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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Grant Allen   21 February [1879]1

22 Bonchurch Road. | North Kensington. W.

Feb. 21.

Dear Sir,

I have to thank you very much for both your kind letters. Thanks, too, for your offer of any of your books, to all of which however, I have easy access.2

I am much obliged to you for your criticisms and notes, of which I shall gladly avail myself if (as is very unlikely) my book should ever reach a second edition.3 With regard to the theory of pleasure and pain, I am afraid I must have expressed my meaning badly, for I quite agree with what you say.4 For example, I shd. allow that the lack of any decided pleasure accompanying the action of the tactual nerves in the tongue was due to the fact that all substances, hurtful or desirable, would equally stimulate them: while the pleasure attached to the taste of sugar I believe to be due to its general character as a test for edible substances. I quite accept, also, your remark about the lips and the generative organs. All I meant to say was this—that when an action, voluntarily performed, was decidedly desirable for any species it would result in the development of a correspondingly large nervous organ capable of pleasurable stimulation. Clearly, some nervous centres are more capable of pleasure and pain than others: but I have tried to explain the reason, as it presents itself to me, in my Physiological Aesthetics.5

I am glad to learn that something the same ideas with regard to birds and butterflies, in the question of sexual selection, had already occured to F. Müller and yourself.6 It forms some confirmation of my view. At the same time, I think the main thing to insist upon is this—that no taste can be purely arbitrary. The love for sweets or meats, for colours or musical sounds, must, I think, ultimately depend upon ancestral habits. Hence, the birds of the Galapagos and Patagonia may perhaps have never acquired the taste for beautiful colours, rather than have had it “destroyed”, as you suggest, by “the sombre aspect of nature.” In short, it seems to me that we have rather to account for the presence of the taste in any case than for its absence in a few instances. This is the humble task which I have set myself to do, as my small contribution to the scheme of evolution.

I am only too aware how imperfect my work must necessarily be, with the small means at my disposal for ascertaining facts at first hand,7 and I ought to apologise for addressing you at all: but I know your interest in scientific truth is so great that you will be willing to forgive even the bungling guesses of a learner, especially when, as in psychology, there is little else to be had as yet. This must be my excuse for troubling you once more with a letter.

Yours very faithfully, | Grant Allen.


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from Grant Allen, 12 February 1879.
CD’s first letter to Allen, in which he must have made the offer of books, has not been found; the second was the letter to Grant Allen, [before 21 February 1879].
CD’s comments on Allen’s book on colour sense (G. Allen 1879a) are in his letter of [before 21 February 1879]. A second edition was published in 1892 (G. Allen 1892) but the text is identical to that of the first edition.
Allen sets out his theory of pleasure and pain in chapter 2 of Physiological aesthetics (G. Allen 1877, pp. 5–29).
CD had mentioned Fritz Müller’s work on butterflies and his own ideas about birds; see letter to Grant Allen, [before 21 February 1879] and n. 9.
In his letter of 12 February 1879, Allen had explained that he was unable to work practically at natural science because he had to earn a living through journalism.


Allen, Grant. 1877. Physiological aesthetics. London: Henry S. King & Co.

Allen, Grant. 1879a. The colour-sense: its origin and development. An essay in comparative psychology. London: Trübner & Co.

Allen, Grant. 1892. The colour-sense: its origin and development. An essay in comparative psychology. 2d edition. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co.


Thanks for criticisms of Colour-sense.

Clarifies his views that actions desirable for species result in development of nervous organs capable of pleasurable stimulation.

Believes that all "tastes" occurring in nature are explicable with reference to ancestral habits and that none is purely arbitrary.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Grant Blairfindie (Grant) Allen
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Bonchurch Rd, 22
Source of text
DAR 159: 44
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 11894,” accessed on 30 June 2022,