Wednesday, February 11, 2009

'Dear Professor Marsh'

One of the challenges that I faced today was helping our Deputy Director come up with a one- paragraph explanation of what the Peabody's prized Darwin letter means to the Peabody, said explanation to be read out at the forthcoming "Darwin Birthday Party" being hosted by YPM. The letter, to YPM paleontologist O.C. Marsh, is about 3 lines long and says something like "Dear Professor Marsh, love your fossils (esp. the birds with teeth), they are the most important evidence for evolution I've seen in 20 years, Sincerely C. Darwin." The problem is that 1) it seems that Darwin sent out scores of similar letters to just about every prominant biologist and paleontologist of the day, saying pretty much the same thing (i.e. "this is the most important evidence for evolution...", and 2) many of these (including the YPM one, we think) were actually drafted by Emma Darwin, although he did sign them all.

Try as I might, I just couldn't get myself excited by it. It's not like I could say "this letter is vitally important because it is proof that Darwin actually existed and wrote letters." Saying "this letter is vitally important because it shows that Marsh's discoveries were critical to the development of Darwin's theory" is untrue because most of these took place after the publication of the Origin of Species (plus we know that Darwin was a bit of an old softy and told everyone that their discoveries were the most important). And the most honest answer, which is "this letter is vitally important because it's the only Darwin letter that YPM possesses" seemed to me to lack the necessary gravitas. It's not like these letters are rare. The Darwin Correspondence Project at the University of Cambridge has over 9,000 of them, with copies of another 6,000-plus that are held in private collections, and estimates that new ones are still turning up at the rate of around 60 a year.

It being the 200th annivesary of the old boy's birth, you can't spit without hitting some exhibition, book, birthday party, etc. I feared that I was the lone Scrooge at the evolutionary equivalent of Christmas Day. Then my friend and fellow anglo-expatriate, Brown University paleontologist Christine Janis, posted the following on the vrtpaleo listserve, which I think sums up the situation perfectly:

"Darwin worship" seems to be to be a peculiarly American thing. I know of many US evolutionary biologists who proudly claim to have been to Down House (even one who made an entire lecture of his 6 pack of lectures in intro Biology a slide show of his visit) ---- I don't know of a single British one who has. (Please don't respond and say you're a Brit who's been to Down House, I'm talking about my own sample size, which I assume means*something*)

Anyway it's 11.38 EST on February 11th, 2009. Somewhere, I'm sure, there are evolutionary biologists poised to raise a glass to Chuck at the stroke of midnight. Not me - I'm off to bed.


  1. Well, I think a letter would be interesting to see....all we had at the Univ. Kansas NHM was a 1st edition copy of The Origin of Species.

    I think Darwinism has especially become an American thing as scientists grasp at anything to combat the high level of creationism running rampant through the states. As I see it, if so much emphasis wasn't put AGAINST Darwin by the creationists, I don't think as much emphasis would be put IN FAVOR of Darwin by the scientists; I don't think anyone would really give evolution a second thought, much like no one really thinks hard about gravity anymore, it's just accepted.

  2. I think you're right Sarah - it is in part a function of the fact that there is continual pressure in the school system to undermine the teaching of evolution, whereas this is a non-issue at home. And also, as is often the case with me, I'm just taking the opportunity to be a pain. Many years back, in my Oxford job, I was fortunate enough to look after a collection of Crustacea that Darwin made while on the Beagle. Seeing the metal collecting tags tied to the crabs and realizing that Darwin had put them on - yeah, that *was* moving.

  3. Yeah, I remember how excited I was when I saw some of Cope's collection for the first time, that was pretty cool.