The Darwin Correspondence Project has joined forces with another major Cambridge-based research project, Generation to Reproduction, and has contributed to a wide-ranging public exhibition in Cambridge University Library. Books & Babies: Communicating Reproduction opens on 7 July 2011 and runs until 23 December.
Investigation of the mechanisms for reproduction across all living things, and the origins of sex itself, was at the heart of Darwin’s research: without the variations introduced into successive generations of organisms through sexual reproduction there would be nothing for natural selection to operate on – there would be no evolution.
Darwin catalogued the changes effected by selective breeding in everything from pigeons to people, and spent eight years of his life studying the origins of sex in barnacle populations. His little known but crucial research into the mechanims by which many plants are fertilised was assisted by access, through correspondence, to a network of botanic gardens throughout the British Empire.
Effective mechanisms for communicating his ideas to a wide public were also crucial to Darwin’s success. Our own research is currently focussed on Darwin’s correspondence from the years surrounding the publication of the two major works in which he publicly addressed the very sensitive issue of just where humans fit in the natural world: The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. It is here that Darwin first discussed the mechanism of sexual selection, and especially ideas of female mate choice and conceptions of beauty, alongside natural selection as the drivers of species change, with important consequences for ideas on the origins of race. But what of female mate choice in humans? And how could he present discussions of female sexuality, human reproductive organs and practices, and such subjects as menstruation in a work intended to reach a wide public audience? His letters from the period reveal how he crafted the public face of his research into these most private of matters.
The full texts of the letters from the years 1871 and 1872 will be published shortly in volumes 19 and 20 of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, and selected texts are being made available on this website ahead of print publication.
And in his own private life Darwin was very conscious of issues of sex and reproduction. He – the son of first cousins – and his wife Emma – his first cousin – were the parents of ten children. Concerns about the effects of close breeding were more than a theoretical research topic. He was closely involved in the births of his children: he and Emma were early adopters of chloroform as an anaesthetic in childbirth, and Darwin administered it to Emma himself. He closely monitored his children’s development, keeping a detailed diary that provided him with research material for later publications. Shortly after Darwin wrote about mate choice in Descent, his daughter Henrietta courted and married, and his cousin, close friend, and scientific collaborator, Francis Galton was just at the beginnings of his own research into heredity that contributed to the founding of the Eugenics Society.
Books & Babies has been curated by the ‘Generation to Reproduction’ group, Cambridge historians of medicine and biology who are using a Wellcome Trust strategic award to reassess the long-term history of reproduction.