skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project


From Charles Lyell   16 January 1865


January 16, 1865.

My dear Darwin,—

I was so busy with the last chapters of my new edition of the ‘Elements’ before I left town a month ago,2 that I did not reply to your kind letter3 about my after-dinner speech on your Copley medal at the Royal Society anniversary.4 I have some notes of it, and hope one day to run over it with you, especially as it was somewhat of a confession of faith as to the ‘Origin.’ I said I had been forced to give up my old faith without thoroughly seeing my way to a new one.5 But I think you would have been satisfied with the length I went. The Duke of Argyll expresses in his address to the Edinburgh Royal Society very much what I have done (‘Antiquity of Man,’ p. 469), that variation or natural selection cannot be confounded with the creational law without such a deification of them as exaggerates their influence.6 He seems to me to have put the difficulty pretty clearly, but on the other hand he has not brought out as fully as I should have liked him to have done, the great body of evidence so admirably brought to bear in your work, in proof of the bond of mutual descent, and the manner in which species and genera branched from common ancestors. He did not entertain this idea till he had read your book, and he is now evidently impressed with it, as I am; and he would, I think, go the whole length, were it not for the necessity of admitting, in order to be consistent, that man and the quadrumana came from a common stock. He does, indeed, in defiance of consistency, admit for the humming-birds what he will not admit for the primates, and Guizot’s theology is introduced to support him;7 but the address is a great step towards your views—far greater, I believe, than it seems when read merely with reference to criticisms and objections. The reasoning about materialism appears to me admirably put,8 and his definition of the various senses in which we use the term ‘law’;9 though, having only read the speech once, I am not yet able to judge critically on all these points. He assumes far too confidently that the colours of the humming-birds are for mere ornament and beauty.10 I can conceive a meaning in your sense for the advantage of the creature, or of its friends and enemies, in every coloured ray of light reflected from the plumes.11 We must indeed know far more than we do before we can dogmatise on the irrelevancy of particular colours to the well-being of a species. He ought also to define beauty, and tell us whether it is in reference to man or bird. I have no objection to the idea of beauty or variety for its own sake, but to assume it so positively is unphilosophical.

We have been about three weeks at Berlin, and I had some good geological talk with Ferdinand Roemer, Beyrich, Von Kœnen, Gustav Rose, Ewald, Dr. Roth, and Dove the meteorologist, besides Ehrenberg, Magnus, Lepsius, and Du Bois- Reymond,12 and an animated conversation on Darwinism with the Princess Royal, who is a worthy daughter of her father, in the reading of good books and thinking of what she reads.13 She was very much au fait at the ‘Origin’ and Huxley’s book, the ‘Antiquity,’ &c. &c.,14 and with the Pfahlbauten Museums which she lately saw in Switzerland.15 She said after twice reading you she could not see her way as to the origin of four things; namely the world, species, man, or the black and white races. Did one of the latter come from the other, or both from some common stock? And she asked me what I was doing, and I explained that in recasting the ‘Principles’ I had to give up the independent creation of each species.16 She said she fully understood my difficulty, for after your book ‘the old opinions had received a shake from which they never would recover.’ I shall be very glad to hear what you think of the Duke of Argyll’s comments on the ‘Origin’.17 I think that your book is a vast step towards showing the methods which have been followed in creation, which is as much as science can ever reach, and the Duke, I think, has not fully appreciated the advance which has been made, even in his own mind.

I had hoped that a copy of the ‘Elements’18 would have been sent to you while I was still at Berlin. You will find much that is new, and nothing, I think, clashing with the ‘Origin’. Please read my description of the Atlantis theory.19 I fear I shall return and find the book still unborn, which is too bad of the printer. Please let me know how your health has been during the last four weeks.

Ever most truly yours | Charles Lyell.

P.S. In an article in the Berlin ‘Punch’ on the Pope’s encyclical, in which all the innovations which trouble his Holiness are enumerated, ‘Die Darwinische Lehre die uns alle Affen macht’ was not forgotten.20

Dover: January 19.


