skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From George Rolleston   1 September 1861


Sept 1. 1861.

My dear Sir.

I ought to have written to thank you for the copy of the Third Edition of the Origin of Species which I received some months, I am ashamed to think, ago.1 It was my Intention to read it all through before writing in acknowledgment of your kindness but as I have not quite succeeded in doing this I have determined to put off writing no longer.

I suppose you will have seen a couple of Papers on “Sexual Limitation in Hereditary Disease” in the Medico Chirurgical Review for April & July.2 In case you should not, I will make an extract of the fact brought forward in that paper by Mr Sedgwick. Medico Chir. Review. April. 1861. p. 484. “M. Geschreift3 informs us that among the patients in the Eye Infirmary at Brussels were two Brothers Microphthalmic on the left side whose Father had lost his eye 15 years before his marriage in consequence of purulent ophthalmia whilst serving in the army of Holland.”

It is not as bearing upon such facts as those of Brown Séquards production of Epilepsy in the way of transmission4 or those of the moles suffering as you describe Page 144 from inflammation5 & transmitting to their offspring the condition into which they have themselves been brought that such a fact, if it be one, is of chief importance as it seems to me but as bearing upon another question, which is, Does not the nervous system and its larger appendages such as eye and ear furnish (like the shortfaced tumblers) an exception to the law of inheritance at corresponding periods of the life of parent & offspring?6

Sœmmering held that the human Brain attained its full size at three years of age,7 & this view even if not quite the truth, must shew as it was not put forth by a mere speculative man, that it is to be expected that the organ when about to be modified at all must be modified early— Again it is certain that the parts of the Brain in the Classes, Man & Ape, which are distinctively characteristic (so far as there are such parts) of the two classes are the earliest or amongst the earliest to shew themselves in the two Classes generally. Gratiolet, who has made the Convolutions his speciality, lays down in his Mémoire Sur les Plis Cerebraux, the following Rule in Italics: Les Parties qui doivent une jour dominer absolument apparaissent les premières bien que leur perfection ne s’acheve qu’après le developpement complet de tous les autres systêmes—8

Psychical manifestations in the offspring of both educated animals & educated men may be adduced either to shew the conformity or to prove the non conformity of the Nerve system to the usual Law—

With reference to your remarks on the rarely observed and recorded variations of internal and important organs (at pages 47 & 180) I have been watching in a great number of Insectivora & Chiroptera for variations in the number of their liver lobes. The common Plecotus Auritus has every now & then a liver just like man’s, & the hedgehog shews also occasionally a very considerable tendency to concentrate the multitudinous tongues into which its liver is divided. The Bat is a very remarkable instance as I find its multifid liver is exactly reproduced in the Vampire Phyllostoma Hastatum, and as its usual condition contrasts as strongly with that of the Vespertilio noctula as it is possible for it to do, that condition being nevertheless that of great similarity to the organ in man which every now & then the Plecotus itself also mimics—9 This I think bears upon what you say at Page 180.10

I must beg your pardon for writing at such length but as I have several times said on similar occasions I trust you will not take the trouble to reply to what requires no answer nor acknowledgment. Thanking you again for your sending me your Book

I am | Yours very Truly | George Rolleston—

CD annotations

1.1 I ought … longer. 1.5] crossed blue crayon
2.1 “Sexual … Disease” 2.2] underl blue crayon
3.5 Does … offspring? 3.8] scored blue crayon
4.4 modified early—] underl blue crayon; ‘?’ added blue crayon
4.5 characteristic … generally. 4.7] double scored blue crayon
4.10 perfection] split over lines in MS: hyphen added blue crayon
5.3 Nerve] ‘nerve’ added ink
Top of first page: ‘Prof G. Rolleston’ blue crayon; ‘Laws | Heredity & Embryology | Variation of internal organs in wild animals | Inheritance of eye. Keep | Analogous variation’11


Rolleston’s name is included in CD’s list of presentation copies of the third edition of Origin (see Correspondence vol. 9, Appendix VII).
W. Sedgwick 1861. William Sedgwick stated that little was understood about the hereditary transmission of disease, quoting CD’s statement that the ‘laws governing inheritance are quite unknown’ (Origin 3d ed., p. 13). Sedgwick provided a number of cases of ‘sexual limitation in hereditary disease’ as a preliminary contribution to this subject (W. Sedgwick 1861, p. 477).
Rolleston mistranscribed the name given in Sedgwick’s paper: the reference is to Ludovic Anton Gescheidt.
CD had been greatly interested by the successful attempt of Charles Édouard Brown-Séquard to transmit experimentally induced epilepsy through several generations of guinea-pigs (Brown-Séquard 1859–60). See Correspondence vol. 8, letter to Jeffries Wyman, 3 October [1860].
Rolleston refers to the South American burrowing rodent Ctenomys, whose blindness CD believed to have been caused by the ‘inflammation of the nictitating membrane’ (Origin 3d ed., p. 154).
The reference is to CD’s rule that at whatever period of life a peculiarity first appears, it tends to appear in the offspring at a corresponding age (Origin 3d ed., pp. 14, 476).
Samuel Thomas Soemmering.
Gratiolet 1854, p. 83. ‘The parts which will in time absolutely dominate are the first to appear, although they only reach perfection after the complete development of all other systems.’ In a recent article (Rolleston 1861a), Rolleston had quoted extensively from Gratiolet’s study of the brain of man and the primates.
Rolleston reported on his study of variation in the lobes of the liver at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science later in September 1861 (Rolleston 1861c).
Origin 3d ed., p. 180: A considerable part of the difficulty in recognising a variable species in our systematic works, is due to its varieties mocking, as it were, some of the other species of the same genus. A considerable catalogue, also, could be given of forms intermediate between two other forms, which themselves must be doubtfully ranked as either varieties or species; and this shows, unless all these forms be considered as independently created species, that the one in varying has assumed some of the characters of the other, so as to produce the intermediate form. But the best evidence is afforded by parts or organs of an important and uniform nature occasionally varying so as to acquire, in some degree, the characters of the same part or organ in an allied species.
CD’s annotations were obviously made at different times, for they are written in several different mediums: blue crayon, red crayon, and ink. Precise description obscures the meaning of the text.


The embryology of the vertebrate nervous system may be an exception to the law of inheritance at corresponding ages.

Letter details

Letter no.
George Rolleston
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 176: 207
Physical description
5pp ††

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3241,” accessed on 16 February 2019,

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