In an article and book review published in The Guardian in 2003, Richard Dawkins excitedly reported that “an obscure letter in a library” suggested that Charles Darwin was the forefather not only of the theory of evolution but also of modern genetics.
The letter to which he referred was written by Darwin to fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in February 1866. Bringing to light a little-known yet highly significant discussion of early Pangenesis, Darwin and Wallace’s written exchange is a powerful reminder of the wealth of important information contained within Darwin’s private correspondence. As Dawkins noted, the letter reminds us that Darwin “was not only a deep thinker” but also “a master encyclopaedist” who “collated huge quantities of information from around the world” on a great variety of subjects.
Indeed, Darwin’s private correspondence shows very clearly that he was part of a surprisingly broad network of naturalists on whose expertise he relied very heavily and Dawkins is correct to suggest that Darwin was arguably more of a scientific collaborator than he was a lone hero. There is, however, a glaring error in Dawkins’ portrayal of Darwin’s scientific network: “…each gentleman [was],” Dawkins says, “meticulously acknowledged for having ‘attended to’ the subject”. Darwin was indeed the most polite and conscientious of correspondents, but his scientific network was made up not just of gentlemen like Alfred Russel Wallace but also a large number of women, including Mary Treat, Lydia Becker, Carolina Dodel Port, Mary Barber and Margaretta Hare-Morris to name but a few.
Delving into Darwin’s private correspondence offers great potential for us to better understand both the full breadth of his ideas and the collaborative nature of his work. It will also help to correct the enduring assumption that during the nineteenth century science was a world inhabited exclusively by the so-called “scientific gentleman”.