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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin in letters, 1868: Studying sex


George Howard Darwin
George Howard Darwin
CUL DAR 225: 45
Cambridge University Library


On 6 March 1868, Darwin wrote to the entomologist and accountant John Jenner Weir, ‘If any man wants to gain a good opinion of his fellow man, he ought to do what I am doing pester them with letters.’ Darwin was certainly true to his word. The quantity of his correspondence increased dramatically in 1868; the increase was due largely to his ever-widening research on human evolution and sexual selection.

In Origin, pp. 87–90, Darwin had briefly introduced the concept of sexual selection to explain certain differences between males and females of the same species, such as the brilliant plumage of some male birds and the huge mandibles of male stag beetles. Such characteristics, he suggested, were advantageous in struggles between males for females, or in satisfying female preference in the mating process. In a letter to Alfred Russel Wallace in 1864, Darwin claimed that sexual selection was ‘the most powerful means of changing the races of man’ (Correspondence vol. 12, letter to A. R. Wallace, 28 [May 1864]).

Darwin’s theory of sexual selection as applied to human descent played a part in leading him to investigate aspects of the structure and behaviour of other animals more extensively. To further this programme, he re-established links with specialists who had provided assistance, sometimes decades before. He also made efforts to expand his network of informants, especially among breeders of domestic animals. His contacts, old and new, were often extremely generous, offering observations of considerable length and detail, from the colour sense of bullfinches to the stridulation of crickets.

At the same time, Darwin continued to collect material on emotional expression. Information on crying infants, weeping elephants, and pouting chimpanzees flooded in from leading physiologists, zookeepers, and his immediate circle of friends and relations. In July 1868 Darwin was still anticipating that his book would take the form of a ‘short essay’ on man (letter to Ernst Haeckel, 3 July 1868). But this work would eventually swell to two separate books, Descent of man and Expression of the emotions in man and animals, the former comprising two volumes, nearly two-thirds of which was devoted to sexual selection in the animal kingdom. Darwin described his thirst for information on the subject to the zoologist Albert Günther: ‘a drunkard might as well say, he would drink a little and not too much’ (letter to Albert Günther, 15 May [1868]).

My book is horribly delayed owing to the accursed Index-maker

Considerable correspondence was also generated by the long-awaited publication of Variation in animals and plants under domestication. Having been advertised by the publisher John Murray as early as 1865, the two-volume work appeared in January 1868. A final delay caused by the indexing gave Darwin much vexation. ‘My book is horribly delayed owing to the accursed Index-maker’, Darwin wrote to Joseph Dalton Hooker on 6 January. Darwin had sent the manuscript to the publisher in February 1867, and had spent a good deal of that year reading and correcting proofs.

The index of Variation had been entrusted to William Sweetland Dallas, a naturalist with long experience as a translator of German works, and an editor of the Zoological Record. Dallas had begun the work in November 1867 and had expected to complete it in a fortnight. But at Darwin’s request, he modified his original plan, and included the names of every author mentioned in the text. This increased the amount of work substantially. Darwin asked Murray to intervene, complaining on 9 January, ‘Mr. Dallas’ delay … is intolerable … I am prepared to throw the Index overboard … though it would be a great loss to the Book’. But Darwin’s angry letter to Murray crossed one from Dallas to himself, announcing that the work had been finished, and pleading the case of the beleaguered indexer: ‘I can only hope that now it is finished you <will be> pleased with it & think the delay not wholly thrown away.— I also hope that I may never again let myself in for such another job… . As regards the relation of labour to remuneration I shall look rather blank’ (letter from W. S. Dallas, 8 January 1868). Darwin sympathised, replying on 14 January, ‘I shd have a very bad heart, as hard as stone, if it were not quite mollified by your note’. Darwin enclosed a cheque to Dallas for £55 s., and recommended to Murray that Dallas receive additional payment.

Darwin had entertained many doubts about the success of Variation, because of its great length and the detail of its subject matter. ‘I have been for some time in despair about my book’, he wrote several days after publication, ‘& if I try to read a few pages feel fairly nauseated’ (letter to J. D. Hooker, 3 February [1868]). But such worries were laid to rest when all copies of the book were sold within a month of its release, and Murray made immediate arrangements for a second printing.

