skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   23 February [1860]1

Down Bromley Kent

Feb.— 23d

My dear Lyell

That is a splendid answer of the father of Judge Crompton.2 How curious that the Judge shd. have hit on exactly same points as yourself.—   It shows me what a capital Layer you would have made,—how many unjust acts you would have made appear just! But how much grander a field has science been than the law,—though the latter might have made you Lord Kinnordy.3

I will, if there be another Edition, enlarge on gradation in eye & on all forms coming from one prototype, so as to try & make both less glaringly improbable.—

Hooker is going to answer Harvey (ie if Lindley will admit)4 & I am very glad of it;—you can see answer, when (as I am delighted to think) you will be here. Aspicarpa is a most interesting case, like the difference, on which I have enlarged a little, of difference in most important characters in the outer & inner florets of Compositous & Umbelliferous plants.—   I think these facts are most important as showing how easily what naturalists call very important characters may be modified by correlation of growth.5 But I doubt whether they throw light on abrupt origin of new forms. At least I have tried long & hard with respect to such cases as Aspicarpa; & I could find only one apparent case in the Campanulaceæ.—   With respect to animals, besides the case of monstrous Gold-fish with analogous fish in state of nature alluded to, I have wondrous case of monstrous eels, (examined by Agassiz) & apparently produced by darkness, but I cannot satisfy myself on case;6 nor does it appear certain that they breed.—   On the whole I still feel excessively doubtful whether such abrupt changes have more than very rarely taken place.—

With respect to Bronn’s objection that it cannot be shown how life arises, & likewise to certain extent Asa Gray’s remark that natural selection is not a vera causa,—I was much interested by finding accidentally in Brewster’s life of Newton, that Leibnitz objected to the law of gravity, because Newton could not show what gravity itself is.7 As it has chanced I have used in letters this very same argument, little knowing that anyone had really thus objected to Law of Gravity.—   Newton answers by saying that it is philosophy to make out the movements of a clock, though you do not know why the weight descends to ground.—   Leibnitz further objected that the Law of Gravity was opposed to natural Religion!—8 Is this not curious? I really think I shall use these facts for some introductory remarks for my bigger book.—

I cannot conceive what Bronn can mean by his quotation about you:9 I do not remember even mentioning your name in my two brief notes to him.—

I have seen something about the Infusorial experiments in Paris: Quatrefage objected to their accuracy.—10 Some old experiments were several years ago tried in Germany with astonishing precautions (air all passed through sulphuric acid & caustic potash) & infusoria never appeared.—11

You ask, (I see) why we do not have monstrosities in higher animals; but when they live they are almost always sterile (even giants & dwarfs are generally sterile) & we do not know that Harvey’s monster would have bred.—12 There is, I believe, only one case on record even of a peloric flower being fertile & I cannot remember whether this reproduced itself.—

To recur to the Eye, I really think it wd. have been dishonest not to have faced the difficulty; & worse (as Talleyrand would have said) it would have been impolitic I think;13 for it would have been thrown in my teeth,—as H. Holland threw the bones of the ear;14 till Huxley shut him up by showing what a fine gradation occurred amongst living creatures.

Thank you much for your most pleasant letter | Yours affet | C. Darwin

I send a letter by Herbert Spencer which you can read or not as you think fit.— He puts to my mind, the philosophy of the argument better than almost anyone at close of letter.—15

I could make nothing of Dana’s idealistic notions about species;16 but then as Wollaston says I have not metaphysical Head. By the way I have thrown at Wollastons Head, a paper by Alex. Jordan who demonstrates metaphysically that all our cultivated races are god-created species.—17

Wollaston misrepresents accidentally to wonderful extent some passages in my Book: he reviewed without relooking at certain passages.18


The year is confirmed by CD’s reference to reading Brewster 1855. See n. 7, below.
Peter Crompton, a medical practitioner in Derby, was the father of the eminent judge, Charles John Crompton. The reference has not been traced.
CD misspelled ‘Lawyer’. Lyell trained as a barrister but never practised law. Kinnordy was the Lyells’ family estate near Kirriemuir, Scotland.
See letter to Charles Lyell, 18 [and 19 February 1860]. John Lindley was the editor of the Gardeners’ Chronicle, in which William Henry Harvey had recently published a letter about monstrosities (Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 18 February 1860, pp. 145–6). Joseph Dalton Hooker answered Harvey’s points in the issue of 25 February 1860, pp. 170–1.
CD discussed correlation of growth in Origin, p. 143: I mean by this expression that the whole organisation is so tied together during its growth and development, that when slight variations in any one part occur, and are accumulated through natural selection, other parts become modified.
CD described the case of eels possessing huge eyes taken from deep wells in Natural selection, p. 297. Louis Agassiz, who examined one of the specimens, believed that it was identical to the common eel.
Probably Brewster 1855. CD recorded having read ‘Sir D. Brewsters life of Newton’ on 23 February 1860 (see Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV, 128: 27). A second edition of this greatly augmented version of David Brewster’s biography of Isaac Newton was published in November 1860 (Publisher’s Circular (1860), p. 579). Brewster referred to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s attack on Newton’s theory of gravity in Brewster 1855, 2: 282–3.
Brewster 1855, 2: 284–5.
CD refers to the experiments on spontaneous generation and fermentation conducted by Félix Archimède Pouchet in 1858 and published at length in Pouchet 1859; this work brought Pouchet into fierce controversy with Louis Pasteur. Pouchet’s work was criticised by Jean Louis Armand de Quatrefages de Bréau in Quatrefages de Bréau 1858. Heinrich Georg Bronn referred to the failure of these attempts to create organic life as depriving CD’s theory of an important means of empirical verification (Bronn 1860a, p. 114).
Probably a reference to the experiments of Theodor Ambrose Hubert Schwann (see Farley 1974, p. 50).
See n. 4, above.
The expression ‘worse than a crime, a blunder’ was commonly attributed to the French statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord.
Letter from Herbert Spencer, 22 February 1860.
Dana 1857. There is a copy in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. For CD’s poor opinion of the paper, see Correspondence vol. 6, letter to J. D. Hooker, 25 December [1857]. Lyell may have mentioned the paper in connection with Asa Gray’s reference in his review of Origin to James Dwight Dana’s comparison of the fixity of animal species to that of chemical elements ([Gray] 1860a, p. 154).
CD’s letter to Thomas Vernon Wollaston has not been found, but see the letter to Charles Lyell, 15 and 16 [February 1860]. CD had discussed Alexis Jordan’s work in a letter to the Gardeners’ Chronicle (Correspondence vol. 5, letter to Gardeners’ Chronicle, [before 29 December 1855]). He refers to Jordan 1852, a copy of which is in the Darwin Library–CUL.
[Wollaston] 1860.


Gradation in the eye.

Hooker intends to reply [to W. H. Harvey’s article in Gard. Chron. (1860): 145–6].

Discusses Aspicarpa with respect to correlation.

Comments on monstrous animals.

Discusses objections of Bronn and Asa Gray to natural selection. Cites parallel between natural selection and Newton’s concept of gravitation.

Mentions German experiments on spontaneous generation.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell (1st baronet)
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (200)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2707,” accessed on 24 June 2017,

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