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Darwin Correspondence Project

From George Henslow   5 December 1871

17, Colville Terrace West, | Notting Hill, | W.

Dec 5/71

Dear Sir,

I have frequently been compelled to stand up amongst my clerical brethren & others on behalf not only of Evolution, but to condemn the wild & false assertions of your being an Atheist and all the rest of it!1 But I should very much like to hear from you if the following impression which I have is correct: viz. that when you speak of Chance in connection with Nat: Selection you leave it to be understood that higher natural laws (but undiscoverable at present) cause the issue of specific forms out of those ‘chance’ variations &c.2

If this be correct:—& I gather corroboration of such being your idea, from the topmost paragraph on p. 396. Vol II Descent of Man:3—all those calculations of Mathematicians (vide: to wit Mivart’s Genesis of Sp: pp 59 &c) are beside the real question entirely:4 Moreover if my idea be true, it removes the “Lucretian” colour to your opinions I have so frequently heard stated: and steadily oppose5

truly yours | Geo: Henslow


In a recent sermon defending evolution, Henslow had disproved the claim by Charles Perry, the evangelical bishop of Melbourne, Australia, that CD’s object in writing Origin had been to produce in the reader ‘a disbelief of the Bible’ (Henslow 1871b, p. 13 n.).
Henslow alludes to passages such as that in Origin, p. 131, where CD wrote that although he had sometimes written of variations in organisms as having been ‘due to chance’, he intended the expression to acknowledge our ‘ignorance of the cause of each particular variation’.
In Descent 2: 395–6, CD wrote, ‘I am aware that the conclusions arrived at in this work will be denounced by some as highly irreligious.... The birth both of the species and of the individual are equally parts of that grand sequence of events, which our minds refuse to accept as the result of blind chance.’
St George Jackson Mivart had used mathematical formulae to illustrate his argument that the probability of all the variations necessary to produce complex organs occurring together in nature was so small as to be a practical impossibility. Henslow may have been using the second edition of On the genesis of species (Mivart 1871b), in which the most prominent mathematical calculations appear on page 59; in CD’s copy of the first edition (Mivart 1871a, Darwin Library–CUL) the formulae appear on page 53.
Henslow refers to the Roman philosopher–poet Lucretius, who was a leading exponent of materialism (Oxford classical dictionary).


Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

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.

Oxford classical dictionary. 4th edition, revised. Edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2012.


Has frequently defended evolution and natural selection among his clergy brethren.

Now elicits CD’s views on chance.

Letter details

Letter no.
George Henslow
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Notting Hill
Source of text
DAR 166: 172
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8097,” accessed on 12 November 2019,

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