Variation: Commentators and critics

By the end of April, Variation had received nearly twenty reviews in newspapers and periodicals in England and North America, and on the continent. Generally favourable accounts appeared in some of London’s leading weeklies such as the Saturday Review, in popular science journals and in publications devoted to rural pursuits, such as Land and Water and Gardeners’ Chronicle. One of the most detailed reviews, published in three parts in the Pall Mall Gazette, was by George Henry Lewes, well-known in London’s literary circles and an author of popular works on natural history. Lewes had serious scientific ambitions, especially in the fields of animal morphology and physiology. Later in the year, he published a more lengthy four-part series of reflections on variation and descent in the Fortnightly Review, and asked Darwin for comments. Darwin was clearly impressed by Lewes’s reviews. On 7 August 1868, he wrote him a lengthy letter from the Isle of Wight on the formation of luminous organs in insects and fish, when he was supposed to be convalescing.

he is a scamp & I begin to think a veritable ass

Despite the many positive notices of the book, it was a highly critical piece claiming that belief in common descent was ‘fast passing away’ that sparked the most discussion. Darwin wrote to Hooker on 23 February, ‘did you look at the Review in the Athenæum, showing profound contempt of me. I feel convinced it is by Owen’. John Edward Gray, a colleague of Richard Owen’s in the British Museum, agreed about the authorship. John Murray thought it was by Gray himself, but Darwin corrected him: ‘Dr Gray would strike me in the face, but not behind my back’ (letter to John Murray, 25 February [1868]). Wallace commiserated: ‘I am sure all Naturalists will be disgusted at that malicious and ignorant article… . It is a disgrace to the paper’ (letter from A. R. Wallace, 24 February [1868]). The review was in fact by John Robertson, a Scottish journalist and former editor of the London and Westminster Review. When Hooker later tried to refute the claims of the review about the demise of descent theory in his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Robertson published a rejoinder, arousing Darwin’s ire still further: ‘he is a scamp & I begin to think a veritable ass’ (letter to J. D. Hooker, 1 September [1868]).

I am bothered with heaps of foolish letters on all sorts of subjects

In writing Variation, Darwin had been careful to acknowledge the contributions of a wide range of experts on different domestic animals and plants, often indicating that the information had come to him through correspondence. The publication of Variation gave rise, in turn, to a great influx of unsolicited letters from persons unknown to Darwin, offering additional facts that they hoped might be of interest. Charles Henry Binstead, a civil engineer in Yorkshire, wrote of the colour of duck claws on 17 April 1868. The letter was addressed to ‘the Revd C. Darwin M.d’; Binstead evidently assumed Darwin to be both a clergyman and a medical doctor, two vocations he had once considered, but never fulfilled. He was sent a news clipping on 6 July from the Maryport Weekly Advertiser headed ‘Freak of Nature’, describing a cross between a goldfinch and a green linnet that had been discovered in a thornbush in Cumberland. An unidentified correspondent offered facts on Clydesdale horses, Chillingham cattle, Leicester sheep, Italian silk worms, and baldness: ‘I think … the baldness of Englishmen is caused by their tight hard brimed hats … there are more balded heads in the House of Commons than any assembly in the world’ (from ?, 6 April 1868). On 21 May, Darwin complained to Hooker, ‘I am bothered with heaps of foolish letters on all sorts of subjects.’ The topic of variation in domestic animals seemed to prompt an outpouring of details and untoward examples even from Darwin’s inner circle of expert naturalists. The Swiss botanist Alphonse de Candolle described on 6 July the inheritance over eight generations of powerful scalp muscles, able to throw off thick dictionaries by flexing. On 5 April, Edward Blyth, who had supplied Darwin with a wealth of information on cats, pigs, cattle, and poultry for Variation, now extended his knowledge to sailors’ toes: ‘I remember being much struck with the appearance of the natural human foot when first I observed it, & I did think of procuring specimens from the dissecting rooms to send in spirit to the Col[onial] Surg[ical] Museum… . I have several times observed in the naked feet of sailors an abnormity in which the great toe exhibits a very strong tendency to be opposed to the other toes’.

An ever-growing network

In some cases the opportunities provided by Variation for expanding Darwin’s network of informers proved very fruitful. On 1 May, Darwin received a letter from George Cupples, who was encouraged to write by Darwin’s ‘frequent references to facts communicated by “breeders”’. Cupples was an expert on Scottish deer-hounds, and he offered his knowledge, remarking that the person whom Darwin quoted in Variation on the breed ‘was no authority whatever’. Darwin’s reply opened the door to a long-running correspondence with the enthusiastic breeder, who apologised in a letter of 11–13 May 1868 for his ‘voluminuous zeal’, and offered repeatedly to select and rear for Darwin a deer-hound puppy, an offer that Darwin accepted several years later.

