The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 140 of 188

Charles Darwin to J.D. Hooker.

Down, [June?] 15th, [1855].

My dear Hooker,

I just write one line to say that the Hedysarum is come quite safely, and thank you for it.

You cannot imagine what amusement you have given me by naming those three grasses: I have just got paper to dry and collect all grasses. If ever you catch quite a beginner, and want to give him a taste of Botany, tell him to make a perfect list of some little field or wood. Both Miss Thorley and I agree that it gives a really uncommon interest to the work, having a nice little definite world to work on, instead of the awful abyss and immensity of all British Plants.

Adios. I was really consummately impudent to express my opinion “on the retrograde step” (“To imagine such enormous geological changes within the period of the existence of now living beings, on no other ground but to account for their distribution, seems to me, in our present state of ignorance on the means of transportal, an almost retrograde step in science.”–Extract from the paper on ‘Salt Water and Seeds’ in “Gardeners’ Chronicle”, May 26, 1855.), and I deserved a good snub, and upon reflection I am very glad you did not answer me in “Gardeners’ Chronicle”.

I have been very much interested with the Florula. (Godron’s ‘Florula Juvenalis,’ which gives an interesting account of plants introduced in imported wool.)

[Writing on June 5th to Sir J.D. Hooker, my father mentions a letter from Dr. Asa Gray. The letter referred to was an answer to the following:]

Charles Darwin to Asa Gray.

Down, April 25th [1855].

(The well-known American Botanist. My father’s friendship with Dr. Gray began with the correspondence of which the present is the first letter. An extract from a letter to Sir J. Hooker, 1857, shows that my father’s strong personal regard for Dr. Gray had an early origin: “I have been glad to see A. Gray’s letters; there is always something in them that shows that he is a very lovable man.”)

My dear Sir,

I hope that you will remember that I had the pleasure of being introduced to you at Kew. I want to beg a great favour of you, for which I well know I can offer no apology. But the favour will not, I think, cause you much trouble, and will greatly oblige me. As I am no botanist, it will seem so absurd to you my asking botanical questions; that I may premise that I have for several years been collecting facts on “variation,” and when I find that any general remark seems to hold good amongst animals, I try to test it in Plants. [Here follows a request for information on American Alpine plants, and a suggestion as to publishing on the subject.] I can assure you that I perceive how presumptuous it is in me, not a botanist, to make even the most trifling suggestion to such a botanist as yourself; but from what I saw and have heard of you from our dear and kind friend Hooker, I hope and think you will forgive me, and believe me, with much respect,

Dear sir, yours very faithfully,
Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin to Asa Gray.

Down, June 8th [1855].

