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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Robert Edmond Grant1   16 May 1861

Dear Mr. Darwin,

On public grounds, and as an old fellow-labourer in the same rich field of philosophic inquiry, I avail myself of the opportunity afforded in publishing this brief outline of the primary divisions of the Animal Kingdom, to dedicate these pages to you in testimony of my admiration and approval of your late successful attempt to throw further light on that involved and obscure question, regarded by some inquiring minds as the mystery of mysteries of organic nature, the origin of species by natural law; or, as you have more happily and more definitely expressed the problem, “the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

More than fifty years have now elapsed since the ‘Zoonomia’ of your illustrious ancestor, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, first opened my mind to some of “the laws of organic life,”2 which he so clearly expounded, and so successfully applied to explain the abnormal phenomena of the human body; and nearly forty have already rapidly fled away since you and I were busied in exploring microscopically the delicate structures and the living phenomena of the lowest organisms abounding in the rich fauna of the Firth of Forth.3

But while I have been humbly occupied with the gleanings of our fellow-labourers in the cabinets and seminaries of Europe, and reporting the results to my youthful auditors,4 you have been widely surveying the grand domain of nature with a learned spirit over the oceans, seas, islands, and continents of the globe, in every latitude and in every clime, nearly from the one pole to the other, and accumulating that rich store of thought and observation which entitles you of all men to aspire to the complete solution of those great, though obscure problems of organic nature, which have so long perplexed philosophers; a labour which you have so successfully commenced, and in which you have already surpassed all your predecessors, from the time of Plato.

Intellectual triumphs like yours, which have been hailed with the assent and applause of all competent unbiassed minds at home and abroad, while they charm away the clouds of mysticism which overhang some parts of our science and of philosophy, and obscure the greatest truths of nature, alone add permanent glories to the annals of our country in the great struggle for intellectual preeminence and ascendency among the nations of the earth. With one fell sweep of the wand of truth, you have now scattered to the winds the pestilential vapours accumulated by “species-mongers” over every step of this ever-varying, ever-charming part of nature’s works; and your next movement will dispel the remaining clouds of “mystical supernatural typical intrusions” which still hang on the horizon of the sublime prospect, now opening to the view, of the natural animalization of the orbs of space by the same simple laws which govern the physical and chemical phenomena with such wondrous harmony throughout the rest of the material universe.5

I remain, my dear Sir, | With great respect and regard, | Yours most truly, | Robert E. Grant.

2 Euston Grove, Euston Square, London.

16th May, 1861.


It is not known whether Grant actually sent CD a copy of the letter or whether CD otherwise read it. The letter was published in Grant 1861, which was dedicated to CD. The book is not in the Darwin Library. The work is a brief outline of a course of lectures on zoology offered by Grant at University College London, where he was professor of zoology and comparative anatomy.
E. Darwin 1794–6. CD’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin expounded evolutionary views similar to those adopted by Grant (see A. Desmond 1984a). CD included Grant’s name in the revised ‘historical sketch’ added to the third edition of Origin among those who had espoused evolutionary doctrines. CD referred to an 1826 paper in which he stated that Grant ‘clearly declares his belief that species are descended from other species, and that they become improved in the course of modification.’ (Origin 3d ed., p. xiv). According to the catalogue of CD’s library prepared by H. W. Rutherford in 1908, CD had copies of a number of Grant’s papers on marine invertebrates published in the 1820s, including Grant 1826; these may be in the Darwin Library–Down. A copy of Grant’s book on comparative anatomy (Grant 1835–7) is in the Darwin Library–CUL.
Grant had introduced CD to the study of marine invertebrates in 1826 and 1827 while he was a student at Edinburgh University. See Autobiography, p. 49, and Correspondence vol. 1, ‘Journal’ (Appendix I). For Grant’s influence on CD’s early zoological education, see Jespersen 1948 and Sloan 1985.
Grant had studied at the Muséum d’histoire naturelle in Paris and was a follower of French materialism and philosophical anatomy. He maintained close contact with European naturalists through frequent visits to Paris and the Continent. For Grant’s career after leaving Edinburgh in 1827, see A. Desmond 1984a and 1984b.
For Grant’s mature views on the development of life, see A. Desmond 1984b.


Autobiography: The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. With original omissions restored. Edited with appendix and notes by Nora Barlow. London: Collins. 1958.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 26 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Darwin, Erasmus. 1794–6. Zoonomia; or, the laws of organic life. 2 vols. London: J. Johnson.

Grant, Robert Edmond. 1861. Tabular view of the primary divisions of the animal kingdom, intended to serve as an outline of an elementary course of recent zoology (cainozoology), or the natural history of existing animals. London.

Origin 3d ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 3d edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1861.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.


[Letter printed in REG, Tabular view of the primary divisions of the animal kingdom.] Dedicates his book to CD in testimony of his admiration of CD’s successful attempt to throw light on "the mystery of mysteries of organic nature".

Letter details

Letter no.
Robert Edmond Grant
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Euston Grove, 2
Source of text
Grant 1861, pp. v–vi

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3150,” accessed on 17 October 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 9