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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Nature   5 November [1880]1

Sir Wyville Thomson and Natural Selection

I am sorry to find that Sir Wyville Thomson does not understand the principle of natural selection, as explained by Mr. Wallace and myself.2 If he had done so, he could not have written the following sentence in the Introduction to the Voyage of the Challenger:— “The character of the abyssal fauna refuses to give the least support to the theory which refers the evolution of species to extreme variation guided only by natural selection.”3 This is a standard of criticism not uncommonly reached by theologians and metaphysicians, when they write on scientific subjects, but is something new as coming from a naturalist. Prof. Huxley demurs to it in the last number of Nature; but he does not touch on the expression of extreme variation, nor on that of evolution being guided only by natural selection.4 Can Sir Wyville Thomson name any one who has said that the evolution of species depends only on natural selection? As far as concerns myself, I believe that no one has brought forward so many observations on the effects of the use and disuse of parts, as I have done in my “Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication”; and these observations were made for this special object. I have likewise there adduced a considerable body of facts, showing the direct action of external conditions on organisms;5 though no doubt since my books were published much has been learnt on this head. If Sir Wyville Thomson were to visit the yard of a breeder, and saw all his cattle or sheep almost absolutely true, that is, closely similar, he would exclaim: “Sir, I see here no extreme variation; nor can I find any support to the belief that you have followed the principle of selection in the breeding of your animals”. From what I formerly saw of breeders, I have no doubt that the man thus rebuked would have smiled and said not a word. If he had afterwards told the story to other breeders, I greatly fear that they would have used emphatic but irreverent language about naturalists.

Charles Darwin | Down, Beckenham, Kent, November 5


The year is established by the publication date of the letter in Nature.
Thomson’s remarks on natural selection appeared in his ‘General introduction to the zoological series of reports’ of the Challenger expedition (C. W. Thomson 1880, p. 50).
Thomas Henry Huxley’s review of C. W. Thomson 1880 was published in Nature, 4 November 1880, pp. 1–3.
On the effects of use and disuse, see Variation 2: 295–303 and 418–19; on the direct action of external conditions, see ibid., pp. 271–92.


Swinhoe, Robert. [1863m.] On a bird supposed to be the female of Crossoptilon auritum, Pallas, from Northern China. N.p.: n.p. [Reprinted from Proceedings of the Scientific Meetings of the Zoological Society of London (1862): 286–7.]

Thomson, Charles Wyville. 1880. General introduction to the zoological series of reports. In Report on the scientific results of the voyage of H.M.S. Challenger during the years 1873–76. Volume 1 (Zoology). Prepared by C. Wyville Thomson. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.


Sir Wyville Thomson misunderstands natural selection when he says the theory "refers the evolution of species to extreme variation guided only by natural selection". CD demurs at the "extreme variation" and the "only". No one has said evolution depends only on natural selection. CD has adduced many facts on the effects of use and disuse and on the direct action of the environment.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
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Source of text
Nature, 11 November 1880, p. 32

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 12800,” accessed on 24 May 2022,