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Darwin Correspondence Project

Terms of engagement: To Julius Wiesner, 25 October 1881


Julius Wiesner 1838–1916
Julius Wiesner 1838–1916

Thomas Huxley’s pugnacious public defence of evolution led to his nickname ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ and to a view of Darwin as an evader of controversy. Darwin firmly believed that controversy rarely did any good, but this did not mean that he avoided challenges to his work. It was not criticism that he objected to—he saw that as an essential part of the progress of science—but those critics who adopted a harsh and unscientific tone. The terms on which he was willing to engage with critics are apparent in a letter written to the German botanist Julius Wiesner eleven months after Darwin’s book on the movement in plants had been published. Wiesner, a self-declared admirer of Darwin, had published a book with the same title that challenged the central claim and much else in Darwin’s arguments concerning plant movement. 

At first, Darwin seemed excited that his experiments had been replicated by as highly skilled an experimenter as Wiesner, but as he struggled through the German text, his acknowledgement that these experiments would correct any blunders on his part turned to dismay when he saw that Wiesner’s work threatened his conclusions. By the time he finished the book, Darwin had realised that this was not always because his results were incorrect but because Wiesner interpreted them so differently. 

Darwin’s relief, however, was tempered. Writing to Wiesner on 25 October 1881, Darwin stated ‘I have no doubt that your book will convince most botanists that I am wrong in all the points on which we differ.’ His conviction perhaps came from his own susceptibility to Wiesner’s experimental skill, expertise in histology, and thoroughness. Some of Wiesner’s experiments were ‘so beautiful’, Darwin confessed, that he ‘actually felt pleasure while being vivisected’. Darwin knew that he would have to match this to make his case. ‘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’, he told Wiesner, ‘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’s letter clearly conveys his view that science advanced not through confrontation, but the combination of expertise and courtesy, as exhibited so clearly by Wiesner. The letter begins with Darwin expressing his appreciation for Wiesner’s disarming approach. ‘You have shown how a man may differ from another in the most decided manner, and yet express his difference with the most perfect courtesy. Not a few English and German naturalists might learn a useful lesson from your example; for the coarse language often used by scientific men towards each other does no good, and only degrades science.’ After discussing their differences concerning plant movement, Darwin assured Wiesner of his ‘high respect’ and closed with ‘sincere thanks’, telling Wiesner it was ‘for the kind manner in which you have treated me and my mistakes’. 

Anne Secord