skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. D. Dana   21 July 1874

New Haven, Conn.,

July 21. | 1874.

Mr Darwin—

My dear Sir:

I have received the copy of your excellent work on Coral Reefs, which you kindly addressed to me, and I thank you much for it.—1 From what you state in your Preface I perceive that I have misunderstood your view on one point (that referred to on p. 320 of my work), and if my work passes to a Second edition, I will have a correction made.—2 I observe that you quote Mr Couthouy with regard to the characters of some of the islands of the Pacific.3 He made his observations when connected with Wilkes’s Exploring Expedition, and was on board Capt. Wilkes’s vessel, the Vincennes, and the facts will be found more fully & accurately given in Wilkes’s “Narrative” (5 vols. 8vo.).4 Your citations with regard to Rose 1d led me to look into Wilkes’s work; and I there find that the island has a lagoon 6 to 12 fathoms deep, and an entrance to it of 4 fathoms; that it is under water at high tide excepting two small banks, one of them covered by a clump of trees. I did not land at the island, but spent some time on Tutuila and Upolu, of the Samoa group.5 If you can find in England copies of the Maps, or the Hydrographic Atlas, published by Wilkes you would be much interested in examining his maps of coral islands & others bordered by reefs in the Pacific.6 Wilkes did not believe in your theory of coral islands, and has published in his book a ridiculous theory with regard to them—making them out remnants of a great land after a vast amount of oceanic erosion.7 But the results of the surveys by the expedition are valuable.

Thanking you again for your kindness, I am | with the highest esteem | very truly yours | James D. Dana

CD annotations

Top of letter: ‘Keep—Coral Islandspencil


Dana’s name appears on CD’s presentation list for Coral reefs 2d ed. (see Appendix IV).
In his book Corals and coral islands (Dana 1872, p. 320), Dana wrote: While, therefore, a distant barrier is evidence of change of level, we can draw no conclusion either one way or the other, as is done by Darwin, from the fact that the reefs are small or wholly wanting, until the possible operation of the several causes limiting their distribution has been duly considered. In Coral reefs 2d ed., p. vi, CD pointed out that he had expressly stated that fringing reefs indicated either that the land had long remained at the same level or that it had been recently elevated. Dana’s sentence was not changed in the second edition of his book (Dana 1875, p. 274).
In Coral reefs 2d ed., CD frequently referred to Joseph Pitty Couthouy’s Remarks upon coral formations in the Pacific (Couthouy 1842).
Charles Wilkes commanded the United States Exploring Expedition, which took place from 1838 to 1842; its mission was to survey the Pacific Ocean and surrounding lands. Six ships were involved, of which the USS Vincennes was the flagship. Couthouy was part of the civilian scientific corps and served as conchologist on the Vincennes, while Dana was the geologist. Dana took over Couthouy’s responsibilities when the latter was dismissed by Wilkes (for more on their respective roles and ensuing disputes, see Stoddart 1994). The narrative of the expedition (Wilkes 1844) was reprinted in an English edition (Wilkes 1845; for more on the bibliographic details of the publications associated with the expedition, see Haskell 1942).
Rose, Tutuila, and Upolu are part of the Samoa chain of volcanic islands in the South Pacific near Fiji. Wilkes’s description of the lagoon is in Wilkes 1845, 2: 64.
Wilkes published an atlas of hydrographic charts associated with the expedition (Wilkes 1858).
In Wilkes 1845, 4: 287–9, Wilkes expounded his own theory of the formation of coral islands. He argued that CD’s theory of equal subsidence and growth was at variance with the configuration, extent, and general construction of the reefs (ibid., p. 287). He hypothesised that both volcanic action and local uneven erosion of land masses recently separated from continents could account for the shape of coral islands (ibid., pp. 288–9).


Thanks CD for Coral reefs [2d ed. (1874)].

JDD will correct his misunderstanding of CD on one point in the next edition of his book [Corals and coral islands].

Suggests CD consult Charles Wilkes’s Narrative [1844] for more accurate observations on Pacific islands.

Letter details

Letter no.
James Dwight Dana
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
New Haven, Conn.
Source of text
DAR 69: A71–2
Physical description
4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9556,” accessed on 26 August 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22