skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To J. V. Carus   21 November 1866

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

Nov. 21st. 1866

My dear Sir

I am much obliged for your letter & especially for your photograph.1 I shall be most happy at all times to answer when able any questions.

The sweet-Pea is Lathyrus odoratus 2   The Laugher-pigeon is an Eastern Var. of Columba livia & not C. risoria; it appears not to be known in Germany, for a man who knows the German var.s well & gives synonyms for all others excepting this one kind.3

I have pleasure in enclosing a copy of a short biographical sketch of myself which I lately had to give for an English biographical dictionary.4

With respect to a note on Nägeli I find on consideration it would be too long; for so good a pamphlet ought to be discussed at full length or not at all.5 He makes a mistake in supposing that I say that useful characters are always constant.6 His view about distinct species converging & acquiring the same identical structure is by implication answered in the discussion which I have given on the endless diversity of means for gaining the same end.7

The most important point as it seems to me in the pamphlet is that on the morphological characters of plants & I find I could not answer this without going into much detail.8 The answer would be as it seems to me that important morphological characters, such as the position of the ovules & the relative position of the stamens to the ovarium (hypoginous, periginous &c &c)9 are sometimes variable in the same species, as I incidentally mention when treating of the ray-florets in the Compositæ & Umbelliferæ; & I do not see how Nägeli could maintain that differences in such characters prove an inherent tendancy towards perfection.10

I see that I have forgotten to say that you have my fullest consent to append any discussion which you may think fit to the new edition. As for myself I cannot believe in spontaneous generation,11 & though I expect that at some future time the principle of life will be rendered intelligible, at present it seems to me beyond the confines of science.

With my sincere thanks, Believe me | My dear Sir— Yours very sincerely— | Charles Darwin.


Carus had mistakenly thought that the ‘laugher’ was the same as the German ‘Lachtaube’ (literally ‘laughing dove’) and that Heinrich Georg Bronn had erred in his translation (see letter from J. V. Carus, 15 November 1866 and n. 7). The reference is probably to William Bernhard Tegetmeier, who was CD’s principal source for information on pigeons.
CD probably sent the biographical sketch written for Reeve and Walford eds. 1863–7 (see letter to Robert Hunt, 3 May [1866] and n. 1).
Carus had asked whether CD would write a note on Carl Wilhelm von Nägeli’s paper on the origin of species (Nägeli 1865; see letter from J. V. Carus, 15 November 1866 and n. 10). There is a heavily annotated copy of Nägeli 1865 in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
Nägeli claimed that CD stated that neutral characteristics were variable and useful ones were constant (Nägeli 1865, p. 28). CD marked the passage in his copy and added the comment, ‘no–when part becomes variable, then if variation not useful; not made constant.’
Nägeli argued that two species that were subject to the same conditions and eventually became perfectly adapted to them would necessarily converge into a single species (Nägeli 1865, p. 26). For CD’s discussion of the diversity of means for gaining the same end, see Origin 4th ed., pp. 228–32.
Nägeli wrote that what could be termed ‘useful adaptations’ in the plant kingdom were exclusively physiological and that no morphological modification could be explained by the theory of usefulness (Nägeli 1865, p. 27; see also letter to C. W. von Nägeli, 12 June [1866] and n. 8). He added that changes in morphological characteristics could be accounted for by his ‘perfectibility principle’ (‘Vervollkommnungsprincip’; ibid, p. 30). CD discussed Nägeli’s paper in Origin 5th ed., pp. 151–7.
Hypogynous, perigynous.
For CD’s discussion of correlated variation and the shape of ray florets in the Compositae and Umbelliferae, see Origin 4th ed., p. 172.
See letter from J. V. Carus, 15 November 1866 and n. 9. In the first German translation of Origin, Bronn had added a final chapter of his own commentary in which he discussed spontaneous generation within the context of CD’s theory (see Bronn trans. 1860, pp. 495–520). For more on Bronn’s argument that CD’s theory was incomplete until it could account for the origin of life, see Bronn’s review of Origin (Bronn 1860b) and Correspondence vol. 8. For more on CD’s view of spontaneous generation, see Correspondence vol. 11, letter to Athenæum, 18 April [1863] and n. 3. On the Victorian debate about spontaneous generation within the context of Darwinism, see Strick 2000.


Athenæum. 1844. A few words by way of comment on Miss Martineau’s statement. No. 896 (28 December): 1198–9.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 26 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Nägeli, Carl Wilhelm von. 1865. Entstehung und Begriff der naturhistorischen Art. 2d edition. Munich: Verlag der königl. Akademie.

Origin 4th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 4th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1866.

Origin 5th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 5th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1869.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.

Strick, James. 2000. Sparks of life: Darwinism and the Victorian debates over spontaneous generation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


Answers some question about species.

Sends biographical sketch.

Now considers that a note on Nägeli would have to be too long to include. Discusses his differences with Nägeli. Cannot believe in spontaneous generation. At present the principle of life seems to him beyond the confines of science.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Julius Victor Carus
Sent from
Source of text
Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Slg. Darmstaedter Lc 1859: Darwin, Charles, Bl. [(Carus 2)]); DAR 143: 212
Physical description
5pp & C 2pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5282,” accessed on 28 January 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 14