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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Ponderer to the Athenæum   [before 5 June 1869]1

Darwin’s Elephants.— In the last edition of Mr.  Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species,’ he makes the following statement (chap. iii., page 74, line 18):—“The elephant is reckoned the slowest breeder of all known animals, and I have taken some pains to estimate its probable minimum state of natural increase. It will be under the mark to assume that it begins breeding when thirty years old, and goes on breeding till ninety years old, bringing forth three pair of young in this interval. If this be so, at the end of the fifth century there would be alive fifteen million elephants descended from the first pair.”2 Perhaps some of your readers will be able to enlighten my dull intellect as to the process of reasoning by which this result is obtained. According to Mr. Darwin’s theory, each pair brings forth a pair when it is thirty, when it is sixty, and when it is ninety. Hence if there be one pair in the first year, there will be one pair born in the thirtieth year; these two pairs will produce two pairs in the sixtieth year, and these four will produce four pairs in the ninetieth. After that we have only to add the numbers born in the three preceding periods to find out how many are born in each period; because after they have attained the age of ninety years they cease to breed. This method of reasoning gives the number of pairs born in each period of thirty years as 1, 1, 2, 4, 7, 13, 24, 44, 81, 149, 274, 504, 927, 1,705, 3,136, 5,768, 10,609, 19,513; the last number being born in the period commencing with the five hundred and tenth year. Therefore the number of elephants alive at that time would be 42,762 pairs, that is, 85,524 elephants, less the number that would have died by reason of their age. But Mr. Darwin says that there would be fifteen millions. On what does he base his calculation? | Ponderer.


The date is established by the date of publication of this letter in the Athenæum, 5 June 1869.
‘Ponderer’ refers to Origin 4th ed.; see also the first edition of Origin, p. 64, where the passage exists in almost the same form. It was altered in the sixth edition (Origin 6th ed., p. 51) so that the conclusion read, ‘if this be so, after a period of from 740 to 750 years there would be nearly nineteen million elephants alive, descended from the first pair.’


Inquires how CD arrived at the conclusion that fifteen million elephants could be produced from a single pair in five centuries [Origin, 5th ed., p. 74].

Letter details

Letter no.
Sent from
Source of text
Athenæum, 5 June 1869, p. 772

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6775F,” accessed on 26 April 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 17