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Darwin Correspondence Project


Woolnerian tip.jpg

Woolnerian tip
Illustration of the 'Woolnerian tip' from Descent 1: 22

Our ancestor was an animal which breathed water, had a swim-bladder, a great swimming tail, an imperfect skull & undoubtedly was an hermaphrodite! Here is a pleasant genealogy for mankind.

There are more than five hundred letters associated with the research and writing of Darwin’s book, Descent of man and selection in relation to sex (Descent). They trace not only the tortuous route to eventual publication, but the development of Darwin’s thinking: his utter confidence that humans had been subject to natural selection, coupled with reluctance to press the point too soon; his early inkling that racial differences were the result of sexual selection; and his increasing conviction that sexual selection explained a range of distinctive male and female characteristics across the animal kingdom – colour, pattern, scent, and song, as well as antlers, horns, and pincers.  

Darwin relied more than ever on his correspondents, both old friends and an expanding network of new recruits.  They helped him by providing data, hammering out arguments, and improving his text. The first edition sparked a flood of unsolicited comment, criticism, and anecdote, much of which contributed to the large number of corrections and expansions made in the second edition.

Some lines of enquiry were not successful: a printed circular to army surgeons on a possible correlation of hair colour and disease resistance failed to get any responses; parliament snubbed his proposed census question on cousin marriage, sparking one of the testier passages in Descent;* a doctor’s promising research on the apparent decline of blonde hair in the British population was shown to be flawed.

My book about Man if published will be short

Descent was published in two volumes in 1871, yet as late as the summer of 1868 Darwin thought it would be only a ‘short essay’, and a year before that he was still doubtful about publishing on the subject of human evolution at all.  He began writing it up as a separate publication in early February 1868, wading through a ‘mass of notes’ that went back twenty years.  

Darwin claimed his reluctance to publish on the ‘origin or descent of man’ was based on the concern that it would increase prejudice against his theories (Descent 1:  1).  But he also thought he had said enough in Origin to make his position clear, or had at least not quite concealed it. Just weeks after publication he wrote to Charles Lyell, ‘I show that I believe man is in same predicament with other animals.— It is in fact impossible to doubt it’.

At the time, Lyell was himself writing about human prehistory, and published The antiquity of man [Lyell 1863a] in 1863.  Darwin had looked forward to it eagerly, predicting a ‘grand discussion’, but was greatly disappointed at Lyell’s ‘excessive caution in expressing any judgment on Species or origin of man’.

Hurrah the Monkey Book has come

In the midst of reading Lyell, Darwin also received a copy of Thomas Henry Huxley’s new publication, Evidence as to man’s place in nature, and his reaction could not have been in stronger contrast.  His admiration of the passages on man’s relation to the lower animals was ‘unbounded’, and he thoroughly enjoyed Huxley’s dismissal of the notion of the continuous ‘ordained becoming of living things’ as proposed by Richard Owen: ‘oh what a delicious sneer,’ he crowed, ‘as good as a dessert’. Nevertheless, Darwin felt there was yet more evidence that Huxley could have used, and fretted that the book would not reach a wide audience.**

A few months later, still not intending to publish, Darwin offered his notes on humans – ‘at present in a state of chaos’ – to Alfred Russel Wallace who had sent a copy of his paper, ‘The origin of human races and the antiquity of man deduced from the theory of “natural selection”’[Wallace 1864d]. Darwin already suspected that ‘a sort of sexual selection’ had been ‘the most powerful means of changing the races of man’, however, and this insight, coupled with dissatisfaction with the wider state of publication on human evolution, drove him finally to make his ideas public.

I … shall perhaps insert, but am much perplexed on this head, a Chapt. on Man

Darwin first considered including ‘a chapter on Man’ in Variation, and was still writing it at the end of January 1867 after the rest of the first draft had gone to his publisher.  There were some signs of nerves: it was certain, he told John Murray, to ‘excite attention & plenty of abuse’, though abuse would he supposed be ‘as good as praise for selling a book’.But the chapter had grown, and Variation itself become ‘so terribly bulky’ that scarcely a week later he wrote to Hooker that he was instead thinking of publishing separately ‘a very small volume, “an essay on the origin of mankind”.

Darwin turned to a mass of research notes, including letters going back to at least 1856. Among them were accounts of mating behaviour ranging from the highly detailed description of the courtship of fowls sent by Bernard Peirce Brent in 1861, described by Darwin as ‘almost an essay’ and quoted at length in Descent 2: 117-8, to brief answers to a series of questions about mate choice among native ‘New Zealanders’, scribbled down by the civil servant Walter Mantell who noted that in one area ‘ladies are highly prized from their skill in roasting potatos’.