Magdeburg is a city on the Elbe River in central Germany (Columbia gazetteer of the world); the letter was evidently posted on Lyell’s return to London from Berlin, where he had spent the Christmas holidays (K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 381).
The sixth edition of the Elements of geology (C. Lyell 1865) was published in January 1865 (Publishers’ Circular, 1 February 1865, p. 60). An annotated copy is in the Darwin Library–Down (see Marginalia 1: 524–5).
The letter to Lyell has not been found.
An anniversary dinner was held following the 30 November meeting of the Royal Society at which CD was presented with the Copley Medal. In his letter of [before 30 November 1864] (Correspondence vol. 12), Erasmus Alvey Darwin had informed CD that Lyell was to attend the dinner and give his views on Origin. Lyell’s after-dinner speech is published in Bartholomew 1975–6.
In his speech, Lyell stated (Bartholomew 1975–6, p. 216): No intellectual condition can be more unsatisfactory than to have our old faith weakened, undermined or thoroughly unsettled without being able thoroughly to embrace the new one which is offered in its place. I cannot say that such is my present state of mind in regard to the Origin of Species, altho’ I am not yet gone quite so far as Mr Darwin and some of his followers. CD had been disappointed with the view of CD’s transmutation theory and theory of human descent that Lyell published in Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a). See Correspondence vol. 11, letter to J. D. Hooker, 24[–5] February [1863], letter to Charles Lyell, 6 March [1863], and letter from Charles Lyell, 15 March 1863.
Lyell refers to the address delivered to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 5 December 1864 by George Douglas Campbell, eighth duke of Argyll (G. D. Campbell 1864). Campbell distinguished between laws such as natural selection, which determine the success of existing species or modifications, and creational laws, which produce modifications or new forms of life. According to Campbell, CD had frequently forgotten this distinction in Origin, and had written ‘of natural selection “producing” this and that modification of structure’ (G. D. Campbell 1864, pp. 275–6). Campbell had sent Lyell a copy of his address; in his letter to Campbell of 25 January 1865 (I. E. Campbell ed. 1906, 2: 484), Lyell remarked, ‘Your objection that Darwin has in some parts of his book made natural selection do more in the way of originating or creating than is admissable, or even consistent, with his own explanation of natural selection, was felt strongly by me.... Darwin is inclined to believe that he has made a greater step in the direction of discovering an originating cause or law than he has really made’. Lyell had made a similar point in Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a, p. 469): ‘If we confound “Variation” or “Natural Selection” with such creational laws, we deify secondary causes or immeasurably exaggerate their influence’.
Campbell claimed that despite the close physical affinity between humans and the lower animals, human descent could not be explained on the same principles that might plausibly govern the descent of birds. ‘We are conscious,’ he wrote, ‘of an amount and of a kind of difference between ourselves and the lower animals, which is, in sober truth, immeasurable, in spite of the close affinities of bodily structure’ (G. D. Campbell 1864, p. 288). In support of his position, Campbell cited the French statesman and historian François Guizot, who maintained that humans could not have survived unless they had appeared with all of their faculties and powers fully developed (see G. D. Campbell 1864, p. 289, and Guizot 1864, p. 49). For Campbell’s earlier reservations about Origin, see his presidential address to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 3 December 1860 (G. D. Campbell 1860, pp. 371–6).
In the conclusion of his address (G. D. Campbell 1864, pp. 291–2), Campbell stated that recent developments in science tended to show that ‘all the realities of nature [were] in the region of the Invisible’; for example, current work in physiology suggested that ‘material organs [were] merely the special forms built up and fashioned by the vital forces … for the discharge of special functions’. In his letter to Campbell of 25 January 1865 (I. E. Campbell ed. 1906, 2: 484), Lyell praised the address for having done ‘a real service to the scientific and theological public by showing … that there is no tendency to materialism in the reasoning or speculations of modern naturalists and physicists, but quite the contrary’. For a discussion of materialism in the context of debates between scientific practitioners and theologians in Britain in the 1860s, see Barton 1987, pp. 130–3.
Campbell distinguished between a notion of law that referred to an observed order of facts, and other notions of law that involved the operation of forces and the fulfilment of purposes (G. D. Campbell 1864, p. 270).
According to Campbell, CD’s theory of descent by natural selection was only able to account for changes that were of direct use to organisms in the struggle for existence, and was therefore incomplete (G. D. Campbell 1864, pp. 276–81). He argued (ibid., p. 277) that humming-birds had a great many ‘structures designed for mere ornament, and entirely separate from any other known or conceivable use’.
