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Darwin Correspondence Project

Human nature

The early 1870s were a turning point in the global debate about human evolution, with deep implications for science, colonial expansion, industrial progress, religious belief, and ethical and philosophical debate. Darwin’s correspondence from this period is of fundamental importance for understanding both the development of his theory of human origins and its relationship to prevailing assumptions about human nature.

I believe there exists… an instinct for truth … & that our having such an instinct is reason enough for scientific researches without any practical results ever ensuing from them.
Darwin to J. S. Henslow, [1 April 1848]
I demur to your saying … that animals are governed only by selfish motives. Look at the maternal instincts & still more at the social instincts. How unselfish is a Dog!
Darwin to Neil Arnott, 16 February [1860]
I quite agree how humiliating the slow progress of man is; but everyone has his own pet horror…
Darwin to J. D. Hooker, 9 February [1865]
My object is to make out … the causes of the movement of certain muscles under various emotions in man and the lower animals.
Darwin to James Crichton-Browne, James, 22 May 1869
…you feel astonished at my bringing man & brutes so near together in their whole nature (though with a wide hiatus)…
Darwin to St G. J. Mivart, 21 April [1871]
…the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value…
Darwin to William Graham, 3 July 1881


Friedrich Max-Müller
Friedrich Max-Müller, by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), circa 1856, NPG P7(25)
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Language: key letters

How and why language evolved bears on larger questions about the evolution of the human species, and the relationship between man and animals. Darwin presented his views on the development of human speech from animal sounds in The Descent of Man (1871), but he had been interested in the origin of language since the late 1830s. Darwin’s correspondence reveals the scope of his thinking about the evolution of language, how his views changed over time, and the array of people—from expert linguists, to naval officers, to bankers—with whom he exchanged information and ideas.

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The origin of language

Darwin started thinking about the origin of language in the late 1830s. The subject formed part of his wide-ranging speculations about the transmutation of species. In his private notebooks, he reflected on the communicative powers of animals, their ability to learn new sounds and even to associate them with words. “The distinction of language in man is very great from all animals”, he wrote, “but do not overrate—animals communicate to each other” (Barrett ed. 1987, p. 542-3). Darwin observed the similarities between animal sounds and various natural cries and gestures that humans make when expressing strong emotions such as fear, surprise, or joy. He noted the physical connections between words and sounds, exhibited in words like “roar”, “crack”, and “scrape” that seemed imitative of the things signified.

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