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Darwin Now pod 3: Darwin's world-wide web

Updated Tuesday 20th October 2009

Darwin was arguably the scientific social networker of his day. Explore the web that he spun through his lifetime correspondence across the world.


Copyright British Council


Music: Variations on a Theme by Giuliani

Rissa de la Paz: Welcome to this month’s podcast for Darwin Now. If Darwin had been alive today, he would probably have been a compulsive e-mailer and an avid fan of social networking sites. His Facebook contacts would have included naturalists and novelists, philosophers and physicians, jurists and geologists, clerics and gardeners, birdwatchers and businessmen, suffragists and sheep farmers, public figures and private individuals. He had an impressive global contacts list: two thousand people that he corresponded with during his lifetime. What we know of Darwin’s World Wide Web is largely thanks to the Darwin Correspondence Project, whose aim has been to locate, research and publish complete transcripts of all Darwin’s letters.

Alison Pearn is Assistant Director of the Project.

Alison Pearn: Well, the Darwin Correspondence Project was founded in the mid-1970s by an American philosopher, Fred Burkhardt, joined very shortly after that by a Cambridge zoologist, Sydney Smith. It was based largely in Cambridge because Cambridge University Library has the world’s premier collection of Darwin’s private papers, including around eight thousand letters. However, when Fred started to look into this he realised that in the nature of letters, of course, they’re spread all over the world, they don’t end up in one place. So the project spent its first ten years searching for letters anywhere, anywhere they could be found, and also putting them into a rough date order.

We have been publishing complete transcripts of all of the letters that we can find since the mid-1980s, with all the notes necessary for a broad audience to make sense of them. The World Wide Web offers us fantastic possibilities for introducing a much wider audience to Darwin’s letters, and today our website has five and a half thousand complete transcripts of letters. But bear in mind that we know of fifteen thousand letters altogether, so there’s still quite a bit to go.

Rissa de la Paz: Darwin’s letters are actually spread around the world in about two hundred different locations. Now that they’re becoming available online, what are the challenges of researching and compiling such a vast collection for a global audience?

Alison Pearn: We publish both sides of the correspondence, which is crucial to understanding the content. What you actually get is a series of conversations that run right through Darwin’s working life. Now that means, of course, that we’re not just dealing with Darwin’s handwriting, which is not very easy to read, but also with around two thousand other different handwritings, some of which are even worse. So an enormous amount of work has gone into just creating good transcripts, which is of course the basis of any searchable form. You can’t search bad text.

The letters themselves cover every subject that Darwin touched on, and he was an amazingly prolific writer and scientist. They also, of course, include a lot of information about his private life and the private lives of all his correspondents. So making that material truly accessible is quite a challenge. I think that the main challenge facing us now as we develop our Web resource, is to help all the different audiences, everybody from schoolchildren, through students, researchers, to find the material that they are interested in, the material that will help them.

Rissa de la Paz: Shelley Innes is a science historian working as a research editor on the Project. She describes some of the initiatives that are being developed with outside partners to bring Darwin’s work to life for today’s younger audiences.

Shelley Innes: We’ve been given funding through the British Ecological Society, and we’ve been able to develop specific elements of Darwin’s work and relate them to modern work, and show basically a much younger audience what Darwin was actually doing. For example, some of the experiments that Darwin did, like testing seeds for their viability after having been in seawater, it’s very easy for young people to imitate those experiments.

Darwin worked on insectivorous or carnivorous plants, and that’s something that always is very interesting to young schoolchildren. I mean, everybody loves a carnivorous plant. We can look at Darwin’s work and how he went about doing it, and you can see how he came up with the questions that he asked. Not so much the answers, but the questions.

And it’s really about how science is done, how Darwin did science, how he did science collaboratively, and how he engaged other people in doing the science with him, and then not just stopping with Darwin but carrying on into the present day and looking at, for example, we’ve worked with a Brazilian ecologist who works on a topic that Darwin was interested in, and so he’s developed the science further, and he’s talked on our website about what he does, and he’s also talked about how he got interested in ecology himself and how Darwin’s work influenced him.

Rissa de la Paz: There are also projects being developed for older students.

Shelley Innes: We have contact with, for example, the Cambridge Biologists’ Forum, and that’s a group of secondary A-level biology teachers, and we’ve had some of them in to look at some of our material and they’ve talked about how excited they are about the possibility of using it and developing curriculum material that they can tailor to their own needs.

