Darwin's letters being sent to Galapagos Islands as part of Darwin Correspondence Project

September 10, 2002

Blacksburg, Va., Sept. 10, 2002 -- The letters of Darwin are going back to the place at which his theory of evolution took shape.

Charles Darwin did a great deal of the research leading to his controversial theory of evolution by exploring the plant and animal life of the volcanic Galapagos Islands and by corresponding with people around the world about his ideas. "The Galapagos became important to Darwin in relation to the Cape Verde Islands, which Darwin visited earlier on the Beagle voyage," said Duncan Porter, professor of biology at Virginia Tech and director of The Darwin Correspondence Project. "Both groups of islands are tropical, arid, and within a few hundred miles of South America and Africa. What Darwin noticed was that their plants and animals were not similar to each others', but to those of the nearby continent."

This and other observations about the similarities and differences of the plants and animals on the islands and the nearby continents led Darwin to conclude "that they must have had common ancestors, that they must have evolved," Porter said.

The Darwin Correspondence Project has published 12 of a projected 32-volume set of Darwin's letters, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, and is sending those published volumes back to the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos.

Darwin's letters provide a good historical view of the way the scientist's ideas took shape. They cover his childhood years, in which he shows his typical teasing sibling relationship with his sister, as well as the years he spent traveling on HMS Beagle and the years leading up to his Origin of Species. That book outlined his theory of evolution by natural selection and started a never-ending debate over its validity.

Darwin exchanged letters not only with distinguished scientists, but also with people of all walks of life who could help him with his research--gardeners, army officers, fur trappers, among many others. In fact, according to BBC Science Correspondent Christine McGourty, "And in the end, it was a crucial letter from the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace--in which he outlined the theory of evolution by natural selection, which he discovered quite independently and before Darwin had made his work public--that prompted Darwin to rush The Origin of Species into print."

The Darwin Correspondence Project is housed at Cambridge University, whose library has 9,000 of the approximately 15,000 known Darwin letters. Cambridge also houses the plants Darwin shipped back from the Beagle, many of which Porter first identified. Porter spends about three months each summer at Cambridge, where, as senior editor and director of the correspondence project, he has done work ranging from fund raising, researching and writing preliminary footnotes for the letters, and, along with Frederick Burkhardt, approving the finished volumes.

"The Galapagos Islands," Porter said, "were essential to Darwin's evolutionary ideas. It is important that our volumes are being sent to the place where Darwin's questions about how organisms change over time began to be answered, leading in a few years to his theory of evolution by natural selection."

The Quarterly Review of Biology called the series of published Darwin letters "a work of magisterial scholarship." The series, which includes explanatory footnotes and supplementary materials about the letters, has received the Founder's Medal of the Society of the History of Natural History and the Modern Language Association of America's first Morton N. Cohen Award for a distinguished edition of letters.
-end-
Porter has been doing research on Darwin since 1966, when he did a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford on the plants of the Galapagos Islands. He is co-author, with Ira Wiggins, of Flora of the Galapagos and, with Peter Graham, of The Portable Darwin. He co-edited volumes eight-13 of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. Volume 13 will be published in November.

PR CONTACT INFORMATION: Sally Harris
540-231-6759
slharris@vt.edu

Virginia Tech

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