It was very kind almost heroic, in you to sacrifice your hair and pay 3d in the cause of science

On 27 February, Darwin sent a letter of thanks to the naturalist and customs offcial John Jenner Weir for a paper on apterous Lepidoptera that praised ‘the Darwinian Theory’ for shedding light on the existence of obsolete organs. Darwin had just resumed the systematic collection of materials on sexual selection, and he asked Weir to ‘call to mind any facts bearing on this subject with Birds, insects or any animals’. Weir showed great initiative, visiting birdcatchers in Club Row and Brick Lane in east London, and volunteering to have his hair cut (‘although it was very short already’) by a hairdresser in Tabernacle Row who was a great authority on the ‘London fancy’. Weir received a ‘Newgate cut’ and much information on colour changes in the canary (letters from J. J. Weir, [26] March 1868 and 3 June 1868). ‘It was very kind’, Darwin wrote on 5 June, ‘almost heroic, in you to sacrifice your hair and pay 3d in the cause of science.’ Darwin began to make an index of Weir’s correspondence in April, and by the end of the year he had received twenty-two letters. ‘I daresay’, Darwin wrote on 18 April, ‘you hardly knew yourself how much curious information was lying in yr mind till I began the severe pumping process.’ ‘Heaven have mercy on you’, he later added, ‘for it is clear that I have none’ (letter to J. J. Weir, 30 May [1868]).

Sexual selection

On 11 February, Darwin wrote to the entomologist Henry Walter Bates, ‘I have just found that I much require information on the proportion of males & females throughout, as far as possible, the animal kingdom. Unfortunately I did not see this, or rather I saw it only obs[c]urely, & have kept only a few references.’ Darwin had initially thought that in most animals in which secondary sexual characters were prominent, the males would considerably outnumber the females. Darwin found, however, that precise information on sex ratios was scanty, and he spent much of the first half of 1868 collecting facts on this question, sending out dozens of letters to specialists on different animal groups.

He asked Bates, who was president of the Entomological Society of London, to raise the question at one of the society’s meetings. A lively debate ensued about the differing results obtained from breeding and collecting insects in the wild, and Darwin was soon contacted by several other entomologists who had been present at the society’s meeting. Darwin circulated his query about the proportions of the sexes in Land and Water, the Field, and Gardeners’ Chronicle. Enormous assistance on the topic was provided by the poultry expert and editor of the Field, William Bernhard Tegetmeier, who tabulated results from various other serial publications, such as the Racing Calendar and Coursing Calendar. As on previous occasions, Darwin offered payment to Tegetmeier for his labours, writing on 26 May, ‘I do not at all care about any necessary expense for a scientific purpose.’

females alluring the males . . . victorious males getting wives

One week into his research on sex ratios, Darwin remarked, ‘the whole subject is very intricate, far more so than I anticipated, but I have often found that by patiently collecting facts, or supposed facts, in relation to various classes, a dim ray of light may be gained’ (letter to H. T. Stainton, 21 February [1868]). From the beginning, Darwin had supposed that female choice, as well as contests between males, were the driving forces of sexual selection (see Descent 1: 262). He thus sought observations of ‘females alluring the males’, as well as of ‘victorious males getting wives’ (letter to W. D. Fox, 25 February [1868]).

Yet a number of Darwin’s correspondents were doubtful about the selective powers of females. ‘I do not believe that with Insects there is anything deserving the name of “attachment” or “love”’, wrote the American entomologist Benjamin Dann Walsh on 25 March 1868. Wallace maintained that males got whatever females they could, while females necessarily submitted to the strongest and fastest males. The ‘quieter’ and ‘more retired’ nature of females was remarked upon by other entomologists (letter from Roland Trimen, 20 February 1868, and letter from Robert MacLachlan, 21 February 1868). Regarding mammals, however, views differed. Of deer-hounds, Cupples wrote between 11 and 13 May, ‘much depends on the actions of the female’, and of rats, John Bush observed on 30 March that two members of the ‘lecherous race’ had ‘lived in peace & love’ until ‘in due course young family branches sprung up’.

Darwin gathered much information on the role of colour, sound, and smell in attracting females. J. J. Weir reported on 14 April 1868 that a bullfinch had piped a German waltz and was much admired for it by other birds. Fritz Müller sent information on the auditory organs of Orthoptera and Coleoptera on 9 September. Darwin annotated a letter sent on 3 April by Henry Doubleday that contained a deathwatch beetle: ‘I held a tapping conversation with my friend’. A great beetle collector in his student days, Darwin encouraged his son Francis, now an undergraduate at Cambridge, in this regard: ‘I told Frank … that next spring he must collect at Cambridge lots of Cerambyx moschatus for as sure as life he wd find the odour sexual!’ (letter to A . R. Wallace, 16 September [1868]). Francis sought additional advice from the entomologist and librarian at Cambridge, George Robert Crotch, writing to his mother Emma in a letter dated [after 16 October 1868]: ‘I had a long work with Crotch to day at stridulation, & we are going to send a box of preparations to papa … I will write a less beetley letter soon.’

