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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin in letters, 1879: Tracing roots


Charles Robert Darwin (1879) by William Blake Richmond
Charles Robert Darwin (1879) by William Blake Richmond
By permission of the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge
There are summaries of all Darwin's letters from the year 1879 on this website.  The full texts of the letters are not yet available online but are in volume 27 of the print edition of The correspondence of Charles Darwin, published by Cambridge University Press.

Darwin spent a considerable part of 1879 in the eighteenth century. His journey back in time started when he decided to publish a biographical account of his grandfather Erasmus Darwin to accompany a translation of an essay on Erasmus’s evolutionary ideas by the German science writer Ernst Krause. Darwin’s preoccupation with his own roots ran alongside a botanical interest in roots, as he and his son Francis carried out their latest experiments on plant movement for the book they intended to publish on the subject. They concentrated on radicles—the embryonic roots of seedlings—and determined that the impetus for movement derived from the sensitivity of the tips. Despite this breakthrough, when Darwin first mentioned the book to his publishers, he warned that it was ‘dry as dust’ (letter to R. F. Cooke, 9 September 1879). He was also unsatisfied with his account of Erasmus Darwin, declaring, ‘My little biography has turned out, alas, very dull & has disappointed me much’ (letter to Francis Galton, 15 [June 1879]). Even the prospect of a holiday in the Lake District in August did little to raise Darwin’s spirits. ‘I wish that my holiday were over & that I was safe at home again’, he fretted, just days before his departure (letter to W. T. Thiselton-Dyer, [after 26] July [1879]). From July, Darwin had an additional worry: the engagement of his son Horace to Ida Farrer, stepdaughter of Darwin’s niece Katherine Euphemia Farrer (Effie), was opposed by Ida’s father. Above all, Darwin, despite his many blessings, was finding old age ‘a dismal time’ (letter to Henry Johnson, 24 September 1879). He may have been consoled to learn that his grandfather had felt the same way. In 1792, Erasmus Darwin had written: ‘The worst thing I find now is this d—n’d old age, which creeps slily upon one, like moss upon a tree, and wrinkles one all over like a baked pear’ (enclosure in letter from R. W. Dixon, 20 December 1879). The year ended with the start of one of the coldest winters on record. ‘What has become of the Gulph Stream?’ Anthony Rich inquired on 28 December, ‘Has it lost itself, or gone some other way round?’ At least the last letter of 1879 contained a warmer note and the promise of future happiness: Darwin learned he was to be visited by a person from his solicitor’s office to complete Horace’s marriage settlement (letter from W. M. Hacon, 31 December 1879).

Seventy years old

Darwin’s seventieth birthday on 12 February was a cause for international celebration. A telegram sent on the day from the Naples Zoological Station conveyed ‘warmest congratulations to the veteran of Modern Zoology’, but it was in Germany that Darwin was most fêted. A German bookkeeper and his wife sent birthday greetings and a photograph of their 2-year-old son named Darwin, who, they reported, had five instead of four ‘cutting-teeth’ in his upper ‘chaw’ but they were ‘as nice and good as could be’ (letter from Karl Beger, [c. 12 February 1879]). The masters of Greiz College in Thuringia venerated Darwin as ‘the deep thinker’, while friends such as Ernst Haeckel, who had rebutted the physician Rudolf Virchow’s attempt to discredit evolutionary theory in 1877, assured him that his views were now widely accepted in Germany. ‘On this festive day’, Haeckel told Darwin, ‘you can look back, with justified pride and with the greatest satisfaction, on your life’s work, which is crowned with glory’ (letter from Ernst Haeckel, 9 February 1879). The botanist and schoolteacher Hermann Müller wrote on 12 February to wish Darwin a ‘long and serene evening of life’. This letter crossed with one from Darwin, written on the same day, in which he expressed his distress at hearing that Müller had been treated shamefully by the German government. In order to attack the liberal minister of education, the Catholic political party in the German house of representatives had accused Müller of corrupting his students by reading them an extract from a materialist work by Carus Sterne containing the statement ‘In the beginning was carbon’ (letter from Hermann Müller, 14 February 1879).

Carus Sterne was the pseudonym of Ernst Krause, editor of the journal Kosmos, which had been founded in 1877 by Krause and others as a journal for presenting a uniform view of nature based on the theory of development in connection with Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel. Kosmos was, as Francis Darwin reported from Germany that summer, widely regarded as the ‘organ of “uncultivated materialism”’ (letter from Francis Darwin, [after 2 June 1879]). As one of Darwin’s most ardent admirers, Krause not only sent birthday greetings but also produced an issue of Kosmos honouring Darwin. Among the essays was Krause’s own tribute in the form of an account of the evolutionary work of Darwin’s paternal grandfather, the philosopher and poet Erasmus Darwin.

