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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   25 October [1859]

Wells Terrace | Ilkley, Otley | Yorkshire

Oct. 25.

My dear Lyell

The doctrine of Pallas applied to our domestic breeds, we will say to Dogs, is as follows.1 He believes that man tamed a wolf in one country, the jackall in another, the fox in another & so on with other species. He does not suppose that these wild species were more variable than others. He hypothetically supposes that when long domesticated they lose their tendency to sterility when crossed with the other domesticated species; & by their crossing when domesticated he believes that all our domestic races have originated. He or his followers further believe that the crossing gives as a tendency to new characters to arise, & this is not a little hypothetical. The whole doctrine is very hypothetical.2 Yet I certainly believe (but cannot here give reasons) that the American domestic dogs have descended from at least 3 or 4 aboriginally distinct species, & that European dogs probably from several other species. There truly is, as you say, “an uncomfortable vague-ness” in whole doctrine.

You will see that I have spoken cautiously on subject. It is a curious, but not important subject for us: we believe that all canine species have descended from one parent; & the only question is whether the whole or only a part of difference between our domestic breeds has arisen since man domesticated them. I do not see how the question concerns specific centres.— The importance of period of gest-ation, has, I think, been much exaggerated: there is great individual difference in the period in our improved cattle, & by selection, a breed could in all probability be easily made with longer or shorter period.—

The Races of Man offer great difficulty: I do not think doctrine of Pallas, or that of Agassiz that there are several species of man, helps us in the least.—3 I fancy I have got some rays of light on subject; but mutiny in India stopped some important enquiries.4 Much too long a subject for letter. I will add I do not attribute much effect to climate &c.—

I believe, as you will see when you reread, that some plants migrated through Tropical lowlands during glacial period.

I am terribly lame with inflamed leg (what the Water-cure Doctors call a severe crisis)5 & this makes my hand-writing rather worse even than usual.—

If my book is reviewed in Quarterly, how I hope that Sir. H. Holland will not be Reviewer: he is so presumptuous & knows so little.6

Our difference on “principle of improvement” & “power of adaptation” is too profound for discussion by letter. If I am wrong, I am quite blind to my error. If I am right, our difference will be got over only by your rereading carefully & reflecting on my first four chapters. I supplicate you to read these again carefully.— The so-called improvement of our short-horn cattle, pigeons &c, does not presuppose or require any aboriginal “power of adaptation” or “principle of improvement”; it requires only diversified variability, & man to select or take advantage of those modifications which are useful to him: so under nature any slight modification which chances to arise & is useful to any creature is selected or preserved in the struggle for life; any modification which is injurious is destroyed or rejected; any which is neither useful nor injurious will be left a fluctuating element.—

When you contrast natural selection & “Improvement”, you seem always to overlook (for I do not see how you can deny) that every step in the natural selection of each species implies improvement in that species in relation to its conditions of life. No modification can be selected without it be an improvement or advantage. Improvement implies, I suppose, each form obtaining many parts or organs, all excellently adapted for their functions. As each species is improved, & as the number of forms will have increased if we look to the whole course of time, the organic conditions of life for other forms will become more complex; & there will be a necessity for other forms to become improved or they will be exterminated; and I can see no limit to this process of improvement without the intervention of any other & direct principle of improvement. All this seems to me quite compatable with certain forms, fitted for simple conditions, remaining unaltered, or being degraded.

If I have a second Edit. I will reiterate, “Natural Selection, & as a general consequence Natural Improvement”.—7

As you go as far as you do, I begin strongly to think, judging from myself, that you will go much further. How slowly the older geologists admitted your grand views on existing geological causes of change!— If at any time you think I can answer any question, it is a real pleasure to me to write.—

Yours affecty | C. Darwin


The ‘doctrine’ referred to by CD was discussed in Origin, pp. 253–4. Pyotr Simon Pallas believed that most domestic animals had descended from two or more aboriginal species that had since become mixed by interbreeding (see Pallas 1780, pp. 84, 100).
CD had studied Pallas’s writings in detail in 1840 and 1844. His notes on Pallas 1780 are inDAR 196.5. See also Correspondence vol. 4, letter to J. D. Hooker, 6 October [1848].
Louis Agassiz was a leading advocate of polygenesis.
CD’s precise reference here is unknown. For a number of years, he had been corresponding with various naturalists in India, particularly with Edward Blyth (see Correspondence vols. 5 and 6). The great revolt of the Bengal Army in 1857 led to the transference of Indian government from the East India Company to the crown in 1858.
CD was familiar with the wish of hydropathic doctors to induce a ‘crisis’, as this had been an important aspect of James Manby Gully’s therapy at Malvern, which CD underwent in 1849. See Gully 1846 and Correspondence vol. 4.
Henry Holland, a noted physician and a distant relative of CD, frequently reviewed scientific works for the Quarterly Review. The periodical was published by John Murray, as was Origin. CD had complained to Joseph Dalton Hooker that Holland ‘does not know enough of Nat. Hist.’ following Holland’s review of Coral reefs (see Correspondence vol. 4, letter to J. D. Hooker, [18 April 1847]). Lyell wrote to Murray on 4 November 1859 (Murray Archives): ‘Sir H. Holland is talking much aboutC Darwins subject but no one who has not specially devoted himself to paleontology ought to review D’s work.’ In the event, Samuel Wilberforce reviewed Origin in the Quarterly Review.
In his letter, Lyell apparently discussed a ‘principle of improvement’ as being one element of CD’s theory. Lyell had long been an opponent of the doctrine of progressive development in the world. There is no record of CD ever using Lyell’s phrase.


Coral reefs: The structure and distribution of coral reefs. Being the first part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN, during the years 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1842.

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

Gully, James Manby. 1846. The water cure in chronic disease: an exposition of the causes, progress, & terminations of various chronic diseases of the digestive organs, lungs, nerves, limbs, & skin; and of their treatment by water, and other hygienic means. London: J. Churchill.

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.

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


Discusses P. S. Pallas’ theory of origin of domestic dog breeds. CD believes domestic dogs descended from more than one aboriginal wild species but ultimately "we believe all canine species have descended from one parent and the only question is whether the whole or only part of difference in our domestic breeds has arisen since man domesticated them".

Races of man offer great difficulty. The doctrine of Pallas and Agassiz that there are several species "does not help us" in the least.

Hopes Henry Holland will not review Origin.

CD’s and CL’s difference on "principle of improvement" and "power of adaptation" is profound. Improvement in breeds of cattle requires neither. Urges him to reread first four chapters of Origin carefully. Natural selection is not to be contrasted with "improvement": every step involves improvement in relation to the conditions of life. There is no need for a "principle" to intervene.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.174)
Physical description
ALS 8pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2510,” accessed on 24 May 2024,

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