skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project


To J. D. Dana   20 February [1863]1

Down. | Bromley. | Kent. S.E.

Feb. 20th

My dear Mr Dana

I received a few days ago your Book & this morning your pamphlet on Man & your kind letter.2 I am heartily sorry that your head is not yet strong, & whatever you do, do not again overwork yourself.3 Your book is a monument of labour, though I have as yet only just turned over the pages.—4 It evidently contains a mass of valuable matter.—

With respect to the change of species I fully admit your objections are perfectly valid.5 I have noticed them6, excepting one of separation of countries, on which perhaps we differ a little.7 I admit, that if we really now know the beginning of life on this planet, it is absolutely fatal to my views; I admit the same, if the geological record is not excessively imperfect; & I further admit that the a priori probability is that no being lived below our Cambrian era. Nevertheless I grow yearly more convinced of the general (with much incidental error) truth of my views: I believe in this from finding that my views embrace so many phenomena & explain them to a large extent. I am continually pleased by hearing of naturalists (within the last month I have heard of four) who have come round to a large extent to the belief of the modification—of Species.—8 As my book has been lately somewhat attended to, perhaps it would have been better, if when you condemn all such views, you had stated that you had not been able yet to read it.9 But pray do not suppose that I think for one instant that with your strong & slowly-acquired convictions, & immense knowledge, you would have been converted. The utmost that I could have hoped would have been that you might possibly have been here or there staggered. Indeed I should not much value any sudden conversion; for I remember well how many long years I fought against my present belief.—

With respect to Dr. Falconer, I fear I ought not to have said anything, as he lately told me that he shd. not interfere till Prof. Owen had published; so please do not repeat what I said.10 I daresay Owen will work out everything carefully before he publishes in detail; but there is little doubt he was at first very careless. He overlooked a jaw with teeth which however may possibly not have belonged to this marvellous Bird, with its long tail & fingers to its wings.11 As Birds are so isolated this case, as you may suppose, has pleased me.— You will see in Lyell’s book that Owen has made a fearful mistake (not discovered by himself) about the British Eocene monkey.—12 He has made such mistakes about the Elephants & Rhinoceroses, that I declare I am getting fearful of trusting him.13 He has done the work of a giant; but I fear he has been too ambitious & not given time enough to most of his work.— I have not yet read Huxley’s book;14 but I hear it is very striking; but you will highly disapprove of it.—

With every good wish | pray believe me | Yours very sincerely | Ch. Darwin

I do not believe Dr Falconer has changed his views about the Mesozoic mammals; but he has done more; for the specimens were presented to British Museum & are kept by Owen in his private room; & why he does not publish I cannot conceive.— In the last, or last but one, nor of the Geolog. Journal there is paper by Falconer on Plagiaulax, maintaining strenuously his former views.—15


