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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   3 July [1860]

Down Bromley Kent [Sudbrook Park]

July 3d

My dear Gray

I received the mathematical papers,1 for which many thanks, but have not yet had time to try to understand them: Your letter of June 17th has been forwarded to me here (for I am at Water-Cure).2 I have had an unhappy household of late: my eldest girl has had low fever, 9 weeks in bed, but at last we have moved her: & my health quite broke down. We shall soon have to take her to sea-side & I want a considerable change; for from anxiety & consequent ill-health have done hardly anything for last six weeks.—   I am very sorry to hear how extremely hard you are pressed with work. It is a pity that you should spend more time over Reviews of my Book:3 you have done an immensity & been of incalculable service. I feel very grateful; though I know well that this is not a personal affair: you wish that the subject shd. be fairly treated & discussed. Nevertheless I cannot help feeling deeply obliged to you.—   I can now very plainly see from many late Reviews, that I shd. have been fairly annihilated, had it not been for 4 or 5 men, including yourself. The early favourable reviews were highly important in preventing the subject from being “burked.”—

Yesterday I had letter from Hooker at B. Assocn. at Oxford;4 & he tells me that there was one day a savage fight on my Book between Owen & Huxley; & subsequently a discussion of utmost warmth of 4 hours duration(!) on a paper by Draper of U. States on some subject,5 in which somehow (I know not how) my book became subject: Bishop of Oxford, one of most eloquent men in England, ridiculed me at great length & with much spirit; & Hooker answered him, I imagine, with wonderful spirit & success.—

Owen will not prove right, when he said that the whole subject would be forgotten in 10 years.6 My book has stirred up the mud with a vengeance; & it will be a blessing to me if all my friends do not get to hate me. But I look at it as certain, if I had not stirred up the mud some one else would very soon; so that the sooner the battle is fought the sooner it will be settled,— not that the subject will be settled in our lives’ times. It will be an immense gain, if the question becomes a fairly open one; so that each man may try his new facts on it pro & contra.—

Very many thanks about N.Y. Times;7 I daresay you will be disappointed with the Article; & I cannot for the life of me tell what it is that struck Lyell & me on it—   I hope I may find it at home when I return there in 3 or 4 days.—   I will order the two numbers of the Atlantic when I know which months contain your Articles;8 as I shall be very anxious to see them.

I have just reread your letter: in truth I am myself quite conscious that my mind is in simple muddle about “designed laws” & “undesigned consequences”.—9 Does not Kant say that there are several subjects on which directly opposite conclusions can be proved true?!10

I forgot to say that in Fraser’s Magazine for July, there is strong article by our great man W. Hopkins. It is written with very fair spirit & with not more of the arrogance of a mathematician, than might have been expected. I have remonstrated with him for so coolly saying that I base my views on what I rank as great difficulties.—11

Anyone by taking these difficulties alone can make a most strong case against me. I could myself write a more damning Review than has as yet appeared! On question of Hybridity he passes over the insensibly fine gradation from utter sterility to complete fertility—,—the fertility (W. Herbert) of some hybrids,—& the sterility of the vars. of Verbascum (Gärtner) & of the vars. of Tobacco (Kölreuter), which latter facts you, by the way, never notice.—12 Your letters are great pleasure to me, but pray do not write whilst so overworked.—

I have this minute had letter from Lyell; who is just starting for continent; on his return he is going to investigate reported cases of Hippopotamus subsequent to Glacial epoch: he finds Falconer & Prestwich now believe in this remarkable fact; if so there has probably been in Europe a period subsequent to Glacial warmer.13 Do you remember my saying that I hoped I shd be proved wrong to punish me for disbelieving in you; & it seems that my punishment is at hand!—14 Not being able lately to work I have amused myself about Orchids. I have been struck with amazement at beauty of contrivances with respect to fertilisation by insects. The insects led me to find that two horns (I subsequently dissected out pollen-tube) in Gymnadenia conopsea are the stigmas & you never saw anything so pretty as the contrivances are.

Do you know Hookers paper in Phil. Transact on Listera;15 he misapprehended meaning of his facts. I find the rostellum so delicate that the explosion takes place by touch of human-hair, & the fluid sets hard in under two seconds. It was really beautiful to see a little Sphex licking the labellum, & as soon as its head touched the rostellum the explosion took-place, & the insect crawled out with the 2 pollen-masses cemented to its forehead, ready to impregnate next flower into which it crawled.