Other relations offered assistance. Edmund Langton wrote from the south of France to Sarah Elizabeth Wedgwood on 9 November, describing sphinx moths that were attracted to flowers painted on walls. Darwin suggested several experiments to test the colour sense of birds. On 17 March, he encouraged Tegetmeier to paint a pigeon magenta. To Weir, he wrote on 27 February: ‘It wd be a fine trial to cut off the eyes of the tail-feathers of male-peacocks, but who wd sacrifice the beauty of their bird for which reason to please a mere naturalist!’ Weir’s brother, Harrison, later recounted his experience as a poultry judge at Birmingham, where he had disqualified an almond tumbler whose owner had dyed it; he added, however, that a male pigeon present had taken no particular interest in the dyed hen (letter from Harrison Weir, 28 March 1868). Writing on the same day, Edward Hewitt reported that female gamecocks chose ‘the most salacious and vigourous male’ irrespective of colour.

Sexual selection v. natural selection: the debate with Wallace

Darwin’s views on the role of sexual selection in producing marked differences in colour between males and females of certain species were strongly challenged by Wallace, who had recently argued for the protective role of colour in birds, suggesting that females had been made less conspicuous through the operation of natural selection. Darwin resumed the debate with Wallace that he had begun the previous year, writing to Hooker on 21 May, ‘I always distrust myself when I differ from him’. Wallace kept trying to reach agreement on various points. Darwin seemed convinced that they were bound to differ, but remained uncomfortable. On 16 September, he wrote, ‘you will be pleased to hear that I am undergoing severe distress about the protection & sexual selection: this morning I oscillated with joy towards you: this evening I have swung back to old position’.

Wallace persisted, producing a fifteen-point argument in his favour on 18 September. Darwin, possibly alluding to the great expansion of his manuscript on sexual selection, replied on 23 September, ‘to answer … would require at least 200 folio pages!’ Wallace was sorry that their differences had caused anxiety: ‘Pray do not let it be so. The truth will come out at last … this question is only an episode (though an important one) in the great question of the “Origin of Species”’ (letter from A. R. Wallace, 4 October 1868).

Heaven protect my stomach whenever I attempt following your argument

Disagreements between Darwin and Wallace about the power and limits of natural selection were further underscored in a lengthy exchange about hybrid sterility. Darwin’s view had shifted since the early 1860s, and his extensive botanical research had led him to consider sterility in the offspring of hybrids to be an outcome of complex factors, not the direct result of natural selection (Variation 2: 185–9). Wallace seized upon this point in a series of lengthy letters. His reasoning took a mathematical form that Darwin found painful to read. ‘Heaven protect my stomach’ he remarked on 27 March, ‘whenever I attempt following your argument.’

Darwin passed Wallace’s pages over to his son George, now a Cambridge-trained mathematician, who detected some flaws in logic. But Wallace only redoubled his efforts, so that Darwin felt as though his stomach was firmly in a vice. ‘Life is too short for so long a discussion’, he wrote on 6 April. Yet Wallace continued to press him, concerned that Darwin’s views on hybrid sterility would ‘become a formidable weapon in the hands of the enemies of Nat. Selection’ (letter from A. R. Wallace, 8 [April] 1868).

Researching emotion

Darwin’s other major subject of research in 1868 was emotional expression. His questionnaire, first sent out in 1867, was circulated to remote parts of the world. A correspondent of Hooker’s distributed it in Japan (letter from J. D. Hooker, 5 September 1868); Edward Wilson, a neighbour of Darwin’s, used his contacts to supply copies to Aboriginal mission stations in Victoria, Australia (letter from R. B. Smyth, 13 August 1868); lengthy replies were received from India, Malaysia, and Africa, revealing much about British sentiments for indigenous peoples, and suggesting the diffculty of observing emotions in a colonial setting. ‘I have got quite into the habit of observing the expression of natives faces as I meet them,’ wrote George Henry Kendrick Thwaites on 1 April from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), ‘& really there is usually very little expression at all even when they are talking together, but there is sometimes slyness & sometimes vindictiveness very evidently indicated’. The British envoy in China, Robert Swinhoe, remarked on 4 August that Darwin’s queries had ‘bothered [him] immensely’: ‘the Chinese face has the skin tightly drawn over it and is not nearly so capable of expression as the skin of European faces; and … it is a part of the Le or “rules of courtesy” studied by all Chinese … to hide emotions.’

