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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   18 [and 19 February 1860]

Down Bromley Kent


My dear Lyell

I send by this Post, Asa Gray which seems to me very good, with the stamp of originality on it.1 Also Bronn’s out Jahrbuch fur Mineralogie.2 The united intellect of my family has vainly tried to make it out.—   I never tried such confoundedly hard German: nor does it seem worth the labour.—   He sticks to Priestley’s green matter & seems to think that till it can be shown how life arises, it is no good showing how the forms of life arise.3 This seems to me about as logical (comparing very great things with little) as to say it was no use in Newton showing laws of attraction of gravity & consequent movements of the Planets, because he could not show what the attration of Gravity is.—

The expression “wahl der lebensweise” makes me doubt whether B. understands what I mean by natural selection,—as I have told him.—4 He says (if I understand him) that you ought to be on same side with me.—5

Ever yours affecly | C. Darwin

P.S. | Sunday afternoon | I have kept back this to thank you for your letter with much news received this morning.6 My conscience is uneasy at the time you waste in amusing & interesting me.—   I was very curious to hear about Phillips.—7 The Review in Annals is, as I was convinced, by Wollaston; for I have had very cordial letter from him this morning.8

I send by this Post an attack in G. Chroni. by Harvey (a first-rate Botanist as you probably know).9 It seems to me rather strange: he assumes the permanence of monsters, whereas monsters are generally sterile & not often inheritable. But grant his case it comes that I have been too cautious in not admitting great & sudden variations. Here again comes in the mischief of my Abstract: in fuller M.S. I have discussed parallel case of a normal fish like a monstrous Gold-fish: I end my discussion by doubting, because all cases of monstrosities which resemble normal structures, which I could find were not in allied groups.—10

Trees like Aspicarpa with flowers of two kinds, (in the Origin) led me also to speculate on same subject;11 but I could find only one doubtfully analogous case of species having flowers like the degraded or monstrous flowers.— Harvey does not see that if only a few (as he supposes) of the seedlings inherited his monstrosity natural selection would be necessary to select & preserve them.— You had better return G. Chron. &c &c to my Brother’s.—

The case of Begonia in itself is very curious: I am tempted to answer the notice, but I will refrain for there wd be no end to answers.

With respect to your objection of multitude of still living simple forms, I have not discussed it anywhere in the Origin, though I have often thought it over.— What you say about “progress being only occasional & retrogression not uncommon” I agree to; only that in animal kingdom I greatly doubt about retrogression being common.—   I have always put it to myself what advantage can we see in an infusory animal, or an intestinal worm—or coral-polyps—or earth-worm being highly developed? If no advantage, they would not become highly developed,— not but what all these animals have very complex structures (except infusoria) & they may well be higher than the animals which occupied similar places in the economy of nature before the Silurian Epoch.—   There is a blind snake, with appearance & in some respects (Perhaps falsely appearing so) habits of worm, but this blind snake does not tend, as far as we can see, to replace & drive out worms. I think I must in any future Edit. discuss a few more such points— & will introduce this & H. C. Watson’s objection about infinite number of species—& the general rise in organisation.12 But there is a directly opposite objection to yours, which is very difficult to answer, viz how at first start of life, when there were only simplest organisms, how did any complication of organisation profit them? I can only answer that we have not facts enough to guide any speculation on the subject.—

With respect to Lepidosiren Ganoid Fishes, perhaps Ornithorhynchus I suspect, as stated in Origin, that they have been preserved from inhabiting F. Water & isolated parts of world, in which there has been less competition & less rapid progress in Nat. Selection, owing to the fewness of individuals which can inhabit small areas. &c &c—& where there are few individuals, variation almost must be slower.—13

There are several allusions to this notion in the Origin— as under Amblyopsis the blind cave fish. & under Heer about Madeira plants resembling fossil & extinct plants of Europe.—14

With hearty thanks for all your kindness—

Yours affecty | C. Darwin


[Gray] 1860a. See preceding letter.
Bronn 1860a.
The reference is to Heinrich Georg Bronn’s assertion that CD’s theory of evolution was incomplete until it could account for the initial creation of organic matter from inorganic elements. He referred to Joseph Priestley’s report of having isolated in a sealed glass jar ‘green matter’ that was neither animal nor vegetable in nature ‘but a thing sui generis’ (Priestley 1779–86, 1: 342). Bronn also discussed the recent debate in France over Félix Archimède Pouchet’s claim to have produced unicellular organisms through spontaneous generation (Pouchet 1859). This passage is scored in CD’s copy of Bronn 1860a, p. 114, which is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. For a translation of Bronn 1860a, see Hull 1973, pp. 120–4.
The passage to which CD refers follows a discussion of the evidence for metamorphic processes in some of the oldest geological formations, which bears on the question of the existence of life before the Silurian period. The passage contains an element of ambiguity (Bronn 1860a, p. 115): Ja Lyell nimmt bekanntlich einen endlosen Wechsel-Prozess dieser Art an; daher wir kürzlich nicht ohne einige Überraschung fanden, dass er die Darwin’sche Schrift denjenigen Geologen entgegenhält, welche an eine progressive Entwickelung der organischen Welt glauben. [Indeed Lyell assumes, as is well known, a continual process of change of this sort [metamorphic processes]; therefore it is not without some surprise that we have recently found that he contrasts Darwin’s writing with those geologists who believe in a progressive development of the organic world.] Bronn believed that CD’s theory necessarily entailed a tendency toward progression of organisms, a principle that Lyell vehemently rejected (Bronn 1860a, p. 115). See also Hull 1973, p. 123.
Lyell’s letter has not been found.
John Phillips discussed Origin in his presidential address to the Geological Society of London. See letter to J. D. Hooker, 14 February [1860] and n. 10.
The letter from Thomas Vernon Wollaston has not been found. CD refers to [Wollaston] 1860.
A letter from William Henry Harvey, professor of botany at Trinity College, Dublin, was published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 18 February 1860, pp. 145–6. Harvey gave the example of Begonia frigida, in which it appeared that a new species had originated through the abnormal development of the existing form. If this proved to be the case, he stated, CD’s ‘theory would receive a serious damage’ (ibid., p. 145). Lyell included in his scientific journal a brief memorandum about Harvey’s article (Wilson ed. 1970, p. 353).
CD discussed his belief that monstrosities could not give rise to new specific forms in his unpublished ‘big species book’ (Natural selection, pp. 318–21).
Origin, p. 417. Lyell recorded CD’s statement in his scientific journal (Wilson ed. 1970, p. 353).
Hewett Cottrell Watson discussed this objection in his letter of [3? January 1860]. CD had sent the letter to Lyell and Joseph Dalton Hooker (see letters to Charles Lyell, 4 [January 1860], and to T. H. Huxley, 11 January [1860]). CD discussed these and other objections to his theory in the third edition of Origin, in a new section entitled ‘On the degree to which organisation tends to advance.—’ (Origin 3d ed., pp. 133–43).
Origin, p. 130.
Origin, pp. 139, 107.


Encloses reviews by Asa Gray and Bronn. Comments on Bronn review. Mentions review by Wollaston.

Comments on paper by W. H. Harvey in Gardeners’ Chronicle [(1860): 145–6]. Discusses Harvey’s belief in the permanence of monsters.

Discusses CL’s objection that still-living primitive forms failed to develop.

The survival of Lepidosiren and other primitive types of fish and mammals.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (199)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2703,” accessed on 23 March 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 8