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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Charles Lyell   3 October 1859


Octr. 3. 1859.

My dear Darwin

I have just finished your volume & right glad I am that I did my best with Hooker to persuade you to publish it without waiting for a time which probably could never have arrived tho’ you lived till the age of 100, when you had prepared all your facts on which you ground so many grand generalizations.2

It is a splendid case of close reasoning & long sustained argument throughout so many pages, the condensation immense, too great perhaps for the uninitiated but an effective & important preliminary statement which will admit even before your detailed proofs appear of some occasional useful exemplifications such as your pigeons & cirripedes of which you make such excellent use.3

I mean that when as I fully expect a new edition is soon called for you may here & there insert an actual case to relieve the vast number of abstract propositions— So far as I am concerned I am so well prepared to take your statements of facts for granted that I do not think the “pièces justificatives” when published will make much difference, & I have long seen most clearly that if any concession is made, all that you claim in your concluding pages will follow—4 It is this which has made me so long hesitate always feeling that the case of Man & his Races & of other animals & that of plants is one & the same & that if a ‘vera causa’ be admitted for one instead of a purely unknown & imaginary one such as the word “Creation” all the consequences must follow—5

I fear I have not time today as I am just leaving this place to indulge in a variety of comments & to say how much I was delighted with Oceanic islands— Rudimentary organs—Embryology—the genealogical key to the Natural System, Geographl. Distribution & if I went on I should be copying the heads of all your Chapters. But I will say a word of the Recapitulation in case some slight alteration or at least omission of a word or two be still possible in that.—

In the first place at p. 480 it cannot surely be said “that the most eminent naturalists have rejected the view of the mutability of species— You do not mean to ignore G. St. Hilaire & Lamarck— As to the latter you may say that in regard to animals you substitute natural selection for volition to a certain considerable extent, but in his theory of the changes of plants he cd. not introduce volition—he may no doubt have laid an undue comparative stress on changes in physical conditions & too little on those of contending organisms— He at least was for the universal mutability of species & for a genealogical link between the past & the present.—

The men of his school also appealed to domesticated varieties—(do you mean living naturalists?)6

Chr. XIV

The first page of this most important summary gives the adversary an advantage by putting forth so abruptly & crudely such a startling objection as the formation of “the eye” not by means analogous to human reason or rather to some power immeasurably superior to human reason but to superinduced variations like those of which a cattle breeder avails himself. Pages would be required thus to state an objection & remove it— It would be better as you wish to persuade to say nothing? Leave out several sentences & in a future edition bring it out more fully—7 Between the throwing down of such a stumbling block in the way of the reader & the passage to the working ants in p 460 there are pages required—& these ants are a bathos to him before he has recovered from the shock of being called upon to believe the eye to have been brought to perfection from a state of blindness or pur-blindness by such variations as we witness— I think a little omission would greatly lessen the objectionableness of these sentences if you have not time to recast & amplify.

p. 467. l. 8 from bottom I was baulked by the extreme brevity of this passage “calculation” “reasons” “naturalisation” this is not enough to recall even the headings to an ordinary reader a few words more wd be useful.8

478 l. 10 “some identical species common to both the areas still exist” or some such modification of the sentence would be better—9

p. 485 When we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship—as something wholly beyond his comprehension, when we begin to regard every production of Nature as one which has had a history, when we contemplate &c10

486 l. 7 I would leave out “and” the first word—it baulked me the first time— 11

But these are small matters, mere spots on the sun— Your comparison of the letters retained in words, where no longer wanted for the sound, to rudimentary organs is excellent as both are truly genealogical—12

The want of peculiar birds in Madeira is a greater difficulty than seemed to me allowed for— I could cite passages where you show that variations are superinduced from the new circumstances of new colonists which wd. require some Madeira birds like those of the Galapagos to be peculiar. There has been ample time in the case of Madeira & Porto Santo—13

You must make out storms which blew back American birds to Africa or to the Canaries an mutual interchange of colonists with main land or island with island to explain the anomaly—

I never received several pages from p. 400? about to p. 409— I have not the sheets at hand & cannot refer to them before post time as I am on the move. Please send them to Post office Scarborough where I shall be for a day or two this week— Old proofs will do very well for these missing pages—

You inclose your sheets in old M.S. so that Post office very properly charge them as letters 2d extra— I wish all their fines were on M.S. worth as much. I paid s 4.d 6 for such trash the other day from Paris from a man who can prove 300 deluges in valley of Seine.