Grandfather Erasmus

This essay on Erasmus Darwin grabbed Darwin’s attention and provided a welcome break from his work on movement in plants. Darwin clearly felt that his botanical project had become unwieldy. ‘I am overwhelmed with my notes & almost too old to undertake the job which I have in Hand—ie movements of all kinds’, he confessed to Thiselton-Dyer on 21 February, adding that the only thing worse was idleness. By early March, with encouragement from his brother, Erasmus Alvey Darwin, Darwin decided to publish an English translation of Krause’s essay as a short book. Delighted by Darwin’s proposal, Krause asked whether he could augment his essay, since the original had been written rapidly and without his having access to all the sources relating to Erasmus Darwin’s life. Darwin, too, had started to consider adding a prologue, while his brother Erasmus proposed that George Darwin, Darwin’s son and a keen genealogist, should add a note ‘just to give the children correctly’, mentioning in particular that Francis Galton was the son of one of Erasmus Darwin’s daughters. ‘It piles up the glory & would please Francis’, he pointed out (letter from E. A. Darwin, 13 March [1879]). Meanwhile, Darwin began searching for a copy of Anna Seward’s 1804 Memoirs of the life of Dr. Darwin to send to Krause, warning him that Robert Waring Darwin, Darwin’s father, had stated ‘that this life was not only grossly incorrect, but maliciously false’; Darwin also promised to look for other materials relating to Erasmus Darwin, confessing, ‘I am myself wholly & shamefully ignorant of my grandfathers life’ (letter to Ernst Krause, 14 March 1879).

While searching for Seward’s memoir for Krause, Darwin reread a library copy and decided to refute the ‘wretched production’ in a short preface to the translation, with a few particulars about the family and Robert Waring Darwin’s remarks about Erasmus Darwin. ‘I do not think you could work up these scanty materials in your account,’ he told Krause on 19 March, ‘because I must give them on my own authority.’ Darwin was also keen to contradict false statements that had been published by Francis Galton’s aunt, Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck. Erasmus had died in 1802, seven years before Darwin’s birth, so his presence in his grandson’s life consisted of his published works as well as a few anecdotes that Darwin’s father used to recount. Despite the unflattering accounts of Erasmus’s character that were published after his death, his botanic poems had remained in vogue during Darwin’s early years. So much so, that when Darwin was suggested as a companion for Captain Robert FitzRoy on the Beagle voyage, Francis Beaufort of the Admiralty described the unknown young man as ‘A Mr Darwin grandson of the well known philosopher and poet’ (Correspondence vol. 1, letter from Francis Beaufort to Robert FitzRoy, 1 September [1831]). By the time Darwin came to investigate his grandfather’s life in 1879, however, not only was Erasmus Darwin a largely forgotten figure, but he was also unknown in person to any of his living descendants, other than Darwin’s sister Caroline (who was around 2 years old at the time of Erasmus’s death). Darwin had to rely on remembered stories passed down different branches of the family to ascertain the events of Erasmus’s life that best revealed his character. This work therefore led Darwin to establish or renew contact with his relatives as well as explore the genealogy of the Darwin family.

Darwin’s wish to illustrate Erasmus Darwin’s character using materials known only within his family often required a flurry of letters to relatives to untangle different versions of the same events. His cousin Violetta Darwin apologised for being of little help in this respect for she was according to herself a ‘poor rememberer of stories’, but made up for her lack by pointing out that her cousin Emma Nixon had ‘the enviable talent of recollecting these things with the when & the where, & the who—’ (letter from V. H. Darwin, 28 May [1879]). On the Galton side of the family, Elizabeth Anne Wheler, who was pleased that Darwin intended to ‘undo Miss Seward & Mrs. Schimmelpenigs untrue remarks’, sent passed-down family anecdotes and memories about Erasmus Darwin, whom her paternal grandparents thought ‘perfect in every way’ (letter from E. A. Wheler, 25 March 1879). She suggested that Darwin contact their cousin Reginald Darwin for materials relating to Erasmus Darwin. Reginald and Darwin had not met (nor, it seems, corresponded) since 1839, but because Darwin’s name was so ‘completely before the world’, Reginald heard of him ‘constantly, & always with pride’ (letter from Reginald Darwin, 29 March 1879).

It was from Reginald that Darwin received the first significant document relating to their grandfather: his commonplace book. Here, Erasmus Darwin had recorded his technological designs, his medical musings, and his views on topics such as atheism and prosperity. ‘I have been deeply interested by the great book which you have so kindly lent me’, Darwin wrote enthusiastically to Reginald Darwin on 4 April, declaring that reading it was like ‘having communication with the dead’. The second important collection of manuscripts obtained by Darwin turned out to have been in his possession all along. ‘I have made a strange discovery;’ he told Reginald Darwin on 8 April, ‘for an old box from my father marked ‘Old Deeds,’ and which consequently I had never opened, I found full of letters—hundreds from Dr. Erasmus’. This cache added to Darwin’s admiration of his grandfather: ‘The more I read of Dr. D. the higher he rises in my estimation.’