One of the experiments which we’d like to have on site is one which Darwin worked with colleagues, both in Brazil and Germany, looking at something called self-sterility in California poppies. And so he exchanged seeds with the scientists in both of these countries and we thoughtas schools are usually paired with other schools in other countries that schools could develop projects doing similar things. We encourage them to adapt the resource that we provide so that it’s tailored to their own needs and to the specific technical facilities of the schools so that, for example, even the, the most, the tiniest school could do a seed experiment because it doesn’t require a lot of equipment.

Rissa de la Paz: So much for Darwin’s appeal to budding scientists. But what special pleasures do the letters hold for an historian such as Pearn?

Alison Pearn: I think for me there are two factors that made me want to work with the Project. One is the material itself. It is immensely engaging, even for non-scientists, because it has a human dimension. Correspondence, unlike published work, unlike scientific notes and all the rest of it, really allows us to see Darwin and his correspondents as real people, so there was the immediately engaging nature of the material. Then there was also the great level of scholarship that the Project has always set. It is an immensely high standard, and it’s a huge privilege to be part of an undertaking that continues to maintain those high standards set by the people who founded it.

We publish Darwin’s correspondence chronologically, and we’ve just reached the point in his life where he is really focused completely on issues of human development and human origins. This is a very exciting period for us. So we’re working together with partners, with funders, over the next few years to explore questions such as gender and race in Darwin’s publications, and the conversations that underpin those publications that he was having, often very guarded private conversations with philosophers, thinkers, other scientists, many of them women.

Rissa de la Paz: Given the richness of these multiple conversations, what facets of Darwin’s personality have emerged from his letters?

Alison Pearn: Darwin is an extremely good people person. We know that he was very popular right from the days that he was at Cambridge and the days that he was on the Beagle. He had a great gift for getting on with people, and I think one can see through the correspondence. He had, I think, an instinct for pitching his approaches to people so that they were more likely to actually provide him with information, which is very often what he was using his correspondence to get, and at maintaining good relations with people from a very wide range of backgrounds. He corresponded with people of a much lower social class, which was probably quite uncommon, I think. He did correspond with women. He had correspondents also who were quite difficult characters in many ways but he maintained those relationships over long periods of time.

Rissa de la Paz: This ability to steer a diplomatic and discerning line with people, be they allies or opponents, certainly paid dividends. Shelley Innes.

Shelley Innes: One thing about Darwin is that he’s not a confrontational person. He doesn’t try to stir up controversy, in fact he tries to ameliorate the situation. He respects opinions of others, he agrees to differ very often, both with scientific colleagues and with people from all walks of life, for example, people who might hold religious views that they find incompatible with his theory. But he’s always very respectful of other people’s views, while at the same time holding fast to his own view. And I think when, when we realise just how many of his opponents actually provided him with good scientific information, almost no-one in France was a supporter of Darwin and yet he had many French correspondents on whom he relied for information. And so these people were happy, not only to support his work by giving him information, but actually to nominate him for membership in the French Academy of Sciences.

And I think, if you have your scientific opponents supporting you in that way you must be doing something right.

Rissa de la Paz: One of the most fascinating areas to emerge has been Darwin’s correspondence with women. Apart from family and friends, his female correspondents included a diamond prospector, a political hostess, a novelist, a botanical artist and various advocates of women’s rights and education.

Shelley Innes highlights the findings from a recent book, Good observers of nature, by Tina Gianquitto, which features a telling exchange of letters between Darwin and an American woman naturalist.

Shelley Innes: One of the women that Darwin corresponded with was Mary Treat, and she’s a very interesting woman, and she corresponded with some very important male scientists. And she’s actually responsible for some very important discoveries. And one of the things that she did was to study how larval nutrition in butterflies affected the sex of the adult butterfly. When she wrote to a very well-known American entomologist about her discovery he sent her a letter, and I’m going to read a little bit from the letter, because it’s very telling.

He says, “Dear Madam, I regret that your experiments were not more thorough, for I can hardly see that you have had sufficient grounds for the unqualified statement in the Hearth and Home article.” Mary Treat wrote in a publication called Hearth and Home, so not the best of scientific journals. And then he says, “More error and confusion creeps into our science by these rash and unequivocal conclusions than in any other way.”

