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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. S. Henslow to J. D. Hooker1   10 May 1860

7 Downing Terrace | Cambr.

10 May 1860.

My dear Joseph,

I don’t know whether you care to hear Phillips, who delivers the Rede Lecture in the Senate House next Tuesday at 2. P.M.2 It is understood that he means to attack the Darwinian hypothesis of Natural Selection.

Sedgwicks address last Monday3 was temperate enough for his usual mode of attack, but strong enough to cast a slur upon all who substitute hypotheses for strict induction, & as he expressed himself in regard to some of C.Ds suggestions as revolting to his own sense of wrong and right & as Dr Clark4 who followed him, spoke so unnecessarily severely against Darwin’s views; I got up, as Sedgwick had alluded to me, and stuck up for Darwin as well as I could, refusing to allow that he was guided by any but truthful motives, and declaring that he himself believed he was exalting & not debasing our views of a Creator, in attributing to him a power of imposing laws on the Organic World by which to do his work, as effectually as his laws imposed upon the inorganic had done it in the Mineral Kingdom—

I believe I succeeded in diminishing, if not entirely removing, the chances of Darwin’s being prejudged by many who take their cue in such cases according to views of those they suppose may know something of the matter—   Yesterday at my lectures I alluded to the subject,5 & showed how frequently naturalists were at fault in regarding as species, forms which had (in some cases) been shown to be varieties, and how legitimately Darwin had deduced his inferences from positive experiment—   Indeed I had, on Monday, replied to a sneer (I don’t mean from Sedgwick) at his pidgeon results, by declaring that the case necessitated an appeal to such domestic experiments, & that this was the legitimate & best way of proceeding for the detection of those laws which we all endeavouring to discover—

I do not disguise my own opinion that Darwin has pressed his hypothesis too far—but at the same time I assert my belief that his Book is (as Owen described it to me)6 the ‘Book of the Day’— I suspect the passages I marked in the Edinburgh Review7 for the illumination of Sedgwick have produced an impression upon him to a certain extent—   When I had had my say, Sedgwick got up to explain, in a very few words, his good opinion of Darwin, but that he wished it to be understood that his chief attacks were directed against Powel’s late Essay,8 from which he quoted passages as “from an Oxford Divine” that would astound Cambridge men, as no doubt they do. He showed how greedily, (if I may so speak) Powell has accepted all Darwin had suggested, & applied these suggestions (as if the whole were already proved) to his own views—

I think I have given you a fair, tho’ very hasty, view of what happened, & as I have just had a letter from Darwin, & really have not a minute to spare for a reply this morning perhaps you will send this to him, as he may like to know, to some extent, what happened—

As he also wishes to know of all criticisms, pro & con, he will find an adverse view in the last No (just received) of the Dublin Magazine of Natural history—9 Of course he knows of the reply to Owen in a late Saturday magazine,10 & also the articles in Spectator—11

Let me know, as soon as you conveniently can, whether my ideas of the Palace lectures meet yours.12 Every lecturer must, of course, be guided to a considerable extent by his own—   But there may be something or other which he has neglected, or is not aware of, that would induce him to modify his plans—   I have only a fortnight more here, & have to select such materials as I think may be useful from the Museum here, & pack them up—so I have not much time to spare— A few words will be enough to set me thinking & if these lectures are to come off I should wish to make them as instructive or suggestive (as well as agreeable) as 4 lectures may admit, & my opportunities allow— I must now have 100 auditors here, the room is so full;—& above 50 seem likely to try for a pass this year—   We have had 3 meetings within the week to arrange our new Schemes for Triposes—& so far all is working well—13   Grace Hawthorn is here for +/- 24 hours— Leonard has been for 2 or 3 nights—14 Love to Fs &c.15 | Ever affectly | J. S Henslow