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from J. D. Dana, 5 February 1863.
The references are to Dana’s Manual of geology (Dana 1863a), Dana 1863c, and the letter from J. D. Dana, 5 February 1863. CD had apparently received Dana 1863c by 17 February 1863 (see letter to Charles Lyell, 17 [February 1863]).
Dana had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1859, from which he was just beginning to recover (see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to J. D. Dana, 30 December [1859], Correspondence vol. 9, letter from Asa Gray, 31 December 1861, and this volume, letter from J. D. Dana, 5 February 1863).
CD refers to Dana’s Manual of geology (Dana 1863a). There is an unannotated copy of Dana 1863a in the Darwin Library–Down.
In his letter of 5 February 1863, though, owing to ill health (see n. 3, above), he had not read Origin, Dana provided CD with an outline of his principal objections to the doctrine of the evolution of organic life.
Chapter 9 of Origin (pp. 279–311) dealt with the imperfection of the geological record. CD specifically addressed the problem posed to his theory by the absence of transitional forms in the geological record on pp. 172–9, 279–82, and 292–302.
Dana argued that the life forms of North America and Europe had generally developed independently (see letter from J. D. Dana, 5 February 1863); in Origin, CD emphasised ‘the relationship, with very little identity, between the productions of North America and Europe’. This, he argued, was a reflection of past climatic changes affecting both continents, and the inter-migration of their flora and fauna during the warmer climate of the ‘newer Pliocene period’ (Origin, pp. 370–1).
Since the middle of January 1863, CD had received news of several naturalists expressing a belief in the modification of species, including Alphonse de Candolle, Gaston de Saporta, and Camille Dareste. In addition, Friedrich Rolle had written with details of CD’s support in Germany (see letters to Alphonse de Candolle, 14 January [1863] and 31 January [1863], letter to J. D. Hooker, 30 January [1863], letter from Camille Dareste, 8 February 1863, and letter from Friedrich Rolle, 26 January 1863).
In Dana 1863a, pp. 601–2, Dana stated that: With regard to the Origination of Species, Geology suggests no theory of natural forces. It is right for science to search out Nature’s methods, and strive to employ her forces—organic or inorganic—in the effort, vain though it prove, to derive thence new living species. The study of fossils has given no aid in this direction. It has brought to light no facts sustaining a theory that derives species from others, either by a system of evolution, or by a system of variations of living individuals, and bears strongly against both hypotheses.
In his letter to Dana of 7 January [1863], CD informed Dana that Hugh Falconer had dismissed Richard Owen’s description of the recently discovered fossil bird Archaeopteryx as ‘not done … well’. See also the letter from Hugh Falconer, 3 January [1863]. Richard Owen’s description, which was read before the Royal Society of London on 20 November 1862, was not published until the second half of 1863 (Owen 1862a; Royal Society, Register of papers).
See letters from Hugh Falconer, 3 January [1863] and 18 January [1863].
In Antiquity of man, Lyell had written (C. Lyell 1863a, p. 500): The only reputed fossil monkey of eocene date, namely, that found in 1840 at Kyson, in Suffolk, and so determined by Professor Owen, has recently been pronounced by the same anatomist, after reexamination, and when he had ampler materials at his command, to be a pachyderm. Lyell refers to Owen’s description of the Eocene fossil in Owen 1840 and 1862b. See also the letter from Hugh Falconer, 18 January [1863] and n. 12.
CD probably refers to Owen’s palaeontological work on the fossil elephant Elephas columbi, and the fossil rhinoceros Rhinoceros leptorhinus. With respect to E. columbi, Owen had overlooked Falconer’s description of the fossil elephant and had renamed it E. texianus. Falconer interpreted this move as an attempt by Owen to usurp his priority in the description of the fossil, by substituting another, and in his view inferior, name (see letter to J. D. Hooker, 3 January [1863], n. 1). Falconer’s critique of Owen’s E. texianus was published in Falconer 1863a, pp. 45–9 (see also letter to Hugh Falconer, 5 [and 6] January [1863], and letter from Hugh Falconer, 8 January [1863]). Falconer may also have told CD of his doubts regarding Owen’s identification of Clacton, Tuscan, and Rhenish specimens of fossil rhinoceros as R. leptorhinus (see Owen 1846b and Falconer 1868, 2: 317–20).
The reference is to Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evidence as to man’s place in nature (T. H. Huxley 1863b). See also letter to T. H. Huxley, 18 [February 1863].
Falconer had described two Mesozoic fossil mammal species of the genus Plagiaulax, concluding that they were herbivorous marsupials (Falconer 1857b). Owen, however, argued that the structure of the lower jaw and teeth of Plagiaulax indicated that it was a carnivorous marsupial (Owen 1860b, p. 321). Dana had followed Owen’s interpretation in his Manual of geology (Dana 1863a, p. 463), and was apparently unaware of Falconer’s subsequent refutation of Owen’s conclusions in Falconer 1862. See also letter from J. D. Dana, 5 February 1863.


Received JDD’s book [Manual of geology (1862)]

and pamphlet on man ["On the higher subdivisions in the classification of mammals", Am. J. Sci. 2d ser. 35 (1863): 65–71].

Fully admits JDD’s objections are valid. But is convinced of the general truth of his own views (with much incidental error), because they embrace so many phenomena and explain them.

Discusses some mistakes Owen has made;

Falconer’s disagreement with Owen ["On the mammalian genus Plagiaulax", Q. J. Geol. Soc. Lond. 18 (1862): 348–69].

Letter details

Letter no.
Darwin, C. R.
Dana, J. D.
Sent from
Source of text
Yale University Library: Manuscripts and Archives (Dana Family Papers (MS 164) Series 1, Box 2, folder 44)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4000,” accessed on 24 August 2016,