Compare this to Darwin who says, “Your observations and experiments on the sexes of butterflies are by far the best as far as known to me which have ever been made. They seem to me so important that I earnestly hope you will repeat them and record the exact number of the larvae which you tempt to continue feeding and deprive of food, and record the sexes of the mature insects. Assuredly you ought to then publish the result in some well-known scientific journal.” And indeed, Treat did republish her article three years later in American Naturalist.

Now I think what’s very interesting about this is that Darwin is not just encouraging to her, he doesn’t just say this is very interesting, I think you’ve got something here, but he suggests a way forward. He tells her to repeat the experiments and to record them a little bit more carefully perhaps. He’s very encouraging and he’s very respectful of her work.

Rissa de la Paz: What’s equally revealing is how Darwin reacts when disagreements arise.

Shelley Innes: She disagreed with him on a certain topic, and so she published something disagreeing with him and then Mr Darwin, as she says, wrote, “I’ve read your article with the greatest interest. It certainly appears from your excellent observations that the valve was sensitive, but I cannot understand what I could never with all my pains excite any movement. It’s pretty clear I am wrong about the head acting like a wedge.” So he acknowledges that he was wrong, she was a better observer, she was right. I mean, he is extremely interested in getting the science right. He’s interested in the result and not the accolades I suppose, and he’s interested in acknowledging the people, and you can see that throughout all of his publications, he always acknowledges whoever he gets information from. So I think that’s a real insight into his character.

Rissa de la Paz: This role of Darwin as a mentor to young scientists comes across clearly in his correspondence. He manages it with skill and flair, even at a distance.

Shelley Innes: One example that I can think of is Hermann Müller, who was a schoolteacher in Germany, and he was very interested in Darwin’s work on orchids. Darwin did a whole book on the topic of orchid pollination mechanisms, and what Darwin had looked at was the orchids themselves and the different mechanisms that allowed them to be cross-pollinated. Well he encouraged Hermann Müller to do what would be really a parallel study, and Müller did a lot of work on the mechanisms in insects that allowed them to pollinate certain flowers.

When his own son, Francis, was working in Germany at the laboratory of Julius Sachs in Würzburg, and this was a very, very prominent botanist, had many graduate students working in his laboratory, Darwin would occasionally say, I hear that so and so is working on such and such, suggest to him this, and he would start up many, many conversations with students of Sachs, who went on to do research that had been actually suggested by Darwin. So I think his role as a mentor is one of the things which really comes through in the correspondence, and that you would not find through reading the publications

Rissa de la Paz: Last but not least, the letters paint a rich portrait of Darwin’s family life and the interplay between the personal and the professional.

Alison Pearn: One of the fascinating things about Darwin is that he pursued his science in a really domestic setting. His wife was, she was often his secretary, she helped him write letters but it’s also quite clear that she was no silent partner in that, that she had discussions with him about his ideas as they were developing. He worked closely with his sons and his daughters as they grew older, and involved them in his work and encouraged their own scientific careers.

One of the most interesting aspects, I think, of this is going to be looking in detail at Darwin’s relationship with his daughter, Henrietta, who was one of the few people that Darwin entrusted to read the unpublished manuscript of Descent of Man, which is rather in contrast, I think, to the view that most people will have of Darwin as a classic Victorian father. He clearly regarded Henrietta’s abilities, her intellect very highly. It’s only really through the correspondence that it’s possible to see the great trust he placed in her and the great respect he had for her intellect.

Rissa de la Paz: Have any other surprises emerged from researching Darwin’s letters?

Alison Pearn: We’re sometimes asked if there is a sort of single bombshell letter that explodes some major Darwin myth, and I think the real value of the correspondence and the work that we do doesn’t lie in that. It lies in building up this detailed picture of Darwin the man throughout his working life, and one of the great things that it does reveal is that he was not a lone genius. This is a man who was working in collaboration with an enormous number of other people, whose ideas were developed in conversation with others, whose work depended on the data that he was able to acquire from so many of his friends and colleagues around the world.

Rissa de la Paz: We’ll be looking further at the lively interplay between Darwin and his global audience in the next podcast.

Music: Variations on a Theme by Giuliani

Rissa de la Paz: But we’ll be signing off from this particular conversation until then. Goodbye. This podcast was produced as a collaboration between the British Council and the Open University.


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