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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Charles Lyell   22 October 1859


22d. Octr ’59

Respecting the doctrines of Pallas?1 about the various races of dog having come from several distinct wild species (or sub-species)2

I wish you would enlarge a little in a letter on that point because I know that when I reperuse your pages I shall still feel (tho’ I expect to appreciate it better than now) that there is an uncomfortable indefiniteness in the doctrine & that it somewhat invalidates the specific centre theory & leaves us very much “dans le vague”. Is it meant that Man found several canine species just on the verge of passing from permanent varieties into species & before they had diverged from some anterior ancestral type so far as to make frequent interbreeding impossible they were blended so as to produce a wider range of variety than would otherwise have come about. Or did Nature mingle the several supposed wild stocks of dog.3

I can understand all of them coming from the wolf, especially as Bell says the period of gestation is the same,4 altho’ Sir H. Holland in his last review in Edinburgh assumes that period to be different5 & when I told him that Bell says it is the same to a day, he could not tell me where he learnt the contrary but said he thought it was in Cuvier.6

If I find myself perplexed with the distance between the European, Negro, Hottentot & Australian races & am told that they probably may have sprung from several indigenous stocks or species settled in remote & isolated regions which preceded all those now living & which by blending together gave origin to the diversity now observed   I feel instead of this being an explanation of my difficulty that it simply obscures all my ideas. Of course according to your system there was some common ancestor of all these races, as of the greyhound, pug, shepherd’s dog &c. But how does Pallas notion of several wild species being the ancestors in common of these races help us & does it not make the doctrine of specific centres less defensible?

Hooker asked me whether I was confounded by your migration of many European plants from N. to S. across the intermediate tropical zone by aid of mountain chains during glacial period.7 I told him I was by no means staggered by it. Indeed the necessity of expecting a vast number of difficulties of this kind was fully appreciated by me long ago. I rather marvel at the extent to which the non-intermixture of provinces holds good, assuming single birthplace of species.

I presume that Pallas interpreted by the Darwinian key merely meant that some canine species, the wolf or one near to it was in a very varying state before Man meddled with the several races of said single species. Man took advantage of it & selected & made new & stronger or difft races but they all kept true to their ancestors’ period of gestation—whereas the Jackall, fox & other canine species which branch off at a much earlier period have diverged so much farther as to have distinct periods of gestation from each other & from the dog.

If this be all then it shd be distinctly declared that neither the dog nor Man are any more derived from several aboriginal or wild species than other plants or animals having a wide range of races.

Whatever you yield in regard to the dog you will have to concede to every variable species of plant or animal (wild or cultivated) Man included.

If I understand you the first egg or seed (or the first few types of plants or animals whatever their number) may have had powers of adaptation imparted to them which were not of necessity progressive 8   The first types or stocks may or may not have been very simple. If simple some of their descendants may have continued for ever equally simple. If by so continuing they were most in harmony with surrounding conditions organic & inorganic. As these latter changed, they wd almost certainly require modification, but not always transmutation to higher grades

But unless there was an inherent tho’ for ages perhaps latent principle of improvement how evolve the Elephant & finally Man out of a Lepidosyren or even the much higher Ornithorhyncus. Selection or breeding is merely giving the organism a free & fair chance of developing the inherent capacity. It is simply putting the acorn in the fittest soil.

E. de Beaumont thinks that of the successive catastrophes which have suddenly convulsed & revolutionized the earth that of the Alps was the latest or nearly so & the greatest.9

The appearance of Man viewed as progressive development views it, is in the organic world, I presume, the grandest & latest catastrophe. Is it not a greater event than the originating of the first types if none of them were in the beginning higher than those at present discovered in the Silurian system? I care not for the term “Creation” but I want something higher than “selection”, unless the latter divinity be supposed to have produced the primeval egg or seed or germ of the first great branches of the organic kingdom—in some ante-Cambrian epoch— To that power I must refer all the wonders of successive groups of species, more especially every step gained in organization & intelligence, generation being a very subordinate part of the machinery, tho’ the proving it to be the proximate way by which the new creations are brought like individuals successively on the stage is a vast step if secured among those humble advances which we may be permitted to make.

I perceive that Agassiz looks on Bryozoa as degraded mollusca,10 & Hooker on the Apetala as degraded Monopetalous or polypetalous plants.11 This idea of occasional simplification is no doubt a gain at least to me it is so—& makes your system more intelligible answering the question why in spite of higher forms coming in, there is so large a stock of the simpler & lower ones. But they (if it be true the whole organic world is advancing) I cannot understand & seem to require some arbitrary hypothesis.

C. L


The question-mark is in the text. Mary Elizabeth Lyell, who made the copy of Lyell’s letter from which this text is transcribed, may have wondered whether her spelling of the name was correct.
Lyell refers to Pyotr Simon Pallas and Pallas 1780. See Origin, pp. 253–4; see also Variation 1: 16 and n. 3.
CD replied to Lyell’s queries in his letters to Lyell of 25 October [1859] and 31 [October 1859] (Correspondence vol. 7). See also Lyell’s related queries in the letter from Charles Lyell, 4 October 1859 (this volume, Supplement), and CD’s response to that letter (Correspondence vol. 7, letter to Charles Lyell, 11 October [1859]). These letters are part of CD and Lyell’s discussions on the proof-sheets of Origin. For CD and Lyell’s continuing discussion on the origins of dogs and humans, see Correspondence vol. 7.
Lyell refers to Thomas Bell and T. Bell 1837, pp. 197–8.
Lyell refers to Henry Holland and [Holland] 1859, p. 249.
Lyell refers to Georges Cuvier. In Le règne animal (Cuvier 1817), Cuvier gives the gestational period of dogs (ibid, p. 153), but not that of wolves.
Lyell refers to Joseph Dalton Hooker. See Origin, pp. 365–82.
See Correspondence vol. 7, letter to Charles Lyell, 11 October [1859] and n. 7.
The reference is to Louis Agassiz. For Bryozoa as degraded molluscs, see J. L. R. Agassiz 1857–62, 1: 186, and J. L. R. Agassiz and Gould 1848, p. 193.
The reference has not been identified.


Bell, Thomas. 1837. A history of British quadrupeds, including the Cetacea. London: John van Voorst.

Elie de Beaumont, Jean-Baptiste-Armand-Louis-Léonce. 1831. Researches on some of the revolutions which have taken place on the surface of the globe; presenting various examples of the coincidence between the elevation of beds in certain systems of mountains, and the sudden changes which have produced the lines of demarcation observable in certain stages of the sedimentary deposits. Philosophical Magazine, or Annals of Chemistry [etc.] n.s. 10: 241–64.

Pallas, Pyotr Simon. 1780. Mémoire sur la variation des animaux; première partie. Acta Academiæ Scientiarum Imperialis Petropolitanæ (1780 pt 2): 69–102.


Wishes CD would enlarge on the doctrines of [Pyotr Simon] Pallas about the various races of dogs having come from several distinct wild species or sub-species.

Suggests organisms have a latent principle of improvement which is brought out by selection or breeding.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
The University of Edinburgh Centre for Research Collections (Lyell collection Coll-203/A1/242: 15–24)
Physical description
CC 11pp CC †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2508F,” accessed on 22 September 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 13 (Supplement)