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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Charles Lyell1   25 September 1860

25. Sept. 1860

I return the M.S. on dogs which I think excellent.2 The case you make out seems very strong not only of crosses from distinct living species having blended into the dog, but in favour of difft savage races having domesticated different canine types, wolves, jackalls &c by domestication in accordance with the hypothesis of Pallas having eliminated the dislike to cross with other species as well as the tendency of such crosses to sterility.3

All this helps the doctrine of the several so blendible wild species having themselves come down from a common remote progenitor & I suppose you will say in reply to Quart. Review that the only reason that pigeons have not so mixed is that Man had not the same motive to cross them with other species distinct from the Rock pigeon.4

I think the subject too important to bear shortening. As to the antiquity of the Dingo I have turned up to your two references in Quart. G. S. Journal & they by no means bear out your inference.5 The fossils occurred in a cave in the basalt & were certainly posterior probably very long so, & there is no evidence as caves are gradually choked up that the Dingo was not one of the last creatures whose bones were introduced. I asked Falconer yesterday6 & he said, ‘let him take care he does not get himself into the same scrape which Owen did about Strzelecki’s Australian Mastodon;7 I read the papers about Dingo & thought they had no proof.’

Falconer knows of no fossil, rodent or bat in Australia. He says Strzelecki’s Mastodon was from S. America.

It seems strange that the question whether any Newfoundland dogs are semi-web-footed or not shd be so doubtful, also gestation of jackall. On these and many points yr book will draw forth a number of facts for the 2d. Edn.8

Some one shd go at once to Angoulême & see into that question of the Leporine.9 If true, it wd. take away the antecedent improbability of Pallas’ hypothesis of dogs when domesticated losing sterility &c. Bartlett says, at Zool. Gardens, that we must wait till next spring for good experiments.10 He ought to have as many as possible to start with.

The chapter on dogs makes me wish yr book soon out. That & the pigeons & the Tables of large & small genera wd alone make a useful beginning.11

You conclude yr. letter received this morning by doubting whether I care for so speculative a way of dealing with the question. It is just what I wanted & not more conjectural than my letter, much of which I wd not of course touch or venture on in print, nor wish shown to third persons, more especially as one may alter one’s speculations the day after. I have referred to the pp. you allude to of Origin with much profit, tho‘ I remembered them all, but they contain such a condensation of matter that they require to be often re-read.

I have been too deeply interested & taken up with the Dogs to have done with Asa Gray, but see enough to wish it to appear in Annals of N. H. & cannot but think they wd print it for their own sake & not require you to pay.12 Tell them that the addition of A. Gray’s name wd give a wholly new value to it instead of its appearing anonymously    I want to buy it, for one.

I think you have understood my point & the idea that if the original type of Mammalia had been lost & the reptilian had been greatly raised in grade, they wd. have produced some other great class as high perhaps or higher but not the existing Mammalia, is a grand notion & believing as I do in the infinite Capacity of the creative power, inherent in the organic world, worked out by variation & natural selection, I do not think it an extravagant speculation at all. You might say the same if some monotreme, instead of a reptile, was improved into a mammal, by a series of changes independent of those which gave rise to the first mammal. Possibly birds may be an instance of such a class, though I fear that would not do, because however low the Monotreme, it must perhaps rank typically before birds & birds therefore must have preceded in order of development.

I am glad you reminded me of the N. Guinea Marsupials. I had imagined that there was a larger admixture of placentals. I shd. think still the Australian genera & species were so well fitted for the extraordinary droughts that they wd. get the better of the Dingo had he run wild as in Juan Fernandez. The Brazilian case does not tell for much as that country has in the Marsupial line turned out nothing but opossums.

The case of natl. grafting stated by Göppert Überwallung der Tannenstöche, Bonn 1842, where silver fir borrows from roots of Pinus abies is the more analogous to grafting as being one conifer borrowing from another.—13 Plants of other divisions wd do the same probably if near enough to allied trees, which owing to rotation may not be often at hand. If the genus were remote, it wd. fail.

