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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   3 May [1856]1

Down Bromley Kent

May 3d.

My dear Lyell

It was very very good of you to write me so long & very interesting a letter; but I wish you had mentioned whether you see any further into your very odd case of the vertical divisions of the lava-streams.—2

I have kept your list of the land-shells & made the corrections: I had no idea how wonderfully learned you were on the subject.— I shall be very glad to borrow Heer, when you go abroad.—3 Your cases of possible transportal beat all that I have ever heard of; & if any body had put such cases hypothetically I shd. have laughed at them.4 I have known Colymbetes fly on board Beagle 45 miles from land,5 which, by the way, surprised Wollaston much. We had much to me most interesting conversation, when he & the others were here: Wollaston strikes me as quite a first-rate man & very nice & pleasant into the bargain. It is really striking (but almost laughable to me) to notice the change in Hookers & Huxley’s opinions on species during the last few years.—6

With respect to your suggestion of a sketch of my view; I hardly know what to think, but will reflect on it; but it goes against my prejudices. To give a fair sketch would be absolutely impossible, for every proposition requires such an array of facts. If I were to do anything it could only refer to the main agency of change, selection,—& perhaps point out a very few of the leading features which countenance such a view, & some few of the main difficulties. But I do not know what to think: I rather hate the idea of writing for priority, yet I certainly shd. be vexed if any one were to publish my doctrines before me.—7 Anyhow I thank you heartily for your sympathy. I shall be in London next week,8 & I will call on you on Thursday morning for one hour precisely so as not to lose much of your time & my own: but will you let me this one time come as early as 9 oclock, for I have much which I must do, & the morning is my strongest time.

Farewell | My dear old Patron | Yours | C. Darwin

By the way three plants have now come up out of the earth perfectly enclosed in the roots of the trees.—9 And 29 plants in the table-spoon-full of mud out of little pond:10 Hooker was surprised at this, & struck with it, when I showed him how much mud I had scraped off one Duck’s feet.—

If I did publish a short sketch, where on earth should I publish it?

If I do not hear I shall understand that I may come from 9–10 on Thursday.—


Dated by the relationship to the letter from Charles Lyell, 1–2 May 1856.
CD mentioned this case in Origin, p. 386. Lyell also recorded it in his ‘scientific journal’ (Wilson ed. 1970, p. 83).
Thomas Vernon Wollaston, Joseph Dalton Hooker, and Thomas Henry Huxley had recently visited CD at Down House, where they ‘made light of all Species & grew more & more unorthodox’ (letter from Charles Lyell, 1–2 May 1856 and n. 7).
CD further debated the pros and cons of publishing a preliminary outline of his theory with J. D. Hooker (see letters to J. D. Hooker, 9 May [1856] and 11 May [1856]) before he ‘Began by Lyell’s advice writing species sketch’ on 14 May (‘Journal’; Appendix II).
CD went to London on 5 May 1856. On Tuesday, 6 May, he read a paper at the Linnean Society summarising the results of his and Miles Joseph Berkeley’s experiments on ‘The action of sea-water on the germination of seeds’ (Collected papers 1: 264–73). On Thursday, 8 May, he attended a council meeting at the Royal Society (Royal Society council minutes).
Since February, CD had been interested in the possibility of seeds being found in earth enclosed in tree roots (see letter to W. E. Darwin, [26 February 1856]). The case referred to here was of seeds found under an old oak tree, recorded in CD’s Experimental book, p. 6 (DAR 157a). It was cited in Origin, p. 361, as an example of possible means of transport in the geographical distribution of plants: I find on examination, that when irregularly shaped stones are embedded in the roots of trees, small parcels of earth are very frequently enclosed in their interstices and behind them,—so perfectly that not a particle could be washed away in the longest transport: out of one small portion of earth thus completely enclosed by wood in an oak about 50 years old, three dicotyledonous plants germinated: I am certain of the accuracy of this observation.
See Origin, pp. 386–7, where CD described another of his ‘several little experiments’ attempting to germinate seeds contained in pond mud.


Collected papers: The collected papers of Charles Darwin. Edited by Paul H. Barrett. 2 vols. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 1977.

Heer, Oswald. 1855. Ueber die fossilen Pflanzen von St. Jorge in Madeira. [Read 5 November 1855.] Neue Denkschriften der allgemeinen Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für die gesammten Naturwissenschaften n.s. 5 (1857): paper 2.

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.


Discusses possibility of publishing a sketch of his views.

Comments on CL’s letter [1862].

Mentions various geological topics.

Asks to borrow publication by Heer.

Mentions flight of Colymbetes over ocean.

Recalls visit by Wollaston.

Notes views of Hooker and Huxley on species.

Mentions ability of ducks to transport plant seeds.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.127)
Physical description
ALS 6pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1866,” accessed on 12 April 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 6