and glaciation in Europe. Through his letters, Lyell involved Darwin in his deliberations.

one long gigantic blunder

Darwin offered his opinions willingly and soon became more personally involved in the discussions when they turned to a re-evaluation of the ‘parallel roads’ of Glen Roy, a topic on which he had published a major paper twenty years earlier. Both Lyell and Darwin encouraged the young Scottish geologist Thomas Francis Jamieson to make an excursion to Glen Roy late in August 1861 to study the phenomenon. Upon his return, Jamieson reported that, in his view, the evidence overwhelmingly supported the theory that the roads were the shores of a former glacial lake rather than the marine theory proposed by Darwin and since propounded by Lyell. Despite his belief that Jamieson’s interpretation still did not encompass certain phenomena that he considered critical, Darwin finally conceded that his paper on the subject had been ‘one long gigantic blunder’ (letter to Charles Lyell, 6 September [1861]). The fascinating three-way correspondence on this topic that passed between Darwin, Lyell, and Jamieson is completed by the inclusion of Jamieson’s letters to Lyell in Correspondence vol. 9, Appendix IX.

Jobs for the boys

In his personal life too Darwin found himself having to alter long-held views. He had for years felt that finding a suitable career for each of his five sons would be difficult. But, in 1861, an opportunity unexpectedly arose for his oldest son, William Erasmus. Late in May, Darwin’s young friend and neighbour, John Lubbock, a partner with his father in the London bank Robarts, Lubbock & Co., told Darwin that he knew of a banker in a south of England town who was seeking a partner. William, who was in his final year at Cambridge, had, with his father’s encouragement, been considering a career in the law. But both father and son found the proposal of a banking partnership too good to neglect, despite the prospect of William’s having to leave Cambridge prematurely. Although, as Darwin cautioned, banking was ‘dull work’, William could soon expect an annual income of about £800, and would so ‘be at once an almost rich man’ (letter to W. E. Darwin, [26 May 1861]). The arrangement would entail, however, providing William with a deposit of £10,000 as guarantee of probity, funds that would have to be advanced from his inheritance. Negotiations with the banker George Atherley, partner in the Southampton and Hampshire Bank dragged on throughout the summer.

While the arrangements for William’s partnership were being finalised during July and August, the Darwin family were in residence at the seaside resort of Torquay. Even though the trip halted a number of Darwin’s botanical experiments, the sacrifice was made in the hope that sea air would improve the health of Henrietta Emma Darwin, who had been suffering for well over a year from the after-effects of what was thought to be ‘a form of typhus fever’ (letter to J. D. Hooker, 11 May 1860). This hope was realised. By the end of July, Henrietta was strong enough to be able to accompany her mother and cousin on a week-long tour of Dartmoor. Both Darwin and Emma, however, in part credited Joseph Hooker for Henrietta’s gradual recuperation; in February Hooker had recommended the external application of cod-liver oil, a remedy only recently introduced to England, as a means to aid her digestion and appetite. Etty’s improving health was indeed a cause for rejoicing, for ever since the death of their eldest daughter, Anne Elizabeth, in 1851 (see Correspondence vol. 5), the Darwins had feared that the same fate might await their other children.

Negotiations finally completed, William travelled to Southampton early in September to take up his new position. William’s description, in his letter of [17 November 1861], of his typical day provides a delightful account both of a Victorian banker’s life and of the apparent suitability of William’s temperament for it.

William was not expected to begin his new life unaided. Even before the partnership settlement was agreed Darwin began to mobilise his social network in support of his son. On 1 August he wrote to Charles Lyell to ask whether he could suggest any suitable south-coast introductions for William. Through John Bonham Carter, Darwin arranged for an introduction to the Nightingales. ‘It is evident that you will have plenty of acquaintances; but I am not sorry that you should know two or three respectable persons on your own account’ (letter to W. E. Darwin, 17 [October 1861]). He also wrote a letter introducing William to the director of the ordnance survey, the ‘pleasant & distinguished’ Henry James.

In Southampton, James was about to organise a Rifle Volunteer Corps. The Volunteer Movement was a popular mid-century response to the general fear ot French intentions. Established under Crown patronage and comprising largely individuals from the professional and commercial classes, the volunteers were strictly local units, and, for a breif period after their formation in 1859, membership carried with it great social status. On 17 November, William told his father that he had heard he was to be asked to join, ‘but’, he complained, ‘I have had enough of volunteering.’ William held the rank of captain in the Farnborough Rifle Volunteer Corps, but, based in Southampton, it was not easy for him to comply with the attendance regulations; he therefore resigned his commission (see letters to W. E. Darwin, 22 October [1861], 27 October [1861], and 15 November [1861]).

The American Civil War

It was not France, however, but the United States of America that threatened peace in Britain in 1861. The end of 1860 and the beginning of 1861 saw seven states secede from the Union. In April, the occupation by southern forces of Fort Sumter, a Federal base in South Carolina, sparked off the American Civil War.

In Britain, events were keenly followed. ‘I never knew the newspapers so profoundly interesting’, Darwin told the Harvard botanist Asa Gray on 5 June, and added, despite the British government’s declared neutral stance: ‘I have not seen or heard a soul who is not with the North’. Darwin and Gray both unreservedly supported the northern cause. ‘Of all my English correspondents you are the only one . . . whose views and sentiments are perfectly satisfactory to me’, Gray wrote to Darwin on 31 December.

For Darwin, the primary issue was slavery: ‘Great God how I sh d like to see that greatest curse on Earth Slavery abolished’ (letter to Asa Gray, 5 June [1861]):

Some few, & I am one, even wish to God, though at a cost of millions of lives, that the North would proclaim a crusade against Slavery. In the long run, a million horrid deaths would be amply repaid in the cause of humanity.—

At the beginning of November two Confederate envoys bound for Europe boarded a British mail packet, the Trent, at Havana. Shortly after leaving port, the British vessel was intercepted by a United States Navy gunboat, the San Jacinto. Under threat of force the two envoys were removed. The British government demanded an apology from the United States government and issued an ultimatum for the release of the envoys. A very tense diplomatic situation developed and at the close of the year, the two nations stood on the brink of war. Darwin wrote, almost disbelievingly, to Gray on 11 December: ‘What a thing it is, that when you receive this we may be at war’.

Making progress

Despite the volatile political situation, Darwin had good reason by the end of the year to exhibit a sense of contentment, with both his family life and his scientific work. He was actively engaged in preparing his volume on orchids, a dedicated ‘case study’ in natural history founded on the doctrine of descent with modification. He was attracting a number of young and dedicated followers who were convinced by his doctrines and interested in pursuing ‘evolutionary’ studies in their own particular areas of expertise. His old and established friends—Hooker, Gray, Huxley, and Lyell—continued to support his doctrines, publicly as well as privately, showing only slightly more caution than the younger generation. Even religiously motivated opposition to his views was dying down, in large measure owing to the increasing internal turmoil in the Anglican Church over the liberal theological tract Essays and reviews (see Appendix VI). With the growing confidence of a man convinced that he held the key to new advances in all areas of natural history, Darwin strongly urged those ‘on our side’ to broadcast their views and hasten the wider acceptance of the theories set forth in Origin (see letter to P. L. Sclater, 12 [March 1861]).