Darwin's Heartache

Two hundred years ago today, in the little country town of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, Charles Robert Darwin was born. No one then could have known that, fifty years and nine months later, Charles would deliver a treatise that would forever change our understanding of our place in nature. That is precisely what he did, though, and today many are honoring the evolutionary synthesis Darwin presented in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (to say nothing of his other works).

Indeed, today we are not so much celebrating Darwin's birth (if this were his primary achievement we certainly not be remembering him today) but the impact of his later work as a naturalist. To that end I have decided to forgo any long-winded discussions of Darwin's contributions to science or the ways in which he was right or wrong. There are plenty of others who will do that, and I would rather take this opportunity to look into a question that has long been itching at the back of my mind for an answer.

On November 24, 1859 Darwin's abstract On the Origin of Species was released. We often focus on this date as a "shot heard round the world" type of event, but I have long wondered just what Darwin was thinking as his book emerged on the public stage. A few years ago I might not have been able to obtain any answer, but the Darwin Correspondence Project has made transcriptions of Darwin's letters from this important time freely available. They are very interesting, indeed.

(I am generally restricting myself to letters written on the 24th of November and several days afterward, with a few exceptions. I hope this focus will not be too narrow, but I desired a close look at Darwin's feelings during this particular time.)

On the day On the Origin of Species was released Darwin wrote to the ornithologist T.C. Eyton from Ilkley Wells House, Yorkshire (the setting for all the correspondence of Nov. 24, 1859). Given that Eyton does not appear to have been keen on evolution (even though Darwin thought he might eventually come around) Darwin wrote "My Book will horrify & disgust you, though I have already met with far more accordance than I expected from several high authorities."

Indeed, in a letter written the same day to Charles Lyell, Darwin expressed his astonishment that his publisher, John Murray, sold the entire first edition in the first day. Murray wanted a second edition immediately, and plans were already being laid for a French translation. Unfortunately Darwin was too ill to even think of working on either project. "Now under water-cure with all nervous power directed to the skin, I cannot possibly do head-work, & I must make only actually necessary corrections," Darwin lamented. "I must not attempt much."

If Darwin was not feeling well to begin with, his constitution must have been further stressed by a letter he received from Adam Sedgwick, his old academic mentor. After laying out a series of excuses as to why he had not read Darwin's book and replied sooner, Sedgwick leaned into Darwin's work with full force;

-- If I did not think you a good tempered & truth loving man I should not tell you that, (spite of the great knowledge; store of facts; capital views of the corelations of the various parts of organic nature; admirable hints about the diffusions, thro' wide regions, of nearly related organic beings; &c &c) I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly; parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow; because I think them utterly false & grievously mischievous-- You have deserted--after a start in that tram-road of all solid physical truth--the the true method of induction--& started up a machinery as wild I think as Bishop Wilkin's locomotive that was to sail with us to the Moon. Many of your wide conclusions are based upon assumptions which can neither be proved nor disproved. Why then express them in the language & arrangements of philosophical induction?.--

As to your grand principle--natural selection--what is it but a secondary consequence of supposed, or known, primary facts. Development is a better word because more close to the cause of the fact. For you do not deny causation. I call (in the abstract) causation the will of God: & I can prove that He acts for the good of His creatures. He also acts by laws which we can study & comprehend-- Acting by law, & under what is called final cause, comprehends, I think, your whole principle. You write of "natural selection" as if it were done consciously by the selecting agent. 'Tis but a consequence of the presupposed development, & the subsequent battle for life.--

Among the parts of the book that most offended Sedgwick, however, was the concluding chapter;

Lastly then, I greatly dislike the concluding chapter--not as a summary--for in that light it appears good--but I dislike it from the tone of triumphant confidence in which you appeal to the rising generation (in a tone I condemned in the author of the Vestiges), & prophesy of things not yet in the womb of time; nor, (if we are to trust the accumulated experience of human sense & the inferences of its logic) ever likely to be found any where but in the fertile womb of man's imagination.--

Darwin must have been crushed by these comments from the old "son of a monkey." Even though Sedgwick assured Darwin that he was still his erstwhile pupil's "true-hearted old friend" a later letter to Richard Owen reveals how deeply wounded Darwin was. He wrote;

You [Owen] smiled at me for sticking myself up as a martyr; but I assure you, if you had heard the unmerciful & I think unjust things said of my Book & to me in a letter by an old & very distinguished friend, you would not wonder at me being sensitive, perhaps ridiculously sensitive.

