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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin in letters, 1881: Old friends and new admirers


Linley Sambourne's caricature of Charles Darwin
Linley Sambourne's caricature of Charles Darwin
Punch, 22 October 1881, p. 190
By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library

In May 1881, Darwin, one of the best-known celebrities in England if not the world, began writing about all the eminent men he had met. He embarked on this task, which formed an addition to his autobiography, because he had nothing else to do. He had finished his book on earthworms in April and was filled with foreboding that he no longer possessed the physical or mental strength to take on challenging topics. ‘I am so old that I am not likely ever again to write on general & difficult points in the theory of Evolution’, he told the businessman Henry Wallis on 31 March, stating that he would restrict himself to ‘more confined & easy subjects’. A month earlier, on 23 February, he had told his valued South American correspondent Fritz Müller, ‘I feel myself a very old man, who probably will not last much longer.’ Darwin’s biggest fear was not death, but that he might not be able to work at all. ‘I have not the heart or strength at my age to begin any investigation, lasting years, which is the only thing, which I enjoy, & I have no little jobs which I can do’, he wrote despondently to Joseph Dalton Hooker on 15 June, concluding, ‘I must look forward to Down grave-yard, as the sweetest place on this earth’. From the start of the year, Darwin had his demise on his mind. He increasingly relied on his son William for help with his financial affairs and began to make provision for the dividing of his wealth after his death. Darwin’s gloominess was compounded by the decline of his brother, Erasmus Alvey Darwin, who, after several bouts of illness, died in August. Despite this blow, and intimations of his own heart disease in December, Darwin’s spirits improved towards the latter part of the year. The enthusiastic reception of his book on earthworms, published in October, was a boost. His 5-year-old grandson Bernard, who lived at Down House, remained a continual source of delight. A second grandchild was born in December. Old friends and new admirers got in touch, and, for all his fears, Darwin found several scientific topics to pursue.

Dispute with Butler

In January, Darwin’s work on earthworms was interrupted by Samuel Butler’s renewed claim that Ernst Krause had used Butler’s book Evolution old and new when revising his essay on Erasmus Darwin’s scientific work, and that Darwin had concealed this in his preface to his and Krause’s 1879 book Erasmus Darwin. Although Darwin thought the matter closed, Butler had repeated his accusations in Unconscious memory in November 1880 and in an abusive letter about Darwin in the St James’s Gazette on 8 December. Krause countered Butler’s accusations in a review of Unconscious memory in Kosmos and sent Darwin a separate letter for publication in the Journal of Popular Science detailing his use of Butler’s work. Members of the Darwin family consulted anxiously about whether Krause’s Kosmos article should be translated and also appear in a British journal. Darwin could see that Butler, as he told his daughter Henrietta Litchfield on 4 January, ‘would like its publication & call me & Krause liars’.

Thomas Huxley’s advice was to ignore Butler, and Krause, who understood that Butler wished to boast publicly that his quarrel was with Darwin, agreed. Unsure how to address Butler’s campaign, which was conducted largely in newspapers and literary periodicals rather than the scientific press, the Darwins consulted the seasoned journalist and editor Leslie Stephen. There was ‘a hopeless division of opinion’ within the family, Henrietta explained to Stephen on 10 January, hoping that he did not think them ‘all gone mad on such a small matter’. The following day, Darwin himself wrote to Stephen, admitting that it was ‘difficult to avoid being pained at being publicly called in ones old age a liar, owing to having unintentionally made a small omission’. Stephen’s reply on 12 January was flattering, reassuring, and unambiguous. He was ‘unhesitating’ in his advice that Butler should be ignored and ‘undignified squabbles’ avoided, even though he wished ‘to give Somebody such  a slap in the face as he would have cause to remember’. Darwin was enormously relieved. ‘Your note is one of the kindest which I have ever received,’ he told Stephen on 13 January, ‘& ... when in the dead of the night the thought comes across me how I have been treated, I will resolutely try to banish the thoughts, & say to myself that so good a judge, as Leslie Stephen thinks nothing of the false accusation’. Other friends rallied round. Francis Balfour translated Krause’s account and published it in Nature, and George Romanes wrote such a savage review of Unconscious memory that Darwin feared he had redirected Butler’s wrath upon himself. ‘Good Lord how he will hate you’, Darwin warned Romanes on 28 January. In the end, not only the Darwins but many periodicals shunned Butler and ignored his book.

Sources of pleasure

January also brought the good news that Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of natural selection, had received a civil list pension. ‘I hardly ever wished so much for anything in my life as for its success’, Darwin told Arabella Buckley on 4 January. Buckley had suggested petitioning for a pension for Wallace, but it was Darwin’s efforts that secured it (see Correspondence vol. 28, Appendix VI). When Huxley heard on 8 January that Wallace would receive £200 a year,  he wrote to Darwin, ‘I congratulate you on the success of your undertaking—for yours it is totally & entirely’. Wallace also received the news on 8 January (his 58th birthday) and immediately wrote to Darwin to thank him for his ‘constant kindness’, and to state how gratified he was that so many scientific men had so good an opinion of the ‘little scientific work’ he had done. Buckley’s delight was evident when she told Darwin on 13 January: ‘I have always felt that your generous friendship for Mr. Wallace, & the almost overdue credit which you have always assigned to him, is one of those bright spots in the history of science, which ought to shame all those who indulge in petty jealousies; & this success is the befitting crown to the whole matter’.

