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Darwin Correspondence Project

To William Benjamin Carpenter   6 January [1860]1

Down Bromley Kent

Jan. 6th

My dear Carpenter

I have just read your excellent article in the National.2 It will do great good; especially if it becomes known as your production. It seems to me to give an excellently clear account of Mr. Wallace’s & my views.3 How capitally you turn the flanks of theological opposers by opposing to them such men as Bentham & the more philosophical of the Systematists!4 I thank you sincerely for the extremely honourable manner in which you mention me.—   I shd. have liked to have seen some criticisms or remarks on Embryology, on which subject you are so well instructed.5 I do not think any candid person can read your article without being much impressed with it. The old doctrine of immutability of specifics will surely but slowly die away. It is a shame to give you trouble, but I shd be very much obliged if you could tell me where differently coloured eggs in individuals of the Cuckoo have been described & their laying in 27 kinds of nests.6 Also do you know from your own observation that the lambs of sheep imported into W. Indies change colour. I have had detailed information about the loss of wool; but my accounts made the change slower than you describe.—7

With most cordial thanks & respect, Believe me | My dear Carpenter | Yours very sincerely | Ch. Darwin


The year is given by the reference to Carpenter’s review of Origin (see n. 2, below).
[Carpenter] 1860a. Carpenter told CD in December 1859 that he was going to review Origin (see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to W. B. Carpenter, 5 December [1859]).
Although entitled ‘Darwin on the origin of species’, Carpenter’s review also discussed Alfred Russel Wallace’s contribution to Darwin and Wallace 1858 and Baden Powell’s consideration of the species question (Powell 1855).
Carpenter attempted to place the doctrine of transmutation in perspective by comparing it to the recent results of systematists like George Bentham, who had greatly reduced the number of reputed species by reassessing variations that earlier taxonomists regarded as an indication of specific differences. Carpenter went on to state ([Carpenter] 1860a, p. 193): We do not expect to see, even in our “most straitest” sectarian organs, any accusations brought against Mr. Bentham for impiety, because he affirms that three or four hundred of the reputed species of British plants are really descendants of others from which they have gradually diverged.
Carpenter was one of the leading figures in comparative anatomy and physiology. He discussed in great detail the embryological doctrines of Karl Ernst von Baer in the fourth edition of his Principles of comparative physiology (Carpenter 1854). CD owned a copy of this work (Darwin Library–CUL) and studied it carefully in 1855 (Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV, 128: 12). In his Autobiography, p. 125, CD remarked how disappointed he had been that no reviewers commented on the embryological arguments put forward in Origin, pp. 439–50: ‘Hardly any point gave me so much satisfaction when I was at work on the Origin, as the explanation of the wide difference in many classes between the embryo and the adult animal, and of the close resemblance of the embryos within the same class.’ See also Correspondence vol. 7, letter to J. D. Hooker, 14 December [1859].
Carpenter discussed the differently coloured eggs of cuckoos as an example of the natural specialisation of habit, stating ([Carpenter] 1860a, pp. 204–5): Recent observations on the Cuckoo have shown that this bird deposits its eggs in the nests of no fewer than twenty-eight different species, and that the cuckoo’s egg almost invariably agrees so closely in colour with the eggs among which it is laid, as only to be distinguished from them by a practised eye.
Carpenter gave as an illustration of acclimatisation the case of Leicestershire sheep introduced to the West Indies, which had ‘their thick matted fleeces replaced in a year or two by short crisp hair’ ([Carpenter] 1860a, p. 195).


WBC’s review [of Origin, Natl Rev. 10 (1860): 188–214] will do great good. It "turns the flanks of theological opposers" capitally.

Asks for information about cuckoo eggs and West Indian sheep.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
William Benjamin Carpenter
Sent from
Source of text
Down House (MS 6: 4)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2641,” accessed on 30 April 2017,

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