Darwin also sought information on expression in animals. He was interested in whether tears were secreted automatically following violent, non-volitional contraction of the eye muscles. He asked the zoo-keeper at Regent’s Park to observe whether elephants wept when trumpeting, and had himself watched elephants cry (letters to W. E. Darwin, [15 March 1868] and 8 April [1868]). Such facts proved diffcult to gather in the wild; as one of his correspondents in Ceylon reported, trumpeting usually signalled that elephants were about to charge, and observers then fled the scene.

Darwin also tried to determine the age at which tears began to flow down the cheeks in humans, and received a number of reports from family members. Emma Darwin’s niece, Cicely Mary Hawkshaw, remarked on the weeping of her two-month old daughter Katherine (letter from C. M. Hawkshaw to Emma Darwin, 9 February [1868]). Darwin’s eldest son, William, met on occasion with a Southampton surgeon, Charles Langstaff, who observed screaming in patients undergoing vaccination (letter from W. E. Darwin, [7 April 1868]). Francis was also drafted into the programme, playing the role of the screamer while his father observed his engorged neck veins, and the action of his platysma muscle (letter from W. E. Darwin, [15 April 1868]). The flow of blood through the neck and head during violent acts of expiration, such as screaming, was later described by Darwin in Expression, p. 158.

Botanical interludes

Though not a major focus of research in 1868, botany remained a continuing source of interest for Darwin. He completed two papers in January, ‘Specific difference in Primula’ and ‘Illegitimate offspring of dimorphic and trimorphic plants’. They were read before the Linnean Society of London on 19 March. In a letter to Hooker on 21 May, he enthused over an experiment showing self-sterility in Reseda odorata, work he would later report in Cross and self fertilisation, pp. 119–20. He also enlisted Hooker to identify grasses that had grown from seeds embedded in locust dung sent from Africa the previous year by James Philip Mansel Weale (letter to J. D. Hooker, [20 May 1868]).

Botanical subjects were a favourite topic in his correspondence with Fritz Müller, who was one of the few naturalists engaged in similar experimental work on pollination mechanisms and the comparative fertility of different flower forms. Müller offered observations of orchids, bright seeds, Chinese cabbage, and trimorphism in Oxalis (letters from Fritz Müller, 22 April 1868, 17 June 1868, 9 September 1868, and 31 October 1868). ‘Heaven knows’, Darwin wrote, ‘whether I shall ever live to make use of half the valuable facts which you have communicated to me’ (letter to Fritz Müller, 3 June 1868).

it is a fatal fault to reason whilst observing, though so necessary before hand, & so useful afterwards

Darwin began a long correspondence on orchids with Thomas Henry Farrer, permanent secretary to the Board of Trade, and a distant relation. Farrer had been keenly interested in Darwin’s work on pollination in orchids and offered a correction of one of Darwin’s descriptions of the caudicle of Ophrys muscifera (letters from T. H. Farrer, 17 May 1868 and 18 May 1868). ‘I suppose I reasoned from the shape of the caudicle’, Darwin replied on 19 May, ‘& it is a fatal fault to reason whilst observing, though so necessary before hand, & so useful afterwards.’ Farrer went on to repeat some of Darwin’s experiments, using a quill to apply pollen through the narrow opening in the nectary of Habenaria viridis and other species. On 15 September, Darwin suggested that Farrer communicate some of his results to a scientific journal, adding: ‘what a capital observer you are—a first rate naturalist has been sacrificed or partly sacrificed to Public life.’ Farrer replied: ‘You don’t know how kind I think your note. This encouragement given to what is of real interest to oneself … is no slight gain’ (letter from T. H. Farrer, 17 September 1868). Darwin continued to provide botanical advice, and supported Farrer’s candidacy for fellowship of the Linnean Society (letter from George Bentham, [after 29 September 1868]).

Variation: the reaction in Europe

Variation had been immediately translated into German, French, and Russian, and its publication abroad prompted considerable correspondence from continental naturalists, showing that the reception of Darwin’s work in Europe was a complex affair, not reducible to acceptance or rejection of his transmutation theory. Ernest Faivre, professor and curator of the botanical garden at Lyon, had written critically of Darwin’s theory of descent, but nonetheless was much gratified to receive a presentation copy of Variation and a letter from Darwin: ‘It was an Encouragement for me’ … ‘We may differ in our opinions, dear Sir, but we do not differ at all in our sincere desire to penetrate Truth’ (letter from Ernest Faivre, 7 April 1868). Armand de Quatrefages, who had also criticised Darwin’s theory in print, wrote on 4 March, ‘you force public attention to bear on the natural sciences and they can only gain from this.’

what an impetus you have given to the minds of France! 