The positive reception of Movement in plants was another source of pleasure in the early months of 1881. This book had been a major undertaking for both Darwin and his son Francis, who assisted in the many experiments on which the analysis was based. Despite its length and complexity, the book sold well, and with copies ‘moving off very nicely’ by early January, the publishers decided to print ‘500 more, making 2000’ (letter to H. E. Litchfield, 4 January 1881). Unlike Darwin’s other books, Movement in plants did not generate a large correspondence. It was mainly those who had received presentation copies who complimented Darwin, made suggestions, and pointed out errors. Alphonse de Candolle’s approval of the technical terms used in the book particularly pleased Darwin because, he told Candolle on 24 January, ‘I have often been annoyed at the multitude of new terms lately invented in all branches of Biology in Germany; and I doubted much whether I was not quite as great a sinner as those whom I have blamed.’ The book inspired Fritz Müller to send observations from Brazil on the movements of leaves that were so original that Darwin sent them to Nature for publication. Darwin, who was pleased that Julius Carus, his German translator, liked the work, told Carus on 23 March that it would be ‘the last of any size’ that he would publish, although he was sending his printers ‘in 3 or 4 weeks the M.S. of a quite small book of little moment’.

Clever worms

This book of ‘little moment’ was Darwin’s work on earthworms. By late January, Darwin was ‘wholly rewriting’ his first chapter on habits, which he thought would show that worms had ‘much bigger souls than anyone wd suppose’, and a month later he was confident enough to state: ‘worms though blind can judge by touch accurately of the shape of a new object & drag it into their burrows in the best  way & this must be intelligence & very surprising the whole case is to me’ (letters to W. E. Darwin, 31 January [1881] and 19 February [1881]). On 7 March, Darwin sent his discussion of the mental powers of earthworms with his ‘sort of definition’ of intelligence to George Romanes. ‘I tried to observe what passed in my own mind when I did the work of a worm’, he explained, before joking that should he ‘come across a professed metaphysician’, he would ask for ‘a more technical definition with a few big words, about the abstract, the concrete, the absolute & the infinite’. Darwin assured Romanes, an expert on animal intelligence, that he would be grateful for suggestions, ‘for it will hardly do to assume that every fool knows what intelligent means’.

Romanes outlined the difficulty. Intelligence had gradually evolved, making the line between non-intelligent and intelligent hard to draw. ‘What we want is a test that may be taken as a line—even though an artificial one—to divide actions which we agree to call intelligent from those which we agree to call non-intelligent’, Romanes pointed out, and since it was impossible to ‘get inside an animal’s mind so as to obtain direct, or subjective, knowledge of its operations’, the only objective test rested on the question of whether the animal learnt from its own individual experience (letter from G. J. Romanes, 7 March 1881). The difficulty with earthworms was that their actions stood ‘just on the border-land’. Darwin would have to devise an experiment to demonstrate that they could be taught through experience how best to manipulate some awkward leaf and show that henceforth they always  chose that way. Above all, Romanes pointed out, Darwin should avoid attributing self-consciousness to worms, and emphasised that consciousness alone was of no help in defining intelligence.

Darwin, wishing to test the intelligence of worms, bemoaned the fact that when kept in pots, they did their work in a ‘slovenly manner’, making it hard to know whether observations of their behaviour were trustworthy (letter to Francis Galton, 8 March [1881]). Although results from earlier experiments indicated that worms did learn from experience, Darwin was wary, telling Romanes on 9 March, ‘I intend to have another attempt to eliminate the source of doubt, but Heaven only knows whether I shall succeed.’ After finishing the draft of his book, Darwin informed Romanes on 16 April: ‘I tore up & rewrote what I sent you. I have not attempted to define intelligence, but have quoted your remarks on experience, & have shown how far they apply to worms.— It seems to me that they must be said to work with some intelligence, anyhow they are not guided by a blind instinct’.

Darwin, eager to send his draft to the printers without delay, asked John Murray, his publisher, to make an overnight decision about the terms under which it would be published. Murray’s offer of their usual arrangement (two-thirds profit to the author) was met with Darwin’s gloomy attitude about the sale of books being ‘a game of chance’ (letter to R. F. Cooke, 12 April 1881). On 18 May he described his work on earthworms to Krause: ‘The subject is of no importance, but what we English call a hobby-horse of mine’. Darwin was occupied intermittently in checking proofs up to and during his holiday in the Lake District in June and early July, sending the pages to Germany for further checks by Francis Darwin, who was spending the summer working in Anton de Bary’s laboratory. The Lake District may have reminded Darwin of John Ruskin, who lived there. Sending the last two chapters to Francis on 27 May, Darwin wrote, ‘Attend to my query about last sentence of book; as Ruskin said the beginning & the end of every book is humbug.’

