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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Richard Owen   13 December [1859]1

Down Bromley Kent

Dec. 13th

Dear Owen

My notes for latter chapters are a chaos, but I bethought me to look in large 8vo Edit. (1833) of Lyells Principles & I find in vol. 3. p. 144. the desired reference to Mr Clifts paper, viz Ed. New. Phil Journal no XX p. 394 & apparently(?) Proc. Geolog. Soc. 1831. p. 321.2 I find with surprise that Lyell remarks “These facts are full of interest, for they prove that the peculiar type of organisation which now characterizes the Marsupial tribes, has prevailed from a remote period—in Australia” &c. &c.—

You made a remark in our conversation something to the effect that my book could not probably be true as it attempted to explain so much.— I can only answer that this might be objected to any view embracing two or three classes of facts.— Yet I assure you that its truth has often & often weighed heavily on me; & I have thought that perhaps my book might be a case like Macleay’s Quinarian system.3 So strongly did I feel this, that I resolved to give it all up, as far as I could, if I did not convince at least 2 or 3 competent judges.—

You smiled at me for sticking myself up as a martyr; but I assure you, if you had heard the unmerciful & I think unjust things said of my Book & to me in a letter by an old & very distinguished friend, you would not wonder at me being sensitive, perhaps ridiculously sensitive.—4 Forgive these remarks: I shd. be a dolt not to value your scientific opinion very highly. If my views are in the main correct, whatever value they may possess in pushing on science will now depend very little on me, but on the verdict pronounced by men eminent in science.

Believe me | Yours very truly | C. Darwin


Dated by the reference to CD’s recent conversation with Owen. See letter to Richard Owen, 10 December [1859].
CD refers to the first edition of Charles Lyell’s Principles of geology (C. Lyell 1830–3), volume 3 of which was published in 1833. The passage given in the letter is in C. Lyell 1830–3, 3: 144, in which Lyell refers to Clift 1831. CD’s copy of Lyell 1830–3 is in the Darwin Library–CUL. CD had commented on William Clift’s paper on fossil remains from Australia in Notebook C, p. 131 (Notebooks). Owen, who had married Clift’s daughter, succeeded him as conservator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons.
William Sharp Macleay’s quinarian system of classification had been enthusiastically taken up by a small number of naturalists, but extensively criticised by others. Earlier in the year CD expressed his hope that his work would not be subject to the same controversy as that between Macleay and John Fleming (see letter to T. H. Huxley, 15 October [1859]). CD discussed Macleay’s work, particularly Macleay 1819–21, in detail in his notebooks (Notebooks). See also Correspondence vols. 2 and 4.


Clift, William. 1831. Report by Mr Clift, of the College of Surgeons, London, in regard to the fossil bones found in the caves and bone-breccia of New Holland. Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal 10: 394–5.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 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.

Macleay, William Sharp. 1819–21. Horæ entomologicæ: or essays on the annulose animals. 2 pts. London: S. Bagster.

Notebooks: Charles Darwin’s notebooks, 1836–1844. Geology, transmutation of species, metaphysical enquiries. Transcribed and edited by Paul H. Barrett et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the British Museum (Natural History). 1987.


Responds to Owen’s remarks that his book [Origin] is not likely to be true because it attempts to explain so much. CD describes how, for fear this might be so, he resolved to give up the work if he could not convince two or three competent judges. He is sensitive because of unjust things said by a distinguished friend [A. Sedgwick]. Value of his views now depends on men eminent in science.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Richard Owen
Sent from
Source of text
Natural History Museum, Library and Archives (General Special Collections Owen correspondence 9/195)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2580,” accessed on 7 December 2021,

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