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Darwin Correspondence Project

To W. D. Fox   31 January [1858]

Down Bromley Kent

Jan. 31st

My dear Fox

I am extremely sorry to hear of your Lumbago, & that I shd. have troubled you at such a time.— I am, also, rather sorry you have had the trouble & risk of sending a precious Book to London, in as much as it does not contain, you say, your own observations.1 And now I am sorry to say I do not know Mrs Fox’s address,2 so will you any time during next fortnight ask to have the Book sent or left at my Brothers 57 Queen Anne St or at Athenæum Club if more convenient: I would have gone & called at Mrs. Fox, when I go to London about middle of February, but the distance is so great, & I have so much to do, & so precious little strength to do it.

I could look at Book in evenings, & would return it to you direct, or to Mrs Fox’s whichever you might direct.—3 (A memorandum might be enclosed with Book) But all this, I am ashamed to say is giving you trouble.

Very many thanks for fact of Black-birds nests;4 it is just what I wanted to know: I quite agree, also, with what you say about relation of intellect & reason.5 I have applied to one great Canary Fancier, B. P. Brent, & he does not believe in young Canaries building worse than old ones.6

I find my chapter on Instinct very perplexing from not knowing what to choose from the load of curious facts on record.—7 There are two little points, on which I want information, & if you can, which is a mere chance, I think you will not grudge, sometime (for I am in no hurry) giving me information; but if you cannot, then I beg you not to write merely to say that you cannot.

Do you know positively whether chickens or young Turkeys scatter & squat when they themselves see large Bird in air, or perceive danger, or do they do this, only when their mother utters the cry of danger?

Secondly I have been struck with surprise in comparing my memoranda how often crossed animals are said to be very wild, even wilder than either parent: I have thought I would just put a foot-note to this effect, giving my cases:8 my memory, which I dare not trust, tells me that the cross from wild Boar & common pig at Sydnope was wilder than the wild Boar: do you remember anything of this: I refer to our, memorable visit to Sydnope.—9

Tomorrow night Mr. Woodd’s election for Athenæum comes on.—10 I do not second him, as he found Sir F. Palgrave’s proposal was not invalidated;11 & as it is the last day of my two Boys holidays12 & for other reasons (expected visitor amongst others) it would be excessively inconvenient for me to sleep in London. I have written to him to say how sorry I am I cannot attend. But I have written seven notes to various members, begging their assistance, & I hope this will do very nearly as well as my attendance.

My dear Fox | Yours affectionately | C. Darwin


See letter to W. D. Fox, 14 January [1858], in which CD asked to borrow Hewitson 1831–44. Fox was thanked in the preface to the work for supplying information and specimens of nests and eggs (Hewitson 1831–44, 1: 15) and cited frequently in the text. CD gave Fox’s observations on the nests of redstarts (Hewitson 1831–44, pl. cx) in Natural selection, p. 505.
Fox had evidently sent the book to the London home of his mother, Ann Fox.
CD recorded reading Hewitson 1831–44 at the end of 1858 (Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV,128: 22). Information from it was incorporated into the chapter on the instincts of animals that CD had begun writing in January 1858 (‘Journal’; Appendix II). See Natural selection, p. 505.
CD discussed nidification and variability in the nesting instinct of birds in Natural selection,pp. 498–506. Among instances of unaccountable variations, he stated: ‘The Rev. W. D. Fox informs me that one “eccentric pair of Blackbirds” (Turdus merula) for three consecutive years built in ivy against a wall, & always lined their nest with black horse-hair; though there was nothing to tempt them to use this material: the eggs, also, were not spotted.’ (Natural selection, p. 505).
CD explained his belief that a certain degree of intelligence came into play in the nesting behaviour of birds in Natural selection, pp. 503–5. However, he was certain that nest-building was predominantly instinctive.
Neither CD’s letter to Bernard Philip Brent nor Brent’s reply has been found. Brent had previously supplied CD with information concerning pigeon and canary breeding (see Correspondence vol. 6, letter from B. P. Brent, 23 October 1857).
Chapter 10 of CD’s manuscript on species, entitled ‘Mental powers and instincts of animals’ (Natural selection, pp. 466–527).
Discussed in Natural selection, pp. 486–7.
Sydnope Hall, Derbyshire, was the residence of Francis Sacheverel Darwin, a son of CD’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin by his second marriage. F. S. Darwin kept a large menagerie there (Galton 1874, p. 47). CD and Fox visited Sydnope when they were undergraduates at Cambridge (see Correspondence vol. 1, letter to W. D. Fox, [1 April 1830]). In his discussion of reversion in Variation 2: 45, CD stated that F. S. Darwin had crossed a domesticated Chinese sow with a wild Alpine boar, the offspring of which were ‘extremely wild in confinement’.
Charles Henry Lardner Woodd. See preceding letter. Waugh 1888 does not list Woodd as a member of the Athenæum Club.
Emma Darwin recorded in her diary that ‘G. went to school’ on 1 February and that ‘Wm went to tutors’ on 2 February 1858.


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

Galton, Francis. 1874. English men of science: their nature and nurture. London: Macmillan and Co.

Hewitson, William Chapman. 1831–44. British oology; being illustrations of the eggs of British birds, with figures of each species, as far as practicable, drawn and coloured from nature: accompanied by descriptions of the materials and situation of their nests, number of eggs, etc. 2 vols. and supplement. Newcastle upon Tyne.

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.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Thanks WDF for information on blackbirds’ nests [see Natural selection, p. 505].

Problem of choosing from among the load of curious facts for chapter on "Instinct" [Natural selection, ch. 10; Origin, ch. 7] perplexes him.

Asks about behaviour of chicks in danger and whether crossed animals are wilder than either parent.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
William Darwin Fox
Sent from
Source of text
Christ’s College Library, Cambridge (MS 53 Fox 109)
Physical description
ALS 8pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2208,” accessed on 26 September 2022,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 7