Darwin, Charles | A fine series of letters on tailless dogs and rare carnivorous plants

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December 9, 08:31 PM GMT


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Lot Details


Darwin, Charles

A group of four letters to William Chester Tait on numerous scientific matters, Down, Beckenham, Kent, 2 February, 24 February, 18 April, and 1 June, 1869

13 pages on four bifolia (250 x 200 mm), one written by Darwin, the others written by his daughter Emma, though all signed by Darwin (one, "Charles Darwin," three, "Ch. Darwin"); old folds, very minor occasional browning at edges, "Tait" in pencil at upper left corners. [With:] Autograph note by Tait's grandson, one page (208 x 130 mm).

A fascinating series of letters reflecting Darwin’s wide-ranging scientific research, his indefatigable curiosity, and his encouragement of a young naturalist.

In January 1869 Darwin received a letter (not present here) from William Chester Tait, a British amateur botanist living in Portugal. Tait wrote glowingly to Darwin about his books, especially On the Origin of Species and his recently published Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. The young Tait then shared his observations on tailless dogs in Portugal: "... a general custom here [being] to cut the pointer’s tail off leaving only a stump and that the greater part of them are thus mutilated, leads me to suppose that the oft repeated cutting of the tail has had a strong influence on the birth of tail-less dogs and dogs born with only half a tail I do not know that an analogous case has ever been mentioned and after strict verification and enquiry it may be found to bear on your hypothesis of Pangenesis & your general theory."

This line of inquiry launched what became a yearlong exchange between the two. The present collection of letters makes up one-half of Darwin’s contribution to the correspondence. In Darwin’s initial letter of 2 February, he replies to Tait’s inquiry: “With respect to the tailless dogs, there would be I fear much difficulty in determining how far the unknown causes, which occasionally lead in other countries dogs to be born without tails, have acted more energetically in Lisbon; & how far the result has followed from the cutting off of the tail; but if you could render your case highly probable it would be very interesting.”

Darwin then turns to a remarkable carnivorous plant native to Portugal, Drosophyllum lusitanicum, also known as the dewy pine—a plant which attracts insects and becomes encrusted with, and absorbs, their corpses. Darwin had asked J. D. Hooker and others to obtain the plant for him but to no avail. He writes, “I would beg a favor of you, if you could get acquainted with any good botanist, viz to send me a living, young plant of the rare Drosophyllum Lusitanicum, which grown is sandy places in Portugal. I have long wished to try a series of experiments on this plant.”

Darwin concludes his letter with a poignant observation, “With your taste for natural history, you must feel very isolated, and I can fully sympathize with you.” After his voyage on the Beagle, Darwin spent most of his scientific life at home, gathering data from personal observation there and through his vast network of correspondents.

Tait went to great lengths to obtain the rare specimen, traveling by train to search for it multiple times. In Darwin’s next letter, dated 24 February 1869, he writes, "Your kindness is extraordinarily great about the Drosophyllum" and sends detailed instructions for shipment. Clearly eager to begin his study, he asks Tait in a postscript, "If you find the Dros. I should much wish to know whether it grows in sandy, peaty or clay soil—whether damp or dry—whether sunny or shady.—"

He then returns to the case of the tailless dogs, as Tait had sent him further observations in the meantime: “I would suggest that you should keep a list of the cases, observing whether the dogs in the several cases are known not to be related; for the number of cases alone would be evidence of the intervention of some new cause."

Tait’s fascination with variation under domestication and inherited traits inspires Darwin to continue, “Did I mention in my former letter that I am very anxious to learn about the rate of development of the Horns in breeds of sheep in which the Rams alone are horned (viz merinos) & in common breeds in which both sexes are horned,—especially if inhabiting same country & fed in nearly the same manner. What ought to be observed, is, whether the horns are sensibly larger or smaller, at one or at two or at 3 months age, in the one breed than in the other. I hear from Saxony that in Merinos rams the horns can just be felt at birth. I shall much like to hear your facts on the elimination under nature of disadvantageous variations.—”

In the next letter, dated 18 April, Darwin notes that he is not well due to a fall from his horse. He tells Tait that the “the plants are going on very well but I have not been to go for a week to the greenhouse.” He then notes that he has had his book on orchids and his paper on climbing plants sent to Tait.

In the final letter, Darwin thanks Tait for new specimens, but notes," I am so much overworked & have so little strength that I shall not be able to examine them for a considerable time." He ends the note with a warm invitation: “If you stay some little time in England & would feel inclined to come to dinner & sleep here I should be much pleased to thank you in person for all your kindness; but at present I feel so far from well, & having lately had so many visitors, that I am sure the excitement of more conversation would quite knock me up."

Tait’s securing of the rare carnivorous plants inspired Darwin to press forward with his own research in this obscure corner of botany, which culminated in Insectivorous Plants (1875). In that work, he describes his experiments with Tait’s specimens, crediting Tait by name.

A very fine series of letters reflecting all of the characteristics that made Darwin great: his imagination and openness to new ideas; his painstaking observation and experimentation; his generosity in sharing findings and ideas with others; and his cultivation of a spirit of shared scientific enterprise.


Darwin Correspondence Project, letters 6593, 6631, 6705, 6768, cf. 6577