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Darwin Correspondence Project

From T. H. Farrer   31 December 1876

Abinger Hall | Dorking

31 Dec/76

Dear Mr Darwin,

I must write one line to say with how much pleasure I have read your book.1 Effie says it is all egotism because you have put my name in it.2 But this is all spite on her part. I think the thing that strikes me in it—apart from the combined width and caution which characterize all your generalizations—is the laborious & long continued application of artificial experiment to processes of life and growth, which have generally been the subject of mere observation. What an endless vista of work it opens up!

I am so glad you give Spencer and writers of that kind a rub, for covering up ignorance by big words: and stating as an universal truth that of which we only know very partial instances.3

The two sets of facts which strike me most are the effects of a cross with a variety or individual which has grown under different conditions: and the occasional production amongst self fertilized or constantly intercrossed plants of exceptional vigour & qualities. The first set of facts seem to establish your great generalization. The second surely point to some important feature in living beings and their reproduction, of which we are as yet profoundly ignorant.

Lathyrus odoratus & Pisum sativum were very interesting to me.— Curious that they should so long retain an elaborate structure which is quite useless.4 But would they do so if exposed to the struggle of uncultivated Nature instead of being protected in gardens?

I am very glad to see that your son Frank has found a meaning for that puzzling spur in Phaseolus.5

Believe me | Sincerely yours | T H Farrer


Farrer’s name is on CD’s presentation list for Cross and self fertilisation (see Appendix III).
Farrer’s wife was Katherine Euphemia Farrer. CD frequently cited Farrer’s work on adaptations in floral morphology in Cross and self fertilisation.
In his discussion of theoretical considerations with respect to the interaction of differentiated sexual elements (Cross and self fertilisation, pp. 451–8), CD had quoted Herbert Spencer’s theoretical view of the purpose of crossing, and warned, ‘we must not allow this highly generalised view, or the analogy of chemical affinity, to conceal from us our ignorance’ (p. 457).
CD discussed Lathyrus odoratus (the sweetpea) and Pisum sativum (the common pea) in Cross and self fertilisation, pp. 153–63. On p. 160, CD cited Farrer on adaptations of P. sativum for cross-fertilisation; see also Correspondence vol. 21, letter from Federico Delpino, 18 June 1873. CD mentioned that in Italy L. odoratus was cross-fertilised and further suggested, in reference to P. sativum, that in its native country it would be crossed, but noted that in both cases the bees capable of effecting a cross were absent or rare in England. On p. 163, he gave examples of the benefits of crossing.
In Cross and self fertilisation, p. 150 n., CD mentioned Farrer’s description of the floral structure of Phaseolus multiflorus (a synonym of P. coccineus, the scarlet runner bean) and noted that Francis Darwin had explained that the function of the vertical projection (spur) on the single free stamen was to ensure that bees could only reach the nectar by going to the left side, which was necessary for cross-fertilisation.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Cross and self fertilisation: The effects of cross and self fertilisation in the vegetable kingdom. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1876.


Much pleased with CD’s book [Cross and self-fertilisation]. Is struck by width and caution of his generalisations and by the application of experiment to processes of life hitherto merely observed.

Letter details

Letter no.
Thomas Henry Farrer, 1st Baron Farrer
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Abinger Hall
Source of text
DAR 164: 81
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 10742,” accessed on 16 May 2021,

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