In Origin, pp. 88–90, CD briefly discussed his theory of sexual selection, according to which ornamental characteristics developed as a result of competition between the male members of a species for the possession of females. However, CD argued that for birds the process was ‘more peaceful’. The colourful plumage of birds developed as a result of females choosing the most visually attractive partner. The subject of beauty in birds is also discussed in Correspondence vol. 9, letter to W. B. Tegetmeier, 14 April [1861], and letter from B. P. Brent, 29 May 1861.
Lyell refers to Ferdinand Römer, Ernst Beyrich, Adolf von Koenen, Gustav Rose, Julius Wilhelm Ewald, Justus Ludwig Adolph Roth, Heinrich Wilhelm Dove, Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg, Heinrich Gustav Magnus, Karl Richard Lepsius, and Emil Heinrich Du Bois-Reymond.
Victoria Adelaide Mary Louise, the eldest child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, had married Frederick William, who became crown prince of Prussia in 1861. She was noted for her enjoyment of intellectual debate and her patronage of the arts and sciences (Pakula 1996).
Lyell refers to Origin, to Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evidence as to man’s place in nature (T. H. Huxley 1863a), and to his own Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a). In a letter of 9 January 1865 to another of her daughters, Alice, Queen Victoria expressed concern that the princess royal’s reading of CD’s works was undermining her religious beliefs (see Pakula 1996, pp. 215–16).
‘Pfahlbauten’, or ancient lake-dwellings built on wooden piles, had recently been excavated in Switzerland (see C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 17–29, Keller 1866, and first enclosure to letter from Charles Lyell to J. D. Hooker, [31 May 1865] and n. 12).
Lyell was currently preparing the tenth edition of Principles of geology (C. Lyell 1867–8; see K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 390). An annotated copy is in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 543–4). Lyell concluded his discussion of the theory of descent by natural selection with the remark: ‘Mr. Darwin, without absolutely proving this, has made it appear in the highest degree probable’ (C. Lyell 1867–8, 2: 492). In previous editions, Lyell had argued against the transmutation of species (see, for example, C. Lyell 1853, p. 585).
See letter to Charles Lyell, 22 January [1865].
See n. 2 above.
In order to explain similarities between the Miocene plants of Europe and the modern plants of the Atlantic states of North America, Franz Unger and Oswald Heer had proposed the existence of a continent in the present basin of the Atlantic, over which plants had migrated eastward from America to Europe (Unger 1860, Heer 1855–9 and 1860). The Atlantis theory was criticised on botanical grounds by Asa Gray and later by Daniel Oliver, who argued that plants had migrated westward, across America and Asia (A. Gray 1858–9, Oliver 1862). Lyell discussed various criticisms of Heer’s Atlantis theory in Elements of geology (C. Lyell 1865, pp. 265–73); he also mentioned CD’s suggestion, presented in Origin, pp. 369–72, that plant migrations during a warmer, pre-glacial period (following the Miocene), accounted for the fairly uniform distribution of plants across polar regions and throughout subarctic and temperate regions as well (C. Lyell 1865, p. 270). Lyell noted that the Atlantis theory required ‘a prodigious amount of subsidence in a comparatively brief period’, and concluded: ‘the theory which derives the American types from the east instead of the west seems by far the most natural’ (C. Lyell 1865, pp. 270, 271). However, Lyell was not convinced that a single genus originated in one location, from which it dispersed, as did a species; he thought that this assumption, inherent in CD’s transmutation theory, might weaken the arguments for either a westward or an eastward Miocene migration. Using the example of species of the walnut genus that had flourished in the European Eocene before the supposed migration of other walnut species from America, he cautioned the reader to bear in mind the assumption of a single origin of a genus. He added, however, that this was ‘not the place to enter into a question so difficult and unsettled as that of the origin of species’ (C. Lyell 1865, p. 272). For CD’s discussion of ‘single centres of creation’, see Origin, pp. 351–6.
Pope Pius IX’s encyclical was published 8 December 1864, in conjunction with the ‘syllabus of [modern] errors’ (Catholic encyclopedia, Enchiridion symbolorum). A commentary appeared in the Berlin satirical journal Kladderadatsch, 15 January 1865, p. 10. It referred to ‘die Derwin’sche Lehre, dass schon unsere Grossältern Affen waren’ (‘the Darwinian theory, that even our grandparents were apes’). Lyell, probably quoting from memory, wrote: ‘the Darwinian theory that makes apes of us all’.


His view of Origin.

Belief of Duke of Argyll that substituting "variation" and "selection" for creation deifies them.

Thinks Argyll would accept evolution except for man.

A’s view of humming-birds.

Describes discussion with [Victoria,] Princess Royal of Prussia, about evolution.

New edition of Elements consistent with Origin.

Letter details

Letter no.
Lyell, Charles
Darwin, C. R.
Sent from
Source of text
K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 384–6

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4746,” accessed on 29 July 2016,