The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 135 of 188

Charles Darwin to J.D. Hooker.

March 7 [1855].

…I have just finished working well at Wollaston’s (Thomas Vernon Wollaston died (in his fifty-seventh year, as I believe) on January 4, 1878. His health forcing him in early manhood to winter in the south, he devoted himself to a study of the Coleoptera of Madeira, the Cape de Verdes, and St. Helena, whence he deduced evidence in support of the belief in the submerged continent of ‘Atlantis.’ In an obituary notice by Mr. Rye (‘Nature,’ 1878) he is described as working persistently “upon a broad conception of the science to which he was devoted,” while being at the same time “accurate, elaborate, and precise ad punctum, and naturally of a minutely critical habit.” His first scientific paper was written when he was an undergraduate at Jesus College, Cambridge. While at the University, he was an Associate and afterwards a Member of the Ray Club: this is a small society which still meets once a week, and where the undergraduate members, or Associates, receive much kindly encouragement from their elders.) ‘Insecta Maderensia’: it is an admirable work. There is a very curious point in the astounding proportion of Coleoptera that are apterous; and I think I have guessed the reason, viz., that powers of flight would be injurious to insects inhabiting a confined locality, and expose them to be blown to the sea: to test this, I find that the insects inhabiting the Dezerte Grande, a quite small islet, would be still more exposed to this danger, and here the proportion of apterous insects is even considerably greater than on Madeira Proper. Wollaston speaks of Madeira and the other Archipelagoes as being “sure and certain witnesses of Forbes’ old continent,” and of course the Entomological world implicitly follows this view. But to my eyes it would be difficult to imagine facts more opposed to such a view. It is really disgusting and humiliating to see directly opposite conclusions drawn from the same facts.

I have had some correspondence with Wollaston on this and other subjects, and I find that he coolly assumes, (1) that formerly insects possessed greater migratory powers than now, (2) that the old land was specially rich in centres of creation, (3) that the uniting land was destroyed before the special creations had time to diffuse, and (4) that the land was broken down before certain families and genera had time to reach from Europe or Africa the points of land in question. Are not these a jolly lot of assumptions? and yet I shall see for the next dozen or score of years Wollaston quoted as proving the former existence of poor Forbes’ Atlantis.

I hope I have not wearied you, but I thought you would like to hear about this book, which strikes me as excellent in its facts, and the author a most nice and modest man.

Most truly yours,
C. Darwin.

Charles Darwin to W.D. Fox.

Down, March 19th [1855].

My dear Fox,

How long it is since we have had any communication, and I really want to hear how the world goes with you; but my immediate object is to ask you to observe a point for me, and as I know now you are a very busy man with too much to do, I shall have a good chance of your doing what I want, as it would be hopeless to ask a quite idle man. As you have a Noah’s Ark, I do not doubt that you have pigeons. (How I wish by any chance they were fantails!) Now what I want to know is, at what age nestling pigeons have their tail feathers sufficiently developed to be counted. I do not think I ever saw a young pigeon. I am hard at work at my notes collecting and comparing them, in order in some two or three years to write a book with all the facts and arguments, which I can collect, for and versus the immutability of species. I want to get the young of our domestic breeds, to see how young, and to what degree the differences appear. I must either breed myself (which is no amusement but a horrid bore to me) the pigeons or buy their young; and before I go to a seller, whom I have heard of from Yarrell, I am really anxious to know something about their development, not to expose my excessive ignorance, and therefore be excessively liable to be cheated and gulled. With respect to the one point of the tail feathers, it is of course in relation to the wonderful development of tail feathers in the adult fantail. If you had any breed of poultry pure, I would beg a chicken with exact age stated, about a week or fortnight old! To be sent in a box by post, if you could have the heart to kill one; and secondly, would let me pay postage…Indeed, I should be very glad to have a nestling common pigeon sent, for I mean to make skeletons, and have already just begun comparing wild and tame ducks. And I think the results rather curious (“I have just been testing practically what disuse does in reducing parts; I have made skeleton of wild and tame duck (oh, the smell of well-boiled, high duck!!) and I find the tame-duck wing ought, according to scale of wild prototype, to have its two wings 360 grains in weight, but it has it only 317.”–A letter to Sir J. Hooker, 1855.), for on weighing the several bones very carefully, when perfectly cleaned the proportional weights of the two have greatly varied, the foot of the tame having largely increased. How I wish I could get a little wild duck of a week old, but that I know is almost impossible.

With respect to ourselves, I have not much to say; we have now a terribly noisy house with the whooping cough, but otherwise are all well. Far the greatest fact about myself is that I have at last quite done with the everlasting barnacles. At the end of the year we had two of our little boys very ill with fever and bronchitis, and all sorts of ailments. Partly for amusement, and partly for change of air, we went to London and took a house for a month, but it turned out a great failure, for that dreadful frost just set in when we went, and all our children got unwell, and E. and I had coughs and colds and rheumatism nearly all the time. We had put down first on our list of things to do, to go and see Mrs. Fox, but literally after waiting some time to see whether the weather would not improve, we had not a day when we both could go out.

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