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Darwin Correspondence Project

From John Scott   21 December 1869

Royal Botanic Gardens | Calcutta

Decr 21st /69

Dear Sir

I often think on subjects, material I may have collected information likely to interest you, but I get together even in India so slowly little scraps that I am long in getting sufficient to fill a sheet or so. I was indeed very much pleased to find that my observations on expressions were valued of you.1 I do not think I have anything noteworthy to add to them … I have particularly observed, since I heard from you, the colour of hair and beard, and invariably seen that when they do differ the former is of the darker shade.2 (beard always lighter coloured than the hair) I have indeed seen it somewhat marked in the thinly bearded Lepchas and Mechis of Sikkim: the Bhotea also show it as do many Burmese and Chinamen—all of which have very little hair in general on the face.3

I have frequently thought—though you are in all probability already familiar—that the native mode of swimming might interest you: the action is so known, by that of the lower animals. It is different of course with some of the sea-faring races as the Burmese and Malays who have been much in contact with Europeans. I refer only to those races who have come little in contact with Europeans. The Santhals, or Dhangars of Nagpore illustrate it well,4 as do also the generality of the country nurtured Bengalee and various other Indian races. These in the act of swimming pose the body at a high angle (nearly 45o ) in the water, throw the head slightly backward so that the water level is in a line with the middle of the chin base of the ears and nape of neck; thus strikingly different from the Europeans. Again the progressive action is simply “pawing”, the manner of short, quick, alternate, almost vertical strokes, with slightly bent or curved hands, the motion of feet spurring, the right limb being drawn forward and struck out again with the stroke of the left hand and so on alternately in a somewhat devious course with opposing limbs and arms. I was oft struck with their truly animal like mode of progression and frequently thought of mentioning it to you. Lately however, I had the opporunity of seeing one of our big Hanuman monkeys5 fall accidentally from a tree into one of our garden tanks in making a long spring. After composing himself somewhat his movements resembled very strikingly indeed those which I have above described: this has induced me to bring it to your notice.

I have often thought also of monkey like mode natives here generally adopt in carrying their children. It is striking to see the youngest infants tied astride the mothers hip with its slender arms athwart her body. Truly they need to have but a slight elongation of the latter so that they might clasp the body to complete the comparison.

I shall now add a few notes on a different subject which I have thought might interest you. Polydactylism 6   This occurs in several native families, from whom I have had the following [records]. In the first case is a family of two sons and a daughter, of whom the latter and one of the former had six digits; the supernumerary being a finger attached to the metacarpal bone on the outer margin of the hand. The feet had the ordinary number of digits in the feet. In this case the grandfathers brother had six digits on one hand. Both brothers and sister were married but none of their children have inherited this peculiarity.

Another case is of a man with six digits on one foot (supernumerary on outer margin) the left, while this man’s grandfather had a sixth on the right foot. It has appeared in none of the other members of their families. A third had six fingers (very perfectly developed) on both hands, as had also a brother and uncle—but none of their descendants, which are as yet however confined to a single generation. A fourth family had a supernumary thumb (perfectly developed) supported on the metacarpal bone, and this man’s grandson (an infant of 10 months) has also six digits but in this case a finger on the outer margin of the left hand.— I have also to note a Bengale〈e〉 family which for three generations have had all its members strongly prognathic. The present family consists of three male and two female children all of whom present the peculiarity and which has been inherited from the father and grandfather. I have seen all the present male members of the family and found in each with the upper maxillary bone projecting considerably more than lower with exceedingly large though equably developed teeth: the canine are same plane and not longer than the others; previously to seeing the family I had been told that they projected and were much longer.

I do not think that I have anything further worth communicating (if indeed what I have already written is) I have been much bothered with fever and ague since the close of the rains and have really been little able for work of any sort. I am now however I think fairly clear of them—I have just sent to Dr. Hooker a paper on the tree-ferns of Sikkim in which I treat of their distribution, economic uses, structures of caudex, and relations with the higher plants and a few other peculiarities with descriptions and figures of the species—also a number of plates illustrations of their structure. Dr. Hooker promises to look it over for me and if it proves worthy he will communicate it to the Linnean.7 I am just commencing a book on Indian Horticulture, in which I devote a chapter to acclimatization.8

I am Dear Sir | Yours respectfully | John Scott.

CD annotations

1.1 I often … them … 1.5] scored blue crayon
1.5 I have] opening square bracket added, blue crayon
1.7 (beardhair) 1.7] two crosses in margin, pencil
1.7 (beard … face. 1.10] double scored blue crayon
2.1 I … comparison. 3.4] crossed blue crayon
4.1 I shall … peculiarity. 4.8] ‘Supernumerary Digit’ margin, blue crayon
5.8 I have … acclimatization 6.10] crossed blue crayon
Top of letter: ‘J. Scott’ blue crayon


For previous communication between Scott and CD on human expression, see Correspondence vol. 16, letter from John Scott, 4 May 1868, and letter to John Scott, 3 June 1868. Scott sent further observations in his letter of 2 July 1869.
CD included Scott’s information on the beard and hair colour of ‘two races in Sikhim, the Bhoteas, Hindoos, Burmese, and Chinese’ in Descent 2: 319. On the Mechi, or Mech, and Lepcha people, see the letter from John Scott, 2 July 1869 and nn. 4 and 6. The Bhutia are a Himalayan people who migrated southward from Tibet, settling in Bhutan and India, particularly in Sikkim (EB).
The Santals, or Santhals, were a large group of people in eastern India; they now constitute one of the largest tribal communities in the country. The Dhangar people are based in Maharashtra state, which now includes the city of Nagpur in central India; in 1861 the Nagpur province of British India was merged into the Central Provinces. (EB.)
Scott refers to the Hanuman langur (Semnopithecus entellus).
CD discussed polydactylism in Variation 2: 12–17.
The reference is to Joseph Dalton Hooker. ‘Notes on the tree ferns of British Sikkim, with descriptions of three new species, and a few supplemental remarks on their relations to palms and cycads’ (Scott 1870) was read at the Linnean Society of London on 17 February 1870 by John Anderson.
CD and Scott previously corresponded on the acclimatisation of plants; see Correspondence vols. 15 and 16, and Scott 1868. Scott never completed the book.


Observations on expression and variation in Asian peoples: when colour of beard and hair differ, beard is always lighter. Differences in swimming strokes. Polydactylism.

Has just sent Hooker a paper on Sikkim tree-ferns [Trans. Linn. Soc. Lond. 30 (1875): 1–44, read 1870].

Has had fever since the end of the rains.

Letter details

Letter no.
John Scott
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
R. Bot. Gard., Calcutta
Source of text
DAR 85: A106–6a
Physical description
4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7030,” accessed on 16 February 2019,

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