Handwritten letters by colossal historic figures are always going to fetch a pretty penny at public auctions. Albert Einstein’s handwritten messages detailing his advice on happiness – given to a courier he couldn’t tip – went for $1.56 million at an auction in Jerusalem back in October.
Now it’s evolutionary wunderkind Charles Darwin’s turn. His three-page letter discussing what place an omnipotent and omniscient God has in a post-On the Origin of Species world just went for a cool $125,000 at Sotheby’s earlier this week.
In a tweet, the New York-based auction house explained that this sum was over twice the original estimate.
Several Darwin letters have been put up for auction in the last couple of years. One communique with a marine biologist talking about his famous theory strangely failed to sell back in 2016, but another – in which the scientist expressed his disbelief in the Bible – sold for $197,000, more than three times the previous record set by a letter he wrote to his niece.
As showcased by Sotheby’s, this new letter was sent in 1878, 19 years after his magnum opus rocked the world. It was a response to a young biologist by the name of James Grant, who wanted to know, as succinctly as possible, if his book destroyed the evidence apparently present in the natural world that pointed to the existence of an almighty deity.
Replying five days later, Darwin demurred on the topic, saying that it’s too complex to be answered with a simple response.
The letter ends with Darwin telling Grant: “I am forced to leave the problem insoluble.” He then adds a positive coda, stating that a life well lived in service of something is all you can ask for.
“No man who does his duty has anything to fear, and may hope for whatever he earnestly desires.”
Darwin’s research led him to struggle with his own faith in God over the years. Once, he confided in Joseph Dalton Hooker, a botanist and one of his closest friends, that his god-lacking theory was like “confessing to a murder.”
This letter is only one of two that have ever been up for auction that detail the scientist's struggle with religion.
It seems they’re having quite the scientific-themed week, with another letter by the world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace going for $32,500. In it, she writes to her friend, the lauded English journalist Albany Fonblanque, wherein she talks about the weather, a promised visit, and Charles Babbage, who she worked closely with.
Babbage designed the Difference Engine, the first mechanical computer. Lovelace’s expertise in translations of scientific articles, as well as her skill as a mathematician, led her to develop history’s first algorithm for the successor, the Analytical Engine.