As his research deepened, Darwin became increasingly worried that his preface and Krause’s revised essay might end up ‘interfering with each other’ (letter to Ernst Krause, 27 March 1879). Darwin’s aim was ‘to give some sort of picture of what the man was’, he told Krause on 2 April. Nonetheless, the first part of Krause’s revised essay, which arrived in early May, consisted almost entirely of a biographical account. The extent to which Krause had exceeded his brief was not fully apparent until June, when Darwin read the English translation of this section with dismay. If both accounts were published there would be ‘two distinct biographies of the same man in one volume’, Darwin pointed out to Krause on 5 June, adding that although Krause’s biography ‘was much the best’, he was ‘almost bound to publish’ his own account, because so many of his relations had taken the trouble to help him. Krause immediately suggested that his biographical account be omitted and Darwin’s published. He proposed instead to discuss the development of the idea of evolution prior to Erasmus Darwin, pointing out that Samuel Butler’s recent book, Evolution, old and new, which he thought ‘an immeasurably superficial and inaccurate piece of work,’ made such an introduction ‘almost indispensable’ (letter from Ernst Krause, 7 June 1879). Darwin welcomed Krause’s suggestion, but warned him on 9 June not to ‘expend much powder & shot on Mr Butler’, for he really was not worth it; his work was ‘merely ephemeral’. Darwin (no doubt recalling Butler’s attack on evolution and particularly the theory of natural selection in 1877) had previously told Krause, ‘He is a very clever man, knows nothing about science & turns everything into ridicule. He hates scientific men’ (letter to Ernst Krause, 14 May 1879).

From the start of his research on Erasmus Darwin, Darwin had been adamant that he would be guided by the ‘one golden rule for Biographers’, that is, not to insert anything that would interest only members of the family; what was published must be ‘in some degree interesting to the public’ (letter to Reginald Darwin, 10 April [1879]). However, even members of Darwin’s own family found his first draft lacked interest. Henrietta Litchfield thought it ‘very dull,—almost too dull to publish’, while Leonard Darwin considered that insufficient attention had been paid to arrangement, and that Henrietta should be given the task of cutting up the text and rearranging it—a job, he was sure, she could do ‘very tastefully and well, and with little fatigue’ (letter to G. H. Darwin, 12 July 1879, and letter from Leonard Darwin, [before 12 July] 1879). Emma Darwin also thought the text needed cutting, but Erasmus Alvey Darwin liked it, leaving Darwin ‘more perplexed than ever about life of Dr. D’ (letter to Francis Darwin, 12 July [1879]). It was little consolation that George Darwin wrote on 13 July to say that he disagreed with Henrietta, or that Krause had written on 10 July to say that he had derived great pleasure from Darwin’s account and hoped that nothing would be cut. By this point, Darwin had already decided that writing the biography was ‘abominable work’: he did not know what to believe or what was worth telling, and he regretted going beyond his ‘tether’ (letter to W. T. Thiselton-Dyer, 5 June 1879, and letter to G. H. Darwin, 12 July 1879). Darwin’s final task was to bring Krause into line. With his own biographical notice ‘greatly condensed & altered in arrangement’, Darwin apologetically but firmly told Krause on 13 August that a large part of his article would have to be omitted, issuing, in the politest terms, the ultimatum that he would ‘give up publishing’ if Krause objected.

Although Darwin had worked on his grandfather’s biography at times when he was unable to carry out botanical research (first during his stay in Southampton with Sara and William Darwin in May and then while on holiday in the Lake District in August), he vowed never again to be tempted out of his ‘proper work’ (letter to James Paget, 14 July 1879). At this time, his proper work was the botanical study of movement in plants. Over the previous two years, he and his son Francis had worked together on the experimental investigation of the causes and effects of this movement, and they intended to publish their results as a book. By June 1879, Darwin was completing an ‘excessively difficult’ chapter on plants that slept (especially those in families whose leaves closed at night), and continuing research into the sensitivity of the tips of radicles, the embryonic roots of seedlings (letter to Francis Darwin, 16 June [1879]).

Francis in Würzburg

As he had done in 1878, Francis Darwin spent the summer of 1879 working in Julius Sachs’s state-of-the-art physiological botany laboratory in Würzburg, also intending to continue experiments on the sensitivity of radicles. Francis experienced obstacles from the start, as he reported in a letter of 29 May. Sachs had changed his views on heliotropism to such an extent that he implied that Francis’s experiments were ‘hardly worth doing’; he also disputed that the potash that appeared in drops of water left on leaves was a secretion, arguing instead that it came from a specific gland in the leaf. This struck Francis as ‘bosh’, but, he complained to Darwin: ‘I don’t know how to disprove it.’ Francis was increasingly intolerant of Sachs’s autocratic manner towards other botanists in the laboratory and also grumbled about having to sit through a long dinner at which ‘no one could get up and go because Sachs didn’t.’ Moreover, Sachs admired Francis’s little spectroscope so much that Francis had to order one for him. Even the laboratory was a cause of irritation. Francis found that he was unable to trace the nutation of a growing shoot on glass because the floor of the laboratory shook too much for good observations: ‘the growing tip is quite jogged away from the micrometer scale.’ Then he had the ‘horrid bother’ of changing lodgings when he discovered that he had rooms in a house that was ‘disreputable’ (letter from Francis Darwin, [after 16 June 1879]).

