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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   15 April [1860]1

Down Bromley Kent

Ap. 15th

My dear Lyell

I was very glad to get your nice long letter from Torquay. A press of letters prevented me writing to Wells.—2 I was particularly glad to hear what you thought about not noticing Owen’s Review.3 Hooker & Huxley thought it a sort of duty to point out alterations of quoted citations; & there is truth in this remark, but I so hated the thought, that I resolved not to do so. I shall come up to London on Saturday 24th for Sir B. Brodie’s party,4 as I have an accumulation of things to do in London, & will (if I do not hear to contrary) call about 14 before 10 on Sunday morning, & sit with you at breakfast, but will not sit long & so take up much of your time.

I must say one more word about our quasi-theological controversy about natural Selection, & let me have your opinion when we meet in London.— Do you consider that the successive variations in size of the crop of the Pouter Pigeon, which man has accumulated to please his caprice, have been due to “the creative & sustaining powers of Brahma”.5 In the sense that an omnipotent & omniscient Deity must order & know everything, this must be admitted; yet in honest truth I can hardly admit it. It seems preposterous that a maker of Universes shd care about the crop of a Pigeon solely to please men’s silly fancies. But if you agree with me in thinking such an interposition of the Deity uncalled for, I can see no reason whatever for believing in such interpositions in the case of natural beings, in which strange & admirable peculiarities have been naturally selected for the creature’s own benefit. Imagine a Pouter in a state of nature wading into the water & then being buoyed up by its inflated crop, sailing about in search of food. What admiration this would have excited,—adaptation to laws of hydrostatic pressure &c &c &c.—

For the life of me I cannot see any difficulty in Natural selection producing the most exquisite structure, if such structure can be arrived at by gradation; & I know from experience how hard it is to name any structure towards which at least some gradations are not known.—

Ever yours | C. Darwin

The conclusion at which I have come, as I have told Asa Gray,6 is that such question, as is touched on in this note, is beyond the human intellect, like “predestination & free will” or “the origin of evil”.


Dated by CD’s reference to a forthcoming trip to London (see n. 4, below).
Probably the town of Wells in Somerset. Lyell may have indicated that he was staying there en route to Torquay.
CD was upset by Richard Owen’s misrepresentation in [R. Owen] 1860a of several of his views. See letters to T. H. Huxley, 9 April [1860], and to Charles Lyell, 10 April [1860].
CD was mistaken about the date: Saturday was 21 April 1860. Emma Darwin’s diary records that CD went to London on this date. Benjamin Collins Brodie, president of the Royal Society, held a soirée in the society’s rooms at Burlington House on 21 April (Athenæum, 28 April 1860, p. 584).
This is possibly a repetition of an expression used in conversation with Lyell during his recent visit to Down, 9 to 12 March 1860. See also letter to Charles Lyell, 12 March [1860]. In Lyell’s scientific journal, there is a note written late in March headed ‘Natural Selection deified’, in which Lyell refers to ‘the Creator, Brahma’ (Wilson ed. 1970, p. 369).
See letter to Asa Gray, 24 February [1860].


Has resolved not to correct Owen’s misrepresentations in his review of Origin.

Discusses at length the theological implications of natural selection.

Letter details

Letter no.
Darwin, C. R.
Lyell, Charles
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (208)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2761,” accessed on 21 January 2017,