Protoplasm and plants

The prospect of the annual family holiday, which Darwin dreaded even more than in previous years, and the ennui of the periods between batches of proofs, prompted him to think about how he would occupy himself on his return. ‘The horrid pain of idleness makes me look forward with dread to the future & God knows what I shall do, for I have hardly strength to begin any new subject requiring much work’, he told Francis Darwin on 30 May. ‘I have been thinking’, he continued, ‘that I wd. have another look at absorption by roots & root-hairs, when I come home.’ Recalling a publication describing crystalline colouring matter that could pass through living membranes and colour protoplasm, Darwin thought he could devise a method to investigate aggregation. He explained to Fritz Müller on 10 September why he had embarked on this research: ‘Perhaps you may remember that I described in “Insectivorous plants” a really curious phenomenon which I called the aggregation of the protoplasm in the cells of the tentacles. None of the great German Botanists will admit that the moving masses are composed of protoplasm; though it is astonishing to me that anyone could watch the movements & doubt its nature. But these doubts have led me to observe analogous facts, & I hope to succeed in proving my case.’ An additional motivation may have been to support Francis Darwin’s published research on aggregation in the glandular hairs of teasels and the tentacles of Drosera. From August, Darwin tried a variety of plants and reagents, telling Francis on 17 October, ‘I have wasted much time over this, but my time is worth nothing.’ The Cambridge botanist Sydney Vines also thought the material was protoplasm, but both he and Darwin struggled to find a way to demonstrate this experimentally. ‘If I were wise I shd. throw up the job; but I cannot endure to do this’, Darwin told Francis on 9 November,  and writing to Fritz Müller on 13 November, he confessed, ‘the subject is too difficult for me & I cannot understand the meaning of some strange facts which I have observed. The mere recording new facts is but dull work.’

It was Fritz Müller who sparked Darwin’s interest in another topic, when he suggested that in flowers with two-coloured stamens, one set served to attract insects, while the other ensured cross-fertilisation. Darwin immediately turned to his own notes, made twenty years before (when he supposed the phenomenon  to be a form of dimorphism), to see whether his observations supported Müller’s conclusion. Set ‘on fire’ by Müller’s ‘novel & very curious explanation’, Darwin wrote to nurserymen for seeds of plants exhibiting this phenomenon and requested help from Kew for more suggestions of such plants, especially annuals (letter to W. T. Thiselton-Dyer, 21 March [1881]). Darwin thought flowers of the semi- tropical family Melastomataceae the best for testing and comparing the relative fertility of the pollen on the two sets of  stamens, but apart from the absence of  the usual pollinators of the Melastomataceae, Darwin had difficulty in obtaining mature plants. On 12 April, he reported to Müller, ‘I have procured some plants of Melastomaceæ, but I fear that they will not flower for two years & I may be in my grave before I can repeat my trials.’

Requests and responses

Darwin did not return from his holiday reinvigorated. ‘I have everything to make me happy & contented,’ he told Wallace on 12 July, ‘but life has become very wearysome to me.’ It was perhaps this weariness that intensified his reaction to the news that his book on earthworms would not be published until October. Darwin complained that the delay destroyed his satisfaction in the book, but he supposed he would feel ‘less sulky in a day or two’ (letter to R. F. Cooke, 29 July 1881). The degree of Darwin’s distress prompted Murray to offer to publish as soon as the stereotypes for the United States were ready, and to explain, ‘he only looked at the matter from a publisher’s point of view and knowing how dead a work falls at this late period of the season’ (letter from R. F. Cooke, 30 July 1881). Darwin gave in. ‘I am now uneasy about your risk,’ he told Murray’s associate Robert Cooke on 31 July, ‘& if Mr. Murray really thinks that a scientific work would sell considerably worse at this season than late in the autumn, I shd. be very unwilling to take the responsibility on my own shoulders. … You will see that I am not so sulky as I was when I wrote last.’ Adding to his weariness was the time Darwin spent responding to gifts, requests, queries, and large quantities of unsolicited information from a wide variety of correspondents. He was scrupulous in sending any important observations to Nature or incorporating them into his own work, and unfailingly polite even to those who sent in useless or incredible information. Numerous letters made clear the veneration in which he was held. ‘I’d give one year of my life for one hours conversation with you’, a Swedish teacher told him (letter from C. E. Södling, 14 October 1881), while H. M. Wallis, who sent observations of his son’s ears on 14 March, thanked Darwin for having provided ‘a key-plan to the jungle of phenomena around us’. When a Russian student, writing in Latin, asked Darwin for some lines in his hand, he obliged, and did the same for a young Dutch-American, telling him, ‘my collections led me to turn to Science, & I hope that it may have the same effect on you, for there is no greater satisfaction as I know by experience than to add, however little, to the general stock of knowledge’ (letter to E. W. Bok, 10 May 1881). Josef Popper, an expert on aeronautics, sought CD’s opinion on a bird-powered flying machine, the viability of which Darwin doubted because of the difficulty of training birds to fly as a body in the same direction. Caroline Kennard wrote on 26 December after having heard a paper on the inferiority of women by the journalist Martha A. Hardaker, who stated that her authority was Darwin. Kennard, who admired Darwin’s ‘cautious and candid methods of conveying great results of learning and investigations to the world’, asked him, ‘whether the Author of the paper rightly inferred her arguments from your work: or if so, whether you are of the same  mind now, as to possibilities for women, judging from her organization &c’. When Darwin replied the following January, he confirmed his belief that women would remain intellectually inferior to men unless they became regular ‘bread-winners’ (Correspondence vol. 30, letter to C. A. Kennard, 9 January 1882).

‘I sometimes receive so many letters & books that I have hardly time to acknowledge their receipt’, Darwin told Henri de Saussure on 17 March. Nonetheless, Darwin always made time, paying particular attention to authors who criticised his work and showing his appreciation of those who were courteous. On 6 February, he wrote to Carl Semper, ‘let me thank you for the very kind manner in which you often refer to my works, & for the even still kinder manner in which you disagree with me.’ When Semper was relieved that, unlike the harsh reviewers of his book, Darwin did not think him an antagonist, Darwin replied, ‘controversy does no good at all. It is the best plan to modify any future publication & to acknowledge any criticism’ (letter to C. G. Semper, 19 July 1881). He continued his friendly disagreement with Wallace about plant dispersal across mountains, exclaiming to him on 2 January, ‘How lamentable it is that two men shd take such widely different views, with the same facts before them; but this seems to be almost regularly our case, & much do I regret it.’

Darwin had changed his mind on one topic. He readily admitted to William Parker Snow, whose characterisation of the people of Tierra del Fuego as peaceful was at odds with the way they were depicted in Darwin’s writings, ‘the success of the Missionary establishment there proves that I took a very erroneous view of the nature & capabilities of the Fuegians’ (letter to W. P. Snow, 22 November 1881). Darwin received news about the mission from Benjamin Sulivan, who had recently revealed earlier misunderstandings. When the Fuegians called out on first seeing the Beagle, their cries did not mean ‘give me’ as was thought, but ‘be kind to us’; further work on language also revealed the more risible case of the Christian exhortation to praise God being understood by the Fuegians as ‘Slap God’ because the missionary, when attempting to explain the concept of praise, had incidentally patted one of the Fuegians on the shoulder (letter from B. J. Sulivan, 18 March 1881).

Among numerous new correspondents there was one that Darwin thought worth cultivating: Francisco de Arruda Furtado, a young Portuguese naturalist on the Azores, who had read Origin and offered his services as an observer. Darwin was thrilled to discover an inhabitant of a group of oceanic islands who was not only a collector but also considered philosophical questions. Over the course of their correspondence, Darwin suggested observations Arruda Furtado could make, recommended that some of his work be published, and sent him Wallace’s book on geographical distribution. From the start, Arruda Furtado made his gratitude clear to Darwin: ‘You, Sir, know better than anyone what is in the heart of a young man who makes his debut under the kindly protection of the high priests of science’ (letter from Francisco de Arruda Furtado, 29 July 1881).

Likewise, among the many books sent to Darwin, one stood out for capturing his attention: William Graham’s Creed of science, a work that considered the limits of science in questions of religion, morals, and society. Graham accepted evolution and the animal origin of humans as the orthodox scientific belief. However, he objected when biologists like Ernst Haeckel converted the Darwinian scientific hypothesis into a universal philosophical theory called Darwinism, as this made chance and physical necessity, to the exclusion of reason, morality, and purpose, into the fundamental principles of the universe and its development. Darwin told Graham on 3 July,  ‘It is a very long time since any other book has interested me  so much’, and wrote, ‘you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done, that the Universe is not the result of chance.’ ‘But then’, he continued, ‘with me the horrid doubt always arises, whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?’ Graham’s view that natural selection had not contributed greatly to the progress of civilisation was contested by Darwin, who argued that ‘lower races’ were eliminated by ‘higher civilised races’. He also took issue with Graham’s emphasis on great men, pointing out that in science he considered ‘2nd, 3rd and 4th rate men of very high importance’.

Keeping up

In addition to the stream of unsolicited scientific material Darwin received, he subscribed to Nature, which he thought ‘an excellent Journal’ (letter to G. J. Romanes, 4 July [1881]). In these ways, Darwin kept up with the latest developments, although he was wary of intervening. Praising Alexander Agassiz’s work on palaeontological and embryological development for having thrown light on affinities, Darwin, for whom the issue had been a difficulty that had ‘haunted’ him for half a century, wrote, ‘I wish the idea had been put into my head in old days. for I shall never again write on difficult subjects as I have seen too many cases of old men becoming feeble in their minds, without being in the least conscious of it’ (letter to Alexander Agassiz, 5 May 1881). His scientific friends, however, did not agree. Both John Lubbock and Hooker asked for Darwin’s advice when writing their addresses for the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting.

Lubbock’s address prompted Darwin to muse on the advances in geology over the past fifty years. In his opinion the most important had been the discovery of the three azoic formations beneath the Cambrian and, above all, the recognition of the glacial period. ‘You are too young’, he pointed out, ‘to remember the prodigious effect this produced about the year 1840(?) on all our minds’ (letter to John Lubbock, [18 September 1881]). When Hooker, anxious about his address on geographic distribution, warned Darwin that he would be pestering him, Darwin replied that the subject had become ‘a frightfully big one’ and had ‘gone much out’ of his mind (letter to J. D. Hooker, 20 June [1881]). Feeling ‘awfully guilty’ for doing so, on 4 August Hooker sent Darwin a list of queries and asked whether he could call Alexander von Humboldt the greatest scientific traveller, as it was ‘the custom to disparage Humboldt now as a shallow man’. Darwin enjoyed the intellectual stimulus, stating that he thought Humboldt ‘the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived ... more for his near approach to omniscience than for originality’, and telling Hooker, ‘Your long letter has stirred many pleasant memories of long-past days when we had many a discussion & many a good fight’ (letters to J. D. Hooker, 6 August 1881 and 12 August 1881).

Darwin may have enjoyed sparring with friends, but when he thanked Romanes on 12 November for debating with the duke of Argyll on his behalf, he stated, ‘I hate controversy, & it wastes much time, at least with a man who like myself can work for only a short time in a day’. Nonetheless, Darwin had willingly defended regulated vivisection and accepted his share of  ‘the abuse poured in so atrocious a manner on all physiologists’ (letter to G. J. Romanes, 18 April 1881). A letter he had written to the Swedish physiologist Frithiof Holmgren was published in The Times of 18 April, drawing the ire of antivivisectionists George Jesse and Frances Power Cobbe. Jesse, in a private letter, stated that Darwin must not have read the evidence given by physiologists to the 1875 Royal Commission for the regulation of vivisection, and a letter from Cobbe in The Times made the same charge. Darwin’s response, published on 22 April, did not engage with the accusation that he had peddled misinformation, but presented evidence from the Royal Commission report that contradicted Cobbe’s claims. To Darwin’s relief, a second letter from Cobbe, published on 23 April, was answered by Romanes in defence of physiologists. When thanking Romanes on 25 April, Darwin asked, ‘did you notice how in her second letter she altered what she quoted from her first letter, trusting to no one comparing the two?’ Jesse, who was refused publication in The Times, was outraged to see the letters from Cobbe, whom he thought mentally unfit and Darwin considered a liar. Darwin, however, prevented Jesse from publishing a private letter he had written to him, explaining that he was too old to bear the ‘wear & tear of controversy’ (letter to G. R. Jesse, 23 April 1881). Later in the year, Darwin declined to write an essay on vivisection for the Nineteenth Century or stand as the nominal head of a proposed Science Defence Association.

Darwin usually managed to turn down requests he found unappealing. He declined to lecture on evolution because he had never given a lecture in his life; he avoided invitations to contribute to controversial subjects by sticking to his principle of never writing for periodicals; he turned down the prime minister’s request that he become a British Museum trustee; and he would not join Herbert Spencer’s Anti-Aggression League because he felt he lacked the knowledge to make judgments on political questions. It was, he claimed, his earlier reading on political economy that had produced the ‘disastrous effect’ of making him distrust both his own and everyone else’s judgment on the subject (letter to A. R. Wallace, 12 July 1881). However, some requests were inescapable. When James Paget wrote on 1 June to invite Darwin to a private lunch at the International Medical Congress in order that ‘the Prince of Wales may meet quietly some of the chief scientific visitors’, he felt obliged to accept. The event was as awful as Darwin had expected. The crush of attendees left him ‘half dead’ before luncheon and being seated between Rudolf Virchow and Frans Donders, ‘who both spoke bad English incessantly’, completed his ‘killing’; ‘I was a fool to go,’ he told William Darwin on 4 August, ‘but I could hardly have declined.’ He also felt obliged to sit for a portrait commissioned by the Linnean Society. ‘It tires me a good deal to sit to anyone, but I shd. be the  most ungrateful & ungracious dog not to agree’, he told Romanes, secretary of the society, on 27 May. Romanes assured Darwin that the artist, John Collier, Huxley’s son-in-law, was ‘such a pleasant man to talk to’, that the sittings were ‘not so tedious as they would be with a less intelligent man’ (letter from G. J. Romanes, 1 July [1881]). Despite this, Darwin thanked ‘all the stars in heaven’ when the portrait was finished (letter to G. H. Darwin, 23 July 1881). ‘All my family who have seen it, think it the best likeness which has taken of me, & as far as I can judge this seems true’, Darwin reported to Romanes on 7 August.

Family joys

An unalloyed pleasure for Darwin was the progress of his sons’ careers. The success of Horace’s recently established Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company led Darwin to chide Francis for giving a klinostat designed by Horace to de Bary’s laboratory assistant rather than telling him to order one from Cambridge. When Robert Ball, Royal Astronomer of Ireland, praised George’s work, Darwin was so proud that he joked that his head had been so turned that it might come right off. On hearing that George was one of two possible candidates for the Plumian Professorship of astronomy and experimental philosophy at Cambridge University, Darwin advised him to remain in Cambridge, pointing out that in a competition between two men, the absent one was apt to ‘go to the wall’ (letter to G. H. Darwin, 19 November [1881]). Darwin was as solicitous about his least scientific son as his most brilliant and when William expressed his wish to join the Geological Society of London, if it were ‘not absurd for one with no pretensions’ (letter from W. E. Darwin, 13 January [1881]), Darwin immediately prepared a certificate for William’s nomination, canvassed supporters, and rejoiced in his election. Promoting Francis’s own botanical research was as important to Darwin as their collaborative work. When Asa Gray apologised to Darwin on 27 January for not commending papers presented by Francis at the Linnean Society the previous December (claiming that his nervousness about speaking at meetings led him to forget ‘a duty’ which he later realised was ‘incumbent’ upon him), Darwin, certain that Francis had not been offended, stated, ‘I wish I could infuse a few drachms of vanity & self-conceit into his veins, for he never will value in the least what he does I am certain that the notion or wish that you would speak in his praise wd. never have occurred to him’ (letter to Asa Gray, 29 January 1881).

While Francis was working in de Bary’s laboratory in Strasbourg over the summer, Darwin’s letters to him contained not only botanical matters but also news about Francis’s 5-year-old son, Bernard. Just ten days after Francis’s departure, Darwin reported that Bernard was scheming about ‘an army with elephants, camels, cannons—Bombs & God knows what, to besiege Strasburg, until at last Dr. De Bary is compelled to say “Mr. Dada you must go home at once”’ (letter to Francis Darwin, 20 May 1881). Francis tried to mitigate his absence by satisfying Bernard’s inordinate fondness for paper soldiers. Even when riding the donkey, Bernard insisted that his nurserymaid held a recently received regiment of paper soldiers loose in her hand, for they would ‘not be marching if they were put in her pocket’ (letter to Francis Darwin, 25 May [1881]). Two days later, on 27 May, Darwin warned Francis, ‘He asks every post whether any letter from you & I think he expects more soldiers, but with his delicate little soul, he said that he shd. not ask you to send any more.’ Emma Darwin clearly had different concerns about Bernard’s soul because Francis sent a message saying that she could teach Bernard ‘what religion she liked’ (letter from Francis Darwin, 23 [May 1881]). Most family events included Bernard. When the musician Hans Richter played for the Darwins at Down House—an experience Darwin ‘enjoyed surprisingly’—Bernard also listened and ‘gaped tremendously’ (letter to Francis Darwin, [after 27 May 1881]). His grandparents took him to the Lake District, where he and his paper soldiers accompanied them on walks. He was also present at a luncheon at Down House that resulted in one of the frankest statements about Darwin’s religious views. An 1883 pamphlet by Edward Aveling described the private discussion about religion following the lunch to which he and his fellow atheist Ludwig Büchner had been invited after expressing their wish to visit Darwin (letter from E. B. Aveling, 27 September [1881]).

Earthworms: sales and reactions

The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms: with observations on their habits was published in October. As ever, Darwin fretted about the risk and warned his publisher, who had printed 1000 copies, ‘the book will not excite much attention; so do not be disappointed if the sale is small’ (letter to R. F. Cooke, 5 October 1881). The publication date was 10 October, but by 7 October Darwin learned that 1200 copies had been subscribed to booksellers, and that 500 more were to be printed; next day that number had increased to 1000. The entire quantity had sold by 25 October, and the publisher predicted that a third thousand would sell before they could say ‘Jack Robinson’ (letter from R. F. Cooke, 25 October 1881). Darwin was ‘utterly astonished’, declaring that publishing a book was a ‘gambling transaction!’ (letter to R. F. Cooke, [after 25 October 1881?]). French and German editions were underway, and errors in the English text spotted by the translators as well as by Darwin’s many readers were rapidly corrected owing to the brisk sales. When the German translator asked whether ‘mould’ and ‘humus’ were interchangeable, Darwin confessed that they were, but with respect to the latter word, added, ‘two English Ladies complained that they did not know what the word meant, so I altered it; & I now wish that I had not done so’ (letter to J. V. Carus, 8 December 1881).

The first reactions to the book were from those who had received presentation copies. Galton wrote on 9 October, ‘I wish the worms were not such disagreable creatures to handle & keep by one, otherwise they would become popular pets, owing to your book. and many persons would try to make out more concerning their strange intelligence.’ Many others were also intrigued by the worms themselves. Geologists, however, thought of the book as a work about the production of vegetable mould: Archibald Geikie appreciated the action of worms but felt that Darwin underestimated the importance of wind transport in the growth of soil, while his brother James Geikie told Darwin on 10 October that no one would ‘any longer undervalue the “earth-worm” as a potent geological agent’ and that henceforward this ‘lowly, organized worker’ would ‘occupy an honourable place in all geological manuals and text-books’. The countess of Derby recalled Darwin saying that ‘“Worms” could revolutionise the world’, and she believed that Darwin’s book had proved ‘the greatness of their power’ (letter from M. C. Stanley, 16 October 1881). Hooker thanked Darwin for  the ‘diet  of  Worms’, telling him, ‘I must own I have  always looked on worms as amongst the most helpless & unintelligent members of the creation; & am amazed to find that they have a domestic life & public duties!’ (letter from J. D. Hooker, [23 October 1881]). Wallace, writing on 18 October, admitted that he had hitherto regarded earthworms from a gardener’s point of view ‘as a nuisance’ (a view echoed by several correspondents), but he would ‘now tolerate their presence in view of their utility & importance’.

The rapid sales of Earthworms, especially compared to Movement in plants, resulted in a large number and variety of people writing to Darwin, to point out errors, ask questions, and send observations. ‘I am driven almost frantic by the number of letters about worms’, he told Francis Darwin on 9 November, ‘but amidst much rubbish there are some good facts & suggestions. So I have sent for clean sheets  & shall make an amended edition. It is laughable the enthusiasm with which the book has been received.’ By the end of 1881, six thousand copies of Earthworms had been printed. Readers also expressed their appreciation of Darwin’s originality and approach. The geologist Thomas Reade wrote on 6 November, ‘It seems strange that the geological work done by worms should not have been realised before— but so it is with every discovery—so simple when explained!’ And with seeming prescience of how the book would come to be used to demonstrate the scientific method in future science classes, the American entomologist Charles Riley praised Darwin for not only advancing knowledge, but also teaching ‘younger men the true methods of investigation’ (letter from C. V. Riley, 18 December 1881).

Critique of Movement in plants

Amidst this praise, Darwin began reading a book that took aim at his previous publication Movement in plants. Although the plant physiologist Julius Sachs and others disagreed with some of Darwin’s conclusions, this had not shaken his confidence. Nor did he seem unduly concerned when a book arrived on 1 October from the Austrian botanist Julius Wiesner, the English translation of its title being ‘The power of movement in plants. A critical study of the work of the same name by Charles Darwin, together with new investigations’. Thanking Wiesner for the book on 4 October, Darwin warned him, ‘I read German so very slowly, that your book will take me a considerable time, for I cannot read for more than half-an-hour each day.’ Perhaps because Wiesner had emphasised that he wrote in ‘loyal opposition’, Darwin seemed sanguine as he conceded that Wiesner was such a ‘skilful and profound experimentalist’ that he had most likely found some ‘gross errors’ in the book. ‘Although I always am endeavouring to be cautious and to mistrust myself, yet I know well how apt I am to make blunders’, Darwin admitted, though concern appears to have crept in when he told Wiesner, ‘I hope that you will not have upset my fundamental notion that various classes of movement result from the modification of a universally present movement of cir[c]umnutation.’