Darwin, however, continued to focus on the scientific benefits of Francis’s being in Sachs’s laboratory, in terms of both learning experimental techniques and discovering the views of the other botanists. He was glad to know that Ernst Stahl and Albert Bernhard Frank did not think that plants were ‘mere machines’, reminding Francis on 2 June that he had long thought that movements in both plants and animals were similar, especially the localisation of sensitivity and the transmission of an influence from an excited part. As Darwin investigated different ways to determine whether the tips of radicles were the locus of root sensitivity, discovering that treating them with caustic was more effective than using bits of card, he found he was ‘getting to hate the work’ (letter to Francis Darwin, 25 June [1879]). Although anxious that Francis should not do experiments in Würzburg that could be done at Down, Darwin did encourage him to test the possibility that the sensitivity of radicles might not be confined to the tip alone. He suggested increasingly sophisticated techniques to deter responses to stimulus, from slicing off or cauterising the tips to wrapping those of aerial roots in the prepared outer membrane of ox intestine known as gold-beaters skin (letter to Francis Darwin, 25 June [1879]).

This research directly challenged the views of Sachs, who not only denied that sensitivity was located in the apex of the radicle but also claimed that the use of caustic was inappropriate because it would release nitric acid, which would be ‘diffused back into the root & injure it!!!!’ (letter from Francis Darwin, [before 26 June 1879]). Aware of Sachs’s prestige, Darwin told Francis on 28 June that he would rather convert Sachs ‘than any other half-dozen-Botanists put together’, but he was not surprised by Sachs’s objections. The previous year, Darwin had followed the findings of Theophil Ciesielski on the sensitivity of the apex of radicles; work which Sachs had criticised on methodological grounds. Darwin’s disagreement with Sachs also revolved around issues of experimental protocol: Darwin thought that Sachs had sliced off the tips of radicles incorrectly when replicating Ciesielski’s experiments. ‘Great man as Sachs is, I am not even staggered by him’, Darwin confidently wrote to Francis on 28 June. Darwin’s confidence was not misplaced. It was Sachs who ‘appeared rather staggered’ when Francis showed him some ‘caustic beans’ that were part of an experiment devised to demonstrate that the tips of radicles were sensitive (letter from Francis Darwin to Emma Darwin, 30 June 1879). It was this experiment that left Darwin with ‘no shade of doubt’ that the apex of the radicle was ‘a kind of brain for certain movements’ (second letter to Francis Darwin, 2 July [1879]).

Sachs guarded his reputation not only on personal grounds but also for institutional reasons. His laboratory was regarded as the premier institute for physiological botany, and any challenge to his methods had the potential to threaten his research enterprise. The doctoral and post-doctoral students were assigned topics by Sachs, who also dictated experimental method and design. Many resented his heavy-handed control but, unlike Francis Darwin, had to keep on good terms with him. ‘I see it is a very good thing to be as independent of him as possible’, Francis told Darwin on 4 July, after reporting that he had carried out some successful experiments ‘quite against Sach’s advice’. Francis was not sure whether this act of rebellion would affect an earlier invitation he had received to contribute an essay on his ‘root work’ to Sachs’s journal, Arbeiten des botanischen Instituts in Würzburg. He had accepted the invitation because he wished to publish with the other people working in the laboratory and for the ‘honour and glory’, but had been instructed not to refer to statements published by Sachs that were contradicted by his experimental results. Moreover, after learning that Sachs would translate the paper, he told Darwin that it was usually called purgatory at the institute when a manuscript had been given to Sachs but not yet approved (letter from Francis Darwin, [before 31 July 1879]). Francis evidently survived the ordeal as his paper was published by Sachs in 1880.

Family matters

Before leaving Germany, Francis visited the botanist Anton de Bary in Strasbourg, and made some purchases of instruments in Heidelberg. After a hint from his father, Francis also purchased a gift for his son Bernard (nearly 3 years old and variously called Abbadubba or Ubba), who had remained at Down. ‘I was talking yesterday with Ubba about your return’, Darwin wrote to Francis on 4 July, ‘He said “it is likely he will bring me some soldiers”— so a word to the wise.’ Over the summer, Darwin had sent regular updates about Bernard’s progress with all the pride of a fond grandfather. On 3 June, he wrote, ‘Bernard has been very charming: today he has been gabbling all the words he knows into a confused mess together, as quick as he could gabble them.’ Within a month, Bernard had reached an altogether more advanced stage. ‘Herbert Spencer says in his new book ‘Data of Ethics’, that the ever present idea of causation is the highest point in the evolution of mind, & I am sure that Abbad. has reached the highest point, for his “why”—“what for” &c are incessant’, Darwin joked on 2 July (first letter). Much of the time, however, Bernard remained absorbed in his own world. ‘Abbadubba is more charming than ever,’ Darwin wrote on 16 June, ‘but his soul is so full of drums, trumpets & soldiers that he has no time to look at me or say a word to me’.

