Charles Darwin's Letters: A Selection 1825-1859

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Charles Darwin's Letters: A Selection 1825-1859, edited by Frederick Burkhardt. Cambridge University Press, $21.95; 272 pp.


Charles Darwin could ride horseback with gauchos, climb mountains, stuff birds, dissect barnacles, excavate fossil skeletons, breed orchids and pigeons, and write books that changed Western thought. One thing Charles Darwin could not do was throw anything away. His pack rat habits--begun in childhood with prized pebbles, birds' nests, and beetles--later stood him in good stead as one of the greatest natural history collectors of all time. But just as he carefully preserved every limpet and giant sloth tooth from his voyage around the globe, he also saved almost every letter he ever received. And his family and friends, those compulsive and hero-worshiping Victorians, kept nearly every scrap he wrote to them.

Darwin's correspondence is a unique resource. More than twenty years ago, the late Cambridge biologist-historian Sydney Smith invited American literary scholar Frederick Burkhardt to help with the immense task of organizing the 14,000 letters for publication. From that partnership (Smith died in 1988) emerged the Darwin Correspondence Project, one of the most ambitious scholarly undertakings of this century. Funded at $1.5 million thus far, its aim has been to retrieve, catalog, transcribe, annotate, and publish both sides of the entire correspondence, of which 4,500 letters were written by Darwin. A former president of Bennington College and president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies, Burkhardt has since guided a team of scholars through nine of the projected thirty volumes of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. The first came out in 1985; a tenth is slated to appear this fall.

Now Burkhardt has selected a few hundred letters from the first seven volumes, which span the years from 1825, when Darwin studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, to 1859, the year that he published the Origin of Species. Burkhardt has sought, according to his introduction, "to make the selection representative of the larger work and provide a trust worthy portrayal of Darwin's mind, personality, and method of work"--all arranged in chronological order. In a helpful foreword, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould provides a narrative framework for the sometimes sketchy sequence of letters. For Gould, the "wonderfully expressive and richly varied letters" cannot fail to enchant: "The drama, the complexity, the moral struggles, are so much better told in Darwin's own words than through his biographers."

Certain passages jump out at us--for instance, the procrastinating Darwin's panic of June 18, 1858, when he felt the young evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace nipping at his heels. Darwin's geological mentor, Sir Charles Lyell, had warned him that Wallace was independently developing a theory of evolution and might well beat him to the punch if Darwin did not publish soon. "Your words have come true with a vengeance that I shd. be forestalled," he wrote Lyell. "I never saw a more striking coincidence: if Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract]" That letter is reproduced here, of course, as is the 1844 note to the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, in which Darwin compares his advocacy of natural selection to "confessing a murder." Taken in full context, however, that admission of guilt can be seen as playful and self-satirizing:

I have been ... engaged in a very presumptuous work & which I know no one individual who wd not say a very foolish one....I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable....I think I have found out (here's presumption the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends.--You will now groan, & think to yourself "on what a man have I been wasting my time in writing to. …