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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Charles Lyell to T. H. Huxley   17 June 1859

53 Harley St.

June 17 1859

Dear Huxley

I rather think you must have given me the inclosed MS. notes by mistake with your printed paper (lent to me) on Species which last I must try & obtain as it contains much that is very excellent & original in a small space.1 I had come to the same conclusion precisely about the definition of a species or the absence of any possible satisfactory definition, & on hybridity, but there is much that I could not have thought out so well as it requires more of anatomy & physiology so to reason out the matter than I possessed—2

Linnæus I think says somewhere that Genera are as much realities as Species, believing more perhaps in the reality of both than you do—

Yet if we find in Geology & in Nature at present, no transitions between sub-kingdoms or even as you hint between Classes Orders & even Genera—if there are certain fixed & absolutely limited Groups, can we explain this according to the theory of transmutation?— Must we not suppose such groups to have come into the world by virtue of some “modus operandi” different from gradual development in the course of 1000ds. of generations & not in the way of indefinite variations from a parent stock— If so we may call such an unknown or as yet undiscovered modus operandi “creative” meaning thereby that it has not yet been brought within the domain of Science.3

Each new type may be in advance as a general rule of the highest of the preexisting ones, Man being the last of the series, a race of savages at first with small cranial development & out of this the negro & white races & others varieties & races extinct or yet to come being evolved in the same way as permanent varieties are formed—

But I suppose that Darwin will try to show that if we ever grant the possibility of species being thus producible by transmutation we shall have to go farther— I was glad you quoted the primrose & cowslip which always strikes me as a very remarkable case among things most familiar to us. To the unscientific they are good species—

As to you not believing your own eyes if you saw a new species of Elephant or Orang rise out of the earth before you you would be obliged to do so just as you would trust the evidence of your senses & those of your friends if you all saw a Gorilla delivered of some new species of the Order Primates Genus Homo, & far superior to “species Kentuck”—4

In both cases such a phenomenon might appear to you because without precedent in your experience a fact “independant of the whole chain of causes & effects in the universe”—

If we found all the leading Classes Orders, Families & Genera or could reasonably hope to find them or could fairly infer that they did exist in the oldest Periods then we might by development get the species or I could conceive the Genera in the course of millions of ages. But once admit the probable want of Placental Mammalia in the Lower Silurian & we require such an event as the first appearance of that type at some subsequent Period an event which might compare with the first coming in of any other new type—ending with Man & it becomes difficult to know where to stop. The greater the number of these phenomena produced in obedience to some Law as yet unknown to us & perhaps analogous to or connected with that manifestation of power which gave origin to the first link of the chain, the less miraculous do the “creative acts” become. Admit the principal groups alone to have been successively formed in this yet to be discovered way & they become rare and exceptional events, embrace the genera in the same category & they are no longer uncommon & thus at last we may admit subgenera & species till the occurrence of such acts becomes so frequent that they cease to be preternatural & thus we might expect to witness them at least as often as the going out or extirpation of species—

If the Lamarckians are right we shall in time discover extinct fossil varieties of Men intermediate between some of the quadrumana & Man— If we cannot come to any conclusion in regard to Man the bringing to light of this mode of the coming in of antecedent types is hopeless— In going back from the recent to the older periods we meet the whole difficulty at the first step in our retrospect by not finding any representatives of Man in the Miocene Period, or of any “implement making” brute—of the Order Primates—

I would willingly escape from all this by modestly saying we know nothing about it, but we are making some little progress & the transmutationists cannot be pooh-poohed & ought not to be so & the progressive development people who are least tolerant of the Lamarckians on the ground of their supposed “tendencies” are making out Man to be a link in the same progressive series of natural & material changes & are every whit as materialistic in their theory, & as unorthodox as any of those who follow any other system.5

I stumbled yesterday on a paper in the Boston Journal of Natl. Histy for January 1844 by S. S. Haldeman in which the transmutation theory is defended in a spirit & with a skill that appears to me to deprive Wallace of much of the originality of his two Essays—6

I knew Haldeman in 1845 a good conchologist— Do look at his paper—“on recent freshwater mollusca” &c He is controverting my arguments against Lamarck in my “Principles of Geology”. I quite forgot his paper when I reedited the Principles & when at the Linn. Socy I made so much of Wallace.7

If you know of any work of Geoffroy St. Hilaire in which I could get at the first enunciation of the Progressive Development & transmutation theory I shd be glad to have a reference— I conceive that Lamarck was the first to bring it forward systematically & to “go the whole orang”—

believe me | ever sincerely yrs | Cha Lyell

Profr. Huxley— | 17. June./59


T. H. Huxley 1859a.
In a lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain on 3 June 1859, Huxley attempted to show that the uniformitarian principles of geology were in perfect accord with the data of palaeontology and that the anatomical features of living organisms were but little changed from their ancient representatives. See T. H. Huxley 1859a.
For CD’s response to this point, see letter to Charles Lyell, 20 October [1859].
Huxley apparently also raised this embryological difficulty with CD, to which CD responded in Origin, p. 425. See letter to T. H. Huxley, 25 November [1859].
For Huxley’s response to these points, see L. Huxley ed. 1900, 1: 173–4.
Haldeman 1843–4. Lyell met Samuel Steman Haldeman during his second visit to North America, from September 1845 to June 1846 (K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 83). Lyell refers to Alfred Russel Wallace’s two papers on the species question, Wallace 1855 and Darwin and Wallace 1858.
Lyell published the ninth edition of his Principles of geology in 1853. For Lyell’s part in the reading of Darwin and Wallace 1858 at the Linnean Society, see letter from J. D. Hooker and Charles Lyell to the Linnean Society, 30 June 1858.


Haldeman, Samuel Steman. 1843–4. Enumeration of the recent freshwater Mollusca which are common to North America and Europe; with observations on species and their distribution. Boston Journal of Natural History 4: 468–84.

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.

Wallace, Alfred Russel. 1855. On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 2d ser. 16: 184–96.


Extended discussion of their respective difficulties with the definition and status of species and with the extent to which the theory of transmutation may be applied.

Has rediscovered S. S. Haldeman’s 1844 paper defending the transmutation theory with great skill.

Asks for reference to Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s first enunciation of the progressive development and transmutation theory.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Thomas Henry Huxley
Sent from
London, Harley St, 53
Source of text
Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine Archives (Huxley 6: 20)
Physical description
ALS 13pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2469A,” accessed on 8 December 2023,

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