In August, Bernard accompanied his grandparents, Aunt Elizabeth (Bessy) Darwin, and Henrietta and Richard Litchfield to the Lake District for a holiday in a hotel owned by Victor Marshall, a Darwin family friend. Francis was to join them on his return from Germany and wondered ‘how the dickens to get to Coniston’ (letter from Francis Darwin, [before 31 July 1879]). Darwin advised travelling by train, although it took eight hours, assuring Francis that they were ‘all in good heart’ for their ‘tremendous journey’ (letter to Francis Darwin, [2 August 1879]). The journey proved more arduous than expected. Nonetheless, Darwin endured a three-hour delay better than Emma Darwin, and Bernard proved to be a ‘capital traveller … neither cross nor ennuied’ (Emma Darwin to W. E. Darwin, [4 August 1879] (DAR 219.1: 125)). Darwin found the inn ‘very comfortable’, but told Leonard Darwin on 12 August that there were ‘too many human beings’ for his taste. He also admired the scenery, took several excursions, and thought Marshall’s garden ‘paradise’ (letter to Victor Marshall, 25 August 1879). Anthony Rich had written on 27 July to suggest that the Darwins might visit the hamlet of Troutbeck, which was ‘out of the line of ordinary tourists’. He also hoped that the ‘Clerk of the weather’ might keep the Darwins in his ‘holy keeping’. This was not to be. For most of the holiday the weather was atrocious.

The other cloud on the horizon was Thomas Henry Farrer’s objection to the engagement between his daughter Ida and Horace Darwin. This was all the more surprising because Darwin and Farrer had corresponded on scientific topics since 1868 and after Farrer’s second marriage to Darwin’s niece in 1873 the Darwins had stayed at the Farrers’ home, Abinger Hall, on several occasions. Horace had first approached Farrer to request Ida’s hand in marriage in late June, only to be rebuffed. Farrer’s objection was based on his impression of Horace’s poor health and lack of profession, and he insisted that all contact between Horace and Ida must cease. Emma Darwin persuaded her husband to meet Farrer. ‘This proved most useful’, Emma reported, because Darwin told Farrer ‘a great deal about Horace that he did not know, especially about his peculiar turn for mechanical invention, which is his profession tho’ not a profitable one; also Dr C[lark]’s opinion that he was so likely to get well as life goes on, & that it was suppressed gout. Also how well off he wd be, w. is a matter of some consequence when you are not likely to make money’ (Emma Darwin to Sara Darwin, [1 July 1879] (DAR 219.1: 123)). Darwin wrote to Farrer on 27 June to request ten minutes conversation with him, but although the meeting was amicable, Farrer did not relent. While the Darwins were in Coniston, Horace was instructed to wait for three months. ‘Nothing can be more useless than T.H’s conduct’, Emma Darwin pointed out, ‘He has no intention of stopping the marriage; but I believe he knows that all his family (Farrer & Erskines) will disapprove so utterly of it, some on worldly grounds & some on religious, that he wishes to be able to say that he has opposed it’ (letter from Emma Darwin to W. E. Darwin, [4 August 1879] (DAR 219.1: 125)). Nothing more could be done by the Darwins at this stage but to wait. In addition to this concern, Darwin was even denied his usual relief returning from holiday. Instead of a welcome end to enforced idleness, his homecoming was marred by the apparent loss of a box containing, among other things, Krause’s manuscript account of Erasmus Darwin. This left Darwin miserable until the box was recovered. In contrast, Bernard was delighted to get home ‘& began drumming at once’ (Emma Darwin to H. E. Litchfield, [27 August 1879] (DAR 219.9: 201)).

Celebrity and honours

Darwin’s celebrity was never far from the surface even among friends. After Darwin had left Coniston, Marshall regretted not having asked him to plant a tree in the garden and requested him to send a young plant as a memorial of his visit. ‘With respect to the tree, you treat me as a Royal Duke’, Darwin responded on 14 September, saying that he would send an acorn from one of the ‘children’ of a cork-tree grown from an acorn sown by his father on the day of his birth. However, when the acorns failed to ripen, Darwin had to ask Joseph Hooker to come to his rescue by sending Marshall a specimen of either the northern red oak or the scarlet oak: ‘to be planted in my honour!’ (letter to J. D. Hooker, 4 November [1879]). While in Coniston, Darwin was invited to meet the local celebrity, John Ruskin. Marshall wrote on 7 September that Ruskin, the day after the Darwins arrived in Coniston, had remarked to someone, ‘if Mr Darwin would get different kinds of air & bottle them, & examine them when bottled, he would do much more useful work than he does in the contemplation of the hinder parts of monkeys.’ This greatly amused Darwin, who felt it was ‘very acute of Mr Ruskin to know that I feel a deep & tender interest about the brightly coloured hinder half of certain monkeys’ (letter to Victor Marshall, 14 September 1879). Ruskin’s opinion of Darwin’s work appears not to have come up when the Darwins lunched with him on 12 August (Darwin’s ‘Journal’). Nor did Darwin mention it when he told George Romanes on 14 September that he had seen Ruskin several times ‘& he was uncommonly pleasant.’

