A letter from Charles Darwin

Added about 2 weeks ago by W. G. Hale

GUEST BLOG: The discovery of a previously unknown letter from Charles Darwin to the ornithologist and priest Henry Baker Tristram casts new light on the cleric’s attitude towards evolution. Author W. G. Hale reveals its secrets... 

During the course of writing Sacred Ibis I came across an unrecorded letter to Henry Baker Tristram from Charles Darwin, the biologist who was best known for his contributions to the science of evolution. This, together with my discovery of the likely location of the last collected egg of the Great Auk, was the highlight of my findings in the research I carried out for the writing.

Tristram was present at the famous Darwinian Debate in Oxford, known mainly for the participation of Bishop Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley, which took place in July 1860 consequent upon the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. Despite being the first person to support Darwin in print, Tristram took exception to the manner in which Huxley attacked Wilberforce and made it particularly clear that he considered Huxley’s approach to be something with which he did not wish to be associated. This was considered by many as a recantation of Tristram’s views, which it was not. However, since there was no written record of the “debate”, what Tristram exactly said was variously interpreted, and it was generally assumed that Tristram had given up his support of Darwin.

The discovery of Darwin’s first letter to Tristram, dated 4 June 1868, provides a different interpretation. In the letter, Darwin requested information which later appeared in Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871). In his reply Tristram confirmed his position on the matter as having not changed from his original support of Darwin. In the period from Tristram’s first support for Darwin to when he received correspondence from the latter, the tide against evolutionary thought had changed significantly. The weight of clerical opposition also changed to the extent that Disraeli offered Tristram the Bishopric of Jerusalem. Tristram declined the offer! Well, who would want to exchange Durham for Jerusalem?

Read the newly-discovered letter and find out more about Darwin’s correspondence with Tristram in W. G. Hale’s book Sacred Ibis: the Ornithology of Canon Henry Baker Tristram, DD, FRS