My dear Sir,

I thank you cordially for your remarkably kind letter of the 22d. ult., and for the extremely pleasant and obliging manner in which you have taken my rather troublesome questions. I can hardly tell you how much your list of Alpine plants has interested me, and I can now in some degree picture to myself the plants of your Alpine summits. The new edition of your Manual is capital news for me. I know from your preface how pressed you are for room, but it would take no space to append (Eu) in brackets to any European plant, and, as far as I am concerned, this would answer every purpose. (This suggestion Dr. Gray adopted in subsequent editions.) From my own experience, whilst making out English plants in our manuals, it has often struck me how much interest it would give if some notion of their range had been given; and so, I cannot doubt, your American inquirers and beginners would much like to know which of their plants were indigenous and which European. Would it not be well in the Alpine plants to append the very same addition which you have now sent me in MS.? though here, owing to your kindness, I do not speak selfishly, but merely pro bono Americano publico. I presume it would be too troublesome to give in your manual the habitats of those plants found west of the Rocky Mountains, and likewise those found in Eastern Asia, taking the Yenesei (?),–which, if I remember right, according to Gmelin, is the main partition line of Siberia. Perhaps Siberia more concerns the northern Flora of North America. The ranges of plants to the east and west, viz., whether most found are in Greenland and Western Europe, or in E. Asia, appears to me a very interesting point as tending to show whether the migration has been eastward or westward. Pray believe me that I am most entirely conscious that the only use of these remarks is to show a botanist what points a non-botanist is curious to learn; for I think every one who studies profoundly a subject often becomes unaware [on] what points the ignorant require information. I am so very glad that you think of drawing up some notice on your geographical distribution, for the air of the Manual strikes me as in some points better adapted for comparison with Europe than that of the whole of North America. You ask me to state definitely some of the points on which I much wish for information; but I really hardly can, for they are so vague; and I rather wish to see what results will come out from comparisons, than have as yet defined objects. I presume that, like other botanists, you would give, for your area, the proportion (leaving out introduced plants) to the whole of the great leading families: this is one point I had intended (and, indeed, have done roughly) to tabulate from your book, but of course I could have done it only very imperfectly. I should also, of course, have ascertained the proportion, to the whole Flora, of the European plants (leaving out introduced) and of the separate great families, in order to speculate on means of transportal. By the way, I ventured to send a few days ago a copy of the “Gardeners’ Chronicle” with a short report by me of some trifling experiments which I have been trying on the power of seeds to withstand sea water. I do not know whether it has struck you, but it has me, that it would be advisable for botanists to give in whole numbers, as well as in the lowest fraction, the proportional numbers of the families, thus I make out from your Manual that of the indigenous plants the proportion of the Umbelliferae are 36/1798 = 1/49; for, without one knows the whole numbers, one cannot judge how really close the numbers of the plants of the same family are in two distant countries; but very likely you may think this superfluous. Mentioning these proportional numbers, I may give you an instance of the sort of points, and how vague and futile they often are, which I attempt to work out…; reflecting on R. Brown’s and Hooker’s remark, that near identity of proportional numbers of the great families in two countries, shows probably that they were once continuously united, I thought I would calculate the proportions of, for instance, the introduced Compositae in Great Britain to all the introduced plants, and the result was, 10/92 = 1/9.2. In our aboriginal or indigenous flora the proportion is 1/10; and in many other cases I found an equally striking correspondence. I then took your Manual, and worked out the same question; here I find in the Compositae an almost equally striking correspondence, viz. 24/206 = 1/8 in the introduced plants, and 223/1798 = 1/8 in the indigenous; but when I came to the other families I found the proportion entirely different, showing that the coincidences in the British Flora were probably accidental!

You will, I presume, give the proportion of the species to the genera, i.e., show on an average how many species each genus contains; though I have done this for myself.

If it would not be too troublesome, do you not think it would be very interesting, and give a very good idea of your Flora, to divide the species into three groups, viz., (a) species common to the old world, stating numbers common to Europe and Asia; (b) indigenous species, but belonging to genera found in the old world; and (c) species belonging to genera confined to America or the New World. To make (according to my ideas) perfection perfect, one ought to be told whether there are other cases, like Erica, of genera common in Europe or in Old World not found in your area. But honestly I feel that it is quite ridiculous my writing to you at such length on the subject; but, as you have asked me, I do it gratefully, and write to you as I should to Hooker, who often laughs at me unmercifully, and I am sure you have better reason to do so.

There is one point on which I am most anxious for information, and I mention it with the greatest hesitation, and only in the full belief that you will believe me that I have not the folly and presumption to hope for a second that you will give it, without you can with very little trouble. The point can at present interest no one but myself, which makes the case wholly different from geographical distribution. The only way in which, I think, you possibly could do it with little trouble would be to bear in mind, whilst correcting your proof-sheets of the Manual, my question and put a cross or mark to the species, and whenever sending a parcel to Hooker to let me have such old sheets. But this would give you the trouble of remembering my question, and I can hardly hope or expect that you will do it. But I will just mention what I want; it is to have marked the “close species” in a Flora, so as to compare in different Floras whether the same genera have “close species,” and for other purposes too vague to enumerate. I have attempted, by Hooker’s help, to ascertain in a similar way whether the different species of the same genera in distant quarters of the globe are variable or present varieties. The definition I should give of a “close species” was one that you thought specifically distinct, but which you could conceive some other good botanist might think only a race or variety; or, again, a species that you had trouble, though having opportunities of knowing it well, in discriminating from some other species. Supposing that you were inclined to be so very kind as to do this, and could (which I do not expect) spare the time, as I have said, a mere cross to each such species in any useless proof-sheets would give me the information desired, which, I may add, I know must be vague.

How can I apologise enough for all my presumption and the extreme length of this letter? The great good nature of your letter to me has been partly the cause, so that, as is too often the case in this world, you are punished for your good deeds. With hearty thanks, believe me,

Yours very truly and gratefully,
Ch. Darwin.

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