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Darwin Correspondence Project

To J. D. Hooker   7 July [1854]


July 7th

My dear Hooker

I have had the House full of visitors, & when I talk I can do absolutely nothing else; & since then I have been poorly enough, otherwise I shd. have answered your letter long before this, for I enjoy extremely discussing such points, as those in your last note. But what a villain you are to heap gratuitous insults on my elastic theory; you might as well call the virtue of a lady elastic, as the virtue of a theory accomodating in its favours. Whatever you may say, I feel that my theory does give me some advantages in discussing these points:—

But to business, I keep my notes in such a way viz in bulk, that I cannot possibly lay my hand on any reference; nor as far as vegetable kingdom is concerneed do I distinctly remember having read any discussion on general highness or lowness, excepting Schleiden1 (I fancy) on Compositæ being highest. Ad. de Jussieu in Arch. du Museum Tom. 8, discusses the value of characters of degraded flowers in the Malpighiaceæ,2 but I doubt whether this at all concerns you. Mirbel3 somewhere has discussed some such question.—

Plants lie under an enormous disadvantage in respect to such discussions in not passing through larval stages.4 I do not know whether you can distinguish a plant low from non development from one low from degradation, which theoretically, at least, are very distinct. I must agree with Forbes5 that a mollusc may be higher than one articulate animal & lower than another; if one was asked which was highest as a whole the Molluscan or Articulat Kingdom, I shd. look to & compare the highest in each, & not compare their archetypes (supposing them to be known, which they are not).—6

But there are, in my opinion, more difficult cases, than any we have alluded to, viz that of Fish,—but my ideas are not clear enough & I do not suppose you wd. care to hear what I obscurely think on this subject.—7 As far as my elastic theory goes all I care about is that very ancient organisms, (when different from existing,) shd tend to resemble the larval or embryological stages of the existing.—8

I am glad to hear what you say about parallelism, I am an utter disbeliever of any parallelism more than mere accident. It is very strange, but I think Forbes is often rather fanciful; his “Polarity”9 makes me sick—it is like “magnetism” turning a table.—10

I wish you joy of your discussion & hope you well through it.— This note is even feebler than my last, for I feel deadly sick, & decidedly an animal of low development.— I hope all goes on well at Hitcham.

Adios | C. Darwin

If I can think of anyone likely to take your Illustrations11 I will send the advertisement. If you want to make up some definite number so as to go to press, I will put my name down with pleasure (& I hope & believe that you will trust me in saying so) though I shd. not in the course of nature subscribe to any Horticultural work:—act for me.—


Schleiden 1848, pp. 102–3.
Jussieu 1843b. CD’s memory of the volume number was incorrect. In Living Cirripedia (1854): 528 n., CD quoted a passage from this work discussing how the problems arising from the phenomenon of degeneration or the simplification of flowers that are usually complex pose difficulties for the taxonomist who defines ‘highness’ in terms of complexity.
CD had relied heavily upon embryological criteria for establishing homologies in his classification of the Cirripedia (see Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix II).
Forbes and Hanley [1848–]53 (see letter from J. D. Hooker, [29 June 1854]).
For CD’s view of archetypes, see letter to T. H. Huxley, 23 April [1853]. Thomas Henry Huxley had published the previous year a memoir in which he proposed an archetype for the Mollusca (T. H. Huxley 1853b). There is a copy of T. H. Huxley 1853b in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
Louis Agassiz had pointed out, with special reference to fossil fish, that the earliest known forms of each principal group are frequently not the lowest in grade of development (Agassiz 1833–43, 1: xvii–xxxii). William Benjamin Carpenter addressed this issue in Carpenter 1854. On a slip attached to his copy of this work, CD noted: ‘[p.] 79— High Fish. N.B I think on this subject there is much difference whether we look to Fish alone or to other classes??’ On a separate slip of paper CD also wrote: ‘The difference between high & low in Fish, I think, is whether other classes are considered besides Fish.’
See Living Cirripedia (1851): 12, where CD compared the mouth in the larval stage of Lepadidae to Limulus, ‘that most ancient of crustaceans, and therefore one likely to exhibit a structure now embryonic in other orders.’ In his discussion of embryology in chapter eight of Origin (p. 449), CD wrote: As the embryonic state of each species and group of species partially shows us the structure of their less modified ancient progenitors, we can clearly see why ancient and extinct forms of life should resemble the embryos of their descendants,—our existing species.
According to Edward Forbes (Forbes 1854a), there had been two major periods of creation and the genera in each were parallel, in that the later organisms served the ‘same purpose in the world’s economy’. Coupled with this, Forbes envisioned a ‘principle of polarity’ at work in God’s plan of creation, based on phenomena that indicated that during the first of two major periods of creation (the Palaeozoic), the maximum development of generic types took place at the beginning of the epoch, while during the second period (which Forbes called the Neozoic), maximum development occurred toward the end of the epoch. The relationship of the development of the life forms of the two epochs was one of development in opposite directions—or polarity.
CD refers to ‘animal magnetism’, the term then used to describe the state of hypnosis into which many of the mediums for spiritualistic séances fall. Table-turning is ‘the action of turning or moving a table without the use of any apparently adequate means … such movements being ascribed by some to spiritual agency’ (OED).
Illustrations of Himalayan plants (J. D. Hooker 1855). A copy is in the Darwin Library–Down.


Agassiz, Louis. 1833–43. Recherches sur les poissons fossiles. 5 vols in 2. Neuchâtel: Petitpierre.

Carpenter, William Benjamin. 1854. Principles of comparative physiology. 4th edition. London: John Churchill.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Huxley, Thomas Henry. 1853. On the morphology of the cephalous Mollusca, as illustrated by the anatomy of certain Heteropoda and Pteropoda collected during the voyage of HMS ‘Rattlesnake’ in 1846–50. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 143: 29–65. Reprinted in Foster and Lankester eds. 1898–1903, 1: 152–93.

Living Cirripedia (1851): A monograph of the sub-class Cirripedia, with figures of all the species. The Lepadidæ; or, pedunculated cirripedes. By Charles Darwin. London: Ray Society. 1851.

Mirbel, Charles François Brisseau. 1809. Observations sur un système d’anatomie comparée des végétaux, fondé sur l’organisation de la fleur. Mémoires de la Classe des Sciences Mathématiques et Physiques de l’Institut de France 9, pt 2 (1808): 331–62.

OED: The Oxford English dictionary. Being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement and bibliography of a new English dictionary. Edited by James A. H. Murray, et al. 12 vols. and supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1970. A supplement to the Oxford English dictionary. 4 vols. Edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1972–86. The Oxford English dictionary. 2d edition. 20 vols. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. Oxford English dictionary additional series. 3 vols. Edited by John Simpson et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1993–7.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.

Schleiden, Matthias Jacob. 1848. The plant; a biography. In a series of popular lectures. Translated by Arthur Henfrey. London.


CD’s view requires only that ancient organisms resemble embryological stages of existing ones. Thus "highness" in plants is difficult to evaluate because they have no larval stages. Would compare highest members of two groups, rather than archetype, to determine which group was higher. Against Forbes’s polarity and parallelism.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Joseph Dalton Hooker
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 114: 123
Physical description
ALS 10pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1577,” accessed on 24 September 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 5