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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Samuel Butler to Francis Darwin   24 September 1877

15—Clifford’s Inn | Fleet Street E.C.

Sep. 24. 1877

Dear Darwin

I am half ashamed to write to you— I have behaved so badly—after all the kindness I received from your father & brother’s hands not to say your own— I assure you I feel a beast for not having endeavoured to draw you in some way long ago— but partly I have been in the wars some time—and—at any rate I have left undone things that I ought to have done &c—&c.—1

However—I am bringing out a little book to appear before Xmas.2 As mad mad mad as a book can be—utterly disclaiming the smallest pretence to scientific value, but at the same time trying if I can to steal a little science more or less all over the book.

I have a passage in it in which I laugh at a passage of your father’s very gently—& I shd hope genially—still it is distinctly poking fun at the passages (there are two)— shall I or rather may I send you the M.S of this bit, and of the bit wh: leads up to it, and I will cut the whole thing out immediately if you think he wd mind— the passages are “No doubt in every case there must have been some exciting cause”. (Pl. & An. and. domn. Vol II. p. 275 ed. 1875) and again six or seven pages later “No doubt each slight variation must have its efficient cause—”— I am pretending that it is to people’s unconscious perceptions & utterances that we must turn for their deeper beliefs and having given one or two passages in which I imagine I have caught theologians napping I say “on the other hand it rather shocks me to find Mr Darwin writing “&c &c—” The repetition within so short a space of this expression of confidence in the impossibility of causeless effect wd suggest that Mr Darwin’s mind at the time of writing was unconsciously to himself in a state of more or less uneasiness as to whether effects might not sometimes come about of themselves without cause of any sort—that he may have been standing in fact for a short time upon the brink of a denial of the indestructibility of force & matter”.3

Do you think your father will mind?

Also I have read the Pangenesis three times with great care and think I understand the drift of it— I want in my new book to summarise it and make it as clear and easy as I possibly can—& I want so far as I can make sure of my own meaning to add to it because I feel the want of something to “boss” the whole embryological process to “run” the concern and settle what is the “due order,” & “next in succession” &c. &c. and also I cannot stand the dormancy of the gemmula & their transmission through many generations & propose a simpler (as it seems to me) way—and one too which explains why the development of any animal should cease soon after puberty— which I do not remember to have seen in your father’s book—and otherwise to come in handy generally—4

I shall be yet I shd think another three weeks before I go to press & have not yet begun to put my notes on Pangenesis together— but if you wd like to see them when I have done them, or any part of what I have done already— by all means propose either a meeting I mean come & see me when you are next in town—for I am very hard at work just now, or when they are ready I wd send you the part of the M.S. which I think wd interest you—5

With kind regards to your people | believe me yr. very truly | S. Butler—


Butler had first been invited to visit Down in 1872 following the publication of Erewhon ([Butler] 1872a; Correspondence vol. 20, letter from Samuel Butler, 30 May 1872) and had become friendly with Francis and George Howard Darwin (see Correspondence vol. 20, letter from Samuel Butler to Francis Darwin, [before 30 May 1872], and Correspondence vol. 21, letter from G. H. Darwin to Emma Darwin, [before 24 November 1873]). He had spent the summer in Switzerland for his health, and also had financial problems (Jones 1919, 1: 251). ‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done’ is a quotation from the ‘General confession’ in the Anglican order of service (Book of common prayer (1662)).
Life and habit (Butler 1878) was published in December 1877. See also letter from Samuel Butler to Francis Darwin, 25 November 1877.
The discussion is in Butler 1878, pp. 25–6. The quotations are from Variation 2d ed. 1: 275 and 282.
CD’s ‘Provisional hypothesis of pangenesis’, a proposed mechanism for inheritance, was published as chapter 27 of Variation. CD suggested that throughout the life of an organism, its cells throw off minute particles or ‘gemmules’, capable of developing into new cells: the gemmules circulate in the body and can be passed on to offspring, either to combine with others and develop into new cells, or to lie dormant through several generations (Variation 2: 374–402). Butler quoted CD extensively in Life and habit, but argued that both physical attributes and instinctive behaviour were passed on as a form of inherited memory, and that organisms could therefore only inherit characteristics already developed by the normal age of breeding (Butler 1878, pp. 196–7). For a later summary of Butler’s ideas on heredity and puberty, see his essay ‘Deadlock in Darwinism’ (Streatfield ed. 1908, pp. 234–340, especially pp. 335–6).
Francis Darwin lunched with Butler at Clifford’s Inn on 26 September 1877, and they exchanged further letters afterwards (Jones 1919, 1: 256–7).


Butler, Samuel. 1878. Life and habit. London: Trübner & Co.

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

Jones, Henry Festing. 1919. Samuel Butler, author of ‘Erewhon’, 1835–1902: a memoir. 2 vols. London: Macmillan.

Streatfield, R. A. ed. 1908. Essays on life, art and science by Samuel Butler. London: A. C. Fifield.

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.


Offers to send MS of part of his new book [Life and habit] which gently pokes fun at CD. His book will offer an alternative to Pangenesis.

Letter details

Letter no.
Samuel Butler
Francis Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 199.5: 100
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 11152,” accessed on 5 March 2021,