The year 1861 marked an important change in the direction of Darwin’s work. He had weathered the storm that followed the publication of Origin, and felt cautiously optimistic about the ultimate acceptance of his ideas. The letters from this year provide an unusually detailed and intimate understanding of Darwin’s problem-solving method of work. The beginning of the American Civil War and the possibility of British involvement brings an unusally political flavour to the correspondence with tensions increasingly evident between two of his closest friends and supporters, Joseph Hooker and the American Asa Gray.
At the start of 1869, Darwin was hard at work making changes and additions for a fifth edition of Origin. He may have resented the interruption to his work on sexual selection and human evolution, but he spent forty-six days on the task. Much of the remainder of the year was spent researching and revising chapters for Descent, and gathering additional material on emotional expression. Yet the scope of Darwin’s interests remained extremely broad, many letters throughout the year touching on subjects such as South American geology, barnacle morphology, insectivorous plants, and earthworms, subjects that had exercised Darwin for decades.
The year 1866 began well for Charles Darwin, as his health, after several years of illness, was now considerably improved. In February, Darwin received a request from his publisher, John Murray, for a new edition of Origin. Darwin got the fourth edition to the printers in July. Much to Darwin’s annoyance, however, publication was delayed by Murray, who judged that it would sell better if released later in the year. Darwin also completed the major part of what was to become Variation. Debate about Darwin’s theory of transmutation continued in 1866, with important commentaries appearing in France, Germany, and Italy.
One of the real pleasures afforded in reading Charles Darwin’s correspondence is the discovery of areas of research on which he never published, but which interested him deeply. We can gain many insights about Darwin’s research methods by following these ‘letter trails’ and observing how correspondence served as a vital research tool for him.
On 7 January 1860, John Murray published the second edition of Darwin’s Origin of species, printing off another 3000 copies to satisfy the demands of an audience that surprised both the publisher and the author. It wasn't long, however, before ‘the stones began to fly’. Members of the scientific community found many difficulties in Origin in the year after its publication and Darwin despaired of making his ideas understood. Among these problems was that arising from the implications it had for human ancestry, hotly debated at the famous meeting of the British Association in Oxford that summer.
The years 1858 and 1859 were, without doubt, the most momentous of Darwin’s life. From a quiet rural existence filled with steady work on his ‘big book’ on species, he was jolted into action by the arrival of an unexpected letter from Alfred Russel Wallace. This letter led to the first announcement of Darwin’s and Wallace’s respective theories of organic change at the Linnean Society of London in July 1858 and prompted the composition and publication, in November 1859, of Darwin’s major treatise On the origin of species by means of natural selection.
A French collector [Alcide d’Orbigny] has been at the Rio Negro and will probably have "taken the cream". CD’s luck with fossil bones, among them a large extinct armadillo-like animal. Describes some birds, toads, Crustacea, and other marine specimens. Nearly all plants flowering at Bahia Blanca were collected. Is sending two large casks of fossil bones by packet.
His trip across the Andes and back was his most successful excursion: can clearly demonstate that the western part of the double line of mountains is much older, with fossil shells at 12000ft; the eastern line may be as modern as the Patagonian plains. If proved, this is an important fact in the theory of the formation of the world. Has found petrified trees.