Letter icon
Letter 3684

Wallace, A. R. to Darwin, C. R.

8 Aug 1862

    Summary Add

  • +

    Muscular fibres of whale no larger than those of bee – evidence of a community of origin.

  • +

    Problem of the abortive wings of ostrich in relation to conditions of their survival.

Transcription

5, Westbourne Grove Terrace, W.

August 8th. 1862

My dear Mr. Darwin

I sincerely trust that your little boy is by this time convalescent,—& that you are therefore enabled to follow your favourite investigations with a more tranquil mind.

I heard a remark the other day which may not perhaps be new to you, but seemed to me a ``fact'' if true, in your favour. Mr. Ward (I think it was,) a member of the MicroscoScopical Society mentioned as a fact noticed by himself with much surprise, that ``the muscular fibres of the whale were no larger than those of the bee''! an excellent indication of community of origin.

While looking at the ostriches the other day at the Gardens it occurred to me that they were a case of special difficulty, as, inhabiting an ancient continent, surrounded by numerous enemies how did their wings ever become abortive, & if they did so before the birds had attained their present gigantic size strength & speed, how could they in the transition have maintained their existence? I see Westwood in the ``Annals'' brings forward the same case, arguing that the ostriches shd. have acquired better wings within the historic period;—but as they are now the swiftest of animals they evidently do not want their wings, which in their present state may serve some other trifling purpose in their economy such as fans, or balancers which may have prevented their being reduced to such rudiments as in the Cassowaries'— The difficulty to me seems to be, how if they once had flight could they have lost it, surrounded by swift & powerful carnivora against whom it must have been the only defence.

This probably is all clear to you but I think it is a point you might touch upon as I think the objection will seem a strong one to most people.

In a day or two I go to Devonshire for a few weeks & hope to lay in a stock of health to enable me to stick to work at my collections during the winter— I begin to find that large collections involve a heavy amount of manual labour which is not very agreeable.

Present my compliments to Mrs. & Miss Darwin & believe me Yours very faithfully | Alfred R. Wallace

C. Darwin Esq.

    Footnotes Add

  • +
    f1 3684.f1
    Leonard Darwin had been suffering from scarlet fever since mid-June (see letter to W. E. Darwin, 13 [June 1862]). Wallace had visited Down House earlier in the summer, apparently in late June or early July (see letter to A. R. Wallace, 20 August [1862] and n. 1).
  • +
    f2 3684.f2
    Wallace refers to the physician and botanist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, who was a founding member of the Microscopical Society (R. Desmond 1994, List of the Microscopical Society).
  • +
    f3 3684.f3
    The reference is to the gardens of the Zoological Society in Regent's Park, London.
  • +
    f4 3684.f4
    Westwood 1860. John Obadiah Westwood's article, `Mr. Darwin's theory of development', appeared in the April 1860 number of the Annals and Magazine of Natural History, having been reprinted from the Gardeners' Chronicle, 11 February 1860, p. 120. Westwood was dismissive of CD's theory on the grounds that species had `remained permanent during the whole historic period'. He noted that the modern form of the ostrich was `faithfully represented' in ancient Egyptian records, and continued: Now, there can be no doubt that it would have been beneficial to this bird, both specifically and individually, if its coveted plumes could have been shortened and its wings lengthened, so as the better to escape from its pursuers. Moreover … when driven to their fullest speed they stretch out their short stumps of wings in order to assist in their attempts to escape. But all their efforts to acquire by such means the additional power of flight have been unavailing, and the type of the species remains as it was in this respect 3000 years ago.
  • +
    f5 3684.f5
    For CD's response to Wallace's queries concerning the ostrich, see the letter to A. R. Wallace, 20 August [1862].
  • +
    f6 3684.f6
    In the spring of 1862, Wallace had returned home, in `a very weak state of health', from an eight-year collecting expedition in the Malay Archipelago. His private collections comprised `about three thousand bird skins of about a thousand species, and, perhaps, twenty thousand beetles and butterflies of about seven thousand species'; he spent the next five years writing papers based on these specimens. See Wallace 1905, 2: 385--6, 395.
  • +
    f7 3684.f7
    Emma and Henrietta Emma Darwin.
Maximized view Print letter