skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To F. M. Balfour   4 September 1880

Down, | Beckenham, Kent. | (Railway Station | Orpington. S.E.R.)

Sept 4th 1880

My dear Balfour

I hope that you will not think me a great bore, but I have this minute finished reading your address at the B. Assocn.; & it has interested me so much that I cannot resist thanking you heartily for the pleasure derived from it, not to mention the honour which you have done me. The recent progress of embryology is indeed splendid.1 I have been very stupid not to have hitherto read your book, but I have had of late no spare time; I have now ordered it, & your address will make it the more interesting to read, though I fear that my want of knowledge will make parts unintelligible to me.—2 In my recent work on plants I have been astonished to find to how many very different stimuli the same small part,, viz the tip of the radicle, is sensitive & has the power of transmitting some influence to the adjoining part of the radicle, exciting it to bend to or from the source of irritation according to the needs of the plant; & all this takes place without any nervous system! I think that such facts shd. be kept in mind, when speculating on the genesis of the nervous system.3 I always feel a malicious pleasure when a priori conclusions are knocked on the head; & therefore I felt somewhat like a Devil, when I read your remarks on Herbert Spencer.—4 (I hope that you will soon start for the Alps (& cross the glacier to Horace & Ida), for I am sure that you must much need rest.)— Our recent visit to Cambridge was a brilliant success to us all, & will ever be remembered by me with much pleasure.—5

Believe me | Yours very sincerely | Charles Darwin


Balfour had given his address on 27 August 1880 as chairman of the department of anatomy and physiology at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting. It was published in Nature, 2 September 1880, pp. 417–20, and in the Report of the 50th Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at Swansea (1880), Transactions of the sections, pp. 636–44. The entire address was devoted to a review of the role of Darwinian theory in the growth of embryology.
CD refers to volume 1 of A treatise on comparative embryology (Balfour 1880–1); Balfour had also published A monograph on the development of elasmobranch fishes (Balfour 1878). Copies of both books are in the Darwin Library–CUL.
For CD’s conclusions about the sensitivity of plants, which have no nervous system, see Movement in plants, pp. 571–3.
In his address (see n. 1, above), Balfour criticised Herbert Spencer’s theory of nerve formation (see Nature, 2 September 1880, p. 420). For Spencer’s work on the genesis of nerves, see Spencer 1870–2, 1: 511–20.
Balfour was a member of the Alpine Club; he met Horace and Ida Darwin in Zermatt, Switzerland, while they were on their honeymoon tour (see letter from Emma Darwin to Sara Darwin, [3 September 1880] (DAR 219.1: 138), and letter from F. M. Balfour, 13 September 1880). CD had visited Horace and Ida in Cambridge from 14 to 19 August 1880 (CD’s ‘Journal’ (Appendix II)). The trip included a visit to Balfour’s laboratory (letter from Emma Darwin to H. E. Litchfield, [15 August 1880] (DAR 219.9: 243)).


Balfour, Francis Maitland. 1878. A monograph on the development of elasmobranch fishes. London: Macmillan and Co.

Balfour, Francis Maitland. 1880–1. A treatise on comparative embryology. 2 vols. London: Macmillan & Co.

Movement in plants: The power of movement in plants. By Charles Darwin. Assisted by Francis Darwin. London: John Murray. 1880.

Spencer, Herbert. 1870–2. The principles of psychology. 2d edition. 2 vols. London and Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate.


Praises FMB’s BAAS address [on embryology, Rep. BAAS 50 (1880): 636–44]. Recent progress of embryology splendid.

In work on plants, astonished at sensitivity of radicle and its power to transmit stimuli to adjoining part; such general sensitivity should be considered in genesis of nervous system.

Feels "malicious" pleasure at FMB’s criticism of Herbert Spencer.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Francis Maitland Balfour
Sent from
Source of text
National Records of Scotland (GD433/2/103C/2)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 12706,” accessed on 16 August 2022,