I have had almost as many letters to write of late, as you can have—viz from 8–10 per diem,—chiefly getting up facts on sexual selection

Once he had decided on a separate publication, however, Darwin needed far more information and of a different kind than he had already gathered. From the moment that Variation was finally off his hands at the beginning of 1868, the volume of his correspondence dramatically increased as Darwin fired off requests for help.  There are more than 260 surviving letters from February and March 1868 alone, two or three times the usual number. He started working his way systematically through the animal kingdom, reaching the ‘end of Insects’ by the end of February. He kept portfolios of research notes for both the first and second editions of Descent and filed a great many letters among them.***

Although he had gathered a mass of information for Variation on animals from all over the world, subjects he had previously only touched on, such as the ratio of males to females, now assumed new importance, so he went back to correspondents like Fritz Müller and Henry Bates. While he was at it, he also asked Bates to suggest suitable illustrations for the book – ‘As beggars say the smallest trifle will be gratefully accepted’.

Not only did the number of letters increase, but Darwin’s correspondence networks noticeably expanded as he tapped into wider expertise. One such new correspondent was the travel-writer William Winwood Reade who had first contacted Darwin with an offer of help after talking with Bates. Darwin – having ‘many facts, but … greedy for more’ – had asked Bates in his dealings with missionaries or traders or anyone who spent time with native peoples, to ‘lead the conversation’ to ideals of female beauty and the power of women to exercise any degree of mate-choice. Reade’s report that some African women had ‘no difficulty about getting the husbands they want’ despite it being thought ‘unwomanly’ to ask a man to marry them is quoted in Descent 2: 374. Darwin seized on Reade as a valuable resource and Reade went on to send nearly fifty letters packed with observations.  

In response to a barrage of questions from Darwin, the entomologist Henry Stainton not only sent a long reply, but immediately wrote to two of his own correspondents and copied out their responses also. Darwin’s letters to Stainton are typical of his approach in asking for help. ‘I am’ he wrote ‘working up what I have called “sexual selection”, & am sadly in want of facts’. Describing himself as ‘the most unreasonable & troublesome man in Grt Britain’, he went on to ‘beg … any little information which you can give me’: the ‘little information’ being a list of seven detailed questions about the colouring of male and female moths and butterflies, followed by supplementary questions in two further letters sent in quick succession. Between 18th February and 7th March there are seven surviving letters exchanged with Stainton alone. 

Fearing exhaustion, Darwin’s family insisted that he take a holiday, but he spent the time away ‘corresponding with a multitude of breeders & visiting them & the zoological Gardens’. One of those breeders whom Darwin drew on extensively was his long-standing correspondent, William Tegetmeier, pigeon and poultry editor of the Field. Tegetmeier agreed to tabulate decades of studbook records for racehorses, greyhounds and cattle, and begged information on Darwin’s behalf on the ratios of male and female chickens. His contribution went beyond providing data to conducting, and even suggesting, experiments to test aesthetic appreciation in birds, and the importance of plumage colour to mating success. Darwin referred in Descent to an inconclusive experiment that Tegetmeier had carried out at his request, staining some of his pigeons magenta (Descent 2: 118).  Although the details of the experiment were discussed in March 1868, it seems the original suggestion of ‘dying a white male pigeon magenta … and seeing whether his wife knows him’ had been Tegetmeier’s own.

The subject of sexual selection grows bigger & bigger as I progress but I suppose I shall some day end it.

As time went on and he was no nearer publication, Darwin described the subject of sexual selection successively and with increasing frustration as ‘large’, ‘very large’, ‘gigantic … leading to endless letters & searches through books’, ‘frightfully large’, and ‘everlasting’. By October 1869, eighteen months after had begun to write it, he still thought publication a year away.  By November he was going over the manuscript but was ‘sick of the work’ and  ‘weary of everlasting males & females, cocks & hens’.

As he wrote, Darwin referred specific passages to his correspondents for review. Having been saved from ‘a terrible mistake’ by Roland Trimen who corrected his assertion that ‘no moths were more finely coloured beneath than above’, Darwin sent the rewritten section on the display behaviour of moths back to Trimen to check the wording.  

Henry Bates read a whole packet of manuscript, and pencilled in suggested alterations and queries, including a proposed modification of Darwin’s view that female butterflies and moths had not been ‘made dull-coloured by selection’, which Bates thought would bring his ‘opinion & Wallace’s nearly into harmony’. (See Descent 1: 404–10.) Sadly we cannot know to what extent Darwin may have acted on Bates’ suggestions.

If you could see how often I have rewritten some pages, you would know how anxious I am to arrive as near as I can to the truth.

Much of Darwin’s argument about the relative roles of natural and sexual selection in general, and the application of both to humans in particular, was defined and debated in correspondence carried on over several years with Alfred Russel Wallace. ‘I still strongly think’ he wrote to Wallace ‘(tho’ I failed to convince you, & this to me is the heaviest blow possible) that sexual selection has been the main agent in forming the races of Man’. In species where males acquired brighter colours and greater ornament Darwin argued that this arose through female mate-choice, whereas Wallace thought that dull colours had been acquired by the females through natural selection as a protection against predation when nesting or rearing young. The debate went backwards and forwards in letters and in person throughout the writing of both editions of Descent. ‘I am undergoing severe distress about the protection & sexual selection’ Darwin wrote to Wallace in September 1868, but although he had ‘oscillated with joy’ towards Wallace’s view in the morning, he had already swung back to his old position by the evening. Wallace followed up with a fifteen-point restatement of his argument, provoking an agonised but adamant response from Darwin. On reading the first volume of Descent, Wallace thanked Darwin for the ‘great tenderness’ with which he had treated him and his ‘heresies’, but continued: ‘On the subject of “sexual selection” & “protection” you do not yet convince me that I am wrong,—but I expect your heaviest artillery will be brought up in your 2nd. vol. & I may have to capitulate’. ‘If I had offended you, it wd. have grieved me more than you will readily believe’, Darwin replied.

