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Response to Review of Darwin Online

It is gratifying to have a thoughtful review of this kind, for the Darwin Correspondence Project not only pre-dates the creation of the world-wide-web, but almost pre-dates academic computing. For a decade and a half, editors worked with notecards and pencils, and eventually acquired one personal computer which had so little memory space that information had to be transferred to floppy discs several times a day. In those early days, the work of the Project seemed to some commentators to be part of a great grinding Darwin ‘industry’ (which included the transcription of notebooks, marginalia, etc.). But as the reviewer notes, what looked like an increasingly narrow and Darwin-o-centric approach, has actually allowed for a substantial revision of traditional ‘great man’ histories of science and intellectualist histories of evolution, by drawing attention to the practice of science, how it was materially done, its social and cultural settings, and the wide range of people involved in its production. Letters are especially revealing of the collaborative nature of Darwin’s science, and its complex reception, reputation, and influence, as Darwin’s work was appropriated by different readers for diverse ends.

Web technologies have not only allowed this material to be made freely available. They have also transformed it, giving it shapes that are more accessible, more useable and more digestible. Letter-texts conjoined with images can render the details of Darwin’s experimental practice more clearly and vividly; interactive timelines and maps can chart the building of networks; sets of correspondence on particular topics can enable users to explore areas of interest more readily than searching through 15000 individual letters.

One of the potential weaknesses of internet resources, however, is that un-contextualized, unreferenced, and unsubstantiated views can circulate freely, a problem that is often more pronounced with figures like Darwin who continue to attract a host of admirers and detractors. The reviewer notes the ‘totemic status’ Darwin has acquired through controversies over creationism and intelligent design, and the role that the internet has played in these controversies. Debate can quickly degenerate into polemical assertion. It was partly in hopes of providing a reliable source of information on these divisive issues that the editors have created the thematic sections on the website, the section on Darwin and religion being the most obvious example. Letters were an important medium in which readers engaged Darwin on the implications of his work, and they provide a rich and varied picture of the controversies in which he was embroiled. One of the features of this section, Darwin’s correspondence with Asa Gray, the devout Presbyterian supporter of both Darwinism and design, reveals how heated debate was conducted in Darwin’s own day, with irreconcilable differences between science and religion asserted with thoughtfulness, mutual respect, and support.

Our approach to the material in this and other thematic sections, on human nature and gender, draws on the work of Gillian Beer, John Hedley Brooke, Frank Turner, George Levine, James Moore, Bernard Lightman, and many others, in which the relationship between Darwin(ism), religion, and other forms of culture is highly complex and local. Conflict, notwithstanding the claims of Dr Stack, is not inevitable, for many of Darwin’s supporters reached some form of accommodation with their previous views. Darwin not only avoided controversy but took steps to ameliorate it, and at times even encouraged a certain latitude of interpretation. Our aim in these themed sections has been to bring the Darwin letters, an often neglected and, from a public point of view, little known, source, more into the foreground, so as to provide the basis for an enlarged discussion of issues that are not only still contested today, but in a manner that is often historically uninformed or oversimplified.

Sustaining such a long-term Project, as the review points out, is not easy. The Project has benefited from generous support from a wide range of funding organizations, public and private, over its history. These organizations have always been acknowledged in the front of our published volumes, and the website allows us to provide links to all of the organizations that have websites of their own, so that it is unclear what else can be done in order to assure the reviewer that there are no ‘snipers on the grassy knoll’ or what they might be shooting at. The importance of the web has of course not been lost upon funding bodies, and it has become essential for the continuation of our Project to make the material available in electronic form, and to continue to develop new resources that increase its accessibility. Acknowledgement is given in all cases where subject areas and other web resources have been directly supported. On several occasions the reviewer describes the ’Darwin and religion‘ content as 'unsigned' and 'anonymous', with the implication that there is something sinister about this, when in fact all of our website material, with the exception of the blogs, is unsigned. We take joint responsibility for all of the content on our website, as we do for the content of the printed edition of The Correspondence, and all of the work is collaborative and draws upon the different expertise of the various editors. Another of the great advantages of the web is that it allows us to correct our mistakes! The website is very much an on-going and unfinished work, and we are grateful for reviews such as this that can assist in its improvement and revision.