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article imageNewly released personal letters show the softer side of Darwin

By Jeff Campagna     Mar 28, 2013 in Science
Over 1400 previously unread personal letters by the famous naturalist have been published by Cambridge University's Darwin Correspondence Project.
In 1872, thirteen years after the publication of his scientific giant On The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin released The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, a text concerning genetically determined aspects of behaviour, expression and emotion.
"Even cows, when they frisk about from pleasure, throw up their tails in a ridiculous fashion," Darwin wrote in the book. It's no surprise then, that a naturalist so gripped by the presence of fear, anger, disdain and pleasure in animals had, even if to only his closest friends, an emotive side.
In 1876, Darwin's daughter-in-law Amy died during childbirth. "Poor Amy had severe convulsions due to wrong action of the kidneys; after the convulsions she sunk into a stupor from which she never rallied," he wrote in a letter about the incident to Joseph Hooker, a botanist and longtime friend of Darwin, "It is an inexpressible comfort that she never suffered and never knew she was leaving her beloved husband for ever. It has been a most bitter blow to us all."
Later in the letter, Darwin goes to tell Hooker about his concern for his son Francis, who was Amy's widower, "I never saw anyone suffer so much as poor Frank. He has gone to north Wales to bury the body in a little church-yard amongst the mountains… I am glad to hear that he is determined to exert himself and work in every way. How far he will be able to keep to this wise resolve I know not."
Darwin and Hooker had a strong 40-year friendship that began when the two met as young botanists. While they only met in person occasionally, the bulk of their bonding was conducted via post. "It's a wonderful set of documents not only about Victorian science but about the social bonds that could be forged in correspondence, and the emotional bonds that could flow between two men," says Paul White, editor and research associate at the Darwin Correspondence Project.
The collection contains a very significant letter where Darwin writes to Hooker about his evolutionary theories that were still, at that time, in their infancy. "At last gleams of light have come, and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable," writes Darwin.
According to The Shorpshire Star, a spokesman for Cambridge Digital Library said, “No single set of letters was more important to Darwin, or is more important now, than those exchanged with his closest friend, the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker. At around 10 percent of Darwin’s surviving correspondence, the letters published here provide a structure within which all the other letters can be explored. They are a connecting thread that spans forty years of Darwin’s mature working life from 1843 until his death in 1882."
The spokesman went on to say, “They bring into sharp focus every aspect of Darwin’s scientific work throughout that period, and illuminate the mutual friendships he and Hooker shared with other scientists, but they also provide a window of unparalleled intimacy into the personal lives of the two men.”
Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary thought, before whom creationism went relatively uncontested and science mingled with super-naturalism within the minds of intellectuals around the globe. Charles Darwin, a noted behaviourist, botanist, naturalist, psychologist, ecologist and wildly prolific author — the architect of what is possibly the most influential scientific revolution in history was, at the end of the day, a softie. Cool.
More about Charles Darwin, Letters, Science, Evolution