skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

John Lubbock


John Lubbock
John Lubbock, 1st Baron Avebury by George Richmond chalk, 1869, NPG 4869
© National Portrait Gallery, London

John Lubbock was eight years old when the Darwins moved into the neighbouring property of Down House, Down, Kent; the total of one hundred and seventy surviving letters he went on to exchange with Darwin is a large number considering that the two men lived as close neighbours for most of their lives.  Lubbock's father, John William Lubbock, third baronet, was a mathematician and astronomer, a fellow of the Royal Society, and head of a wealthy banking family, and the family seat of High Elms, which Lubbock inherited in 1865, was at the heart of local high society. The Lubbocks hosted balls which the Darwins attended (sometimes reluctantly), and entertained well-connected visitors who often asked to meet Darwin too.

Alongside careers in banking and politics, and wide-ranging studies in anthropology and prehistory, John Lubbock’s childhood interest in natural history led to a number of significant contributions to the field.

It is a long time since we have met & if Mahomet does not come to the mountain, the mountain must come some Sunday to Mahomet.  

(to John Lubbock, 26 March [1867])

The most striking feature of the correspondence is how much of it is to do with arrangements to meet. There are few people whose company Darwin so actively sought out, and despite the gaps that their frequent meetings leave in the documentary record, it is clear that John Lubbock played a significant part in Darwin's life and work, becoming a friend, trusted supporter, populariser, and strategist.  As early as 1857 Darwin wrote to thank Lubbock for saving him from a 'disgraceful blunder' in some statistical calculations on variation.  Darwin made constant requests of Lubbock, bombarding him with questions and suggesting lines of enquiry.  The two men borrowed books and equipment from one another and exchanged references (see for example the letters on fly pincers, the Report of the British Association, FitzRoy's Narrative of the Beagle voyage, and the Darwins' carriage).

Have you finished it? if so pray tell me whether you are with me on general issue, or against me.

(to John Lubbock, 14 December [1859])

When Origin was published, Lubbock was only twenty-five,  but he provided drawings from Darwin's own dissections of ants, and references on variation in insect nervous systems.  In the weeks immediately after publication, Darwin wrote to Lubbock not once but twice demanding to know if he had yet finished reading the book, and whether Darwin could count on his support.  ‘I care not for Reviews,’ Darwin wrote, ‘but for the opinion of men like you & Hooker & Huxley & Lyell’.

Lubbock spoke in Darwin's support at the British Association meeting in Oxford in 1860, proposed Darwin for the Royal Society's Copley Medal in 1862 and 1863, and helped found the X Club (a dining club of Darwin's supporters) in 1864. Pre-historic Times (1865), Lubbock's account of human prehistory, helped popularise the application of Darwinian ideas to humans.  After his election as MP for Maidstone in 1870, Lubbock tried at Darwin’s request to pursuade parliament to include a question on cousin-marriage in the 1871 census.  This was unsuccessful, but he went on to submit petitions on Darwin’s behalf seeking pensions for one scientific colleague or another, or to protect Darwin's beloved postal service, or for government money for projects Darwin supported such as James Torbitt's research into potato blight. Lubbock was one of those consulted on strategy over a vivisection bill.

Contributions to Descent

In Descent of man, Darwin referred to Lubbock’s published work on the secondary sexual characteristics of insects, on language, and on religious beliefs in a range of cultures, and wrote to ask for new information, for example on suicide in primitive societies (see Descent p. 94). But the most important aspect of Lubbock’s work for Darwin was the support it provided for the unity of the human species and its development from a single common ancestor (Descent p. 233). 

Lubbock’s Origin of civilisation, published in 1870 as Darwin was completing Descent, was partly designed to refute the argument put forward by George Douglas Campbell, Duke of Argyll, that ‘primitive’ societies, rather than reflecting earlier stages of human development as Darwin believed, were the result of degeneration from a natural state of civilisation. Darwin used Lubbock's counter-argument in Descent both to support the unity of the human species, and as evidence a much longer time scale for human history than previously accepted.

I shall be able & must modify what I have written

Other aspects of Lubbock’s book were less welcome.  ‘I have read 4 or 5 Chapters with extreme interest,’  Darwin wrote, ‘too much interest for the good of my internal viscera’ (to John Lubbock, 21 July [1870]). It seems what principally gave Darwin his upset stomach was Lubbock's argument that early human societies had been uniformly promiscuous, which Darwin struggled to reconcile with his case for the role of sexual selection in the origins of racial difference. The two men continued to debate this after Descent was published: 'I am surprised that you quote the analogy of the lower animals as opposing our views on Communal Marriage. I think the lower animals support us. What monkey ever watched over the conduct of a daughter? or scrupled to carry off anothers wife? (from John Lubbock, 18 March [1871]).

It was Lubbock who drew Darwin’s attention to McLennan’s Primitive marriage which he referred to extensively in Descent, and introduced him to the concept of exogamy, though Darwin complained that he remained 'not a little in the dark' (to John Lubbock, 26 March [1867]).

Trouble with the neighbours

Several letters are more personal: In 1861 Darwin asked both the Lubbocks to help set his eldest son, William, up in a banking career, and Darwin's last known letter to John Lubbock, sent shortly before his death, similarly asked for help to establish Romilly Allen, a cousin of Emma's, as an archaeologist.

Relations between Lubbock and Darwin’s children were strained.  ‘I am afraid our feeling to Sir John’ Francis Darwin later wrote ‘did not tend to keep warm my father's feeling, we didn't get on very well though he certainly meant to be kind.’  And relations with Darwin were not always easy. In 1874 Darwin asked Lubbock to sell him the piece of land adjoining the grounds of Down house that he had previously rented from the Lubbocks on a 21-year lease - the land with Darwin's favourite ‘thinking path’, the sandwalk around a spinney where he walked every day.  Lubbock temporised on the grounds that the land was part of his own children’s inheritance, and when he did agree to sell it seems the Darwins thought the price was rather high.

A year later Lubbock’s intervention in a dispute between the Darwins and the vicar of Down, George Sketchley Ffinden, over the use of the church hall as a working men's reading room, caused further cooling. Lubbock asked Darwin to offer an apology.  ‘[I]f Mr. Ffinden bows to Mrs. Darwin or myself  we will return it’ Darwin replied ‘but I fear under present circumstances that we can take no further step”. He signed himself, with unusual formality, “My dear Sir John, yours sincerely”.

By this stage the Darwins were concerned about the health of Lubbock’s wife, and interfered in their turn, suggesting that she should see a different doctor, something that led to a little further cooling.

There was no fundamental breach however.  In 1875, Lubbock, who often introduced Darwin to influential people, arranged for him to meet a member of the royal family in the person of Francis, Duke of Teck, husband of Princess Mary Adelaide.  Darwin tried to wriggle out of it, pleading: “I do not see how I could get a sort of living Royal Duke out of my house within the short time I can talk to anyone”  but Lubbock gently wheedled him round:  “it would seem hardly courteous to the Duke not to ask him down.”   In the last year of his life Darwin provided a letter of introduction for Lubbock's brother Montague, and in August 1881, following Lubbock's presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he sent Lubbock a particularly intimate note of reminiscence and congratulation.   It was Lubbock who was one of the prime movers in arranging Darwin’s burial in Westminster Abbey.

Further information: