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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Lawson Tait   21 February 1876

7, Great Charles St. | Birmingham.

Feb. 21/76

My Dear Sir,

I wish to express my gratification at your quotation from my “Diseases of the Ovaries” in your new edition, which I have to review for the Spectator.1

After I have reviewed it in the ordinary way I mean to devote a special article to “Pangenesis” where I hope to be able to express some views on that most interesting and valuable hypothesis (or rather truism) which may interest you.2

Meanwhile may I draw your attention to a thought which has occupied me for sometime about the expression “Survival of the Fittest” which does not appear to me either in your writings or in those of Mr. Spencer.3 It is, that we should speak of two processes as quite separate, which conduce to evolution and which are now included in that one term, though they should be, I think, defined separately.

First we have “Survival of the Fittest” purely, which would lead to the development of new structure by the modification of old & which could take place only by the utilisation of variations under new conditions. Secondly, we have “Survival by reason of Fitness”, which secures a uniformity of type and which secures permanency of structure by excluding all which are not up to a certain standard of fitness, but confers no advantage on those above the average. Thus, if the nectary of an orchid be buried three inches, all insects with a proboscis less than that length may perish, but those with probosces of more than that length will have not the least advantage. This may seem a fine definition, but may it not be important?4

The first process would obtain only when new surroundings were introduced, whilst the second would be in action during the periods of rest. It seems to me like the occasional existence of a Conservative government!

Yours faithfully, | Lawson Tait

P.S. To make myself more clear: “Survival by Fitness” means the survival of the majority: “Survival of the Fittest” means the success of a favoured few—the difference between those who pass generally for B.A. at Cambridge, & those who pass as Wranglers.5


In Variation 2d ed. 2: 365–6, CD referred to Tait’s paper on diseases of the ovaries (L. Tait 1874, pp. 61–2) for information about teeth and hair found in ovarian tumours. Tait’s review of Variation 2d ed. appeared in two parts in the Spectator on 4 and 25 March 1876 (L. Tait 1876b).
Tait did not publish a separate article on CD’s hypothesis of pangenesis, a theory of heredity that CD had proposed in Variation 2: 357–404. CD had added the material on ovarian tumours from Tait (n. 1, above) to the revised section on pangenesis in Variation 2d ed.
Herbert Spencer had coined the expression ‘survival of the fittest’ in Principles of biology (Spencer 1864–7, 2: 48 et passim) and used it alongside CD’s expression ‘natural selection’. CD had changed the chapter heading ‘Natural selection’ to ‘Natural selection or survival of the fittest’ in Origin 5th ed. and all later editions.
Tait elaborated on this distinction in the first part of his review of Variation 2d ed. (L. Tait 1876b, pp. 20–1).
The term ‘wrangler’ was used to denote those who achieved the highest standing in the mathematical tripos examination at Cambridge.


Origin 5th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 5th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1869.

Spencer, Herbert. 1864–7. The principles of biology. 2 vols. London: Williams & Norgate.

Tait, Lawson. 1874. The pathology and treatment of diseases of the ovaries; being the Hastings prize essay of 1873. London: Smith, Elder & Co.

Variation 2d ed.: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1875.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


RLT to review 2d ed. of Variation and write an article on Pangenesis.

Discussion of "Survival of the Fittest".

Letter details

Letter no.
Robert Lawson (Lawson) Tait
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 178: 28–9
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 10405,” accessed on 6 August 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 24