Over the year Darwin received various honours in the form of diplomas and fellowships from scientific institutions around the world. At the end of the year he was awarded a prize of 12,000 francs by the Turin Academy of Sciences for his works on physiological botany (letter from Michele Lessona, 28 December 1879). Closer to home, on 9 May he was astonished to hear that he was to be awarded the Baly Medal from the Royal College of Physicians for distinguished work in the science of physiology. ‘I hope to be able to attend on June 26th to receive the medal,’ Darwin replied a few days later, ‘but my health is very doubtful & I may not be equal to the exertion’ (letter to H. A. Pitman, [13 May 1879]). In the end, he did attend, with Emma Darwin insisting that they combine this trip with a few days’ rest in London. This, Darwin thought, would be ‘very tedious with nothing on earth to do’ (letter to Francis Darwin, 24 June [1879]). Darwin probably found having to sit for a portrait commissioned by the Cambridge Philosophical Society equally tedious. He was portrayed in his red doctor’s gown, to commemorate the honorary doctorate of laws he had received from Cambridge University in 1877. Emma Darwin recorded that Darwin found the sittings tiring, and that she was ‘a good deal disgusted’ with the gown because it dominated the picture (letter from Emma Darwin to H. E. Litchfield, [17 July 1879] (DAR 219.9: 199)).

Samuel Wilks, who delivered the Harveian oration immediately before Darwin received the Baly Medal, wrote to Darwin on 26 July saying that Darwin’s presence at the oration made it one of the most memorable days of his life. Wilks declared himself to be a ‘devoted disciple’. Other correspondents, many of whom were not scientific investigators, also claimed to be devotees, and plied Darwin with information, suggestions, and questions. On 5 February, a stonemason, Thomas Maston, wrote to say that he had purchased Origin and Descent two years ago: ‘I have read them, and studied them the most of this time, and strugled, in my humble way, to defend the theory tharein enunciated, against that un-holy cant, which as been risen against it by a certain class of desprate theological thinkers in the hope of provoking ignorant laughter, to shame honest men into silence on this subject, chosing in this way to show their weakness, and to exibite the truth strength of your concloustions.’ He concluded by saying he could not afford Expression and hoped Darwin would send him a copy.

Religion and criticism

Religion was less easily dismissed by other letter writers. ‘I remain doubting between your theory and the ecclasiastical dogma’, Mary Jung, a young Austrian woman, wrote on 7 January. ‘When my reason agrees with your opinion, my heart stands to the latter and so I am in a continnual conflict with myself.’ ‘Permit me to advise you to try not to be troubled about the differences between ecclesiastics & scientific men’, Darwin wrote in reply on 11 January. ‘Search for the truth, & then your conscience will be at ease. In the course of time ecclesiastics have always managed to make their conclusions somehow to harmonise with ascertained truths, which they at first vehemently & ignorantly opposed’. On 2 April, Nicolai Mengden, the 17-year-old son of a German nobleman, wrote, ‘I make bold to ask you whether a god can exist for a true believer in your theory, or whether one must choose between your theory and a belief in God, and whether those who believe in your theory can and must also believe in God?’  He continued, ‘I have resolved to act in accordance with your advice, in order to follow what you tell me absolutely.’ Evidently hoping to curtail the correspondence, Emma Darwin replied on 8 April stating that Darwin was too busy to answer all letters: ‘He considers that the theory of evolution is quite compatible with the belief in a God, but that you must remember that different persons have different definitions of what they mean by God—.’ Undaunted, Mengden wrote again on 3 June to ask Darwin, ‘what definition of God do you deem appropriate for a follower of your theory?’ Moreover, should Darwin wish to ‘completely overwhelm’ Mengen with kindness, could he tell Mengen what to make of the idea of life after death, and whether one might hope for a reunion? The question had urgency for Mengen as he had just experienced the death of his best friend. In a succinct reply (justified on the grounds that he was ‘much engaged, and old man, & out of health’), Darwin informed Mengen, ‘Science has nothing to do with Christ, except in so far as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence. For myself, I do not believe that there ever has been any Revelation. As for a future life every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities’ (letter to Nicolai Mengden, 5 June 1879).

On the very day that Emma sent the first reply to Mengden, Darwin had complained to his cousin Reginald, ‘half the fools throughout Europe write to ask me the stupidest questions’ (letter to Reginald Darwin, 8 April 1879). However, religion was not dismissed lightly by Darwin, even if he remained reticent about discussing it. After hearing about a claim that his work revealed him to be an atheist, Darwin told the clergyman John Fordyce on 7 May, ‘It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist’, pointing to Charles Kingsley and Asa Gray as proof of this. ‘What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself’, he told Fordyce, ‘But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.’

