Hewett Cottrell Watson’s letter to Charles Darwin

by Hewett Cottrell Watson

21 Nov 1859
My dear Sir

Once [I started] to read the ‘Origin’ I could not rest [until] I had galloped through [all of it]. I shall now begin to re-read it more deliberately. Meantime I am tempted to write you [my] first impressions…

1st. Your leading idea will assuredly become recognized as an established truth in science, i.e. “natural selection”. (It has the characteristics of all great natural truths, clarifying what was obscure, simplifying what was intricate, adding greatly to previous knowledge). You are the greatest Revolutionist in natural history of this century, if not of all centuries.

2d. You will perhaps need … to limit or modify, ... the principle of ‘natural selection’.

3d. Now [that] these novel views are brought… before the scientific public, it seems truly remarkable how [we didn’t see them sooner]..

A quarter-century ago, you & I must have [had]the same state of mind... But you were able to see & work out [the theory], … while I failed to grasp it. ...
How greatly this...will shock the ideas of many men!

very sincerely | Hewett C. Watson to C. Darwin | Esq.

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2540,” accessed on 26 April 2019, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-2540


Note: Today is the birthday of botanist Hewett Cottrell Watson, the father of British plant geography born today in 1804.

Watson investigated the variability of British plant species across their ranges & compared the flora of Britain to the Azores.

In recognition of his exceptional contributions, the Botanical Society of the British Isles named their journal Watsonia.

Beginning in 1834, Watson was one of the first botanists to research plant evolution. Watson's work also paved the way for a new science now known as ecology.

When Darwin created his theory of evolution, he was standing on the shoulders of curious early evolutionists like Watson.

Darwin's popularity and success overshadowed the folks like Watson, who came before him. Yet, it's evident that when Watson read Darwin's Origin, his reaction was one of wonder... and also self-reflection. He spent his adult life trying to reach Darwin's conclusion. Now, as an older man, he could see the match he had lit being passed to a true torch-bringer.

After reading the origin, Watson wrote to Darwin. His letter is a part proud dad, and part awed fan, and yet, he still takes time to advise Darwin on areas to improve or take heed. In two different passages, Watson points out that Darwin had succeeded where he had stopped short, saying Darwin had figured out the quo modo or the method to knit the strings of the theory of evolution together.

Watson's letter to Darwin is quite something to read – even after all this time.

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Hewett Cottrell Watson
Hewett Cottrell Watson

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