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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   16 [June 1856]1



My dear Lyell

I am going to do the most impudent thing in the world. But my blood gets hot with passion & runs cold alternately at the geological strides which many of your disciples are taking.

Here, poor Forbes made a continent to N. America & another (or the same) to the Gulf weed.—2 Hooker makes one from New Zealand to S. America & round the world to Kerguelen Land.3 Here is Wollaston speaking of Madeira & P. Santo “as the sure & certain witnesses” of a former continent.4 Here is Woodward writes to me if you grant a continent over 200 or 300 miles of ocean-depths (as if that was nothing) why not extend a continent to every island in the Pacific & Atlantic oceans!5

And all this within the existence of recent species! If you do not stop this, if there be a lower region for the punishment of geologists, I believe, my great master, you will go there. Why your disciples in a slow & creeping manner beat all the old catastrophists who ever lived.— You will live to be the great chief of the catastrophists!

There, I have done myself a great deal of good & have exploded my passion.

So my master forgive me & believe me | Ever yours | C. Darwin

P.S. | When you go abroad you are to lend me Webb. & Heer, & can you add Maury ocean chart;6 Woodward had it sometime ago.

Dont answer this, I did it to ease myself.—


Dated by Lyell’s reply (see letter from Charles Lyell, 17 June 1856).
E. Forbes 1846, pp. 348–50, 382–3, and 401–2.
In Wollaston 1854, p. x, Thomas Vernon Wollaston referred to ‘that ancient continent of which these Atlantic clusters are the sure witnesses.’
Samuel Pickworth Woodward’s letter has not been found, but CD had questioned Woodward on his belief that oceanic islands were of great antiquity in letter to S. P. Woodward, 27 May 1856. See also letter from S. P. Woodward, 4 June 1856.
Webb and Berthelot 1836–50; Heer 1855 (see letter from Charles Lyell, 1–2 May 1856); and Maury 1855a.


Forbes, Edward. 1846. On the connexion between the distribution of the existing fauna and flora of the British Isles, and the geological changes which have affected their area, especially during the epoch of the Northern Drift. Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, and of the Museum of Economic Geology in London 1: 336–432.

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.

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1853–5. Flora Novæ-Zelandiæ. 2 vols. Pt 2 of The botany of the Antarctic voyage of HM discovery ships Erebus and Terror, in the years 1839–1843, under the command of Captain Sir James Clark Ross. London: Lovell Reeve.

Wollaston, Thomas Vernon. 1854. Insecta Maderensia; being an account of the insects of the islands of the Madeiran group. London: John van Voorst.


Condemns theory of Edward Forbes and others that many islands were formerly connected to South America by now submerged continents.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.131)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1902,” accessed on 25 March 2023,

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