Darwin always weighed up whether it was worth defending his views from attacks that were not made on scientific grounds. Evidently concerned about the nature of Malcolm Guthrie’s critique of Herbert Spencer’s views of the theory of natural selection, Darwin circulated the book within his family. He also heard from John Fletcher Moulton, who, after some faint praise, condemned Guthrie’s work as ‘a pseudo-scientific criticism of a pseudo-scientific work’, admitting, ‘I always find myself roused by any attempt to supplant our only true means of acquiring knowledge—observation & experiment’ (letter from J. F. Moulton, 10 December 1879). In reply to Darwin’s response that if Spencer had done nothing for science, it was a pity that his talents and labour had been ‘thrown away’, Moulton pointed out in a long letter of 13 December that although Spencer was not a scientific discoverer, and his physical writings were ‘pernicious’ and undeserving of ‘kindly treatment’, he would be recognised as a great educator or ‘preacher’. Spencer, Moulton reminded Darwin, was one of the earliest to accept evolution, ‘long before there could be any scientific knowledge of the modus operandi of the process’: ‘he represented vividly and plausibly how this great principle might account for all that we see around us.’ Moulton classed Spencer as one of those writers who made people ‘rapidly appreciate the force of new ideas that would otherwise have only slowly made themselves felt’. This, Moulton believed, was work that ‘true scientific discoverers’ always refused to do because it required ‘a kind of intellectual laxity to enable a man to thus outrun our knowledge’. Spencer provided inspiration not guidance; he would be remembered ‘as one of the prophets and not as one of the founders of the new era’. 

Support for evolutionists

Throughout the year, scientific scholars and acquaintances benefited from Darwin’s generosity, especially if they were furthering the cause of evolutionary thought or working for the public good. Darwin promoted Fritz Müller’s discoveries in Brazil by enabling the republication in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of London of an essay by Müller on sexual dimorphism and a view of mimicry (later known as Müllerian mimicry) that Darwin said was quite new to him (letter to Raphael Meldola, 6 June [1879]). In addition, after receiving Müller’s description and photograph of a new species of frog that bore its eggs on its back and lived on the leaves of bromeliads, Darwin arranged for Müller’s letter and the image of the frog be published in Nature (letter to J. N. Lockyer, 4 and 6 March [1879]). When Darwin’s staunch German defender Ernst Haeckel was in England, he was invited to stay overnight at Down House. Darwin greatly admired the recent translation of Haeckel’s work Freedom in science and teaching, and Haeckel anticipated the ‘greatest joy’ in talking to Darwin about ‘Darwinism in Germany’ (letter from Ernst Haeckel, 30 August 1879). However, the pleasure was not so great for the Darwin family. Emma Darwin found Haeckel very pleasant, but, ‘Oh—such shouting’, she wrote to William Darwin: ‘He has been coasting round the N. of Scotland & I suppose shouting against the winds & waves, & has not been able to let down his voice’. In her view, Haeckel was like a ‘great good-natured boy’, who uttered everything ‘exactly like the German in Punch without the slightest attempt to pronounce rightly’ and talked ‘most devoutly’ about the way German men of science quarrelled (letter from Emma Darwin to W. E. Darwin, [6 September 1879] (DAR 219.1: 126)).

Darwin’s commitment to certain individuals and projects occasionally extended from encouragement to financial support. When Grant Allen, a full-time journalist, suffered a breakdown due to overwork and illness, Darwin was quick to contribute to a fund to send him and his family to the Riviera for the summer (letter to G. J. Romanes, 23 July 1879). Allen, who regarded Darwin with ‘all the respect which every Evolutionist owes to the founder of his faith’, had defended Darwin’s theory of sexual selection in his recent book on colour sense, which greatly pleased Darwin (letter from Grant Allen, 12 February 1879). One of Allen’s targets was Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s strongest critic on the subject of sexual selection, whose explanation of phenomena like the display of the peacock Darwin had long thought to be ‘mere empty words’ (letter to Grant Allen, [before 21 February 1879]). Darwin confessed, ‘For many years I have quite doubted his scientific judgment, though admiring greatly his ingenuity & originality’, but this did not deter him from considering whether to petition government for a pension for Wallace, whose employment prospects were precarious. Darwin contacted Joseph Hooker on 17 December to ask his opinion: ‘I am in very bad position for doing much, but should feel bound to undertake all the labour, if the plan is considered feasible by you & a few others.’ Hooker immediately poured cold water on the scheme. ‘I greatly doubt its advisability’, he cautioned Darwin on 18 December, pointing out that it would look very bad for men of science to be seen to be supporting a pension for a spiritualist. Although Darwin successfully campaigned for a pension for Wallace the following year, he was convinced by Hooker in December 1879, and grateful for having been saved from a ‘mistake & mess’ (letter to J. D. Hooker, 19 December [1879]). The German palaeontologist Leopold Würtenberger fared better. When he wrote on 10 January to ask whether Darwin could find him a job in a British geological establishment so he could continue his study of the developmental laws of ammonites, he probably little suspected that Darwin, knowing that the prospect of a job or grant was hopeless, would offer him the financial means ‘to work for about a year on science’ (letter to Melchior Neumayr, 24 January 1879). ‘It is impossible to put into words how deeply overcome with gratitude I am towards the great master who is supporting my work in such an outstanding way’, Würtenberger wrote on 7 February, after receiving £100 from Darwin.

