Posted by: Rob Viens | June 28, 2013

What Would Darwin Read?

To the same extent that Darwin loved to write (and wrote a lot) he also loved to read (and read a lot).  It was another characteristic that surely played a role in his success developing his theory of evolution by natural selection – he was attune to much of the work that others had published in biology and geology. As mentioned before (see The Beagle’s Library) Darwin had an extensive library in his cabin on the Beagle (which technically he shared with the captain and the crew). But he was constantly trying to expand the library. Typically his requests for new books fell into two categories – (1) requests for books that may not have been available when he left England, and (2) requests for books to fill in knowledge gaps that he “discovered” during the trip.  An example of the later was the request for books that helped him better understand the plants, animals and fossils he was encountering every day.

In mid June several opportunities arose for Darwin to catch up on his reading.  For example, on June 10th he writes:

“A heavy gale of wind; I think I may make my mind up for a fortnight more at this place.” (June 9/10)

As the winds blew outside his apartment, Darwin took that time to make a list of some of the new books (and other things) that he needed from home.  In the letter, written to his sisters, Darwin adds a long postscript – one that he even goes so far as to call a ” pretty considerable tarnation impudent Postcript”.  He writes:

“P.S.— When you read this I am afraid you will think that I am like the Midshipman in Persuasion who never wrote home, excepting when he wanted to beg: it is chiefly for more books; those most valuable of all valuable things: “Flemings philosophy of Zoology” & Pennants Quadrupeds” these I have at home: “Davys consolation in Travel”: “Scoresby Arctic regions”: “Playfairs Hutton, theory of the earth” “Burchells travels” “Paul Scrope on Volcanoes” a pamphlet by “J. Dalyell Observations on the Planariæ, Edinburgh” Caldcleugh travels in S America.— If any of these books are expensive, strike them out: Tell Erasmus I shall be very much obliged if with my Fathers consent he will undertake this commission. If the 8th Vol of Humboldt or Sedgwick & Conybeares geological book is out I should like them both: You people at home cannot appreciate the exceeding value of Books: Cary has 3s”6 tape measure of about 12 feet. I have lost mine: I have at present a double convex lens, fitted to the object glass, & about one inch in diameter: now I want one on a larger scale & with longer focal distance, for illuminating opake objects: it must be fixed on a stand with plenty of motions. I want to use it, by placing it near the Microscope, & thus have steady light on opake object.— I daresay an Optician must have made some such contrivance. Also another box of Promethians (I blush like this red ink, when I ask for it) but the natives here are so much astounded at them, that I have wasted a great many:—& lastly 4 pair of very strong walking shoes from Howell if he has my measure; it is impossible to procure them in this country: I guess, as the Yankys say, this a pretty considerable tarnation impudent Postcript” (Correspondence to Catherine Darwin, May 22-July 14)

Gotta love the request for more Prometheans – it is still amusing to picture Darwin frittering them away, lighting them on his teeth (see Uruguay on Two Dollars a Day)

So to give you a feel for what Darwin wanted, below is a list of the books he was requesting be sent to him via the “Victorian mail order” system, aka Packet ship.  All of these books can be found in Google Books today, and the links below will allow you to read them online or download them to mobile readers and such, if you are so inclined.

Biology books:

  • Philosophy of Zoology: Or A General View of the Structure, Functions and Classification of Animals by John Fleming (1822) – Read the book
    Fleming was a Scottish naturalist. This book, and a later one on the History of British Animals, certainly had an influence on Darwin’s view of diversity.
  • History of Quadrupeds by Thomas Pennant (1781) – Read the book
    Pennant was a Welsh naturalist and explorer who wrote several definitive books about zoology and paleontology – this one primarily about mammals.
    Thomas Pennant

Geology Books:

  • Considerations on Volcanoes: The probable causes of their phenomena, the laws which determine heir march, the disposition of their products and their connection with the present state and past history of the globe; leading to the establishment of a new theory of the Earth by George Poulett Scrope (1825) – Read the book
    OK – that is the best (or worst?) subtitle ever… Scrope was a French geologist, and this book was effectively the first “textbook” about volcanoes and igneous geology. The book (not surprisingly ) makes a strong case for a volcanic origin of rocks like basalt, and conversely argues against the Neptunists (see Neptunists, Plutonists and the Significance of Granite).
    George Scrope
  • Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth By John Playfair (1802) – Read selections of the book
    Hutton is sometimes known as the “Father of Geology” for laying the foundation for the scientific discipline.  However, he was a horrible writer, and his 1000+ page book was not well received.  Fortunately, John Playfair wrote a shorter, easier to read summary of Hutton’s work, and made Hutton’s revolutionary ideas more accessible to the scientific community.
  • I’m not sure if there are specific books Darwin s referring to when talking about Humboldt or Sedgwick & Conybeares or just asking if there is something new out. It’s hard to tell without a specific title.

Regional Travel “Science”:

  • An account of the Arctic regions, with a history and description of the Northern Whale-Fishery by William Scoresby (1820) – Read the book
    Scoresby was an English scientist and explorer. This book summarizes his adventures in search of the Northwest Passage.
  • Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa by William John Burchell (1824) – Read the book
    Burchell was an English naturalist and explore who visited Africa between 1810 and 1815 where he collected and described numerous plants and animals of the continent.
    William Burchell
  • Travels in South America, During the Years, 1819-20-21 by Alexander Caldcleugh (1825) – Read the book
    Caldcleugh, a Scottish botanist, preceded Darwin by a few years, exploring South America from 1819 to 1825.

I must confess – I was almost as excited as Darwin today to receive a package in the mail containing a brand new book I have been awaiting – Megafauna: Giant Beasts of Pleistocene South America by Richard A. Fariña, Sergio F. Vizcaíno and Gerry de De Iuliis.  If you have been following along with Darwin, you know that he uncovered several large mammal fossils from the Pleistocene (ground sloths and such). So I am looking forward to doing a little more research for some later posts. I’m excited, as it appears to be a good overview of the geology of the region, as well as a look at its charismatic megafauna. I have nothing but good things to say about the first chapter, so far, and look forward to reading more! And just to add one more connection to our current story  – the primary author (Richard Fariña) is a paleontologist in Montevideo, just down the road from Darwin’s current locale.

Megafauna book cover

Of course, even without paying any extra, my book arrived 2 days after I ordered it – instant gratification.  Darwin on the other hand would have to wait the better part of a year for his request to be filled.  I suspect if he had access to online bookstores in his day, the library on the Beagle would rapidly grow to overtake the entre ship! He would have loved it (and probably would have just charged it all to his dad’s “credit card”). Of course, as you can see above, all of these books can be downloaded for free in seconds today.  Picture Darwin with an iPad or Kindle Fire… (RJV)


  1. Oh goodie, a new book! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: