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Darwin Correspondence Project

To T. H. Huxley   25 November [1859]

Ilkley Wells House | Otley, Yorkshire

Nov. 25th

My dear Huxley

Your letter has been forwarded to me from Down.1

Like a good Catholic, who has received extreme unction, I can now sing “nunc dimittis”.2 I should have been more than contented with one quarter of what you have said. Exactly fifteen months ago, when I put pen to paper for this volume, I had awful misgivings, & thought perhaps I had deluded myself like so many have done; & I then fixed in my mind three judges, on whose decision I determined mentally to abide. The judges were Lyell, Hooker & yourself. It was this which made me so excessively anxious for your verdict. I am now contented, & can sing my nunc dimittis. What a joke it will be if I pat you on back when you attack some immoveable creationist!3

You have most cleverly hit on one point, which has greatly troubled me; if, as I must think external conditions produce little direct effect, what the devil determines each particular variation. What makes a tuft of feathers come on a Cock’s head; or moss on a moss-rose?— I shall much like to talk over this with you.—

I daresay you will kindly let me hear about Geoffroy DE St. Hilaire.—4

My dear Huxley I thank you cordially for your letter. Yours most sincerely | C. Darwin

Hereafter I shall be particularly curious to hear what you think of my explanation of Embryological similarity.— On classification I fear we shall split.5 Did you perceive argumentum ad hominem Huxley. about Kangaroo & Bear6


‘Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine’ (Luke 2: 29): ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’.
CD had criticised Huxley for his attacks on distinguished naturalists (Correspondence vol. 6, letters to J. D. Hooker, 9 May [1856] and 21 [May 1856]). He later recalled in Autobiography, pp. 106–7: many years ago I thought that it was a pity that he attacked so many scientific men, although I believe that he was right in each particular case, and I said so to him. He denied the charge indignantly, and I answered that I was very glad to hear that I was mistaken. We had been talking about his well-deserved attacks on Owen, so I said after a time, “How well you have exposed Ehrenberg’s blunders;” he agreed and added that it was necessary for science that such mistakes should be exposed. Again after a time, I added: “Poor Agassiz has fared ill under your hands.” Again I added another name, and now his bright eyes flashed on me, and he burst out laughing, anathematising me in some manner.
CD and Huxley had corresponded about classification in 1857 and disagreed over whether genealogy should provide its basis, as CD believed, or whether structure alone was sufficient, as Huxley maintained. See Correspondence vol. 6.
Ad hominem: ‘an argument or appeal founded on the preferences or principles of a particular person rather than an abstract truth or logical cogency’ (OED). CD refers to Origin, p. 425, where he asked what should be done if a perfect kangaroo were seen to emerge from the womb of a bear? ‘According to all analogy, it would be ranked with bears; but then assuredly all the other species of the kangaroo family would have to be classed under the bear genus. The whole case is preposterous; for where there has been close descent in common, there will certainly be close resemblance or affinity.’ See letter from Charles Lyell to T. H. Huxley, 17 June 1859.


Autobiography: The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. With original omissions restored. Edited with appendix and notes by Nora Barlow. London: Collins. 1958.

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

OED: The Oxford English dictionary. Being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement and bibliography of a new English dictionary. Edited by James A. H. Murray, et al. 12 vols. and supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1970. A supplement to the Oxford English dictionary. 4 vols. Edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1972–86. The Oxford English dictionary. 2d edition. 20 vols. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. Oxford English dictionary additional series. 3 vols. Edited by John Simpson et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1993–7.

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.


THH’s letter about the Origin makes CD feel like a Catholic who has received extreme unction. Can now sing nunc dimittis. Had determined to abide by judgment of Lyell, Hooker, and THH.

Problem of how variations arise at all troubles him also.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Thomas Henry Huxley
Sent from
Source of text
Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine Archives (Huxley 5: 72)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2553,” accessed on 30 March 2023,

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