Beyond the importance of his ideas I find the life of Charles Darwin fascinating because of all the innumerable opportunities for history to have turned out differently. If his father had kept Darwin off the HMS Beagle, for instance, Darwin may well have had the quiet country parsonage he longed for, finding a non-controversial refuge in changing times. History, of course, turned out quite differently, but the more I learn about Darwin’s life the more I appreciate the struggle involved in the development of evolution by natural selection.

Although Darwin unintentionally imitated some of his previous scientific subjects by eventually cementing himself at Downe as a barnacle would to a rock, his correspondence reached far and wide. This huge mass of writing is especially revealing. There are many little gems in the pile of letters, but one of the most interesting (and entertaining) involves the destruction of work meant to be in the Origin of Species by graffiti.

Of all the people in Darwin’s inner circle, those that knew of his work on transmutation and in some cases had been converted to that view, few were closer to the naturalist than the botanist Joseph Hooker. In April of 1859, as Darwin was gearing up to publish On the Origin of Species, he sent Hooker pages on geographical distribution that would be a part of the upcoming book. By accident, however, Hooker placed the manuscript in the same drawer in which his wife kept drawing paper for their children, and one can only imagine Hooker’s horror when we discovered that a quarter of Darwin’s revolutionary work had been scribbled into oblivion.

Good-natured as ever, Darwin did not angrily berate Hooker, only lamenting that the botanist had not read the part that was doodled upon and that the book might have to wait a little longer for publication;

I have the old M.S, otherwise the loss would have killed me! The worst is now that it will cause delay in getting to press, & far worst of all I lose all advantage of you having looked over my chapter, except the third part returned.

This, in fact, made Hooker’s guilt worse. He knew of Darwin’s health problems, often exacerbated by his anxiety over how his evolutionary ideas would be received, and he would almost prefer for Darwin to shout him down for his lapse of attention. In a letter to T.H. Huxley (another Darwin’s corps of naturalists) Hooker wrote “How I wish he could stamp and fume at me–instead of taking it so good-humouredly as he will.”

Despite the setback all was not lost, and it would have been strange for Darwin to throw in the towel because of a handful of pages covered in “art” by the Hooker children. Even though his idea about natural selection had been presented with Wallace’s convergently generated notion the year before, the scientific community was eagerly awaiting Darwin’s larger work and the public was primed for debate over apes and angels. The latter was of greater concern; natural selection had gained a foothold within the scientific community but the public and the clergy could very well crush it’s digits and send it tumbling back into the abyss. That did not happen, natural selection coming over the cliff to struggle with Neo-Lamarckism and orthogensis for decades, but the gory details of such battles is for another time.


  1. #1 Michael D. Barton, FCD
    July 25, 2008

    Nice post, Brian… I enjoyed reading letters between Darwin and Hooker when writing my Darwin seed dispersal paper back in 2006. I particularly liked how they seemed to enjoy their disagreement on ideas. From my paper:

    “In 1863, Darwin reported to Hooker the results of another experiment. He received the leg of a partridge which had dirt caked into a ball on its foot from the zoologist Alfred Newton. Darwin took seeds from the dirt and many of them germinated. Being sick, his wife Emma wrote a letter to Hooker stating that the ‘partridge’s foot has now produced 54 plants which he hopes may stick in your throat.’ Either Darwin was referring to a previous remark about Hooker eating the plants he successfully germinated, or it was a sort of stab as if Darwin had won a sword fight. Whichever the case it may be, the remark shows how the dispute was welcomed by Darwin, for ‘a squabble with or about Hooker always does me a world of good, & we have been at it many a long year.’ ”

  2. #2 neil
    July 25, 2008

    A drawing by Francis Darwin, “The Battle of the Fruit and Vegetable Soldiers”, on the back of an Origin manuscript page has survived to posterity. Apparently, Darwin could have had a successful career as a coloring book designer! In fact, had he been born a woman he might have had no other choice….

    I wonder if any of those drawings by the Hooker kids have survived?

  3. #3 Raymond Minton
    January 4, 2009

    Another point to ponder: what if Wallace had published his paper on evolution first? Would it have received as much attention? Would he have proved as good as Darwin at “selling” this earth-shaking concept, and would he have picked up the same allies along the way? So much in history can depend on one person that just a small changing of the narrative can change the outcome completely. Anyway, excellent job.

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