That Sedgwick not only disagreed with Darwin, but practically ridiculed him, was deeply painful. The following day Darwin wrote to his friend T.H. Huxley that "I have had a kind yet slashing letter against me from poor dear old Sedgwick, 'who has laughed till his sides ached at my Book.'" Rather than remain silent, however, Darwin soon wrote back to his "poor dear old" friend. Written on November 26th, Darwin hid his wounds and said;

You could not possibly have paid me a more honourable compliment than in expressing freely your strong disapprobation of my Book.-- I fully expected it. I can only say that I have worked like a slave on the subject for above 20 years & am not conscious that bad motives have influenced the conclusions at which I have arrived. I grieve to have shocked a man whom I sincerely honour. But I do not think you would wish anyone to conceal the results at which he has arrived after he has worked, according to the best ability which may be in him. I do not think my book will be mischievous; for there are so many workers that, if I be wrong I shall soon be annihilated; & surely you will agree that truth can be known only by rising victorious from every attack.

That Darwin was gaining support, particularly among young rising stars in the naturalist community, however, gave him some reason to be defensive. On the charge that he was over-confident he countered;

I daresay I may have written too confidently from feeling so confident of the truth of my main doctrine. I have made already a few converts of good & tried naturalists & oddly enough two of them compliment me on my cautious mode of expression! This will make you laugh.

Clearly Darwin was struggling with mixed emotions about the disapproval of a man from which he had learned so much. "Let me say again how I grieved I am to have encountered your severe disapprobation & ridicule," Darwin wrote. "Your kind & noble heart shows itself througout your letter." If Darwin truly believed this at the time he wrote it, then he soon changed his mind. A few days later, on the 29th of November, he sent Sedgwick's letter to Charles Lyell, stating that "it is terribly muddled & really the first page seems almost childish." (And he reiterated similar sentiments, fearing that his work will be "greatly abused" by his opponents like Sedgwick, in another letter to Lyell.)

Whatever Sedgwick though, however, the book was out and its theoretical conclusions (which were more important than the sum of the facts alone) would have to be proved or disproved by other naturalists. What contributed to Darwin's anxiety, though, was that he had not yet heard back from one of his most valued friends on natural selection. Darwin had mentally appointed three judges of his work whose opinions he cherished more than any others; Lyell, Joseph Hooker, and Huxley. Darwin had not yet received Huxley's reply, and on the 24th he wrote to his young friend and said;

Remember how deeply I wish to know your general impression of the truth of the theory of Natural Selection.--only a short note-- at some future time if you have any lengthy criticisms, I shd be infinitely grateful for them. You must know well how highly I value your opinion.

The uncertainty stirred by his mentor's words may have even damped his enthusiasm for a second edition, for he confided to Huxley that he was "bothered to death by this new Edition." Fortunately for Darwin's nerves, Huxley's note about natural selection arrived soon after Darwin had sent the first dispatch out. (It had been delayed as it had to be forwarded from Down House.) It was filled with praise for Darwin's book, and Huxley stated that "Since I read Von Bär's Essays nine years ago no work on Natural History Science I have met with has made so great an impression upon me & I do most heartily thank you for the great store of new views you have given me." The only major criticism Huxley had at the time was that Darwin did not consider saltations (or large jumps) in evolution, but otherwise Huxley affirmed that he was "sharpening up [his] claws & beak in readiness" to defend the great work.

This surely pleased Darwin, and after he had read it Darwin replied to his young friend that "Like a good Catholic, who has received extreme unction, I can now sing "nunc dimittis." [referring to Luke 2: 29, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace."]

Perhaps the pall of anxiety and sorrow that had descended upon Darwin that day lifted just a little, although he would still complain of pains inflicted by Sedgwick for weeks to come. Even so, Darwin was right that his theory would live or die by the research of other naturalists. Despite the controversy that has often surrounded evolution by natural selection, I think he would be amazed and gratified by all we have learned in the past 150 years.

[Thanks to Michael Ryan, too, for reminding us that this is also the birthday of paleontologist Barnum Brown.]

More like this

Thank you very much, I love historical and biographical information about past scientists.

By CharlesWade (not verified) on 12 Feb 2009 #permalink

What a cool take on the day. As a writer, I so identify with his anxiety about a new book coming out, all the more so because of what it signified.


I reread for a second time, then again for a third time, the paragraph noting that Darwin (the "Great Satan") alluded to a passage in the Bible to describe the emotional release he felt at knowing that his theory had been enthusiastically accepted by his peer and friend, Huxley. A very fitting quote which foreshadowed the tension that remains unresolved even today.

The past is simply prolog.

Excellent post, Brian. At the level of Gould at his best.