Other French naturalists were less reserved in their praise. Camille Dareste, who was investigating the boundaries of species through the study of monstrosities, remarked on 3 April, ‘your works are destined to renew the natural sciences entirely.’ Gaston de Saporta similarly hoped that his own work on fossil plants would contribute ‘to the advancement of [Darwin's] doctrine’: ‘what an impetus you have given to the minds of France! … All friends of scientific truth must rally around the flag that you have raised and regard you as their leader’ (letter from Gaston de Saporta, 6 September 1868).

The support which I receive from Germany is my chief ground for hoping that our views will ultimately prevail

Support for Darwin in Germany was equally enthusiastic. Friedrich Hildebrand sent his praise for Variation on 2 January, and reported on experiments with potatoes, maize, and apples that lent support to Darwin’s theory of pangenesis. Darwin quickly inserted this information in the second printing of the book in February. Hermann Müller remarked in a letter dated [after 23 February 1868] that two of his correspondents, the lepidopterist Adolf Speyer and the plant geographer August Röse were ‘ardent followers of [Darwin's] theories’. The botanists Ludwig Molendo and Alexander Walther addressed themselves on 5 August to ‘the Reformator of Natural Philosophy’, and enclosed an essay applying Darwin’s theory of natural selection to the study of mosses. The zoologist Oskar Schmidt declared on 22 June that he had been ‘scientifically reborn’ through Darwin’s writings. August Weismann sent Darwin a copy of his inaugural lecture at the University of Frieburg on the justification of Darwinian theory (Weismann 1868; letter to August Weismann, 22 October 1868). To the physiologist William Preyer Darwin wrote on 31 March, ‘The support which I receive from Germany is my chief ground for hoping that our views will ultimately prevail.’

a sublime monument to human intelligence

Perhaps the most glowing acclaim, however, was from the Italian pathologist, Paolo Mantegazza, who described Variation on 19 March as ‘a sublime monument to human intelligence’. He sent Darwin his paper on cross-species organ grafting in animals, adding ‘at least as a shade I want to enter the sanctuary in which you are reforming science, where you are opening up unlimited horizons for meditation and for the philosophy of the future.’

Further afield, Edward Wilson remarked on 14 October that his cousin Dyson Lacy was avidly reading Variation in Queensland, Australia: ‘Let your labours be cheered therefore with the reflection that your teaching soon reaches, & influences, even distant Aramac.’ And from southern Africa, Darwin received from Hooker an account by Mary Elizabeth Barber of local variations in the stone grasshopper that was supportive of Darwin’s views on modification through adaptation to local conditions (letter from J. D. Hooker, [23 December 1868]). Barber’s paper was read before the Linnean Society on 4 February 1869, but remained unpublished until it appeared as an appendix to volume 16 of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin.

Religion in theory . . . 

Variation also brought a renewal of discussion on the compatibility of Darwin’s theory of descent with belief in God and natural theology. In the concluding paragraphs of Variation, Darwin had remarked that the theology favoured by some of his supporters, notably Asa Gray, seemed to render natural selection superfluous. Gray had maintained in his first reviews of Origin that Darwin’s theory was not inconsistent with natural theology, and that variations might be guided along beneficial lines by God. Of Darwin’s discussion in Variation, Gray wrote on 25 May: ‘I found your … argument unanswerable in substance (for the notion of design must after all rest mostly on faith, and on accumulation of adaptations, &c) … Of course I understand your argument perfectly, & feel the weight of it.’

Some thought Gray’s position still a strong one. An Edinburgh newspaper maintained that Gray could show natural selection to be simply ‘an instrument in the hands of an omnipotent and omniscient Creator’ (letter to Asa Gray, 8 May [1868]). Others were concerned that Darwin’s soul might have been corrupted. Joseph Plimsoll, who had sent four letters the previous year, wrote again on 5 October, ‘I am quite distressed that you have not written me to say, —that you have cordially embraced the offers of salvation so freely made in the gospel of God’s dear Son … Are you not anxious to escape so deplorable a fate as that of consignment to the regions of everlasting woe?’

I am not sure whether it wd not be wisest for scientific men quite to ignore the whole subject of religion

Following his British Association address vindicating Darwinian theory against its recent critics, Hooker also found himself decried as one who had ‘spent his life … in combating the idea of “Creation”’, and whose appointment as the association’s president reflected a ‘deep-seated enmity to Revealed Religion’ (letter to J. D. Hooker, 1 September [1868], n. 11). ‘I am not sure’, Darwin reflected in a letter dated [8–10 September 1868], ‘whether it wd not be wisest for scientific men quite to ignore the whole subject of religion.’

