The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 130 of 188

Charles Darwin to J.D. Hooker.

[January 11th, 1844.]

Besides a general interest about the southern lands, I have been now ever since my return engaged in a very presumptuous work, and I know no one individual who would not say a very foolish one. I was so struck with the distribution of the Galapagos organisms, etc. etc., and with the character of the American fossil mammifers, etc. etc., that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact, which could bear any way on what are species. I have read heaps of agricultural and horticultural books, and have never ceased collecting facts. At last gleams of light have come, and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable. Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a “tendency to progression,” “adaptations from the slow willing of animals,” etc.! But the conclusions I am led to are not widely different from his; though the means of change are wholly so. 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, and think to yourself, “on what a man have I been wasting my time and writing to.” I should, five years ago, have thought so…

[The following letter written on February 23, 1844, shows that the acquaintanceship with Sir J.D. Hooker was then fast ripening into friendship. The letter is chiefly of interest as showing the sort of problems then occupying my father’s mind:]

Dear Hooker,

I hope you will excuse the freedom of my address, but I feel that as co-circum-wanderers and as fellow labourers (though myself a very weak one) we may throw aside some of the old-world formality…I have just finished a little volume on the volcanic islands which we visited. I do not know how far you care for dry simple geology, but I hope you will let me send you a copy. I suppose I can send it from London by common coach conveyance.

…I am going to ask you some more questions, though I daresay, without asking them, I shall see answers in your work, when published, which will be quite time enough for my purposes. First for the Galapagos, you will see in my Journal, that the Birds, though peculiar species, have a most obvious S. American aspect: I have just ascertained the same thing holds good with the sea-shells. It is so with those plants which are peculiar to this archipelago; you state that their numerical proportions are continental (is not this a very curious fact?) but are they related in forms to S. America. Do you know of any other case of an archipelago, with the separate islands possessing distinct representative species? I have always intended (but have not yet done so) to examine Webb and Berthelot on the Canary Islands for this object. Talking with Mr. Bentham, he told me that the separate islands of the Sandwich Archipelago possessed distinct representative species of the same genera of Labiatae: would not this be worth your enquiry? How is it with the Azores; to be sure the heavy western gales would tend to diffuse the same species over that group.

I hope you will (I dare say my hope is quite superfluous) attend to this general kind of affinity in isolated islands, though I suppose it is more difficult to perceive this sort of relation in plants, than in birds or quadrupeds, the groups of which are, I fancy, rather more confined. Can St. Helena be classed, though remotely, either with Africa or S. America?
>From some facts, which I have collected, I have been led to conclude that the fauna of mountains are either remarkably similar (sometimes in the presence of the same species and at other times of same genera), or that they are remarkably dissimilar; and it has occurred to me that possibly part of this peculiarity of the St. Helena and Galapagos floras may be attributed to a great part of these two Floras being mountain Floras. I fear my notes will hardly serve to distinguish much of the habitats of the Galapagos plants, but they may in some cases; most, if not all, of the green, leafy plants come from the summits of the islands, and the thin brown leafless plants come from the lower arid parts: would you be so kind as to bear this remark in mind, when examining my collection.

I will trouble you with only one other question. In discussion with Mr. Gould, I found that in most of the genera of birds which range over the whole or greater part of the world, the individual species have wider ranges, thus the Owl is mundane, and many of the species have very wide ranges. So I believe it is with land and fresh-water shells–and I might adduce other cases. Is it not so with Cryptogamic plants; have not most of the species wide ranges, in those genera which are mundane? I do not suppose that the converse holds, viz.–that when a species has a wide range, its genus also ranges wide. Will you so far oblige me by occasionally thinking over this? It would cost me vast trouble to get a list of mundane phanerogamic genera and then search how far the species of these genera are apt to range wide in their several countries; but you might occasionally, in the course of your pursuits, just bear this in mind, though perhaps the point may long since have occurred to you or other Botanists. Geology is bringing to light interesting facts, concerning the ranges of shells; I think it is pretty well established, that according as the geographical range of a species is wide, so is its persistence and duration in time. I hope you will try to grudge as little as you can the trouble of my letters, and pray believe me very truly yours,

C. Darwin.

P.S. I should feel extremely obliged for your kind offer of the sketch of Humboldt; I venerate him, and after having had the pleasure of conversing with him in London, I shall still more like to have any portrait of him.

[What follows is quoted from Sir J. Hooker’s notes. “The next act in the drama of our lives opens with personal intercourse. This began with an invitation to breakfast with him at his brother’s (Erasmus Darwin’s) house in Park Street; which was shortly afterwards followed by an invitation to Down to meet a few brother Naturalists. In the short intervals of good health that followed the long illnesses which oftentimes rendered life a burthen to him, between 1844 and 1847, I had many such invitations, and delightful they were. A more hospitable and more attractive home under every point of view could not be imagined–of Society there were most often Dr. Falconer, Edward Forbes, Professor Bell, and Mr. Waterhouse–there were long walks, romps with the children on hands and knees, music that haunts me still. Darwin’s own hearty manner, hollow laugh, and thorough enjoyment of home life with friends; strolls with him all together, and interviews with us one by one in his study, to discuss questions in any branch of biological or physical knowledge that we had followed; and which I at any rate always left with the feeling that I had imparted nothing and carried away more than I could stagger under. Latterly, as his health became more seriously affected, I was for days and weeks the only visitor, bringing my work with me and enjoying his society as opportunity offered. It was an established rule that he every day pumped me, as he called it, for half an hour or so after breakfast in his study, when he first brought out a heap of slips with questions botanical, geographical, etc., for me to answer, and concluded by telling me of the progress he had made in his own work, asking my opinion on various points. I saw no more of him till about noon, when I heard his mellow ringing voice calling my name under my window–this was to join him in his daily forenoon walk round the sand-walk. On joining him I found him in a rough grey shooting-coat in summer, and thick cape over his shoulders in winter, and a stout staff in his hand; away we trudged through the garden, where there was always some experiment to visit, and on to the sand-walk, round which a fixed number of turns were taken, during which our conversation usually ran on foreign lands and seas, old friends, old books, and things far off to both mind and eye.

“In the afternoon there was another such walk, after which he again retired till dinner if well enough to join the family; if not, he generally managed to appear in the drawing-room, where seated in his high chair, with his feet in enormous carpet shoes, supported on a high stool–he enjoyed the music or conversation of his family.”

Here follows a series of letters illustrating the growth of my father’s views, and the nature of his work during this period.]

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