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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Joseph Prestwich   2 January 1880

21 Park Crescent | Portland Place

2 Jany. 1880

My dear Mr. Darwin,

May I trouble you with two lines in explanation to set me right if I am wrong in my statement. In reviewing the history of the “Parallel Roads” I refer to your views, and relying on the opinion expressed by later writers, whom I suppose to have been in communication with you, I have stated that you have abandoned the “marine theory”— therefore finally committing myself to this statement I should be glad to hear that I am quite correct in doing so, or if I am to put it in any other form.1

With the best wishes of the season I am | My dear Mr. Darwin | Very truly your’s | Joseph Prestwich


In his 1839 paper ‘Parallel roads of Glen Roy’, CD argued that the three horizontal terraces across the steep sides of the valley in Lochaber were the remains of beaches formed by the sea as the landmass of Scotland rose in graduated steps. In an article on the parallel roads, Prestwich remarked: ‘the marine theory was brought forward with his usual power of illustration, but subsequently abandoned, by Darwin’ (Prestwich 1879, p. 665). CD had abandoned his theory when an alternative explanation involving glacial lakes was advanced by Thomas Francis Jamieson (see Correspondence vol. 9, letter to T. F. Jamieson, 6 September [1861], and Rudwick 1974). CD discussed his reasons for giving up the marine theory with Charles Lyell and John Tyndall, both of whom published on the geology of Glen Roy (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter to Charles Lyell, 14 October [1862], and Correspondence vol. 24, letter to John Tyndall, 5 June [1876]; see also Lyell 1873, p. 307, and Tyndall 1876, p. 238).


Lyell, Charles. 1873. The geological evidences of the antiquity of man, with remarks on theories of the origin of species by variation. 4th edition, revised. London: John Murray.

‘Parallel roads of Glen Roy’: Observations on the parallel roads of Glen Roy, and of other parts of Lochaber in Scotland, with an attempt to prove that they are of marine origin. By Charles Darwin. [Read 7 February 1839.] Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 129: 39–81. [Shorter publications, pp. 50–88.]

Prestwich, Joseph. 1879. On the origin of the parallel roads of Lochaber and their bearing on other phenomena of the glacial period. [Read 1 May 1879.] Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 170: 663–726.

Rudwick, Martin John Spencer. 1974. Darwin and Glen Roy: a ‘great failure’ in scientific method? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 5 (1974–5): 97–185.

Tyndall, John. 1876b. The parallel roads of Glen Roy. [Read 9 June 1876.] Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain 8 (1875–8): 233–45.


Having reviewed the history of the Glen Roy debate ["On the origin of the parallel roads of Lochaber, and their bearing on other phenomena of the glacial period", Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 170 (1880): 663–776], JP wishes to know whether it is accurate to say CD has abandoned the marine theory.

Letter details

Letter no.
Joseph Prestwich
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Park Crescent, 21
Source of text
DAR 174: 66
Physical description
ALS 3pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 12394,” accessed on 29 May 2023,