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.