The “missing” Darwin-Mivart letters

I’ve been examining the life and work of St George Jackson Mivart for some time now, so the following caught my eye. Creationist journalist, Denyse O’Leary is making much of a claim that the correspondence between Mivart and Darwin has never been released on the Internet (*gasp*) and that “there is some thought that it may falsify some current explanations for the breach between the two men.” I’ll turn to the first claim in a moment, but suffice at the moment to note that I know of no historian who believes the latter to be the case.

The first claim originates in a posting by Enézio E. de Almeida Filho who runs a blog called Darwinleaks and received a Masters in History of Science from Pontifícia Universidade Católica – Sao Paulo in 2008.  The story is this; de Almeida Filho tried to receive online access to the Mivart letters through the Darwin Correspondence Project but was told that the letters was not yet released and that there was no projected exact date for release. Surely this must mean that there is a conspiracy afoot? Yes? Our intrepid scholar goes on (translation by Google, so excuse the roughness):

As a historian of science in education at that point, I expect to have access to soi occur between universities, institutions and scientific organizations. None won. I could not prepare a dissertation perform the way you expected, because this match could show how the first scientific controversy that Darwin was involved and engaged directly and indirectly (the chapter I wrote: The rhetoric invisible Darwin was not accepted) developed.

The problem with these claims is obvious to anyone who has been working with correspondence archives in general (and Darwin’s letters in particular). The original letters are available in the collections of Cambridge University and can be examined there by any historian who wishes to do so. Letters do not magically transcribe themselves and appear in edited volumes (or online). The DCP has been going since 1974, published its first volume of letters eleven years later, and has only recently reached letters from 1870 (Volume 18, with another twelve years of letters in the pipeline). Online versions lag behind for obvious financial reasons; Cambridge University Press, who publish the letters, have to make some sort of return on investment. Currently, letters before 1867 are freely available online (the corresponding printed volume appeared in 2004).

The recent publication of volume 18 means that eleven of the known Darwin-Mivart letters are now freely available in book form and these will be online sometime in the future. It will obviously be some time before the correspondence from 1871/72 will be published (that deals with the publication of, and response to, Mivart’s On the Genesis of Species) and even longer before we get to 1874 (when the Darwin-Mivart controversy reached its nadir) as volumes are appearing every two years. Until that time, scholars will have to make do with traveling to the archive if they want to examine the letters.

So the problem here isn’t that the letters are unavailable (they are and have been examined and quoted by historians for over 50 years now) but that they are not available online. While is is unfortunate that a student in Brazil cannot therefore easily access them, such is life – all historical sources are not freely available online when we want them.

This does not prevent de Almeida Filho from seeing an attempt to hide the truth:

Why not release online Nomenklatura scientific correspondence between Darwin and Mivart? Science is the search for truth? The scientist does not follow the evidence where they go to? Maintain confidentiality of the contents of this correspondence is a great disservice to the History of Science, and DarwinLeaks blog has an obligation to make it public.

But as I argue above, there is no “confidentiality” being maintained here.

As O’Leary notes, Darwinleaks aims to do for Darwin what Wikileaks has done for governments, except from “a history of science point of view”. de Almeida Filho himself sees a rough trip ahead: “Pray for me, lest I be arrested as Julian Assange, but if so, will go to Darwin in the dock with me. Those who live shall see!” I don’t see jail-time in his future, but if he wishes to be taken seriously by historians in his quest, he’ll need to show a little less naiveté regarding conspiracies.

To end, I’d like to note that Mivart’s story is a lot more nuanced and interesting than usually presented. Once I finish a manuscript (on Mivart!) that I need to get done, I’ll probably post on him here.

About John M. Lynch

teacher, historian, biologist, beer snob. not necessarily in that order.
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8 Responses to The “missing” Darwin-Mivart letters

  1. Thony C. says:

    Having in my own earlier research on the history of logic consulted archives that had not even been catalogued let alone published, I know that if asked politely archivists will go out of their way to help historians find and study the documents that they need for their research. In fact I was always amazed by the kind reception that I, as an unknown and insignificant researcher, received from archivists and librarians wherever I went. I have also received photocopies of material from archives and libraries all over the world without problems.

  2. darwinsbulldog says:

    John –

    Enézio E. de Almeida Filho also runs Desafiando a Nomenklatura Científica, and last February he accused me of “terrorist action” because I reshelved creationist books in bookstores:
    http://pos-darwinista.blogspot.com/2010/02/acao-terrorista-dos-agentes-da-kgb-da.html

    The Google translation:
    http://thedispersalofdarwin.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/antievolutionist-says-my-reshelving-unscientific-books-is-a-global-terrorist-action/

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  4. John, although English is not my mother tongue, to cheer for someone is not the same as to pray for someone.

    Like Darwin, when I do science I don’t mix religion and vice versa. I’ll take your points cum grano salis.

    Best regards from Brazil

    • I’m not really seeing what needs to be taken with a grain of salt? Factual statements about how the DCP releases letters? If anything, it’s your conspiracy theory that is suspect!

    • The facts are simple: by agreement with Cambridge University Press letters are then added to the DCP website four years after print publication. Thus, letters from 1870 (when the Darwin-Mivart correspondence begins) will only be available online in 2014. The totality of the correspondence between the two won’t be online until probably 2020.

      Rather than spinning conspiracy theories, I suggest you go and read the letters in Cambridge.

    • And this claim (Google Translation) is laughable:

      Now, was pleased and displeased the Greeks Trojans, this is an indication that the DarwinLeaks is on track: unveiling the current historiography that dare not reveal – the gray side of the modus operandi of Darwin and his disciples, because compromised by an ideological agenda that argues against the true objectivity of historiographical research/

      You haven’t revealed anything! You made a claim of a conspiracy without providing any evidence to demonstrate (a) the conspiracy or (b) that the letters are damaging to the currently accepted historical narrative. I sincerely hope the standard of scholarship in your thesis is higher!

  5. Enrique Morata says:

    Please have a read at my books in internet “Darwinlandia” on the same subject.

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