Selected extracts from reviews of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin

Gillian Beer, King Edward VII Professor of English Literature, University of Cambridge, An insight into Darwin from his correspondence, The Magazine of the Cambridge Society 46 (2000) 83-85:

Two very diverse factors in particular begin to explain the extraordinary presence of Darwin in argument and in popular imagination now. One is the mounting realisation over the past decade of how significant the discovery of DNA is for all our lives and futures. The other is the publication, volume by tremendous volume since 1985, of the Darwin Correspondence

The sheer scope, variety, and richness of the Correspondence builds from volume to volume and the specificity of the examples and arguments among scientific correspondents … makes the material valuable still …

The footnotes to the Correspondence are magnificent. They give us access to every kind of context: scientific, religious, familial, political, social, and international. They quietly provide the information that will allow us to read to the full and grasp the implications of what we are reading. With their aid what might seem trifling becomes significant, and capable also of being taken further by other scholars: the best kind of understated gift to knowledge …

The crammed and pleasurable mind of Darwin offers us enjoyment wherever we go in these volumes, and the editors make sure that every reader can have full access to this activity of mind and heart by providing supporting information and scrupulous correctness of transcription. We learn how ideas gather, how they move from the edge of attention to the centre, how interruptions as well as systems are part of original thinking, how much other people matter in that process …

The story of this great project so far is extraordinary enough. What is to come will confirm its value as one of the magisterial achievements of 20th-century scholarship and one of the great tools for 21st-century understanding.

Gordon McOuat, Essay Review Networks, Hybrids and Forms of Life, Annals of Science (2000) 189-195:

Nothing in recent history of science quite tops the achievement of the volumes of Darwin correspondence. It is our own Human Genome Project. Its aim to collect, transcribe, edit, and authoritatively annotate the complete correspondence of Charles Darwin requires a wide network of contacts, researchers, sites, and sources, and outstanding editors, typesetters, transcribers, translators, fund-raisers … . With all of its detail, its ferreting out of the minutiae of biographical and institutional detail, its superb appendices and informative supplementary essays, its exhaustive indexing, multiple bibliographies and biographical registers, its elegant style, the project deserves the highest of praise …

Such large editorial genome projects often suffer the danger of nitpickery: the exhaustion of exhaustive detail. These volumes are indeed detailed – the evel of scholarship that goes into each and every letter is truly astonishing. The research is exemplary … . But there is purpose in all this detail: the chronicling of the fortunes of a theory – indeed, one of the most important theories in the history of biology – and its founder and its time … . Each volume of the Correspondence contributes invaluable resources for tracing these networks, for unpacking these concerns, for understanding Darwin, and for going beyond to the other nodes of dispute and contact in Victorian science.

Alan Grafen, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford, review of volume 10 of the Correspondence, Notes and Records of the Royal Society (1999) 175-176:

Darwin cannot have hoped for more sympathetic, intelligent, and historically and scientifically informed editors than those of the series under review … . The magnificent editorial apparatus identifies and describes nearly every person and incident. The footnotes, together with the biographical register and table of relationships and chronology, make this series worth inestimably more in scholarly terms than the original letters themselves.

… The immense scientific and historical interest of this volume adds to the sense of privilege at the intimacy the reader gains with the domestic and intellectual concerns of a humane, honest and profoundly thinking man.

M. J. S. Hodge, review of volume 7 of the Correspondence, Journal of Animal Ecology 62 (1993) 216-219:

This volume sees Darwin finally going public with his theory of natural selection … . We can all, whether scientists or not, learn much about any significant idea by following how it was first conceived, and how it was argued for and argued against when it was still new … . A great virtue of this superb edition of Darwin ’s correspondence is not merely that many letters are being published for the first time, but that all the extant letters to Darwin are also included. Given, too, the informative notes, rich appendices, comprehensive bibliographies and meticulous index, and one has a remarkable source book of vintage evolutionary biology that is a pleasure to read and own.

Brief quotations from additional selected reviews

Previous volumes have already provided a gold mine of information not only for Darwin scholars but for any researcher interested in the Victorian period, particularly Victorian science. Isis

… will long remain a real and glittering masterpiece of scholarship. British Journal for the History of ScienceIt is a work of magisterial scholarship, meticulous in every respect. The Quarterly Review of Biology

… a superb series … beautifully produced, beautifully readable, efficiently indexed, supportively but not gossipily annotated. The Times Literary Supplement

… admirably self-contained volumes, which one need not be a Darwin scholar to read with profit. The New Yorker

Every now and then … publishing and academe work together to produce books so splendid that it seems ungrateful not to acquire them: this promises to be another such. The Guardian

The editorial standards are as high as ever, and the complete letters continue to throw unexpected light on Darwin’s career. Trends in Ecology and Evolution

… this authoritative work is a model of scholarship in both its comprehensiveness and supporting documentation which provides a rich source of background, biographical and bibliographical detail. The Naturalist

… this edition of the correspondence of Charles Darwin represents a considerable step forward toward understanding the birth of contemporary evolutionary biology, as well as toward appreciating the social and general cultural dimensions of Victorian science. The work under review could be looked at as the termination of almost two decades of philosophically impeccable and intellectually innovative scholarship on Charles Darwin. Yet it could also be argued that this admirable accurate edition of Darwin’s letters will provide a new and powerful incentive to studies in the history of evolutionary biology and to British and European cultural history in general. Science