One word more on “designed laws” & “undesigned results”. I see a bird which I want for food, take my gun & kill it, I do this designedly.—   An innocent & good man stands under tree & is killed by flash of lightning. Do you believe (& I really shd like to hear) that God designedly killed this man? Many or most persons do believe this; I can’t & don’t.—   If you believe so, do you believe that when a swallow snaps up a gnat that God designed that that particular swallow shd. snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant? I believe that the man & the gnat are in same predicament.— If the death of neither man or gnat are designed, I see no good reason to believe that their first birth or production shd. be necessarily designed. Yet, as I said before, I cannot persuade myself that electricity acts, that the tree grows, that man aspires to loftiest conceptions all from blind, brute force.

Your muddled & affectionate friend | Ch. Darwin


Gray had sent CD the June 1860 issue of a New York periodical, the Mathematical Monthly. It contained an article by the mathematician Chauncey Wright entitled ‘The economy and symmetry of the honey-bees’ cells’ (Wright 1860). This issue of the Mathematical Monthly is in DAR 48: 48–61; Wright’s paper was annotated by CD.
Gray’s letter has not been found. CD took the water-cure at Sudbrook Park, Richmond, Surrey, from 28 June to 7 July 1860 (‘Journal’; Appendix II).
Gray was preparing an essay surveying the reviews of Origin (see letter to Asa Gray, 8 June [1860]). It was published as the last part of his anonymous three-part article in the Atlantic Monthly ([Gray] 1860b).
See preceding letter and n. 3.
CD had asked Gray to procure a copy of the New York Times, 28 March [1860], which contained a review of Origin. See letter to Asa Gray, 25 April [1860] and n. 5.
[Gray] 1860b comprised three articles that were published in the July, August, and October issues of the Atlantic Monthly. Annotated copies of the articles are in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
In the third of his articles, Gray addressed this point ([Gray] 1860b, p. 414), stating that CD used: expressions which seem to imply that the natural forms which surround us, because they have a history or natural sequence, could have been only generally, but not particularly designed,—a view at once superficial and contradictory; whereas his true line should be, that his hypothesis concerns the order and not the cause, the how and not the why of the phenomena, and so leaves the question of design just where it was before. The passage is marked in CD’s copy of the work.
In the Critique of pure reason (Kant 1781), Immanuel Kant called certain transcendental ideas ‘antinomies of pure reason’, or pairs of contradictory metaphysical ideas, each of which could be conclusively proved. CD’s knowledge of Kant’s writings was probably drawn from Whewell 1840.
Hopkins 1860. CD’s letter to William Hopkins has not been found, but see letter to Charles Lyell, 5 [July 1860].
CD discussed the work of William Herbert, Karl Friedrich von Gärtner, and Joseph Gottlieb Kölreuter in Origin, pp. 246–50. Their respective investigations into hybridism were also extensively discussed in his ‘big book’ on species (Natural selection).
Charles Lyell’s letter has not been found. He left England on 6 July 1860 for a tour in France, Belgium, and Germany. His purpose was to investigate the flint implements and fossils first discovered by Jacques Boucher de Crèvecoeur de Perthes. Before his departure, Lyell had discussed the possibility of a second post-glacial warm period with Hugh Falconer and Joseph Prestwich (see Wilson ed. 1970, pp. 452–5, 460). The subject had arisen after fossilised bones of the extant African elephant were found in association with those of extinct species in caves near Palermo. See letter from Hugh Falconer, 9 July 1860, and K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 334–5.
Hooker 1854b.


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

Draper, John William. 1860. On the intellectual development of Europe, considered with reference to the views of Mr Darwin and others, that the progression of organisms is determined by law. Report of the 30th meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held at Oxford, Transactions of the sections, pp. 115–16.

Hopkins, William. 1860. Physical theories of the phenomena of life. Fraser’s Magazine 61: 739–52; 62: 74–90.

Kant, Immanuel. 1781. Critik der reinen Vernunft. Riga: J. F. Hartknoch.

Natural selection: Charles Darwin’s Natural selection: being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. Edited by R. C. Stauffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1975.

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.

Whewell, William. 1840. The philosophy of the inductive sciences, founded upon their history. 2 vols. London and Cambridge.


Origin has "stirred up the mud with a vengeance"; AG and three or four others have saved CD from annihilation and are responsible for the attention now given to the subject. Reports events at Oxford BAAS meeting.

New evidence supports AG’s view of a warm post-glacial period.

Discusses his recent orchid observations.

Poses AG a question on design in nature.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Sudbrook Park Down letterhead
Source of text
Archives of the Gray Herbarium, Harvard University (41)
Physical description
ALS 10pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2855,” accessed on 4 March 2024,

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