After reading once right through, the more time you can give up for deep criticism or corrections of style, the more grateful I shall be.—

Glimpses of the role of Darwin’s family in his work rely on small numbers of letters from the rare occasions on which they were apart. Darwin’s daughter Henrietta was abroad in the early stages of the writing of Descent and was sent batches of manuscript to review. Darwin expected lengthy comments and apparently got them. He adopted ‘the greater number’ of the corrections and suggestions of his ‘dear coadjutor & fellow-labourer’, and Henrietta in turn appreciated the chance to ‘have a say so much’.

In October 1869 John Murray advertised a forthcoming ‘New Work by Mr. Darwin’ to consist of three parts: ‘I. The Descent of Man; II On Sexual Selection; and III. On Expression of the Emotions’ (Academy, 9 October 1869, pp. 15–16).  By June 1870 Darwin had decided to hold back the work on expression which was published separately as The expression of the emotions in man and animals (1872). 

As you are interested about my book, you will like to hear that it is selling like mad.—

Descent was published on 24 February 1871, sold out, and was rushed into a second printing. Darwin keenly watched both the sales, including his takings from them, and the reviews, describing one anonymous reviewer as ‘a windbag full of metaphysics & classics’ with ‘no knowledge of science’, and took the opportunity of reprints to make corrections. He had predicted he would be ‘well abused’, and he was the butt of jokes and witticisms, some gently meant and some less so. ‘Almost thou persuadest me’ wrote his old friend Asa Gray, ‘to have been “a hairy quadruped, of arboreal habits, furnished with a tail and pointed ears” &c.’ And a stranger, referring to Darwin’s portrait in the Illustrated London News, thought he had ‘the thick skull, deep set eyes & hairy face’ of a venerable old ape: ‘how striking that the person who is most bent upon linking the monkey race to us should so much resemble one’. Darwin saved the letter to show Henrietta. ***

I suppose it was a mistake on my part to publish it; but any how it will pave the way for some better work—

Other responses he could not take so lightly.  Despite the good sales, Darwin concluded gloomily that the book had ‘met the approval of hardly any naturalists’. Wallace’s position continued to disappoint and although Darwin praised Wallace’s review of the book, he also privately rebutted some of Wallace’s arguments. Misrepresentation of his views by St George Jackson Mivart in particular forced him to answer Mivart’s criticisms at length in the sixth edition of Origin.

my new Edit. of the Descent has turned out an awful job.— It took me ten days merely to glance over letters & reviews with criticism & new facts. It is a devil of a job.

Henrietta was married by the time the second edition of Descent was in preparation in 1873, and it was Darwin’s son George who helped check the many insertions and revisions. A great deal of time was spent ‘reading old letters’. A story of a dog who howled whenever B flat was played on a flute was winnowed out of a series of anecdotes and observations. A long list of comments and corrections from an American surgeon was culled for additions to the second editions of both Descent and Expression. Edwin Ray Lankester had sketched the vestigial ‘Woolnerian tip’ of a friend’s ear, and Darwin both revised his discussion in the second edition and added a woodcut of the ear of a feotal orangutan from a photograph sent along as a comparator. By far the longest addition was an eight-page ‘screed’ from Thomas Huxley comparing ape and human brains and designed to pound the ‘enemy into a jelly’.

By the beginning of April 1874 the corrected edition was ready to go the publisher, and Darwin pushed for a one-volume edition ‘cheapness’ being ‘a most important advantage’. He complained that it had taken three months of ‘as hard work as I have ever done in my life’, and declared that he would ‘never touch it again’. 



*Descent 2: 403: ‘When the principles of breeding and of inheritance are better understood, we shall not hear ignorant members of our legislature rejecting with scorn a plan for ascertaining by an easy method whether or not consanguineous marriages are injurious to man.’

**On the contemporary debates surrounding human origins, see Darwin’s Life in Letters, 1863.

***The contents of Darwin’s research portfolios for Descent are now in the Darwin Archive at Cambridge University Library, classes DAR 8086 (first edition), and DAR 87–90 (second edition).  To find the letters from these portfolios, and other letters related to them, use Advanced Search, select ‘All’, and search for eg “DAR 80:” – include the double quotes and the colon.  DAR 84 has two subsections, so in that case, search for either “DAR 84.1” or “DAR 84.2”.

****For more on the publication of, and reactions to, Descent, see Darwin’s Life in Letters: 1871.