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Two important years in the hee of Charles Darwin

The Correspondence of Charles Darwin - Volume 7 (1858-1859) Edited by Frederick Burkhardt and Sydney Smith Publisher: Cambridge University Press Price: E35 (Hardbound) ISBN 0-521-38564-4

 
By Amit Mitra
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Charls Darwin, photographed in (Credit: The University of Chikago Pres)THE TWO years covered in this volume, the latest in the series, were the most momentous in the life of Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882). After studies in Edinburgh and Cambridge, Darwin was heading for an ecclesiastical career in the Church of England when he was invited to participate in a five-year, around-theworld study trip on HMS Beagle. He returned to England far more interested in nature than in its creator.

Several years went by in London during which he recorded the story of the voyage and pondered privately on the issue of transmutation. In 1842, he formulated the first sketchy outlines of his theory of evolution by natural selection and, by 1844, developed it more fully. Then, Darwin shelved the project to collect evidence in support of his theory.

With much of his -research completed by mid-1858, Darwin began documenting the results of his study of pigeons, hoping to finish part of a manuscript he had begun two years earlier that'reflected two decades Of work on the subject of species. His work, however, was interrupted by the arrival of the now famous letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, enclosing an essay on what was Wallace's own theory of natural selection. Wallace's letter prompted a shocked Darwin to write to his friend Charles Lyell: "Your words have come true with a vengeance that I should be forestalled. I never saw a more striking coincidence. If Wallace had my MS sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as Heads of my Chapters," However, in the same letter, he added: "Though my Book, if it will ever have any value, will not be deteriorated, as all the labour consists in the application of the theory."

Wallace's letter, which Darwin claimed to have received on June 18, 1858, has been the focus of a major controversy, with Darwin being accused of appropriating if not plagiarising Wallace's ideas about the origin of species. The controversy arose in part because Darwin did not date his letters fully - sometimes both the month and the year would be missing. Firm evidence concern- ing plagiarism does not exist either way and the issue is considered "essentially unresolvable".
Mine of information Letter writing was a crucial element in Darwin's life because his poor health kept him from direct personal communication with his scientific colleagues and also because the nature of his studies required him to communicate with naturalists throughout the world. His letters are a mine of information not only about his work but also about his personal life. The reader gets to meet Darwin the author writing to his editor, Darwin the scientist responding to a colleague and Darwin the father worrying about his children's health.

The letters in particular delineate the various stages in the preparation of one of the world's most remarkable books - On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published by John Murray in November 1859. Furthermore, they reveal the first impressions created by Darwin's book on close friends such as Lyell, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Thomas Henry Huxley and Asa Gray. Also poignantly captured in some of the letters are @ his own anxious responses to the initial reception of his species theory by friends, family members and prominent naturalists.

The volume under review is the capstone to Darwin's remarkable efforts during more than 20 years to solve one of nature's great puzzles: the origin of species. The editors have maintained their impeccable standards, superbly combining quality publishing and sound academic work to produce a volume that should find a place in every library.

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