Charles Darwin and the Unread Letter

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©Tony Webster

Perhaps it’s just my personal allegiance to cynicism, but I think tragic love stories where the quintessential two characters of interest – often a man and woman – don’t end up in an ideal romantic relationship deserve greater literary and popular merit. If Charles Dickens stuck to his original unhappy ending for Great Expectations, that work could have stood shoulder to shoulder with other tragic giants such as Anna Karenina. But Dickens went for the happier and more hopeful ending. Sigh. While expectations were great, it eventually missed the train to greatness.

But love stories need not to be romantic in nature to work. Some of the best love stories are formed by bonds of shared interest and ambition, most of the time manifesting itself in the form of friendship. The trip to Mordor would’ve ended early if not for the often rocky but ultimately solid relationship between Frodo and Sam. Octavian’s sudden rise to Rome’s highest political seat meant that time and pressure were both acting in tandem against him. Luckily, his loyal and tactically brilliant ally Agrippa stood by him, and helped him usher one of the greatest periods in Roman history, the Pax Romana.

Friendships, however strong, can also be so fragile. One of Shakespeare’s most iconic lines is resonant of betrayal, of a friendship destroyed. Julius Caesar aghast at the treachery before him. Sharp daggers forced their way into his body, with each stab inching him closer to realm of Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld. But the sight of Brutus taking part in the assassination penetrated deepest into his soul. Et tu, Brute?

Tragic. But let me propose something else, which I think is a genre of tragedy that is as emotionally and intellectually charged as the ones mentioned above: a relationship that could have been, but never was.

It is an established and effective trope in literature and television to use suppressed words, often portrayed as silence, to signify the failure of something to blossom. The stereotypical leading man keeping his mouth shut even when the propitious moment has come, effectively locking his feelings for the leading lady secure deep in his pained heart. Fans of classic manga can think of Berserk’s Judeau failing to utter the words that contained his feelings for Casca at the onset of the ultimate evil which was the eclipse.

Words, however, are not exclusive to the oral tradition. One of mankind’s greatest legacies is the discovery and mastery of writing as a mode of knowledge transmission: knowledge that can either be emotional or intellectual (or even both at the same time). In ages past, these words were given life in the form of poetry. The poet’s voice may lose its timbre across time, but their voice retains its weight in the pages of literature. The reopening of Dido’s old tormenting wounds still sound as painful today as it was back then when Virgil’s Aeneid hit publication: Agnosco veteris vestigia flammae. I know too well the signs of the old flame. (trans. Allen Mandelbaum)

So what we have on our hands is the power of the written word to convey feelings and ideas. Coincidentally, for our specific purpose, there is an interesting story of what could have been, but never was in science, which was the result of words never heard and never read. It involves Charles. Not Dickens. But the intellectual father of my profession, Charles Darwin.

Upon receiving and reading Alfred Russel Wallace’s manuscript in 1858, Darwin hastened to send it to Charles Lyell. Wallace politely requested him to do so, if Darwin found it interesting. Well, he did find it interesting because Darwin had been working on the same idea arrived at by Wallace for 20 years. This parcel from Indonesia served as the impetus for Darwin to write his monumental work On the Origin of Species.

Wallace was just one of the many scientists seeking Darwin’s opinions in all things natural. Darwin had successfully established himself as one of the most prominent scientists of his time and had built an extensive network of correspondents that he could rely on for clarifications, corrections, and critiques. And in that regard he was a prolific letter writer. With so many letters to read and write in so little time, there were most certainly many left unwritten and unread.

And one of those unread letters was sent from Brno. It was a reprint of an 1865 scientific article titled Versuche über Pflanzenhybriden, Experiments on Plant Hybridization. An article which was read to the Natural History Society of Brno on February 8 of that year. Contained in the article were the very seeds that would later germinate into the science of genetics. Scientific concepts such as the laws of segregation and independent assortment were formally defined and supported by statistical data derived from careful experiments with Pisum sativum (pea) plants. From these experiments, a generalized theory of heredity emerged. And the (almost) ubiquitous biological ratio of 3:1 first found its strongest support in the scientific literature. The author and sender was no other than the Moravian monk Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics.

Darwin’s copy of Mendel’s article was left uncut in his library. In short, Darwin never got around to read it. But what if he did?

No one knows for sure if he would’ve understood Mendel’s 3:1 ratio and generalized findings. After all, he also came close to Mendel’s observations with his experiments on snapdragons, but was unable to make much sense of the differences across generations like Mendel did. Maybe he would’ve written a letter or two asking for clarifications. Or maybe he would’ve actually understood and accepted Mendel’s findings, prompting him to ask the monk for a possible collaboration. Who knows? We’re all left to speculate the possibilities. A tragedy.

Darwinism found itself on thin ice in the early 20th century when it failed to explain the mechanisms behind heredity and the causes of variation. The nascent Mendelian science of genetics came just in time to the rescue and filled in the gaps left by Darwinism. Later biologists reconciled the two into a fully working theory. Dubbed the modern synthesis, this marriage of Mendelian and Darwinian theories nurtured biology into a fully mature body of science. Two distinct but reciprocally informative ideas from two men who almost came close to a relationship – but were never able to do so.  What could’ve been, but never was.

I’m not sure on this but maybe the moral behind this story is the triumph of the idea over the person, that while our own lives may soon cease, the ideas and the words we leave behind will become permanent markers of our existence in this world. If that’s the case then life isn’t so tragic at all. And even if we permit a bit of cynicism into that view, it leads me to think that there’s something morbidly funny and interesting behind all these tragedies: these missed chances to form relationships are life’s cruel jokes. We missed the opportunity to witness the glory of dinosaurs, and we will most definitely miss the future species that will surface thanks to evolution. But the past and the future also missed the opportunity to meet us, creatures of the present. And that the only chance when we can all form a connection is in the common destiny for all living things, death. I guess the most important thing here is that we learn something from our retrospection while we’re alive, and whatever we gain from doing so, we use to add to our collective understanding of the world. There may never be a need to relive such failed connections.

After all, historical events and personages may seem to appear twice: first as tragedy, second as a farce. A cruel joke, indeed.

 

References:

Henig, Robin Marantz. The monk in the garden: the lost and found genius of Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics. Mariner Books: Boston, MA. 2001

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