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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell1   5 July [1856]

Down, Bromley, Kent

July 5th

My dear Lyell

I am very much obliged for your long letter,2 which has interested me much. But before coming to the volcanic Cosmogony! I must say that I cannot gather your verdict as judge and jury (and not as advocate) on the continental extensions of late authors, which I must grapple with, and which as yet strikes me as quite unphilosophical, in as much as such extensions must be applied to every oceanic island, if to any one, as to Madeira; and this I cannot admit, seeing that the skeletons at least of our continents are ancient, and seeing the geological nature of the oceanic islands themselves. Do aid me with your judgment; if I could honestly admit these great extensions, they would do me good service.

With respect to active volcanic areas being rising areas, which looks so pretty on the coral-map,3 I have formerly felt “uncomfortable” on exactly same grounds with you, viz; maritime position of volcanos. And still more from the immense thicknesses of Silurian &c volcanic strata; which thickness at first impresses the mind with idea of subsidence; if this could be proved, the theory would be smashed;4 but in deep oceans, though the bottom were rising great thicknesses of submarine lava might accumulate. But I found after writing coral-book cases in my notes of submarine vesicular lava-streams in the upper masses of the Cordillera, formed as I believe during subsidence, which staggered me greatly. With respect to the maritime position of volcanos, I have long been coming to conclusion that there must be some law, causing areas of elevation, (consequently of land) and of subsidence to be paralell (as if balancing each other) and closely approximate: I think this from the form of continents with deep ocean on one side,—from coral-map,—and especially from conversations with you on immense subsidences of the carboniferous &c periods, and yet with continued great supply of sediment: if this be so, such areas with opposite movements would probably be separated by sets of paralell cracks, and would be the seat of volcanos and tilts, and consequently volcanos and mountains would be apt to be maritime: but why volcanos should cling to the rising edge of the cracks I cannot conjecture.— That areas with extinct volcanic archipelagos may subside to any extent, I do not doubt.

Your view of bottom of Atlantic long sinking with continued volcanic outburst and local elevations at Madeira, Canaries &c grates (but of course I do not know how complex the phenomena are, which are thus explained) against my judgment: my general ideas strongly lead me to believe in elevatory movements being widely extended. The notion of local subsidence under great volcanic piles (from shrinking &c) I think receives support from very frequent coincidence of volcanic tertiary streams and lakes or Fresh Water beds,—an idea which, I think, you might work into something, if it be not already, in your Encyclopedic Principles.— One ought, I think, never to forget that when a volcano is in action, we have distinct proof of an action from within outwards.— Nor should we forget, as I believe follows from Hopkins,5 and as I have insisted in my Earthquake Paper,6 that volcanos and mountain-chains are mere accidents resulting from the elevation of an area, and as mountain-chains are generally long so should I view areas of elevation as generally large.

Your old original view that great oceans must be sinking areas, from there being causes making land and yet there being little land, has always struck me, till lately, as very good. But in some degree this starts from assumption that within periods of which we know anything, there was either a continent in such areas, or at least a sea-bottom of not extreme depth. But my vague ideas on this head are worth absolutely nothing. By the way this letter from brevity of expression may appear as if my notions were dogmatic, which Heaven knows is far from the case.

I am delighted that I may say (with absolute truth) that my essay is published at your suggestion;7 but I hope it will not need so much apology as I at first thought; for I have resolved to make it nearly as complete as my present materials allow. I cannot put in all which you suggest, for it would appear too conceited. I shall not attempt history of subject, but in one page devoted to two or three leading and opposed authorities, I had already, after a few remarks on the Principles, ventured on the words—“and with a degree of almost prophetic caution which must excite the admiration &c &c.” But I shall hereafter beg you to look at what I say on Principles in this one respect.8

With hearty thanks | Your’s most truly | Ch. Darwin

I wrote this so badly that I have had it copied to facilitate your reading, & I am sure it deserves facilitation.—


With the exception of the salutation, date, valediction, and postscript, this letter is in the hand of a copyist. CD corrected the copy before it was sent to Lyell. Alterations and additions made by CD have been noted in the Manuscript alterations and comments section. CD’s draft of the letter is preserved in DAR 50 (ser. 4): 1–5.
CD refers to his map (pl. 3) in Coral reefs on which fringing reefs, which he believed to be areas ofelevation, are coloured red. These coincided with areas of active volcanoes, marked by vermilion spots.
CD, however, found no reason in later years to change his view. The second edition of Coral reefs, published in 1874, contains numerous revisions in the light of new knowledge, but the conclusion that active volcanoes generally occurred in areas of elevation remains unchanged. In the preface (p. vi), he continued to maintain that ‘volcanos in a state of action are not found within the areas of subsidence, whilst they are often present within those of elevation’.
W. Hopkins 1835, 1836, and 1847.
‘On the connexion of certain volcanic phænomena …’ (Collected papers 1: 53–86). William Hopkins’s early papers are cited on pp. 76–8.
Lyell had urged CD to publish his views on natural selection (see letter to Charles Lyell, 3 May [1856]). From an entry in Lyell’s notebooks (Kinnordy House MSS, Notebook 213), it seems that CD may have recently written to Lyell to ask whether he might dedicate the proposed book on species to him. Following the comment ‘Letter Darwin dedication.’, Lyell wrote: Yr. anecdote of my saying that I ought in consistency to have gone for transmutn.—that I have uniformly taken the other side in all edits. but have shewn more inclinn. to appreciate the simulation of permanent varieties of the character of Species—that I have urged you to publish & set forth all that can be sd. agst. me—that in no book has the gradual dying out & coming in of specs. been more insisted upon, nor the necessity of allowing for our ignorance & not assuming breaks in the chain because of no sequence & of admitting lost links owing to small area observed or observable—that finally you hope your book will convert me wholly or in part— To this I cd. reply in a new Ed of Manual or P. of G— wh. wd. act in setting the case well before the public—also that in communication with CL. he has fd. an [approximn. ] in some points. & knowing that I shall be a fair judge. no unnecessary intervention of unknown or hypothetical agency. In L. G. Wilson ed. 1970, pp. xlviii–xlix, the date is given as ‘June 29, 1856’. It has not been possible to verify this date, nor is it clear whether Lyell’s summary served as the basis of a reply to CD. From CD’s comments, it would appear that the subject was raised in the letter from Charles Lyell, 1 July 1856, and that Lyell had given permission for CD to say that his work was published at Lyell’s suggestion. The section of the letter in which this was discussed is now missing.
The reference to Lyell’s Principles (C. Lyell 1830–3 and subsequent editions) may have been made in the preliminary pages, which are now missing, of CD’s species book (see Natural selection, p. 22).


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

Coral reefs: The structure and distribution of coral reefs. Being the first part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN, during the years 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1842.

Hopkins, William. 1835. Researches in physical geology. [Read 4 May 1835.] Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 6 (1836–8): 1–84.

Lyell, Charles. 1830–3. Principles of geology, being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation. 3 vols. London: John Murray.

Natural selection: Charles Darwin’s Natural selection: being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. Edited by R. C. Stauffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1975.


Discusses theory of submerged continental extensions. Objects that if it is applied to one island, it must be applied to all. Admits that some volcanoes may have been associated with subsidence, in contrast to his former view. Cites evidence from S. American Cordillera. Doubts that elevation associated with volcanoes is merely local, and that great ocean areas are necessarily sinking.

Says he will make his essay [on species] as complete as possible and will discuss CL’s Principles.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.133)
Physical description
LS(A) 3pp, CL note & ADraft 5pp † (by CD)

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1917,” accessed on 20 March 2023,

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