The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 110 of 188

Charles Darwin to J.D. Hooker.

Down [May 6th, 1847].

My dear Hooker,

You have made a savage onslaught, and I must try to defend myself. But, first, let me say that I never write to you except for my own good pleasure; now I fear that you answer me when busy and without inclination (and I am sure I should have none if I was as busy as you). Pray do not do so, and if I thought my writing entailed an answer from you nolens volens, it would destroy all my pleasure in writing. Firstly, I did not consider my letter as reasoning, or even as speculation, but simply as mental rioting; and as I was sending Binney’s paper, I poured out to you the result of reading it. Secondly, you are right, indeed, in thinking me mad, if you suppose that I would class any ferns as marine plants; but surely there is a wide distinction between the plants found upright in the coal-beds and those not upright, and which might have been drifted. Is it not possible that the same circumstances which have preserved the vegetation in situ, should have preserved drifted plants? I know Calamites is found upright; but I fancied its affinities were very obscure, like Sigillaria. As for Lepidodendron, I forgot its existence, as happens when one goes riot, and now know neither what it is, or whether upright. If these plants, i.e. Calamites and Lepidodendron, have very clear relations to terrestrial vegetables, like the ferns have, and are found upright in situ, of course I must give up the ghost. But surely Sigillaria is the main upright plant, and on its obscure affinities I have heard you enlarge.

Thirdly, it never entered my head to undervalue botanical relatively to zoological evidence; except in so far as I thought it was admitted that the vegetative structure seldom yielded any evidence of affinity nearer than that of families, and not always so much. And is it not in plants, as certainly it is in animals, dangerous to judge of habits without very near affinity. Could a Botanist tell from structure alone that the Mangrove family, almost or quite alone in Dicotyledons, could live in the sea, and the Zostera family almost alone among the Monocotyledons? Is it a safe argument, that because algae are almost the only, or the only submerged sea-plants, that formerly other groups had not members with such habits? With animals such an argument would not be conclusive, as I could illustrate by many examples; but I am forgetting myself; I want only to some degree to defend myself, and not burn my fingers by attacking you. The foundation of my letter, and what is my deliberate opinion, though I dare say you will think it absurd, is that I would rather trust, caeteris paribus, pure geological evidence than either zoological or botanical evidence. I do not say that I would sooner trust poor geological evidence than good organic. I think the basis of pure geological reasoning is simpler (consisting chiefly of the action of water on the crust of the earth, and its up and down movements) than a basis drawn from the difficult subject of affinities and of structure in relation to habits. I can hardly analyze the facts on which I have come to this conclusion; but I can illustrate it. Pallas’s account would lead any one to suppose that the Siberian strata, with the frozen carcasses, had been quickly deposited, and hence that the embedded animals had lived in the neighbourhood; but our zoological knowledge of thirty years ago led every one falsely to reject this conclusion.

Tell me that an upright fern in situ occurs with Sigillaria and Stigmaria, or that the affinities of Calamites and Lepidodendron (supposing that they are found in situ with Sigillaria) are so clear, that they could not have been marine, like, but in a greater degree, than the mangrove and sea-wrack, and I will humbly apologise to you and all Botanists for having let my mind run riot on a subject on which assuredly I know nothing. But till I hear this, I shall keep privately to my own opinion with the same pertinacity and, as you will think, with the same philosophical spirit with which Koenig maintains that Cheirotherium-footsteps are fuci.

Whether this letter will sink me lower in your opinion, or put me a little right, I know not, but hope the latter. Anyhow, I have revenged myself with boring you with a very long epistle. Farewell, and be forgiving. Ever yours,

C. Darwin.

P.S.–When will you return to Kew? I have forgotten one main object of my letter, to thank you much for your offer of the ‘Hort. Journal,’ but I have ordered the two numbers.

[The two following extracts [1847] give the continuation and conclusion of the coal battle.

“By the way, as submarine coal made you so wrath, I thought I would experimentise on Falconer and Bunbury (The late Sir C. Bunbury, well-known as a palaeobotanist.) together, and it made [them] even more savage; ‘such infernal nonsense ought to be thrashed out of me.’ Bunbury was more polite and contemptuous. So I now know how to stir up and show off any Botanist. I wonder whether Zoologists and Geologists have got their tender points; I wish I could find out.”

“I cannot resist thanking you for your most kind note. Pray do not think that I was annoyed by your letter: I perceived that you had been thinking with animation, and accordingly expressed yourself strongly, and so I understood it. Forfend me from a man who weighs every expression with Scotch prudence. I heartily wish you all success in your noble problem, and I shall be very curious to have some talk with you and hear your ultimatum.”]

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