[Preface: I'm glad I could keep my German-speaking readers on their toes. I mentioned it in Facebook but forgot to copy the message here: Aside from adding a few weird sentences, I purposefully tried to make the German nonsense by running it through translators back and forth a few times. I figured making no sense whatsoever was better than having errors ;D]
It’s extraordinary, the amount of correspondence that takes place today. A single person can launch hundreds of emails, texts, and phone calls within an eight hour period, then go home and feel like they did nothing all day. Yet when we look back to the time of Darwin and Haeckel, it’s hard to believe anything got done at all. I over-exaggerated the language barrier for the comic. Darwin did have an understanding of German, though according to The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, it frustrated him to no end. When he first began learning German, he boasted about it in a letter to his close friend Joseph Hooker, to which Hooker replied, “Ah, my dear fellow, that’s nothing; I’ve begun it many times.”
As it was the only means of long-distance communication at the time, Darwin wrote thousands of letters over the course of 40 years. Reading them gives great insight into the man. In them he poured his life’s work and his growing uneasiness and inner-turmoil regarding the logical threads he was slowly tying together. In his famous 1844 letter to Hooker, he wrote the words that changed biology forever (emphasis mine):
At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.
After publishing On the Origin of Species, Darwin was out to spread the word about evolution across the globe, and, of course, he did so via letters. Just think of it like a social media campaign, except you had to snail mail a letter to everybody you wanted to reach, I can only imagine starting this comic (which would probably have been a pamphlet—they loved pamphlets) and having to do that. I probably would have given up. That or started a multi-billion dollar comic publishing empire that would subsequently go out of business in 2010 because of blogs. BLOGS!
With natural selection spreading, Darwin gained staunch allies in people like Haeckel and Thomas Huxley (“Darwin’s Bulldog”). It’s easy to compare Darwin to spam marketer of sorts, gathering up a posse of scientists to further his cause. But the man needed all the help he could get—the opposition was strong. After all, there’s an awful precedence of going against the teachings of the church. Remember that a little more than a decade before the publication of his book, he spoke of evolution as if he was confessing to murder. To many creationists, he might as well have.
Where can you find these letters? Well, Darwin’s son, Francis, went to great lengths to collect all the letters written to and from his late father. He collected them into the The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, the last volume being published in 1902. But this is 2012, and now reading Darwin’s letters to Haeckel, Galton, Huxley et all is easier than ever thanks to The Darwin Correspondence Project. Started in 1974, the Correspondence Project has collected over 9000 letters and 6000 copies of letters and published them online for all to read. You can even view them in a nifty timeline form. Their collection is continually growing, and if you happen to have a letter written by Darwin collecting coffee stains on the kitchen counter, you best send it to them.
This post was brought to you by Haeckel’s Bats. My favorite is #12.
UPDATE: People have been asking about some of the crazy bats on the image. While they are artistic representations, they are indeed all real. You can view a list (with links) of all the species depicted in the print here (scroll down past the image to the legend). The specimen in the center is the aptly-named ghost-faced bat (also here on flickr), while #10, the flower-faced bat has been harder to find photos of. #14 is a Wrinkle-faced bat, which has a photograph in its wiki entry.