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Darwin Correspondence Project

From William Johnson   5 March 1871

2 High St | Eton

March 5 1871


In writing of the moral sense in animals you have not noticed any case of consciousness of guilt or of complicity1

In a book called “Indian Field Sports” by Daniel Johnson Surgeon in the service of the East India Company2 which contains a good many bits of experience and trustworthy observation there is a statement about an elephant which I have lately been submitting to several people as a possible case of conscience, or at least a phenomenon not to be referred to the association of ideas which explains the seeming consciousness of guilt in domestic animals

“I had,” he says, “a very tame and docile elephant of great value. One day he came home with a load of branches, followed by villagers who screamed after him and implored mercy. On my enquiring they said they had lost a kid, stolen from them: I suspected the mohout3 had taken the kid and hidden it under the branches. The elephant would not allow any one to come near him, as long as the villagers were there. I pacified them, telling them to come next morning; I promised to indemnify them. When they ha〈d〉 gone, the mohout having slipped away unobserved, I had the load taken off the elephant and found the kid under the branches.”4

I have written this out from memory: but as I had worked it into a schoolbook carefully I think there is no risk of my having made any omission or addition: I can however send you the book itself. The writer was my uncle, a shrewd and honest man.

No one that I have met can mention any similar case of consciousness of complicity.

I have not read the writings to which you refer for the application of Darwinism to philology. but ever since I read “the Origin of species”, that is, ever since its publication, I have been haunted, in my business as a language-teacher, by the applicability of the theory to Greek—and I think it possible that Mr Max Müller and others may not have noticed this particular case.5

Reduplication in the Greek verb seems to have been at first freely used, and to have been in course of time specialized—appropriated to the perfect tense—having been, in Homeric Greek, not characteristic of the perfect but used in the aorist, and notably in the imperative as [textgreek[ke’kluqi]], [textgreek[te’tlaqi]].6 I fancy that the reiteration, like stuttering, ma〈y〉 be the result of urgency or impatience.

Reduplication is found permanently in the present tense, which is of course the inceptive tense,

CD annotations

0.1 Eton] underl pencil
1.1 In writing … inceptive tense, 8.2] crossed pencil
6.1 Darwinism] after opening square bracket, blue crayon


CD discussed the development of the moral sense in both animals and humans in Descent 1: 70–104.
Johnson refers to D. Johnson 1822.
Mohout: i.e. mahout, keeper and driver of an elephant (Chambers).
See D. Johnson 1822, pp. 65–6.
For CD’s sources on the origin of language and the application of the theory of natural selection to language, see Descent 1: 56 and n. 34. Johnson refers to Friedrich Max Müller.
The verb stems are as follows: [textgreek[klu’w]]: to hear, attend to, [textgreek[tla’w]]: to endure, submit.


Reports case of apparent consciousness of complicity in an elephant.

Believes that Darwinism is applicable to Greek language.

Letter details

Letter no.
William Johnson
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 159: 140
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7547,” accessed on 15 February 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 19