Skip to main content
You are here

Friendship with Darwin

Joseph Hooker and Charles Darwin were lifelong friends and their scientific discourse helped shape Darwin's theory of the evolution of species. Find out more about the role Hooker played in this exemplar of 'good science'.

Shortly after his return from the Antarctic, Hooker received a letter from Darwin congratulating him on his achievements, offering specimens from Tierra del Fuego, and asking whether Hooker would be interested in classifying the plants Darwin had gathered in the Galapagos. At this time, the two men hardly knew each other, having met only once, shortly before Hooker set sail. Nevertheless, Hooker was flattered by his scientific hero’s attention and began the Galapagos work. 

Sepia photograph of Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882)

These first letters marked the beginning of a lifelong correspondence, through which the two became friends and collaborators, and debated their many scientific interests – notably over questions of plant distribution.

The rapid deepening of Hooker and Darwin’s friendship is evident from a letter Darwin wrote on 14 January 1844: ‘I am almost convinced,’ he told his new acquaintance, ‘(quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable,’ adding that ‘I think I have found out (here’s presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends’ (Burkhardt and Smith 1987: 2). The ‘simple way’ was, of course, natural selection, and Hooker was the first in the world to hear of Darwin’s secret.

In the early 19th century, the transmutation of species was still a controversial, and indeed dangerous, topic for naturalists. Their 18th century predecessors had divided the study of nature into descriptive natural history and explanatory natural philosophy. However, in Hooker’s day, this distinction between catalogues and causes was breaking down and various attempts were underway to explain the world using natural – rather than divine – laws.

The origins and nature of species, including humans, were one of the most contentious topics naturalists faced. So, despite his tongue-in-cheek description of himself as ‘confessing a murder,’ Darwin genuinely feared that Hooker might be appalled by his ideas; he must have been relieved when Hooker replied that there might well have been ‘a gradual change of species,’ adding, ‘I shall be delighted to hear how you think that this change may have taken place, as no presently conceived opinions satisfy me on the subject’ (Burkhardt and Smith 1987: 6–7).

I remember once dreaming you were too prone to theoretical considerations about species ... which I thought a more intimate acquaintance with species practically might clear up

Joseph Hooker counseling Darwin on how to advance his theory of natural selection in a letter from Calcutta 6 Apr 1850

Hooker’s calm reply was probably shaped by some degree of deference, but also suggests a pre-existing interest in the species question. Although Hooker said little about his own opinions until the late 1850s, his willingness to listen to Darwin’s ideas opened the way to a long and fruitful correspondence.

As Darwin worked out the details of his theory over the next 14 years, the two men regularly discussed natural selection and Darwin would later acknowledge Hooker as ‘the one living soul from whom I have constantly received sympathy’ (Burkhardt and Smith 1991: 174).

Yet Hooker never hesitated to criticise Darwin when he disagreed with him. Writing to Lyell in 1866, Darwin noted that Hooker’s ‘mind is so acute and critical that I always expect to hear a torrent of objections to anything proposed; but he is so candid that he often comes round in a year or two’ (Darwin and Seward 1903: 138). 

The Nango glacier in the Himalayas helped Darwin and Hooker to understand the distribution of isolated alpine plants. For an example of Hooker and Darwin's scientific exchanges and how they helped to shape Darwin's theory of evolution take a look at the video in the link below.

 

Text by Dr Jim Endersby. Reproduced with the permission of the author and Oxford University Press. Full biography also available free online on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website.