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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Charles Lyell   2 May 18601

May 2d. 1860.

It is small comfort or consolation to one who feels that Lamarck or Darwin have lessened the dignity of their ancestry making them out to be without souls, to be told ‘Never mind   you will be succeeded in unbroken lineal descent by angels who like the ’Superior Beings‘ spoken of by Pope

Will show a Newton as we show an ape2

The case of the theologian may be desperate but is there not some view by which the philosopher aspiring to a higher destiny may come to look upon the progressive system as more consonant than any other with his hopes—

It may perhaps show a tendency in all spiritual natures to advance & even at a geometrical ratio & thus if individuality be not a dream, if it be something real which cannot be lost & annihilated by death & on that the aspirations of all men must depend then a system of decay & degradation or even a stationary aspect of the Universe wd. be less promising & pleasing than one of endless variety & improvement. Taking the inner light & intuition as guiding Man to a belief in the immortality of the soul the picture of progressive advancement in a long series of generations & species with (occasionally only) retrograde movements would not be unconsolatory— It involves no doubt the link of common descent with inferior & soulless beings but this exists around us & is no new enigma— To those alone who have been in the habit of closing their eyes to the phenomena of every day life & of human nature can this riddle be for the first time revealed by Geology. Imbecility, idiotcy, madness—all the grades between the imbecile & the man of same but limited capacity—inferior races—the fact of hundreds of millions in each century dying before they have passed in infancy the line which clearly can be claimed as parting responsible from irresponsible beings, whether they have passed from this life as responsible beings or not, undeveloped—the case from the mere embryo to the new born—

Let every geologist freely grant that these are astounding facts, who has not anxiously reflected on them if he has thought at all—who ought to be surprised if in lifting up the veil & seeing more of Nature’s past history the same enigma reappears— it is what you shd have expected    more of the same kind of perplexing doubts

In doubt to deem himself a God or beast.3

It is worthy of remark that, when the poet writing Essay on Man a century ago, enumerated the various sciences which that wondrous creature Man had entered upon, go measure earth weigh air & state the tides4 he omits the insight gained into the past history of the earth & its inhabitants, but he represent Man nevertheless as being as much as now

“In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast”

It did not require that his remote genealogy shd be pried into in order to raise the question—

No mention is made of attempts to unfold Natures laws in the remote past—but the realities of the present period of the world were enough without any speculation on past genealogies to make him sketch man as a being ’In doubt &c‘


The letter is transcribed from a draft in Lyell’s scientific journal. The entry is headed with the date and ‘Perfectibility | Letter of C. L. to Darwin’. It is printed in Wilson ed. 1970, pp. 382–3.
Pope 1733–4, Epistle II: 31–4:

Superior Beings, when of late they saw A mortal Man unfold all Nature’s Law, Admir’d such Wisdom in an earthy Shape, And show’d a Newton as we show an Ape

See letter to Charles Lyell, 27 and 28 April [1860].
Pope 1733–4, Epistle II: 7–8:

in doubt to act, or rest, To deem himself a Part of God, or Beast;

Pope 1733–4, Epistle II: 20.


Pope, Alexander. 1733–4. An essay on man. Address’d to a friend. 4 pts. London: J. Wilford.


It is small comfort to be told you will be succeeded in lineal descent by angels when Lamarck and Darwin have made your ancestors without souls. However, can the progressive system not be seen as most consonant with a higher destiny if all spiritual natures advance? The link of common descent to inferior beings like idiots should be obvious. Infants die before they become responsible. Pope’s An essay on Man [1733] shows how man was "In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast", without speculation on his genealogy.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Charles Robert Darwin
Source of text
Kinnordy MS, Charles Lyell’s journal V, pp. 176–9
Physical description
Draft 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2779A,” accessed on 10 April 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 8