skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To Frederick Greenwood   24 March [1871]1


March 24th.

Mr. Darwin presents his compliments to the Editor, and would be greatly obliged if he would address and post the enclosed letter to the author of the two admirable reviews of the Descent of Man.2



Mar. 24, 1871.

From the spirit of your review in the Pall Mall Gazette of my last book which has given me great pleasure, I have thought that you would perhaps inform me on one point, withholding if you please, your name.

You say that my phraseology on beauty is “loose scientifically and philosophically most misleading.” This is not at all improbable, as it is almost a life-time since I attended to the philosophy of æsthetics, and did not then think that I should ever make use of my conclusions. Can you refer me to any one or two books (for my power of reading is not great) which would illumine me, or can you explain in one or two sentences how I err? Perhaps it would be best for me to explain what I mean by the sense of beauty, in its lowest stage of development, and which can only apply to animals. When an intense colour or two tints in harmony, or a recurrent and symmetrical figure, please the eye, or a single sweet note pleases the ear, I call this a sense of beauty; and with this meaning I have spoken (though I now see in not a sufficiently guarded manner) of a taste for the beautiful being the same in mankind (for all savages admire bits of bright cloth, beads, plumes, &c.) and in the lower animals. If the blue and yellow plumage of a Macaw pleases the eye of this bird, I should say that it had a sense of beauty, although its taste was bad according to our standard. Now will you have the kindness to tell me how I can learn to see the error of my ways. Of course I recognise, as indeed I have remarked in my book, that the sense of beauty in the case of scenery, pictures, &c. is something infinitely complex, depending on varied associations and culture of the mind.3 From a very interesting review in the Spectator, and from your and Wallace’s review I perceive that I have made a great oversight in not having said what little I could on the acquisition of the sense for the beautiful by man and the lower animals.4 It would indeed be an immense advantage to an author if he could read such criticisms as yours before publishing. At p.11 of your review you accidentally misquote my words placed by you within inverted commas, from my vol. 2, p.354; I say that “man cannot endure any great change”, and the omitted words “any great” makes all the difference in the discussion. Permit me to add a few other remarks. I believe your criticism is quite just about my deficient historic spirit, for I am aware of my ignorance in this line. On the other hand if you should ever be led to read again Ch.3, and especially Ch.5, I think you will find that I am not amenable to all your strictures; though I felt that I was walking on a path unknown to me and full of pit-falls; but I had the advantage of previous discussions by able men. I tried to say most emphatically that a great philosopher, law-giver, &c. did far more for the progress of mankind by his writings or his example than by leaving a numerous offspring.5 I have endeavoured to show how the struggle for existence between tribe and tribe depends on an advance in the moral and intellectual qualities of the members, and not merely on their capacity of obtaining food. When I speak of the necessity of a struggle for existence in order that mankind should advance still higher in the scale, I do not refer to the most but “to the more highly gifted men” being successful in the battle for life; I referred to my supposition of the men in any country being divided into two equal bodies, viz., the more and the less highly gifted,—and to the former on an average succeeding best.6

But I have much cause to apologise for the length of this ill-expressed letter. My sole excuse is the extraordinary interest which I have felt in your review, & the pleasure which I have experienced in observing the points which have attracted your attention. I must say one word more. Having kept the subject of sexual selection in my mind for very many years, and having become more and more satisfied with it, I feel great confidence that as soon as the notion is rendered familiar to others, it will be accepted, at least to a much greater extent than at present.

With sincere respect and thanks. I remain Sir | Your obedient servant | Charles Darwin.


The year is established by the date of the enclosure.
Greenwood was editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. CD refers to the review of Descent that appeared in the 20 and 21 March 1871 issues of the Pall Mall Gazette ([Morley] 1871a). The anonymous review was by John Morley, to whom Greenwood forwarded this letter.
See Descent 1: 64.
CD refers to a review in the Spectator, 11 and 18 March 1871, pp. 288–9 and 319–20, and Wallace 1871c, as well as [Morley] 1871a.
See Descent 1: 172.
See Descent 1: 171.


Encloses a letter [7617] to be forwarded to the author of the review of Descent in Pall Mall Gazette.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Frederick Greenwood
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 146: 409, ML 1: 324
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7621,” accessed on 19 July 2018,

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