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Tuesday, 27 August, 2002, 01:11 GMT 02:11 UK
Darwin's letters return to their roots
sea lions on Galapagos
Sea lions gather in large colonies on the islands

The correspondence of the great biologist Charles Darwin is being sent to the Galapagos Islands, which provided the inspiration for so much of his work.

Researchers at Cambridge University have been compiling and publishing all the letters sent to and from the great biologist - a mammoth project as there are almost 15,000 in all.

Darwin
Charles Darwin: "Disgusting" habits
Now, 177 years after Darwin visited the Islands, the 12 volumes of correspondence published so far are being sent to the Charles Darwin Research Station, a facility based on the islands.

Professor Duncan Porter, the Darwin Correspondence Project director, says: "The Galapagos Islands 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."

Darwin's letters are expected to fill an estimated 30 volumes in all, in a project that has provided historians with an invaluable source of information about the intellectual development of this gentleman scientist, but also about his social network and about Victorian science and society.

New insights

The letters are being sent to the Galapagos Islands along with an exhibition about the work of the project.

Darwin visited the volcanic islands in 1835, as part of his international voyage on the HMS Beagle, spending five weeks there collecting native plants and animals.

Many of the plant specimens remain in the Herbarium at Cambridge University.

Some recently discovered letters have shown a new side of the young Darwin.

In one letter - written to an unknown friend when Darwin was just 12 - he describes how his sister accused him of being "quite disgusting" when he revealed he did not wash every morning.

When he told his sister Caroline that he only washed his feet once a month at school, he says she "pretended to be quite sick, and left the room".

Most of the letters, however, serve a more academic purpose.

In a new biography of Darwin, to be published next month, the historian Janet Browne describes how crucial letters were to Darwin's theory.

She says he hunted down anyone who could help him with his research, "from civil servants, army officers, diplomats, fur-trappers, horse-breeders, society ladies, Welsh hill-farmers, zookeepers, pigeon-fanciers, gardeners, asylum owners, and kennel hands, through to his own elderly aunts or energetic nieces and nephews".

And in the end, it was a crucial letter from the naturalist Alfred Russell 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.

See also:

03 Jul 00 | Education
06 Jan 00 | Science/Nature
09 Sep 99 | Science/Nature
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