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My dear Sir

Correspondence between Darwin and Fritz Müller helped to consolidate the theory of evolution


Müller’s book, translated into English at the request of the English scientist (left) and the German originalLUIZ ROBERTO FONTES

For Charles Darwin, 1864 was a special year. Under the crossfire of a substantial part of the scientific community in his country and abroad, the British scientist witnessed the publishing of book and a scientific article that attacked his ideas on evolution: Examen du livre de M. Darwin sur l’Origine des Espèces (An Examination of the Book by Mr. Darwin on the Origin of the Species), by the French physiologist Pierre Flourens, and Über die Darwin’sche Schöpfungstheorie (On the Darwinian theory of creation), by the Swiss anatomist Albert Kölliker. The Origin of the Species had been released in 1859 and all of its 1,250 issues were sold in a day. The controversy on the subject quickly became a raging international scientific debate, going beyond the boundaries of academia fast. Luckily for the evolutionist, back in 1864, another work on the theory of evolution appeared in Leipzig, Germany, the title of which leaves no doubts as to the side it was on: Für Darwin (For Darwin). It was written by Fritz Müller (1822-1897), a naturalist who was then living in the town of Desterro (now Florianópolis), in Santa Catarina State, and who taught at the provincial lyceum.

Müller’s book reached Darwin in 1865. The latter’s wife, Emma, who spoke German, read it out to her husband, translating it at the same time. The book surprised Darwin no end. Unlike most people who voiced opinions on The Origin of the Species, the naturalist in Brazil held considered opinions, presenting zoological examples described in detail, which corroborated the theory of evolution, and without getting bogged down in philosophical or religious issues. “The book was very important for Darwin, not only for its support, but also because it helped to consolidate Darwinian theory in the scientific community of his time,” says the biologist and medical examiner Luiz Roberto Fontes, co-author of the translation of Für Darwin (UFSC publishing house, 2009) into Portuguese along with Stefano Hagen, a professor from the School of Veterinary Medicine of the University of São Paulo. Both of them are taking part in the project Our Fritz Müller, dedicated to recovering the memory of the German scientist who lived in Santa Catarina for 45 years, until his death.

He arrived in Brazil in 1852, at the age of 30, with his wife, one daughter and one of his brothers, going to the Blumenau Colony, in Santa Catarina. At first, we worked as a mere farm hand, wielding a hoe and an ax, despite having two academic degrees, as a biologist and a physician. In 1861, when he was already in Desterro, his friend Max Schultze sent him the German translation of The Origin of the Species. Schultze kept him up to date regarding scientific debates in Europe and once a year would ship books to Brazil, along with research material, such as a microscope that Müller had asked for. Enchanted with the ideas of the Englishman, Müller worked systematically, studying several species, in particular crustaceans, and found unequivocal evidence of the correctness of Darwin’s theories. Later, he brought together his observations and experiments in a monograph that he named For Darwin. He then sent this to Schultze, who had it published.

Müller’s work caused Darwin to correspond with him, leading to a collaboration and friendship that lasted until his death, in 1882, some 60 letters having been exchanged between them. In 1969, Darwin himself footed the bill for the translation of the book into English and the publishing of one thousand copies, titled Facts and arguments for Darwin. Up to the sixth edition of The Origin of the Species (1872), regarded as the definitive one, there were 12 citations of Müller’s work. “Darwin also considered some of the letters of the German naturalist so informative that he suggested that they should be published as a scientific article in specialized journals,” tells us Stefano Hagen. Fritz Müller had a long and productive scientific life in Brazil (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue 105) and published approximately 260 articles, most of them abroad.

Since 2010, Fontes and Hagen have been collaborating with the Martius-Staden Institute, in São Paulo, to divulge Müller’s story and work. An exhibition was set up and shown at 16 different institutions in Brazil. It is also to be exhibited at the Brazilian Center of the University of Tübingen, Germany, from May to July. Since the 190th anniversary of the birth of the naturalist is being celebrated this year, the institute transformed the exhibition’s catalog into a bilingual e-book, Fritz Müller – O príncipe dos observadores (Fritz Müller, the prince of observers), which is how Darwin referred to his German and naturalized Brazilian, friend. The e-book can be retrieved at