With my hearty congratulations to you on your grand work | believe me | ever very affectionately yrs | Cha Lyell

My wife sends her kind remembrances to you all & means to write soon—

CD annotations

crossed pencil
crossed pencil


Lyell travelled in Scotland following the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held in Aberdeen. Meigle is a town in Perthshire.
Lyell refers to the proof-sheets of chapters 8–14 of Origin, which he had recently received (see preceding letter). He read the first half of the book earlier in September (see letters to Charles Lyell, 2 September [1859], and to John Murray, 2 September [1859]). In 1856, Lyell had encouraged CD to publish his species theory (see Correspondence vol. 6, letter from Charles Lyell, 1–2 May 1856, and letter to Charles Lyell, 3 May [1856]).
Lyell refers to the longer work CD still intended to write, which would give the sources and fuller evidence for his theory. CD apparently came to agree with Lyell that further evidence would not make much difference to the acceptance of his views and remained content with making revisions and additions to successive editions of Origin (see Peckham ed. 1959). The sixth and final edition of Origin was published in 1872.
Lyell firmly endorsed this view in the second volume of his Principles of geology (C. Lyell 1830–3). His doubts about transmutation, particularly as it pertained to man, were expressed in his scientific journals (see Wilson ed. 1970, pp. 265–86).
Ètienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet de Lamarck were famous protagonists for transmutation. The sentence was altered to ‘all the most eminent living naturalists’ (Origin, p. 480).
CD followed Lyell’s advice and removed the reference to the formation of the eye in Origin, p. 459. The text was changed to read: ‘Nothing at first can appear more difficult to believe than that the more complex organs and instincts should have been perfected, not by means superior to, though analogous with, human reason, but by the accumulation of innumerable slight variations, each good for the individual possessor.’
The passage to which Lyell refers occurs in CD’s recapitulation (Origin, p. 467) and relates to the struggle for existence: ‘The struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high geometrical ratio of increase which is common to all organic beings. This high rate of increase is proved by calculation, by the effects of a succession of peculiar seasons, and by the results of naturalisation, as explained in the third chapter.’ CD apparently left these sentences unaltered.
The passage relates to CD’s discussion of the existence of closely allied or representative species in any two areas. CD incorporated Lyell’s suggestion in Origin, p. 478.
CD used this sentence, with a few minor changes, in Origin, p. 485.
The section of the text reads: ‘when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, I speak from experience, will the study of natural history become!’ (Origin, p. 486).
‘Rudimentary organs may be compared with the letters in a word, still retained in the spelling, but become useless in the pronunciation, but which serve as a clue in seeking for its derivation.’ (Origin, p. 455). For Lyell’s notes discussing the evolution of languages, see Wilson ed. 1970, pp. 284 and 351–2.
CD’s reaction to Lyell’s point is not known, but see the letter to Charles Lyell, 11 October [1859], for a related discussion. The passage referred to was probably already printed (see Origin, p. 391).


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

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.

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.


Praises the Origin: a "splendid case of close reasoning".

Objects to CD’s having ignored Lamarck and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

Thinks CD should omit mentioning problem of explaining the eye at the beginning of chapter 14. Suggests rewording several passages.

Thinks want of peculiar birds in Madeira a difficulty, considering presence of them in Galapagos.

Has always felt that the case of man and his races is one and the same with animals and plants.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 98: B1–6
Physical description
ALS 13pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2501,” accessed on 13 July 2024,

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