skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From Charles Lyell1   8 September 1860

8th Septr. 1860—

Your argument from absence of mammalia in islands excepting those which we know to have been joined to mainland in Pliocene times is a favourite one of mine when I wish to prove that yr bond of descent is required for the coming in of new species.2 The older the island, the stronger yr case against special creation without a closely allied antetype as Wallace would say.3

The land shells of Madeira and the Canaries are so endemic as to show that none were united with each other or Africa. I believe all were separate from Upper Miocene times; if not, small African species of quadrupeds would have been retained.

But the antiquity of islands void of mammals checks the hypothesis of the easy adaptability of one species of a genus to new conditions. On a new volcanic island before all the best places are seized upon, seals or walrus’s, manatees, dolphins & other cetacea, when pressed hard for food wd go up the rivers or if amphibious devour the eggs or young of land-birds. Bats, though not primates, but here Lissencephala ought to get the better in some stations of marine birds if higher classes tend to become dominant.4

The long reign of the Dinornis family in New Zealand implies that for ages there had been room for mammalia if bats & rodentia & aquatic placentals being at hand had been convertible even into allied structures fitted for land habits. And why bats & rodents should have peopled all Australia without having been developed into something higher in the placental line seeing that the representatives of the latter were imported from Europe, can run wild there, is strange, for why shd it take more time for a bat to work up into a lemur than for a Myrmecobius to improve into a Thylacinus.5

As to the land shells of Madeira & Porto Santo 95 per cent of them have remained absolutely unchanged for a period sufficiently long to allow the form & size of the islands to be altered materially by the waves of the Atlantic, long enough for some species which once very common to become almost extinct—in a few quite lost

The only speculation I have been able to make is this that by far the majority 910 ths perhaps are immutable, & when changes come, must die rather than yield. The hereditary power has got too strong a set, after a million of years, in one way    It cannot go in any other. But there are some eminently metamorphic species in the Madeiras & these are producing the allied species & sub-species of Lowe in each island.6 & after a long period there might be found, in spite of extinctions, just as many true species of Helices in the Archipelago as now, supposing Man would let it alone—   So I suspect it has always been— Most species immutable & true to the death, as I maintained in the Principles that all were, but a few of the whole plastic & becoming the centers of new generic & ultimately higher groups as you maintain. So it seems to me to hold good in the tertiary series    Some shells once abundant in the Mediterranean formation & in the Crag, still survive unaltered though excessively persecuted & rare.—

Yr antagonists are driven to great straits when they try to set up any machinery other than that of normal generation— The greater we can show the role of extinction, the worse is their case because the reactivating power ought to keep pace, if as Bronn pretends, the creation is always growing richer & more varied,7 which however I doubt since Eocene days.

According to the progressive theory, why shd. there be a living platypus or Ornithorhynchus, for we have nothing synthetical or elementary in the Coal Strata, & if they shd. be found there, how have they escaped being altered, improved and specialized in 30 periods.

Ammonites in uppermost part of the Maestricht, of a Cretaceous type, if not species of Texas are against the doctrine of wide gaps. Between Maestricht & Thanet sands.

What you say of the power of preoccupancy is good8— so, as to atolls, but if they subsided very slowly, the absence of volant & amphibious forms of reptile & mammifer in such a region proves rate of transmutation slow, even as compared to revolutions in physical geography.


The text of the letter has been taken from a copy in Lyell’s scientific journal. It is also printed in Wilson ed. 1970, pp. 472–4. The copy is headed: ‘C. Lyell to C. Darwin 8th Septr. 1860— Coburg’.
Alfred Russel Wallace referred to the original form from which a variety or new species developed as the ‘antitype’ (see Darwin and Wallace 1858, p. 61, and Wallace 1860, p. 181).
Lissencephala, in Richard Owen’s classification of the Mammalia, was the division that included the rodents, insectivores, bats, and edentates. See R. Owen 1859a.
Lyell refers to the numbat or banded ant-eater, an Australian marsupial, and to the so-called Tasmanian wolf, a carnivorous marsupial.
Richard Thomas Lowe, an expert on the natural history of Madeira, published a description of the recent and fossil land and fresh-water shells of the island (Lowe 1854).
Bronn 1858a. See Junker 1991.
CD made this point in the concluding paragraphs of his letter to Charles Lyell, 1 September [1860]. See also Origin, p. 403.


Junker, Thomas. 1991. Henrich Georg Bronn und die Entstehung der Arten. Sudhoffs Archiv Zeitschrift für Wissenschaftsgeschichte 75: 180–208. [Vols. 8,10]

Lowe, Richard Thomas. 1854. Catalogus Molluscorum pneumonatorum Insularum Maderensium: or a list of all the land and fresh-water shells, recent and fossil, of the Madeiran Islands. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London pt 22: 161–218.

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.

Wallace, Alexander. 1860. Remarks on the occurrence of rarer British Sphingidae. [Read 4 June 1860.] Transactions of the Entomological Society of London n.s. 5 (1858–61), Proceedings, pp. 119–20.


Believes CD’s argument against special creation based on absence of terrestrial mammals on islands isolated before Pliocene era is very strong. However, the absence means Cetacea and bats have not modified towards terrestrial existence. There is similar lack of development of bats and rodents in Australia. Constancy among land shells of Madeira over long period shows that the majority of their species are immutable: a minority of "metamorphic" species maintains the overall number of true species while extinction removes many. Emphasis on the role of extinction discomfits CD’s opponents since the power of generation of new species ought to keep pace. Mentions Ammonite deposits with reference to CD’s comments on their apparent sudden extinction [Origin, pp. 321–2]. Perhaps absence of transmutation on slowly subsiding atolls indicates the slow rate of selective change.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
Kinnordy MS, Charles Lyell’s journal VI, pp. 179–86
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2908A,” accessed on 17 January 2021,

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