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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   21 February [1858]1

Down Bromley Kent

Feby. 21st

My dear Gray

My last letter begged no favour, this one does; but it will really cost you very little trouble to answer to me. & it will be of very great service to me, owing to a remark made to me by Hooker, which I cannot credit, & which was suggested to him by one of my letters. He suggested my asking you, & I told him, I would not give the least hint what he thought. I generally believe Hooker implicitly, but he is sometimes, I think, & he confesses it, rather over critical & his ingenuity in discovering flaws seems to me admirable.—2 Here is my question—

“Do you think that good Botanists in drawing up a local Flora, whether small or large, or in making a Prodromus like De Candolles‘, would almost universally, but unintentionally & unconsciously, tend to record (i.e. marking with greek letters & giving short character) varieties in the large or in the small genera? Or would the tendency be to record the varieties about equally in genera of all sizes? Are you yourself conscious on reflexion, that you have attended to, & recorded more carefully the varieties in large, or small or very small genera?”3

I know what fleeting & trifling things varieties very often are; but my query applies to such as have been thought worth marking & recording.—

If you could screw time to send me ever so brief an answer to this, pretty soon, it wd be a great service to me—

Yours most truly obliged | Ch. Darwin

P.S. | Do you know whether anyone has ever published any remarks on the geographical range of varieties of Plants in comparison with the species, to which they are supposed to belong. I have in vain tried to get some vague idea, & with the exception of a little information on this head given me by Mr Watson4 a paper on Land Shells in U. States,5 I have quite failed; but perhaps it would be difficult for you to give me even a brief an answer on this head, & if so I am not so unreasonable, I assure you, as to expect it.—6

If you are writing to England soon you cd. enclose other letters to me to forward.

Please observe the question is not whether there are more or fewer varieties in larger or smaller genera, but whether there is a stronger or weaker tendency in the minds of Botanists to record such in large or small genera.


Dated by the relationship to the following letter and to the letters from J. D. Hooker, [25] February [1858], and from C. C. Babington, 3 March 1858.
CD had once criticised Hooker for these traits and then later regretted it (see Correspondence vol. 6, letters to J. D. Hooker, [29 April 1857] and [2 May 1857]).
CD discussed this point further in Natural selection, p. 161. See also the following letter and letter from H. C. Watson, 23 February [1858].
See Correspondence vol. 6, letter from H. C. Watson, 14 December [1857], and letter from H. C.Watson, 3 January 1858.
Adams 1852. CD had first come across Charles Baker Adams’s work in 1853, when Charles Lyell gave him copies of Adams’s papers on Mollusca (see Correspondence vol. 5, letter to Charles Lyell, 15 February [1853]). CD’s copy of Adams 1852 is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
CD discussed this point in Natural selection, p. 139, citing Watson and Adams as his only sources.


Adams, Charles Baker. 1852. Hints on the geographical distribution of animals, with special reference to the Mollusca. Reprinted from Adams, Charles Baker. [1849–52]. Contributions to conchology. London and New York.

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

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.


Asks whether botanists tend to record varieties more carefully in large genera or small genera.

Wants information on the ranges of varieties of a species compared to the range of the species.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Source of text
Archives of the Gray Herbarium, Harvard University (21)
Physical description
ALS 6pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2218,” accessed on 20 April 2024,

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