Henslow suggested that Hooker send the letter on to CD. CD discusses it in his letters to J. D. Hooker, 13 [May 1860], and to J. S. Henslow, 14 May [1860].
The provisions of the Cambridge University lectureship endowed in 1524 by Robert Rede, chief justice of the common pleas, had been revised in 1858. The new statutes stipulated that a man of eminence in science or literature be appointed annually to deliver one lecture in the Easter term. The Rede lecture of 1859, the first under the new system, was given by Richard Owen. John Phillips was president of the Geological Society and professor of geology at Oxford University. The title of Phillips’s lecture was ‘Life on the earth, its origin and succession’ (Phillips 1860). Phillips addressed, among other topics, the question of natural selection and the mutability of species (Phillips 1860, pp. 200–17).
Adam Sedgwick read a paper on CD’s theory at a meeting of the Cambridge Philosophical Society on 7 May 1860. A synopsis of his remarks was reported in the Cambridge Chronicle, 19 May 1860, pp. 4–5. The Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 1 (1843–63): 223 notes only that Sedgwick’s lecture was entitled ‘On the succession of organic forms during long geological periods; and on certain theories which profess to account for the origin of new species’.
William Clark was professor of anatomy at Cambridge University. See also letter to Charles Lyell, 18 May [1860] and n. 7.
Henslow was professor of botany at Cambridge University from 1825 to 1861. He resided in Cambridge while giving his annual course of lectures.
Henslow refers to Owen’s review of Origin ([R. Owen] 1860a).
Baden Powell, until his death in June 1860, was Savilian professor of geometry at Oxford University. The ‘late Essay’ was his contribution to the 1860 volume of Essays and reviews, in which he referred to Origin as ‘a work which must soon bring about an entire revolution of opinion in favour of the grand principle of the self-evolving powers of nature’ (Powell 1860, p. 139). See also CD’s two letters to Baden Powell, 18 January [1860], and letter to Charles Lyell, 15 [February 1860], in which CD quotes Powell as having told him he had ‘never read anything so conclusive’ as the passage in Origin on the eye.
The first number of the Natural History Review for 1860 included an anonymous article entitled ‘Biogenesis’ that criticised Origin. The author was the Dublin geologist Samuel Haughton ([Haughton] 1860b). See letter to a Bookseller, 13 [May 1860].
The Saturday Review, 5 May 1860, pp. 573–4, carried an anonymous review of Richard Owen’s Palæontology (R. Owen 1860b). The reviewer took the opportunity to discuss Origin, which he noted was scarcely mentioned in Owen’s book. In particular, the reviewer commented favourably on the principle of natural selection: Natural selection will, we are persuaded, be henceforward recognised as a vera causa which has operated both in modifying animal and vegetable forms and in extinguishing those that have ceased to be fully adapted to the surrounding conditions of existence; but we are equally persuaded that, taken by itself, it is inadequate to explain the entire past history of vital phenomena as developed in our planet.
The Spectator, 24 March 1860, pp. 285–6, published remarks on Origin communicated to the magazine by Richard Whately, archbishop of Dublin. A ‘revised and corrected’ reprint of the article also appeared in the issue of 7 April 1860, pp. 234–5. The author primarily attacked CD’s geological arguments but also mentioned a number of other points. A letter dated 16 April 1860 from Belfast and signed ‘J. J. M.’, appeared in the issue of 21 April 1860, p. 380, under the title ‘Darwin’s theory defended’. The author responded to several of the critical points raised in the earlier article and concluded: ‘I do not see how any unprejudiced person can read Darwin’s masterly chapters on the geographical distribution of organisms, without seeing that his argument is to a great extent cumulative. But the main strength of the transmutation theory is in the facts of morphology, especially in the existence of rudimentary organs.’
Henslow was to deliver botanical lectures to the children of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace. See letter from J. D. Hooker, [20 April 1860].
The tripos is the system of honours examination for Cambridge University undergraduates. In 1859, the university administration set up a committee to consider changes in the natural sciences tripos. As a result of the committee’s report, a board of studies was established in March 1860 for the natural sciences. Henslow, the professor of botany, was a member of the new board (see Winstanley 1947, pp. 187–8).
Leonard Ramsay Henslow, also a clergyman, was Henslow’s oldest son. Grace Hawthorn: probably Grace Agnew Hawthorn.
Henslow’s daughter Frances Harriet was Hooker’s wife.


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.

Owen, Richard. 1860a. Palæontology or a systematic summary of extinct animals and their geological relations. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black.

Phillips, John. 1860. Life on the earth, its origin and succession. Cambridge and London: Macmillan and Co.

Powell, Baden. 1860. On the study of the evidences of Christianity. In Essays and reviews. London. [Vols. 8,9]

Winstanley, Denys Arthur. 1947. Later Victorian Cambridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Describes Sedgwick’s attack on CD’s views [at Cambridge Philosophical Society] and his own defence, though he believes CD has pressed his hypothesis too far.

Letter details

Letter no.
John Stevens Henslow
Joseph Dalton Hooker
Sent from
Source of text
MS Add. 9537/2
Physical description
ALS 10pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2794,” accessed on 12 June 2024,

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