Darwin to Joseph Hooker, 1844
Researchers and historians have collected approximately 15,000 letters written both to and by Charles Darwin in an effort to better understand his life and science. One of his most frequent contacts was Joseph Dalton Hooker, a botanist who helped identify many of the plant specimens collected during Darwin’s HMS Beagle journey, including his famed stop at the Galapagos Islands. Their discourse, which spanned more than 1,400 letters over 4 decades—including the one pictured here, dated January 11, 1844—was one of the first places Darwin expressed his theory of natural selection as a driver of speciation and evolution.
1. …ever since my return…
After five years traveling the southern hemisphere on the HMS Beagle, Darwin returned to England, where he set out to classify the fossils and samples of flora and fauna he collected on his journey.
2. …heaps of agricultural & horticultural books…
Darwin first postulated his theory of natural selection after reading Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population in September 1838, says Duncan Porter, former director of the Darwin Correspondence Project and a botanist at Virginia Tech. Malthus argued that the availability of resources, such as food, dictates human population growth; Darwin took this theory and expanded it to plants and animals.
3. …species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.
Darwin shared his theory of natural selection with a few close colleagues before publishing On the Origin of Species in 1859, but “this letter to Hooker is Darwin’s first revelation to anyone that he believed in evolution,” says Porter.
4. Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense…
Publicly, Darwin acknowledged the contributions of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck to the theory of evolution. But privately, the naturalist dismissed Lamarkian theory, even referring to the French biologist’s Philosophie Zoologique as “a wretched book” in letters to other scientists.