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Darwin Correspondence Project

To George Bentham   19 June [1863]1

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

June 19th

My dear Bentham

I have been extremely much pleased & interested by your address, which you kindly sent me.2 It seems to me excellently done, with as much judicial calmness & impartiality as the Lord Chancellor could have shown. But whether the “immutable” gentlemen would agree with the impartiality may be doubted,—there is too much kindness shown towards me, Hooker & others, they might say.3 Moreover I verily believe that your address, written as it is, will do more to shake the unshaken & bring on those leaning to our side, than anything written directly in favour of transmutation.4 I can hardly tell why it is, but your address has pleased me as much as Lyell’s book disappointed me,—that is the part on species, though so cleverly written.5 I agree with all your remarks on the Reviewers. By the way, Lecoq is a believer in the change of species.—6 I, for one, can conscientiously declare that I never feel surprised at anyone sticking to the belief of immutability; though I am often not a little surprised at the arguments advanced on this side.—7 I remember too well my endless oscillations of doubt & difficulty. It is to me really laughable, when I think of the years which elapsed before I saw what I believe to be the explanation of some parts of the case: I believe it was 15 years after I begun before I saw the meaning & cause of the divergence of the descendants of any one pair.—8

You pay me some most elegant & pleasing compliments. I had not heard before that Mill had written anything on my treatment of the subject;9 & this, as you may believe, is highly satisfactory to me; after the Bishop of Oxford having said he believed that the Origin “was the most illogical book ever published.”—10

There is much in your address which has pleased me much, especially your remarks on various naturalists. I am so glad that you have alluded so honourably to Pasteur.11 I have just read over this note; it does not express strongly enough the interest, which I have felt in reading your address.— You have done, I believe, a real good turn to the right side.

Believe me | Dear Bentham | Yours very sincerely | Ch. Darwin.

I have been rather bad for some days & was in bed nearly all yesterday; so my note is duller than it otherwise, perhaps, would have been.— Shall you think it a very odd request, if I ask you to show this note to Hooker, as he wanted to hear what I thought, & it will save me writing it again?—12 I have written to you, exactly as I should have done to him—


The year is established by the reference to Bentham 1863 (see n. 2, below).
CD refers to Bentham’s anniversary address delivered to the Linnean Society on 25 May 1863 (Bentham 1863). The number of the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London containing Bentham’s address was not issued until 29 October 1863 (General index to the Journal of the Linnean Society, p. vii); the preprint sent to CD by Bentham has not been found.
In his address, Bentham sought to examine the present state of ‘Biology’, which he defined as ‘the science of life, i.e. of the phenomena of life, in contradistinction to the description and classification of living beings’ (Bentham 1863, p. xii). Bentham devoted most of his address to a review of the state of the literature on the origin of species (Bentham 1863, pp. xii–xxii), providing a detailed assessment of the scientific debate on the question since the publication of Origin, and referring to many reviews of Origin and to various other publications with a bearing on CD’s theory, including J. D. Hooker 1859 and 1860b (see Bentham 1863, p. xx).
In summing up the literature relating to Origin, Bentham suggested that the ‘tide of opinion’ among ‘philosophical naturalists’ was ‘setting fast in favour of Mr. Darwin’s hypothesis’, and that few who really considered the subject could deny that new species had been produced from a common ancestor by natural selection (Bentham 1863, pp. xxi–xxii). He continued: The great objections still urged are to the insufficiency of the data yet ascertained for the extension of the principle to all changes and to all species; and whilst many of Mr. Darwin’s generalizations may be considered as adopted, there are others which many persons are disposed to refer for further proof, and many objects of research more or less relevant, indicated only by him, are still obscured from our view.
C. Lyell 1863a. See letter to Charles Lyell, 6 March [1863].
Henri Lecoq. See Bentham 1863, p. xiv.
In Bentham 1863, p. xiii, Bentham numbered himself among those who, through a long course of study of the phenomena of organic life, had been led more and more to believe in the immutability of species within certain limits, and have now felt their theories rudely shaken by the new light opened on the field by Mr. Darwin, but who cannot surrender at discretion so long as many important outworks remain contestable.
In his Autobiography, pp. 120–1, CD explained that, in developing his theory in the late 1830s and early 1840s, he had ‘overlooked one problem of great importance’, namely, ‘the tendency in organic beings descended from the same stock to diverge in character as they become modified.’ CD did not provide an explanation for this phenomenon until the mid-1850s, when he accounted for it in terms of the selective advantage of specialisation for closely related species living in the same territory. See Origin, pp. 111–26, and Ospovat 1981, pp. 170–90.
In his address, Bentham quoted John Stuart Mill’s statement that, while not capable of proof, CD’s theory was an ‘unimpeachable example of a legitimate hypothesis’, and that it constituted a ‘wonderful feat of scientific knowledge and ingenuity’ (J. S. Mill 1862, 2: 18 n.; see Bentham 1863, pp. xv–xvi).
In his letter to CD of 13–14 February [1860] (Correspondence vol. 8), Charles Lyell reported that the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, had declared Origin to be ‘the most unphilosophical [book] he had ever read’.
In his paper, Bentham discussed the experiments detailed in Pasteur 1861 and 1862, as a result of which Louis Pasteur appeared to have completely refuted ‘the idea of heterogeny in the production of microscopic animals or plants in organic matter in a state of fermentation’ (Bentham 1863, p. xxv–xxvi). He also described the subsequent recognition accorded to Pasteur’s work, before criticising the ‘ex cathedrâ’ promulgation of ‘a new form of spontaneous generation’ in Richard Owen’s anonymous review of Carpenter 1862, which appeared in the Athenæum, 28 March 1863, pp. 417–19 (see Bentham 1863, pp. xxvi–xxvii). See also letter to J. D. Hooker, 23 [June 1863] and n. 9, and Appendix VII.
Bentham worked with Joseph Dalton Hooker at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. See letter from J. D. Hooker, [24 May 1863].


GB’s address [Proc. Linn. Soc. Lond. (1863): xi–xxix] pleased him as much as Lyell’s book [Antiquity of man] disappointed him on species question. GB has done a "real good turn to the right side".

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
George Bentham
Sent from
Source of text
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (Bentham correspondence 3: 709–10)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4217,” accessed on 29 April 2017,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 11