Potatoes and geese

Frederick King, who believed that Darwin’s views could help to place ‘the practice of Agriculture upon Scientific principles’ and prevent ‘Cattle diseases, Potato diseases &c’, probably did not know that Darwin had already invested in such a project (letter from Frederick King, 27 February 1879). The Belfast businessman James Torbitt, who wished to carry out experiments to cultivate blight-resistant potatoes based on Darwin’s study of self- and cross-fertilisation, had first contacted Darwin in 1876. By 1878, Darwin was sufficiently impressed by Torbitt’s dedication and experimental method to help him petition for public aid to continue his research. However, when a government grant was not forthcoming, Darwin had stepped in with funds of his own. Torbitt sent an account of the experiments enabled by these funds and some specimens to Darwin on 30 April 1879, telling him that he was ‘pushing the principle of selection much further’ and expressing the hope that trials might be carried out at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. ‘It would be of no use to send the potatoes to Kew, for they have so many subjects to attend to they will not undertake anything fresh of such a nature’, Darwin wrote in reply on 3 May, but told Torbitt, ‘I have today planted & labelled the two varieties & will hereafter report the result to you.’ As well as trialling Torbitt’s potatoes, Darwin participated in Francis Burges Goodacre’s programme of crossing Chinese and common geese, keeping the birds in the grounds of Down House. Darwin believed that the fertility of these hybrids showed that mutual sterility was not an immutable criterion for defining species. By August, however, Darwin was eager to return the geese to Goodacre, telling him that any remaining birds would be eaten by the household. The geese were troublesome to keep and, Darwin explained to Goodacre on 29 August, ‘the gander pursues and frightens a little grandchild who lives with us.’

By late October, Darwin was again thinking of trying to obtain government funds for Torbitt. On 18 September, he had heard that Torbitt had continued his experiments despite his declining business and the ‘great sorrow and anxiety’ caused by his wife’s illness and breast amputation. The reason Darwin may not have acted immediately after hearing about Torbitt’s troubles was that his contact at the Board of Trade was Thomas Farrer, who remained steadfast in his wish that the engagement between his daughter Ida and Darwin’s son Horace be kept secret and that there should be no contact between them. It was not until mid-October that Farrer was forced to recognise that the attachment between the couple was ‘strong and real’ and so, despite continuing to harbour misgivings about Horace’s health and career, finally agreed to their engagement being made public (letter from T. H. Farrer, 12 October 1879). Darwin’s response not only expressed joy but also attempted to heal rifts. He understood Farrer’s concerns about Horace’s health and acknowledged that the match was not brilliant in a worldly point of view, but pointed out, ‘Horace has as sweet a temper & as unselfish a disposition as anyone whom I have ever known; & this is of more importance for the happiness of married life than wealth, grandeur or distinction, & more even than strong health’ (letter to T. H. Farrer, 13 October 1879).  

Darwin’s correspondence with Farrer for the remainder of the year alternated between negotiations regarding the marriage settlement and possible funding for Torbitt’s potatoes. While the decisions concerning the amount of money to be settled on Horace and Ida came to an amicable end, those concerning Torbitt began to flounder. ‘What a pity there cannot be 2 sets of men in our Government,’ Darwin wrote to Farrer in exasperation on 23 October, ‘one to do all the miserable squabbling & the other to attend to the real interests of the country.’ On 1 November, Darwin told Torbitt that he had emphasised to Farrer that abandoning the potato trials would be  ‘a National misfortune’. Although Farrer was willing to help and passed information to Lord Sandon, minister for the Board of Trade, Darwin was not hopeful. ‘I trust that you may be able to continue your admirable potato work, even if you do not receive Government aid’, he wrote to Torbitt on 27 December, before reporting, ‘I have heard nothing: I know that Mr. Farrer has had two communications with Ld. Sandon on the subject; I heard from two officials that he is one of those men who cannot make up their minds what to do. It is enough to sicken one to see how politicians waste their time in squabbling and neglect doing any good.’

Pleasure through generations

As the year’s end approached, Darwin was heartened by the wider reaction to his biography of Erasmus Darwin. Despite his misgivings about the work, and the unexpectedly low sales of the book, the response from readers was gratifying. Francis Galton read the book with the greatest pleasure, finding it ‘a marvel of condensation’ and the biography ‘quite a new order of writing, so scientifically accurate in its treatment’ (letter from Francis Galton, 12 November 1879). The comment that perhaps most pleased Darwin came from the surgeon James Paget, who, in a letter of 18 November 1879, declared that the biography was ‘an unmatched illustration of the transmission of intellectual tendency as well as intellectual strength’, which he hoped would be ‘continued through yet many generations!’ Although Darwin had spent much of 1879 investigating his ancestors and looking into the past, he never lost sight of the future. When, earlier in the year, he decided to increase Francis Darwin’s salary as his assistant, he mentioned that Henry Woodward, a palaeontologist at the British Museum, had stated with reference to Francis: ‘I hope you are still able to enjoy & share in work going on & to feel (as we all do) that you live again in your son.’ ‘This,’ Darwin told Francis, ‘pleased me much’ (letter to Francis Darwin, 21 February [1879]).

About this article

Based on the introduction to The correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 27: 1879

Edited by Frederick Burkhardt, James A. Secord, Samantha Evans, Shelley Innes, Francis Neary, Alison M. Pearn, Anne Secord, Paul White. (Cambridge University Press 2019)

Order this volume online from Cambridge University Press