RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1881. [Quotation from a letter]. In R[achel, G. W.], Mr. Darwin on Dr. Hahn's discovery of fossil organisms in meteorites. Science 2 (61) (27 August): 410.
REVISION HISTORY: Scanned, OCRed, corrected and edited by John van Wyhe 2.2007, footnotes amended 7.2010. RN4
NOTE: With thanks to Samantha Evans of the Correspondence of Charles Darwin and Adam Perkins of Cambridge University Library for identifying Hahn's 1889 letter.
MR. DARWIN ON DR. HAHN'S DISCOVERY OF FOSSIL ORGANISMS IN METEORITES.
Dr. Hahn's1 discovery, of which an elaborate account was given in No. 50 of SCIENCE,2 has stirred up a lively discussion of this highly interesting subject. Dr. Hahn has taken steps to enable Prof. von Quenstedt,3 the renowned Tübingen geologist, and all others who expressed the desire to examine his microscopic preparations. It is understood that all those who have availed themselves of the opportunity thus offered have become convinced of the genuineness of Dr. Hahn's discovery.
It is very interesting to note the position taken by the greatest of living evolutionists in this controversy, if it can still be called such. Charles Darwin, on receipt of Dr. Hahn's work, wrote to him:
" . . . It seems to be very difficult to doubt that your photographs exhibit organic structure . . .," and furthermore:
"... your discovery is certainly one of the most important."
Not content with the mere presentation of his work, Dr. Hahn visited the veteran zoologist and brought his preparations to him for inspection.
No sooner had Mr. Darwin peered through the microscope on one of the finest specimens when he started up from his seat and exclaimed:
"Almighty God! what a wonderful discovery! Wonderful!"
And after a pause of silent reflection he added:
"Now reaches life down!"4
The latter remark no doubt refers to the proof furnished by Dr. Hahn's discovery that organisms can reach our planet from celestial space. It is an acknowledgment of the relief Mr. Darwin must have felt in not being forced to a belief in a primeval "generatio equivoca."5
As was suggested in the paper referred to, "the Richter-Thomson hypothesis6 of the origin of life on the earth has become a tangible reality!"
1 Otto Hahn (1828-1904), lawyer, Swedenborgian, poet, agent for Canadian emmigration, economist, and amateur petrologist in Reutlingen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany who asserted that he had discovered microscopic fossil remains in chondritic meteorites in Hahn 1880. Hahn became prominent during the Eozoon canadense controversies with Hahn 1876 (translated in Annals of Natural History by W. S. Dallas). See also Hahn 1878, 1880, 1882, 1890. Darwin referred to Eozoon as evidence for the antiquity of life in Origin 4th edn p. 371 (and later editions though the wording changed). See van Wyhe 2010.
On 1 September 1879 Hahn sent Darwin a copy of Hahn 1879 (Calendar 12211). Darwin replied to Hahn on 4 November 1879, although the letter is now lost. Hahn sent a second work, Hahn 1880, full of high quality photomicrographs of meteorite sections, to Darwin on 16 December 1880. See Calendar 12917. A copy of Darwin's 20 December 1880 reply is in the Darwin Archive (DAR251.3334, Calendar 12929f). In this letter Darwin wrote 'If you succeed in convincing several judges as truthworthy as Professor Quenstedt, you will certainly have made one of the most remarkable discoveries ever recorded.'
Hahn wrote to G. H. Otto Volger on 28 December 1880 that 'Zugleich sprach sich Darwin aus: es sei eine der wichtigsten Erklaerungen, welche je gemacht worden seien' [At the same time Darwin pronounced: it is one of the most important elucidations ever made.] (Quoted in Zwink 1998, p. 353.) Both of Hahn's books are now at Down House and contain no marginalia.
2 Rachel 1881.
3 Friedrich August Quenstedt (1809-89), professor of mineralogy and geology, University of Tübingen.
in the January of 1881 I saw your father at his residence in Down and laid before him the thin slices of some Chondrites When he looked upon the figure in plate 1. (afterwards called Hahnia) he jumped up of his chair exclaiming: "Almighty God what wonderful discovery: now reaches the life down." Very, very organic! And at the close of our meeting he expressed convinced himself of the organic structure of the Chondrite enclosures.
No further evidence of the interview has been found in the Stadtsarchiv Reutlingen, Germany, in the Darwin Archive or in the correspondence. Thomas George Bonney (1833-1923), professor of geology at University College London, wrote to Francis Darwin [January? 1882] (Calendar 13591) asking if the report in Science was true. Bonney intended to insert a rebuttal for the claim in a review he was writing on an allied subject. Darwin replied in a letter to Bonney (now lost). However Bonney later thanked Darwin in a 5 February 1882 letter (Calendar 13663) for denying the truth of the claim that he accepted the organic nature of the microscopic structures and remarked that Hahn could not distinguish between mineral and organic structures. See Crowe 1986, pp. 404-6. An anonymous book review, possibly by Bonney, of King and Rowney’s An old chapter of the geological record (1882) contains a footnote mentioning the August 1881 Science article and the 'Almighty God!' claim followed by the statement: 'A story so circumstantial one would think must needs be true; but we have the best authority for characterizing it as simply fabulous.' Having 'the best authority' was practically Victorian code meaning it was first hand information. [T. G. Bonney?], 1882, p. 218.
5 Spontaneous generation.
6 Referring to the views of the German physician Hermann Eberhard Richter (1808–1876) and Sir William Thomson (1824-1907) (later Lord Kelvin) that living cells must be the only source for subsequent living cells (thus contradicting theories of spontaneous generation) and that these might travel from planet to planet inside meteorites or comets (Richter 1865; Thomson 1871).
7 George W. Rachel, American physician. It is unclear how Rachel acquired the quotations from the Darwin letter(s). Rachel had strong ties to German medical circles. He may have met Hahn on the latter's 1881 visit to Canada or corresponded with him.
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