Part 4 - He Who Hesitates

Varieties and Species

In her review of Peter Brent's biography of Darwin, Lynn Barber made the following, very relevant observation:

"... Darwin seems to have been on the brink of writing the 'Origin' at least 15 years before he actually did so.  It would be a useful piece of detective work to find out why he stopped and allowed himself to be sidetracked into eight years' work on barnacles."1

John Bowlby, a child psychiatrist and yet another of Darwin's more recent biographers, seized upon a letter from Joseph Hooker to Frances Darwin2, and built upon it the notion that the hiatus could be explained as Darwin taking time out to pay his scientific dues, as it were:

"During the course of his [barnacle] study Darwin had been confronted among much else with the problems posed by extensive variation within a given species and the difficulty of distinguishing between species, sub-species and mere varieties.  This provided him with first-hand and solid experience of the species question for when he came later to write the Origin."3

We must suppose that Dr Bowlby had never read Professor Mayr's assertion that The Origin showed a "lack of understanding of the nature of species"4, nor Professor Simpson's comment that: "The book called The Origin of Species is not really on that subject"5.

The "Beloved Barnacles"


Just one year after Blyth's arrival in India, Darwin and his family also moved home - to Down House in the village of Downe in Kent (approximately halfway between Biggin Hill and Farnborough on a modern map).6  Although he is still only fourteen miles from the centre of London, as the crow flies, his visits to the metropolis will become steadily less frequent.

At some time during 1842, despite the upheaval of the move, Darwin completes a "sketch" of Varieties and Species.  It consists of 35 pages of manuscript, written in pencil.


Bearing in mind Darwin's comments on the rate of progress he achieved on 'the species problem' during 1838-39 it is somewhat puzzling to find a letter to Joseph Hooker, dated June 11th, 1844, containing the following statement:

"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 to murder) immutable."7

A letter written to his wife dated July 15th (presumably intended as a codicil to his will), just 5 weeks after the Hooker letter, again only serves to deepen our confusion:

"I have just finished my sketch of my species theory," he wrote (this sketch runs to 230 pages!).  "... in case of my sudden death ... I wish that my sketch be given to some competent person, with [400] to induce him to take trouble in its improvement and enlargement.  I give him all my books on Natural History, which are either scored or have references at the end to the pages, begging him to carefully look over and consider such passages as actually, or by possibility bearing, on this subject."8
(Italics added)

How can we reconcile such blatant contradictions?
We've already seen that Darwin had accepted the possibility of the transformation of species before 1839.  So why did he want Hooker to believe that his thoughts were only just turning in that direction?  And if he has only been able to distinguish these first "gleams of light" in June, how has he contrived to complete a 230 page, 50,000 word "sketch" just five weeks later?  (The last point is made all the more incredible by the fact that Darwin's usual output rarely exceeded 500 pages in an entire year.)

Apart from his sketch, Darwin also spent some time reading the recently published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a rather amateurish attempt to outline a process of divinely-guided evolution ('theistic evolution' as it would now be called).  This book was originally published anonymously, the true identity of its author, Robert Chambers (the editor of Chambers' Journal), being revealed only several years later.

Darwin Myth #5: The Panning of Vestiges

According to Darwinian myth, it was the highly critical reception which greeted Vestiges which helped to dissuade Darwin from publishing his own work at this time.  In reality, Vestiges received several very favourable revues, and Darwin himself was one of those who criticised the book in its early days.
As he wrote to Hooker:

"I have also read the 'Vestiges' ... the writing and arrangement are certainly excellent, but his geology strikes me as bad, and his zoology far worse.  ... The idea of a fish passing into a reptile, monstrous!"9


In October, following up on work begun in South America during the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin starts on an exhaustive study of barnacles - live, dead and fossilised - which will last for the next six years.


After several years of declining health, Robert Waring Darwin dies, in November.  Despite frequent protestations of his love for his father, Charles finds himself too ill either to attend the funeral or to execute his father's will.


In November or December Darwin publishes the first results of his barnacle studies.


In October the work on barnacles is completed and Darwin publishes the rest of his findings.  All in all the six year study have produced just "two thick volumes and two thin quartos."
As Huxley and Kettlewell later observed, regarding this work:

"The fact that he had no inhibitions about publication in this field is a strong indication that his reluctance to publish anything about evolution sprang from some inner conflict about committing himself on this ... subject."10
(Italics added)

They might also have pointed to his three geological publications - in 1842 (on coral reefs), 1844 (on volcanic islands) and 1846 (on South America) - and arrived at the same conclusion.  The evidence is overwhelming that Darwin's ideas on evolution were as advanced as they needed to be to justify publication.  And yet, whatever he may have been willing to discuss in his letters, it is equally clear that Darwin had some equally pressing reason for not committing himself in print.

