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Darwin Correspondence Project


To Charles Lyell   2 February [1861]


Feb. 2d

My dear Lyell

I have thought you would like to read enclosed passage in letter from A. Gray (who is printing his Reviews as pamphlet & will send copies to England), as I think his account is really favourable in high degree to us.—1

“I wish I had time to write you an account of the very absurd lengths to which Bowen & Agassiz—each in their own way—are going.2 The first denying all heredity (all transmission except specific) whatever.3 The second coming near to deny that we are genetically descended from our grt-grt-grandfather; & insisting that evidently affiliated languages e.g. Latin Greek Sanscrit owe none of their similarities to a community of origin,—are all autochtonal.4 Agassiz (foolish man) admits that the derivation of languages & that of Species or forms stand on the same foundation, & that he must allow the latter if he allows the former,—which I tell him is perfectly logical.”

Is this not marvellous.?

Ever yours | C. Darwin

I sent Calcutta Review a couple of days ago.—5


The letter from Asa Gray has not been found, but see the letter to Asa Gray, 23 [January 1861], which is probably a response to it. CD had asked Lyell whether he thought it advisable to publish Gray’s series of articles on Origin ([A. Gray] 1860a) as a separate pamphlet for distribution in Britain (see Correspondence vol. 8, letters to Charles Lyell, 12 September [1860], 23 [September 1860], and 4 December [1860]). Lyell approved the proposal (ibid., letter to Asa Gray, 24 October [1860]). See also Correspondence vol. 9, Appendix III. As Lyell told one correspondent, ‘Asa Gray’s articles, all of which I have procured, appear to me to be the ablest, and on the whole grappling with the subject, both as a naturalist and metaphysician, better than anyone else on either side of the Atlantic.’ (K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 341).
Francis Bowen, professor of philosophy at Harvard University, and Louis Agassiz, professor of natural history at Harvard, had established themselves as vocal opponents of CD’s theory of transmutation; both had written negative reviews of Origin ([Bowen] 1860a, Bowen 1860b, and Agassiz 1860) and had spoken out against the book at several meetings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1860 (see Correspondence vol. 8).
The reference is to Bowen’s remarks on the inheritance of certain traits made at a meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on 8 January 1861 and reported in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Bowen 1861).
At the same meeting at which Bowen made his remarks (see n. 3, above), Agassiz disputed the view of Cornelius Conway Felton, the president of Harvard University, that the Aryan family of languages derived from a common aboriginal language. As reported in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 5 (1860–2): 102, Agassiz expressed his ‘general disbelief in the supposed derivation of later languages from earlier ones, he regarding each language and each race as substantially primordial, and ascribing the resemblances and coincidences of language to a similarity in the mental organization of the races.’ See also Lurie 1960, p. 299. Lyell had recently read a thesis similar to Felton’s in an essay by Friedrich Max M¨uller (Max M¨uller 1856) that had greatly impressed him (see K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 341–2).
A favourable review of Origin appeared in the September 1860 issue of the Calcutta Review, a copy of which is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.

Letter details

Letter no.
Darwin, C. R.
Lyell, Charles
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (238)
Physical description


Quotes passage from letter from Asa Gray dealing with views of Francis Bowen on heredity and Agassiz "(foolish man)" on heredity and languages.

Sent CL the Calcutta Review [with Edward Blyth’s review of Origin, 35 (1860): 64–88].

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3054,” accessed on 14 February 2016,