Sunday, 22 April 2018

Why Charles Darwin did not own the Two Essays by W.C. Wells (1818) before the Beagle voyage or after

Tall claims
John S. Warren (2017. Darwin's missing links. History of European Ideas 43(8): 929-1001) claims that Charles Darwin bought William Charles Wells's (1818, Tow Essays: One upon single vision with two eyes; the other on dew. ...) before he even embarked on the voyage of the HMS Beagle. Charles Darwin read Herschel's Premier Discourse at Cambridge, who praised Wells's Essay on Dew as a role model for anybody attempting to do science. Warren promptly concludes:
Darwin required no prompting; he quickly acquired a copy ofWells’ ‘Essay on Dew’.259 The copy in Darwin’s library in Down House is identified in the Darwin Digital Library of Evolution, Bibliography and the ‘Key to Annotations’ as ‘Pre-B’ and ‘Down’: it was in Darwin’s private library pre-Beagle voyage, later located at Down House; that is, since the Beagle sailed in December 1831, the paper was acquired no later than 1831 (Appendix 1).260
259 Wells, Two Essays.
260 American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), 2005. Accessed January 25 and September 27, 2009. See also Appendix 1.
Appendix 1
The Darwin Library and DDLE are currently accessible on the AMNH website through the following links, as at 13th January, 2017: Darwin Manuscript Project (DMP) Website ( To go straight to the William C Wells reference, the current URL is ( (Publications in EvoLit.bib p. 23). Excerpt from AMNH, 2005. ‘Darwin Digital Library of Evolution’ ( web-page listing for the relevant section of the alphabetical letter ‘W’, showing William Charles Wells’ ‘Two Essays’ in Darwin’s private library, with immediately adjacent names. Wells’ book was acquired by Darwin before the end of 1831. The entry for Wells, 1818 is annotated, ‘*’ (the identifier for Darwin’s private library), ‘Pre-B’ (pre-Beagle voyage, but not known on board), and ‘Down’ (Darwin’s library, later located at Down House, Kent): see the Darwin Digital Library of Evolution, ‘Key to annotations’.
Whatever the historical significance of Wells's Essay on Dew (1814. Article IV.—An Essay on Dew, and several Appearances connected with it. The Quarterly Review; London Vol. 12(23): 90-99) the significance for the history of biology of the later published Two Essays lies in neither of the two essays, but in an appended "account of a female of the white race, part of whose skin resembles that of a negro ..." This last account contains an anticipation of natural selection as a means of adaptation of races to their different conditions. That is, Wells did not go as far as to suggest the origin of new species through natural selection, but he got pretty close.

Screwed records
Now, Warren took an information provided by Charles Darwin's Library (at the website of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, BHL) as stating that Darwin owned that book before he even embarked on the Beagle Voyage. (In fact, Warren refers to the American Museum of Natural History, but that link does not exist anymore and the AMNH now relays you to the BHL's Charles Darwin Library.) This would be unproblematic, if the key to annotations had traveled along with the alphabetical list, but it hasn't. Page 84 of this list states: 
The crucial part, here, is that in square brackets: "Down, pre-B, ED." Unfortunately, the Charles Darwin Library or BHL does not give any information as to the meaning of these abbreviations (annotations). While SCRIBD still has a relic of the original list collated by the staff of the AMNH, this only tells us that the key to the annotations can be found in the book Charles Darwin's Marginalia edited by Di Gregorio & Gill (1990, Garland, New York).

Thankfully, Greg Priest (@greg_m_priest) tweeted the key to the symbols and the page with the entry of Wells's Two Essays.

Di Gregorio (ed.) 1990. Charles Darwin's Marginalia: Key to symbols

"ED" seems to be missing from the key to symbols and Warren (2017) simply ignored it. He took the annotation to mean "book located at Down House, Kent" and "book owned prior to Beagle voyage but not known on board," as the key to symbols states for the meaning of "Down" and "pre-B."
However, Warren went further than that. He claimed that Charles Darwin bought the book while in Cambridge and owned it ever since, studiously avoiding the question what that "ED" at the end of the annotation might mean. In my opinion, it hints at one of the many Erasmus Darwin's rather than our Charles. That is, even if Di Gregorio's annotation was correct, it would not mean that Charles Darwin had bought the book before his Beagle voyage and owned it ever since.

However, the information of Di Gregorio, the BHL and AMNH is probably wrong anyway.

The first record
H. W. Rutherford (1908. Catalogue of the library of Charles Darwin now in the Botany School, Cambridge. Compiled by H. W. Rutherford, of the University Library; with an Introduction by Francis Darwin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) was the first at Cambridge University, who collated a list of the books that actually did enter their collection of Charles Darwin's books in 1908, and Francis Darwin wrote the introduction to that catalogue.

The first thing to notice is in Francis Darwin's Introduction:
THE library of Charles Darwin has now found a permanent home in his own University, and it is perhaps appropriate that it should be in the Botany School, since it was a Cambridge professor of Botany who, more than any one man, determined his career as a naturalist.
The collection is not identical with that at Down. Thus the books he wrote and some few others from Down are in my own possession. There are also a few books of mine which, for the sake of convenience, are kept in the Darwin library: these are marked with an asterisk in the catalogue. (Rutherford 1908, p. vii, emphasis added) #
#[The books from Francis Darwin's private possession have probably been integrated into the collection by now.] Next thing to notice is the explanation of the abbreviations:
* Books thus marked were not in the Library at Down. ... (Rutherford 1908, p. xiv, emphasis added)
  And, finally, there is the entry for W. C. Wells:
*Wells (William Charles). Two Essays: one upon single vision with two eyes; the other on Dew: &c. 8vo. London, 1818. 24 (Rutherford 1908, p. 89)
The first record by H. W. Rutherford (1908) clearly contradicts Di Gregorio's annotation "Down, pre-B, ED," which has first been adopted by the AMNH and then by the the Biodiversity Heritage Library. While this annotation suggests Down House as the location of the book, the asterisk of Rutherford and the introductory statements by Francis Darwin state that Francis added this book to the collection, which has since been called the Darwin Library. That is, it was not from Down House or, anyway, not from Down House while Charles Darwin still roamed it.

Maybe it came down to Francis Darwin from Erasmus Darwin (either one). Maybe Francis stored it with some other books of his in Down for a while, before they went to Cambridge. Maybe the collator of the BHL's list made some mistake. Whatever the explanation of the screwed-up information at the BHL, it can surely not be taken as proof that Charles Darwin owned Well's Two Essays long before he even went on the Beagle voyage.