Of Seeds and Eggs


With his work on barnacles now documented and closed, Darwin returns to the subject of varieties and species, and begins once again to gather information for his future book.  One particular series of experiments conducted during this period had a very special purpose - and a very particular significance.

On April 13th Darwin wrote to Hooker to describe the tests he had been making on seeds stored in salt water (he wanted to determine whether they were capable of surviving an ocean voyage, say from one continent to another, and still remain fertile):

"... all germinated, which I did not in the least expect ... the water ... of the cress especially, smelt very badly, and the cress seed emitted a wonderful quantity of mucus (the 'Vestiges' would have expected them to turn into tadpoles) ..."11
In May Darwin extends his range of flotation experiments to include a wider variety of subjects.  On the 17th he writes to W.D. Fox asking him to offer a reward of one shilling (5p in decimal currency) for every half dozen lizard's eggs his pupils can collect (snakes eggs are also acceptable if brought in by mistake).

"My object," Darwin explains, "is to see whether such eggs will float on sea water, and whether they will keep alive thus floating, for a month or two in my cellar.  I am trying experiments on transportation of all organic beings that I can ..."12

This is all tied in with the investigation of varieties and species, of course, though not in the manner most people might suppose.  In July, in response to an enquiry from Hooker, Darwin describes his current thinking on the species problem:

"You ask how far I go in attributing organisms to a common descent: I answer I know not; the way in which I intend treating the subject, is to show (as far as I can) the facts and arguments for and against the common descent of the species of the same genus ..."13

For once Darwin is not merely putting on a facade.  Careful study of The Origin of Species shows that Darwin never did fully commit himself on this point, at least not in that volume.  Even when he appears to be saying that all organisms are descended from a common ancestor (or ancestors) there is always a blanket qualification not far behind.

In this same year, Alfred Wallace's paper On the Law that has Regulated the Introduction of New Species is published in the Annals of Natural History (see entry for 1857, below).

The Balloon Goes Up


By May of this year Darwin's friends are almost begging him to publish at least an extract or an outline of his work on species as quickly as possible.  It seems impossible that Darwin could not see the net that was closing about him, yet for reasons known only to himself (at that time) he still held back.  On May 3rd he confessed to Lyell:

"I rather hate the idea of writing for priority, yet I certainly should be vexed if anyone were to publish my doctrines before me."14

On May 9th, and again on May 11th, Darwin writes to Hooker to give his reasons for not going to press.  In the second letter (which is mainly a rehash of the first), Charles claims that:

"It yet strikes me as quite unphilosophical to publish results without the full details which have led to such results."15

As we shall see in the rest of this paper, not only was this the most illogical excuse that Darwin could have chosen - it was also the most profoundly hypocritical.

Eventually, even Darwin is forced to realise that his problems will not go away simply because he ignores them.  On May 14th he begins work on Natural Selection, as he now calls his species book.  He intends it to be "four or five times longer" than his 1844 sketch, which would have taken it up to about 1,000 pages in all.  In practice, though he got through about half of this work (some 250,000 words), the book will never be completed in this form.

As the years passed after his return to England Darwin built up a large and varied range of correspondents.  By 1856 the circle has grown to include the American botanist, Asa Gray.  In a letter to Professor Gray, dated July 20th, Darwin trots out yet another version of the state of his researches:

"Nineteen years (!) ago," he wrote, "it occurred to me that ... I might perhaps do good if I noted any sort of facts bearing upon the question of the origin of species ... I believe I see my way pretty clearly on the means used by nature to change her species and adapt them to the wondrous and exquisitely beautiful contingencies to which every living being is exposed ..."16
(Italics added)

On December 7th, "all useful pages" are removed from the notebook on the species question which Darwin opened in the summer of 1837.


Though he has known of the work of fellow naturalist Alfred Wallace since at least 1855 (see previous entry), only now does Darwin face up to the implications, and even then, it seems, only after Wallace made the opening move.
On May 1st, Charles writes to tell Wallace:

"By your letter and even still more by your paper in the Annals ... I can plainly see that we have thought much alike and to a certain extent have come to similar conclusions."17

Despite having used the phrase "the origin of species" in his letter to Asa Gray (see above), Darwin has yet to adopt it as the title of 'the book'.  Indeed, in a letter to Gray dated September 5th he still refers to: "Natural Section (the title of my book)".18


Darwin is still hard at work on his 'magnum opus', and still more than willing to defer publication for as long as possible.  On February 8th he writes to tell his cousin, W.D. Fox: "I mean to make my book as perfect as ever I can .  I shall not go to press at soonest for a couple of years ..."19.
How little he knew!.