Two weeks later and eighty pages into Wiesner’s book, Darwin’s worst fears were realised. Although he had not quite reached the relevant section, Darwin knew that Wiesner strenuously denied that all growing parts of plants circumnutate. Darwin’s arguments about plant movement were based on the collaborative experimental work he had undertaken with Francis Darwin, to whom he broke the news on 17 October. Fatherly concern and responsibility for his son’s botanical reputation were apparent in the careful way Darwin used plural and singular when he told Francis that Wiesner found most of ‘our facts true’, but ‘my explanations wrong’. In turn, Francis exhibited his wish to protect his father from criticism when he admitted that he had already read the account of Wiesner’s ‘horribly conclusive’ experiment but had not said anything because he thought Darwin might have given up with  the German before he reached that part of the book (letter from Francis Darwin, [21 October 1881]).

Francis had a further problem: he had been asked to review Wiesner’s book for Nature. ‘It might be an opportunity of saying anything we want to say about it’, Francis acknowledged, but he was inclined to refuse, as it would be some time before he could prepare a longer signed review (letter from Francis Darwin, [21 October 1881]). He thought about publishing a short anonymous one, but Darwin urged him to work on a longer response because he had now read most of Wiesner’s book and could tell Francis, ‘he has repeated almost all our experiments & finds our statements correct, but it is almost laughable how different an interpretation he puts on every single case.’ Darwin considered some of these interpretations ludicrous but thought the book ‘a model of the spirit in which everyone ought to write controversially’ (letter to Francis Darwin, 22 [October 1881]). Wiesner’s courtesy, experimental skill, expertise in histology, and thoroughness led Darwin to admit to Hooker on 22 October, ‘No man was ever vivisected in so sweet a manner before, as I am in this book.’ In a long letter to Wiesner on 25 October, Darwin confessed that Wiesner’s experiments were so beautiful that he ‘actually felt pleasure while being vivisected’. Darwin concluded, ‘I wish that I had enough strength and spirit to commence a fresh set of experiments and publish the results with a full recantation of my errors when convinced of them; but I am too old for such an undertaking, nor do I suppose that I shall be able to do much, or any more original work.’ Darwin also believed that his opinion signified little: ‘I have no doubt that your book will convince most botanists that I am wrong in all the points on which we differ.’

To Darwin’s dismay, the plant physiologist Wilhelm Pfeffer, whose research he admired, also disagreed with some arguments in Movement in plants and pointed out that Darwin had misunderstood parts of his work. Pfeffer made these statements when writing to inform Darwin that he wished to investigate plant movement further but would stand aside if Darwin was still working on the topic. After encouraging Pfeffer to continue, Darwin received a reassuring response. Pfeffer had not meant to reproach him for misunderstanding some of his work and, more importantly (and contrary to Darwin’s expectations), he disagreed with many of Wiesner’s explanations, especially those of key importance to Darwin regarding the sensitivity of the root tip and the way external conditions acted on plants. Darwin’s confidence must have been boosted by this and by Vines’s opinion that Wiesner was not to be trusted and was too ‘finical in his experiments & strongly inclined to oppose everyone’ (letter to Francis Darwin, 28 [October 1881]). On 9 November, Darwin told Francis, ‘I have thought of 3 good experiments v. Wiesner,—two of which will be difficult.’ Although Darwin began exploring ways to show Wiesner’s reasoning defective in some cases—recruiting the help of Lord Rayleigh, George Darwin, and Horace Darwin—the task of defending Darwin’s arguments fell to Francis. Later in November, Francis was ‘glad to get to work on the antiWiesner experiments’ (letter from Francis Darwin, [after 14 November 1881]). With cruel timing, Francis’s response to Wiesner’s book appeared in the issue of Nature published the day after Darwin’s death in April 1882.

Deaths, gifts and legacies

The number of deaths in 1881 made friendships all the more valuable. ‘We have lost no end of friends this year, & it is difficult to resist the pessimistic view of creation’, Hooker told Darwin when informing him on 18 June of the untimely death of the anatomist George Rolleston, but added, ‘when I look back, however, especially my beloved friend to the days I have spent in intercourse with you & your’s, that view takes wings to itself & flies away: it is a horrid world to be sure, but it could have been worse.’ Recollections of the earlier loss of a close friend were prompted by the publication of Charles Lyell’s Life, letters, and journals in November. Although Darwin enjoyed reading the letters, he thought the book should have been shorter. He also read a draft of the entry on Lyell for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, telling the author, Arabella Buckley, on 11 July that he regretted that there could not be more about Lyell’s private character, such as ‘his strong sense of humour and love of society’, ‘his extreme interest in the progress of the world and in the happiness of Mankind’, and ‘his freedom from all religious bigotry’. The private character of another more recently deceased figure was not so well received by the Darwins. They found the cynical tone of and revelations in Thomas Carlyle’s posthumously published Reminiscences distasteful. Anthony Rich was indignant that Carlyle had ridiculed Darwin’s Origin without having read a page of it, but relieved that Carlyle’s friend Erasmus Alvey Darwin, Darwin’s brother, had ‘got through the fire without being scorched’ (letter from Anthony Rich, 13 June 1881).

