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Letter 7228a

Darwin, C. R. to Mivart, St G. J.

13 June [1870]


In his reply to [7227] CD questions the significance of the supposed likeness of the bee, spider, and fly orchids to their presumed namesakes.

He thinks that the beauty of shells is altogether incidental and of no use to the animals.


Down. | Beckenham | Kent. S.E.

June 13th

My dear Sir

I have often reflected over the two cases to which you refer.When working on Orchids, I have often & long watched the speciesof Ophrys, because R. Brown thought that their supposed likenessto insects served to keep them away.f2 This might possibly beadvantageous to the Bee Ophrys; but certainly not to theothers, as they absolutely require the aid of insects forfertilisation, though they get this aid but rarely or ratherrarely.—

I believe (& Dr Hookerf3 who happens to be here agrees with me)that the resemblance is fanciful;f4 the flowers are odd looking &insects are the most natural standard of comparison. Who ever sawa Bee with violet wings like the petals of the Bee Ophrys? TheFly Ophrys is more like. Hooker believes that the Spider ophrys isso called simply from the curved marks on the Labellum like themarks on the backs of some Epeiræ. The Butterfly orchis hashardly any resemblance to a butterfly, & so with some foreignorchids which have received all kinds of fanciful names.—f5

Your second case seems to me much more difficult: for my ownpart I believe the beauty of shells is altogether incidental onother causes & of no service whatever to the animals. The formdepending on manner & symmetry of growth, & the colour beingincidental on the chemical nature of the constituent element ofthe shell.f6 To explain what I mean,—nothing is more beautifulthan arterial blood, yet no one supposes that the colour has beengained for the sake of colour or beauty, though it gives beautyto the cheeks of Caucasian maidens. Or again, & this is a betterillustration; the extreme beauty of the Eolidæ is due to theirbiliary secretions & organs being seen through their transparenttissues; but no one will suppose that their bile has beencoloured for beauty, but is incidental on its chemical nature, asmuch as the recently discovered aniline colours.f7 Nothing in thisnote can, I think, be of the least service to you, but you arewelcome to use it as [illeg] from me, if you think fit. I haveintroduced these illustrations in my M.S. on sexualselection.—f8

Pray believe me | My dear Sir | Yours sincerely | Ch. Darwin

Pray forgive this untidy & ill-expressed letter from want oftime.—

Bearing in mind the magnificent colours of many artificialorganic substances made by elements, it wd be wonderful if suchhad not been produced under nature, without being of any specialuse: if there had been no such beautiful colours, this fact wd.have had been to have been accounted for—

I think of the beauty & splendour of the withering leaves in anAmerican forest.—

Sotheby’s (20–1 July 1988)



The year is established by the relationship between this letter andthe letter from St G. J. Mivart, 11 June 1870.
See Brown 1831, pp. 740–1. CD cited Robert Brown on this point inOrchids, pp. 68–9.
Joseph Dalton Hooker.
Mivart quoted CD’s suggestion, without mentioning his name, inMivart 1871, p. 55 n. 2. Mivart objected, ‘The denial, however, ofthe fact of a resemblance which has struck so many observers, remindsone of the French philosopher’s estimate of facts hostile to histheory— “Tant pis pour les faits!’” (That is, ‘So much the worsefor the facts!’)
On the bee, fly, and spider ophrys, see the letter from StG. J. Mivart, 11 June 1870 and n. 1. The large butterfly orchis is, inCD’s Orchids, Habenaria chlorantha, now Platanthera chlorantha.The lesser butterfly orchis, CD’s H. bifolia, is now P. bifolia.
Mivart quoted CD’s suggestion about the shells of bivalves, withoutmentioning his name, in Mivart 1871, p. 55 n. 2. Mivart objected,‘But surely beauty depends on some such matters in all cases!’
The Eolidae (naked sea-slugs), are now the Aeolidiidae, a family in the orderNudibranchia. The first aniline dye, aniline purple or mauveine, was discoveredaccidentally by William Henry Perkin when he was attempting tosynthesise quinine. It was patented in1856; in 1869, an economical process for synthesising alazarin (reddye) was developed (see ODNB s.v. Perkin, William Henry; see alsoGarfield 2000 and Christie 2001, pp. 3–7).
See Descent 1: 323.
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