In June, 1858, the balloon goes up, the bomb drops, and the sword that has hung for long over Darwin's head now plummets down and buries itself firmly in his balding pate.
On the morning of June 18th the postman delivers to Down House a package from far off Ternate in the Molucca Islands (near the western tip of of New Guinea).  The package contains a manuscript entitled On The Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type, by Alfred Wallace.

Given his history of procrastination, Darwin's letter to Charles Lyell. written later that same day, is ironical in the extreme:

"Your words have come true with a vengence that I should have forestalled.  You said this when I explained to you here very briefly my views of 'Natural Selection' depending on the struggle for existence.  If Wallace had my MS sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract!  Even his terms now stand as the heads of my chapters."19

In the two years since he started work on Natural Selection Darwin completed ten chapters and started on the eleventh.  By his own estimate this constituted about one half of the complete book (had it ever been completed).  It is all too clear that he cannot afford to linger for another two years; he must publish something, and he must publish soon.
On the evening of July 1st a joint paper from Darwin and Wallace is presented to a meeting of the Linnean Society.

And even now he hesitated!  The first delay is until July 20th, when Darwin finally started work on The Origin of Species.  Next, according to notes discovered by Frances Darwin, his father temporarily abandoned his work in order to visit Ascot.  Only in September did Darwin finally apply himself to his writing.


And so we come close to the end of this intermittent diary, at least as far as Darwin is concerned.
In November, 1859, On The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, to give the book its full title, is finally published.  As we saw at the start of Part 2 of this paper, the first printing - of just 1,250 copies - sold out on the first day, though only to retailers.  But it is a start, and with more than a little help from his friends, Darwin will indeed find that "place among the leading scientific men" he so earnestly desires.

  1. No Flaws in the Rock-face, Lynn Barber.  In The Observer, London:November 8th, 1981. p.28
  2. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Frances Darwin (ed.). op. cit. Vol. 2, pp.78-9 and 120-1.
  3. Charles Darwin, John Bowlby. Hutchinson, London:1990. p.308.
  4. Animal Species and Evolution, Ernst Mayr. op. cit. p.12.
  5. This View of Life, George G. Simpson. op. cit. p.81.
  6. These spellings - Downe village and Down House - are correct.
  7. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Frances Darwin (ed.). op. cit. Vol. 2, p.23.
  8. Ibid. Vol. 2. p.16.
  9. Ibid. Vol. 1. p.333.
  10. Charles Darwin and His World, Huxley, J. and Kettlewell, H.B.D.  Thames and Hudson, London:1965.  p.71.
  11. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Frances Darwin (ed.). op. cit. Vol. 2, p.54.
  12. Ibid. Vol. 2. p.53.
  13. Ibid. Vol. 2. p.65.
  14. Ibid. Vol. 2. p.68.
  15. Ibid. Vol. 2. pp.69-70.
  16. Ibid. Vol. 2. pp.78-89.
  17. Ibid. Vol. 2. p.95.
  18. Ibid. Vol. 2. p.123.
  19. Ibid. Vol. 2. p.110.
  20. Ibid. Vol. 2. p.116.
  21. Ibid. Vol. 1. p.84.

Go to other sections

Part 0 - Introduction
Part 1 - Metaphors and Myths
Part 2 - The Mystery Begins
Part 3 - All At Sea
Part 5 - Last Days
Part 6 - Without Reference ...
Part 7 - The Missing Link
Part 8 - Going Public, Maybe
Part 9 - ... Father to the Man
Part 10 - Mr Wallace, Mr Blyth ...
Part 11 - ... and 'Mr' Lyell
Part 12 - The Final Frontier

Appendices - The full text of Blyth's papers from 1835-37
Appendix A - The Varieties of Animals - Part 1
Appendix B - The Varieties of Animals - Part 2
Appendix C - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 1
Appendix D - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 2
Appendix E - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 3
Appendix F - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 4
Appendix G - Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 1
Appendix H - Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 2
Appendix I - Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 3
Appendix J - Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 4

This paper was written and produced by Andrew J. Bradbury