Although Carlyle appeared to flatter Erasmus, Darwin stated in his recollections that Carlyle’s sketch of his brother’s character had little truth and no merit. Far more accurate assessments were soon being made by old friends, who sent condolences to Darwin after Erasmus’s death on 26 August was made public. On 1 September, an old Shrewsbury School friend, Lamplugh Dykes, wrote to express his shock and to tell Darwin, ‘A more thoroughly honorable & excellent a man never lived’. Hooker read the death announcement on 29 August and wrote immediately, reminding Darwin, ‘It was in your brother’s house, near Park Lane, that I first became acquainted with you—& shall never forget his kind face & kinder welcome. That was nearly 40 years ago!’ Darwin, himself, told Thomas Farrer on 28 August, ‘The death of my brother Erasmus is a very heavy loss to all of us in this family. He was so kind-hearted & affectionate. Nor have I ever known any one more pleasant. It was always a very great pleasure to talk with him on any subject whatever, & this I shall never do again. The clearness of his mind always seemed to me admirable. He was not, I think, a happy man & for many years did not value life, though never complaining. I am so glad that he escaped very severe suffering during his few last days. I shall never see such a man again.’ Erasmus was buried in Down graveyard on 1 September, and his estate was settled by his executors George and William Darwin.

For much of the year, William had also been helping Darwin assess his wealth so that he could add a codicil to his will. ‘We are the luckiest children in the world’, William declared to his father on 6 January,  after hearing how Darwin intended to provide for his family. By the time William finished his valuation, Darwin had not only inherited the bulk of his brother’s property but also knew that Rich still intended to leave a substantial bequest to the Darwin family. Darwin decided to make an entirely new will. Apart from providing for his family, on 11 September he instructed his solicitor, William Hacon, to include bequests of £1000 each to Hooker and Huxley to acknowledge his ‘life-long affection & respect for them’. Darwin also decided to give more to the scientific community during his lifetime. On 16 September, he informed his children, concerning the annual division of his surplus income, ‘I shall ... probably give away more for scientific purposes, so that a less sum will probably be divided amongst you.’

These ‘scientific purposes’ were various. Darwin continued to raise money for the Belfast potato-blight researcher James Torbitt; Fritz Müller was offered £100 to replace books that Darwin (erroneously) thought had been lost in a flood; the same amount was offered to Haeckel if he was unable to get other funds for a proposed trip to Ceylon; and even Leopold Würtenberger, who had received £100 from Darwin in 1879 to continue his work on the phylogeny of ammonites, and persistently tried to scrounge another £80 as a loan, received £30 as a gift on condition that he  asked for no more. Darwin also offered funds to scientific institutions and causes. After reading about fossil scorpions being found in Lower Carboniferous strata by the Scottish Geological Survey, and assuming that the survey could not allow their employees to search for fossils of other terrestrial animals and plants, Darwin told the director, Archibald Geikie, on 11 November, ‘This leads me to make an offer ... namely to subscribe £100 or £200, if you can find anyone whom you could trust to send, & if you think it worth while to make further search for the chance of fresh  & greater palæontological treasures being discovered.’ Geikie, however, assured Darwin not only that it was within the survey’s duties to search for more fossils, but also that more ‘air breathers’ had already been found by Benjamin Peach, one of the survey men, who had not yet published his discovery. Geikie would therefore call on Darwin’s aid only if the work exceeded the capabilities of the survey. More pressing was the need to raise funds for the campaign to defend David Ferrier, the first physiologist subject to an ‘absurd and wicked prosecution’ under the terms of the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act (letter to T. L. Brunton, 19 November 1881). Darwin initially pledged £20, but after hearing that many leaders of the medical profession were subscribing £100, he decided to match the largest sum offered by any other contributor. His most important gift and enduring scientific legacy was his pledge in 1881 to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew of an annual amount of £250 to produce a new catalogue of known plants (completed ten years later as Index Kewensis).

For all that Darwin had thought about death in 1881, the year ended with the happy news of a birth. On 7 December, Charles and Emma Darwin’s second grandchild, another grandson, was born in Cambridge. His parents, Ida and Horace Darwin, named him Erasmus in honour of his great-uncle Erasmus Alvey Darwin. ‘As one grows old one’s chief interest is in the happiness of our children’, Darwin told his old Cambridge University friend John Price on 27 December. As Darwin rejoiced in the achievements of his children over the year, he also reflected on memory and the past. When he inherited a miniature of his mother from Erasmus, he was glad to know that the sweet expression was a good likeness because he remembered nothing about her. In contrast, his recollection of the reactions of his older sisters to her death when he was 8 years old was sharp. Very different memories surfaced when the botanical artist Marianne North stayed at Down House. Darwin enjoyed seeing her Australian paintings while sitting under a tree in the garden, later telling her, ‘I am often able to call up with considerable vividness scenes in various countries which I have seen, and it is no small pleasure’ (letter to Marianne North, 2 August 1881). However, for all his ability to recall pleasurable scenes, and despite his complaints about decline, Darwin resolutely looked to the future. He was more interested in puzzling out the cell structure of rootlets than in reminiscing. While many of Darwin’s followers saw the publication of Earthworms as a sign of his continued intellectual vigour, others thought he would be quite justified in resting on his laurels. ‘I wish that I could follow your advice & be idle,’ Darwin admitted to his old Beagle shipmate Sulivan on 1 December, ‘but I find myself miserable, without having some daily work.’



About this article

Based on the introduction to The correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 29: 1881

Edited by Frederick Burkhardt, James A. Secord, Samantha Evans, Shelley Innes, Francis Neary, Alison M. Pearn, Anne Secord, Paul White. (Cambridge University Press 2022)

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