skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project


From James Samuelson   8 April 1866

6 Montpellier Terrace | New Brighton Cheshire Apl 8/66 Dear Sir.

I am glad you consider the notice of your works an unprejudiced one.1 It seems, strangely enough, to find favor with the rigid orthodox as well as with those who are disposed to consider the subject without reference to theology. & I hope it will give a stimulus to the perusal of your works.

I cannot, for my own part, conceive how any one who considers the past and present of organic life, without theological bias, can find it reasonable to suppose that animals have sprung into existence as it was formerly believed, and a gradual development appears to me the only sensible mode of explaining the matter.

On the other hand, unless you are greatly misunderstood, by me as well as others, I am at a loss to comprehend how you can have arrived at the metaphysical result stated or implied, at p 492 of the ‘Origin’. (3d Edn.) “not by means superior to, though analogous with” &c.2

Assuming your theory to be correct; that the metaphysical causes—in other words that the creative or divine power which makes or has made new species is not superior to, though analogous with, human reason; what is the use of continuing your efforts to make a new species? It is only on the assumption that “Nature” acts in a manner superior to though analogous with human reason, that the question of artificial selection can have the slightest weight in determining the natural method of creating species;—I am not going to read you a sermon! You have had enough of those I should think! but judging from some of the explanatory remarks you have introduced into your last edition, referred to by your reviewer at p. 153 (J of S.) I should say that you have, from conviction, not coercion, somewhat changed your views as regards the nature of the metaphysical influences at work; or at least that you have felt yourself to be misunderstood, in the amount of power attributable to “Natural Selection”.3

I think you are still misunderstood, in a way which is calculated to impede the progress of your views.

As to ‘Natural selection’ modifying the Egg—seed &c, “by preserving favorable variations”,4 I confess myself totally unable to perceive how you can, in a large majority of cases, ascertain anything whatever as to the influences which are at work in or upon the ovum, germ, or spermatozoon. In the lower & lowest forms of life, these are at present often less than microscopic, & when our powers increase, I do not think we shall be much wiser in that respect. I say this with every deference to your large experience and observation; though as you may perhaps be aware, I have devoted many years to this particular branch of Science. You will probably have seen that I sent a paper last Autumn to the Royal Society in which I have sought to show by experiment that the developmental theory must, in the case of the infusoria, take the place of that of spontaneous generation; but although in the paper (of which an abstract only appeared in the proceedings) I have expressed my conviction that one and the same form of zoospore, monad, or whatever you choose to call it, may become developed into what are now believed to be distinct species of Infusoria, (& I sent an illustration of what I believe to be such a phenomenon) yet I cannot go so far back as the “ovum, germ, or seed” in forming a judgment upon the causes of variation.5

You will consider me very un-Editorial, I know, for entering upon this discussion, but I received your note, & reply to it, not in my official capacity, but as a young fellow-observer—if you will not be scandalised by the comparison.

Believe me, Dear Sir, | With every regard, Yrs truly | James Samuelson

C Darwin Esq


An anonymous article, ‘Darwin and his teachings’, appeared in the April 1866 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Science (Anon. 1866). A lightly annotated presentation copy is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. The article reviewed the third edition of Origin, and referred to Journal of researches, Orchids, and ‘Climbing plants’. CD’s letter to Samuelson has not been found.
Samuelson refers to a sentence in the second paragraph of the last chapter of Origin, p. 459 (Origin 3d ed., p. 492): Nothing at first can appear more difficult to believe than that the more complex organs and instincts should have been perfected, not by means superior to, though analogous with, human reason, but by the accumulation of innumerable slight variations, each good for the individual possessor.
The review compared the first and third editions of Origin, noting places in which CD had substituted ‘natural selection’ for ‘nature’, and had inserted new material in an attempt to clarify the meaning of natural selection (Anon. 1866, pp. 152–4). The reviewer claimed that natural selection was ‘of itself not sufficient to explain the phenomena, past and present, of nature’ (ibid., p. 152).
In Origin, p. 127, CD wrote: ‘Natural selection, on the principle of qualities being inherited at corresponding ages, can modify the egg, seed, or young, as easily as the adult.’ Previously in the same chapter, he had discussed the transmission of characters ‘by natural selection preserving the same favourable variations’ (p. 104). CD attempted to explain hereditary transmission in his provisional hypothesis of pangenesis (see Variation, ch. 27).
Samuelson’s paper ‘On the development of certain infusoria’ was read at the 8 November 1865 meeting of the Royal Society. An abstract was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 14 (1865): 546–7. The paper described the successive appearance, in organic infusions, of what seemed to be distinct species of Protozoa rising in the developmental scale: monads, amoeba, and ciliated infusoria. Samuelson claimed, however, that the monadic forms were in fact the larval stage of infusoria (species of Cercomonas). He also reported further experiments, designed to refute the theory of spontaneous generation, showing that organic forms appeared in pure distilled water only if it had been exposed to the atmosphere for some time.


Pleased CD does not consider review of his works prejudiced [Anon., "Darwin and his teachings", Q. J. Sci. 3 (1866): 151–76].

Supports gradual development of species over time.

Confused by the metaphysical view implied in the analogy between a creative power that has made new species and artificial selection governed by human reason (Origin, 3d ed., p. 492).

Doubts natural selection.

Cites his discussion of the origin of Infusoria [Proc. R. Soc. Lond. 14 (1865): 546–7].

Letter details

Letter no.
Samuelson, James
Darwin, C. R.
Sent from
New Brighton, Cheshire
Source of text
DAR 177: 27
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5049,” accessed on 29 July 2016,