Yet Darwin continued to receive support and assistance from correspondents who either declined to accept his theory of descent, or who accomodated it with some form of theology. The entomologist Robert McLachlan, who supplied Darwin with much information on sexual selection, commented on 21 February 1868: ‘You are aware that I do not follow you to the full extent, yet I believe that you have accounted for many of the hitherto inexplicable phenomena of nature, & that instead of lessening our respect for the Great First Cause, you have given reason for increased admiration of the laws whereby the whole System is sustained.’ The former Down clergyman, John Brodie Innes, passed easily over Darwin’s concluding paragraphs in Variation on 31 August: ‘The Theological diffculty of the predestination of variations had never occurred to me; nor do I think it is really any diffculty. We know we do as we please with what we have, and certain results follow . . . We know there must be a First Cause … and it has never been a diffculty with me to understand that my powers of thought are totally unfit to understand what is so far above me’.

. . . and in practice

Darwin was in correspondence with Innes at intervals throughout the year over more practical religious affairs. Beginning the previous year, the Down villagers had experienced troubles securing the services of a reliable clergyman. Though resident in Scotland, Innes still held the offce of vicar and was responsible for the appointment of the local curate. On 15 June, Darwin complained of the prolonged absence of the present curate, Samuel James O’Hara Horsman, and reported that, owing to diffculties in accessing church funds under Horsman’s care, he had had to advance the salary of the schoolmaster. Darwin also acted as intermediary for Horsman, who excused his long absence as due to his needing a ‘change of air’ and being invited by some friends, ‘who kindly took me about in their yacht & otherwise made it pleasant to me.’ In addition, ‘the wretched & miserable lodgings at Downe’ and all kinds of ‘wicked reports & misrepresentations’ induced him to stay away (letter from S. J. O’H. Horsman, 2 June [1868]).

But if Horsman had turned out to be a ‘complete & premeditated swindler’ (letter to J. B. Innes, 1 December 1868), his replacement, John Warburton Robinson, proved no better. He immediately absented himself for three months, and then was rumoured to have walked with village girls at night (letter to J. B. Innes, 10 December [1868]). ‘The Church will be lowered in the estimation of the whole neighbourhood’, Darwin warned (letter to J. B. Innes, 1 December 1868). Innes tried to discharge his duties as patron upon the archbishop, and was very grateful for Darwin’s efforts on behalf of the church, the school, and local charities: ‘I do not forget that you have taken, and are taking, a great deal of trouble as a labour of love, having no responsibility but the desire to do good, and help an old friend out of a most distressing dilemma’ (letter from J. B. Innes, 14 December 1868).

A proud father

If village affairs brought worry and distress, Darwin’s family was a great source of consolation and joy. Satisfaction in one’s children, Darwin wrote to John Price on 26 November, was ‘the Chief thing left to us now in life’. In January, the family learned the news that George’s performance on the mathematical tripos at Cambridge had earned him the rank of second wrangler. Success in the mathematics examination had long been one of the most prestigious achievements in the University. ‘I am so pleased’, Darwin wrote to his son on 24 January, ‘I always said from your early days that such energy, perseverance & talent as yours, would be sure to succeed; but I never expected such brilliant success as this. Again & again I congratulate you. But you have made my hand tremble so I can hardly write.’

He is living proof of your beautiful theory of descent with modification

The examination list was published in The Times and other national papers, and within a few days Darwin and Emma were receiving letters of congratulation from family, friends, and colleagues. For the zoologist Alfred Newton, the achievement of the son reflected the merits of the father in Darwinian terms: ‘He is living proof of your beautiful theory of descent with modification’ (letter from Alfred Newton, 29 January 1868).

Leonard also excelled in highly competitive exams in 1868. In January, he was placed high on the list for Sandhurst, and in July he was second in the entrance examination for the Royal military academy at Woolwich. ‘I shall burst with pleasure at Leonards success’, Darwin wrote to his youngest son, Horace, on 26 July, ‘is it not splendid?’

A different order of pride was expressed on 9 November by Ernst Haeckel on the birth of his son Walter: ‘For the moment he really reminds me of our “quadrumane” ancestors of the tertiary period with the atavistic movements that he makes gripping with the big toe . . . I have high hopes of making him into a really competent naturalist and of course a real “Darwinist”’. ‘I know well the look of a baby’s “hind legs”’, Darwin replied on 19 November, ‘but I shd think you were the first father who had ever triumphed in their retaining a resemblance to those of a monkey’.

Worshippers at the 'shrine of Dr Darwin'

Haeckel continued to promote Darwinism after a fashion in Germany, producing a popular edition of his lectures, and naming a supposed hybrid from the male hare and female rabbit Lepus Darwinii in honour of his hero (letter from Ernst Haeckel, 22 June 1868).

Darwin’s star was clearly in the ascendant. His great public defender in England, Thomas Henry Huxley, remarked on 12 September on ‘the terrible “Darwinismus”’ that had crept over the British Association meeting, with Darwinian theory appearing even in a lecture on Buddhist temples: ‘You will have the rare happiness to see your ideas triumphant during your life time— I am preparing to go into opposition— I can’t stand it’. Diplomas and honorary memberships continued to be bestowed on him, including the order of merit of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences and Arts, which Hooker considered ‘the only scientific distinction of the kind … worth a fig’ (letter from J. D. Hooker, 16 June 1868). Requests for autographs and visits grew more persistent. ‘I have long been a great admirer of your genius’, wrote Frederick Behrens on 3 December, ‘I presume you are much plagued by applications for your autograph … but grant my request.’

Huxley drew an amusing sketch of a German naturalist, Wilhelm Kühne, who wished to pay ‘his devotions at the shrine of Dr. Darwin’ (letter from T. H. Huxley, 20 July 1868). Darwin received a resumé of publications by a chemist at Iowa State University, proving ‘that all elements are formed from one substance, Pantogen’, and likening his work to Darwin’s because it had been assailed furiously and even ‘preached against’ (letter from G. D. Hinrichs, [before 13 August 1868]). Finally, Darwin was induced to pose for the sculptor Thomas Woolner, who had made likenesses of clergymen, statesmen, poets, and men of science, including Adam Sedgwick, John Stevens Henslow, and William Jackson Hooker. ‘I … am undergoing the purgatory of sitting for hours to Woolner, who, however, is wonderfully pleasant & lightens, as much as man can, the penance.— As far as I can judge he will make a fine Bust, & I tell my wife she will be proud of her old husband’ (letter to J. D. Hooker, 26 November [1868]).

Holiday snaps with a difference: Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron

(Image: Charles Darwin, 1868, Julia Margaret Cameron, Dar 225:139, ©Cambridge University Library)

Image: Charles Darwin, 1868, Julia Margaret Cameron, Dar 225:139, ©Cambridge University LibraryDarwin was in good spirits for most of the year, but suffered one bout of poor health, complaining to Charles Lyell on 14 July: ‘the last 3 weeks I have been good for nothing & have had to stop almost all work’. Hoping to improve his weakened state, he went on 17 July with his family to the Isle of Wight for about five weeks. Staying in a house owned by the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, Darwin complained at first of the cramped quarters and the general dullness of a forced holiday from his scientific work. But he came to enjoy the situation, and a number of other family members and friends came to visit. On leaving their host, his usually phlegmatic brother Erasmus exclaimed, ‘Mrs Cameron there are six people in this house all in love with you’ (letter to J. D. Hooker, 23 August [1868]).

merely a modified, hardly an improved, Gorilla

Darwin remarked that the outing had done nothing for his health (letter to Asa Gray, 15 August [1868]), but it did result in several striking portraits of himself, other members of the family, and Hooker. Darwin was very fond of Cameron’s photographs, writing on one, ‘I like this … very much better than any other which has been taken of me’ (Down House collection, English Heritage 88204438). They were evidently a decided improvement on the previous lot, which according to Darwin himself, showed him as ‘merely a modified, hardly an improved, Gorilla’ (to Roland Trimen, 14 April [1868]). 

Darwin was also taken by Cameron’s portrait of Hooker. He hung it on the chimney piece in his study, where it remains today, a reminder of the role his friend often played in their scientific correspondence. As he wrote to Hooker on Christmas Day, ‘you look down so sharp on me that I shall never be bold enough to wriggle myself out of any contradiction’ (letter to J. D. Hooker 25 December [1868]). The following morning, Darwin began revising Origin of species for the fifth edition, finding strength in Hooker’s letters: ‘you have given me heart and I will fight my battle better than I shd otherwise have done’ (letter to J. D. Hooker, 29 December 1868).

Further information: 

See also the article on Darwin's photographic portraits.

About this article

Based on the introduction to The correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16: 1868

Parts 1 and 2: Edited by Frederick Burkhardt, James A. Secord, Sheila Ann Dean, Samantha Evans, Shelley Innes, Alison M. Pearn, Paul White. (Cambridge University Press 2008)

Order this volume online from Cambridge University Press