Do you not think when Man was less advanced 50,000 years or generations back & tribes more isolated there must have been rather more races than now. tho’ of course at a remoter period much fewer, & originally only one, & that one lower intellectually than any one now existing. In proportion as more powerful & more cosmopolite races arose they wd exterminate inferior ones & also there wd be more mixture & a check to divergence into species or the centripetal force of hybridity (excuse the use of the phrase) would come into play.

Falconer has been holding forth today on the difft, Mastodons & Elephants not coming in chronologically as they shd do, according to yr views, but when one sees the new Maltese dwarf intermediate between E. antiquus & E. meridionalis & Anca’s new Sicilian cave elephant,14 a modification of the living Indian one leaning towards antiquus, & when one thinks that Falconer can distinguish all American varieties of Mammals from all European fossil species, I confess I attach little value to the objection.15


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. 493–5. Lyell returned to London on 23 September following a six-week visit to the Continent (ibid., p. 490 n. 88).
CD described the ‘doctrine’ of Pyotr Simon Pallas concerning the origin of domestic breeds of dogs in a previous letter to Lyell (Correspondence vol. 7, letter to Charles Lyell, 25 October [1859]): He hypothetically supposes that when long domesticated they lose their tendency to sterility when crossed with the other domesticated species; & by their crossing when domesticated he believes that all our domestic races have originated.
The review of Origin in the Quarterly Review ridiculed CD’s example of the power of selection drawn from comparing the breeds of domestic pigeons, stating ‘this is all very pleasant writing, especially for pigeon-fanciers; but what step do we really gain in it at all towards establishing the alleged fact that variations are but species in the act of formation, or in establishing Mr. Darwin’s position that a well-marked variety may be called an incipient species?’ ([Wilberforce] 1860, p. 235). This passage and others relating to pigeons are heavily marked and annotated in CD’s copy of the review (Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL).
Lyell visited Hugh Falconer soon after returning to London to learn what progress had been made ‘on the great question at issue about the relation of certain elephant beds and the glacial epoch.’ (K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 337).
In 1844, Richard Owen had identified a fossilised molar tooth sent to him by Paul Edmund de Strzelecki as that of a mastodon. It was said to have been found in a cave in Australia (R. Owen 1844). Before then, the extinct mammalian fauna of Australia was believed to be exclusively restricted to marsupial forms. Falconer first questioned Owen’s identification in 1857; in 1863, he published a full history and refutation of Owen’s claim (see Falconer 1857–8, ‘Synoptical table of the species of Mastodon and elephant’, facing p. 319; and Falconer 1863, pp. 96–101).
The edition of Origin usually referred to as the second was published in January 1860. Lyell evidently considered this to have been a corrected reprint and rather refers to the major alterations that CD was intending to incorporate into the third edition of Origin, published in 1861.
Lyell refers to the supposed hybrid between a hare and a rabbit said to have been bred in Angoulême, France. See letter to Charles Lyell, 5 [July 1860].
Abraham Dee Bartlett was superintendent of the zoological gardens in London. Lyell had seen the so-called leporines at the gardens early in July 1860 (Wilson ed. 1970, p. 465). Bartlett conducted many breeding experiments for CD at the gardens, but an account of this particular cross has not been located in the Darwin Archive.
CD was preparing the first part (Variation) of a substantial work, in which he planned to provide all the details and citations he had been unable to include in Origin.
Falconer was engaged in an extensive study of the fossil elephants and mastodons of Europe and America. He published a paper on the British and European species in 1857 and one on the American forms in 1863 (Falconer 1857–8 and 1863). He had recently discovered a ‘small elephant, the size of a Shetland pony, in the small island of Malta.’ (K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 339). See also letter to Charles Lyell, 28 [September 1860].


Anca, François. 1860. Notes on two newly discovered ossiferous caves in Sicily. Report of the 30th meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at Oxford, Transactions of the sections, p. 73.

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

Falconer, Hugh. 1857–8. On the species of mastodon and elephant occurring in the fossil state in Great Britain. Pt 1. Mastodon. Pt 2. Elephas. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 13 (1857): 307–60; 14 (1858): 81–4.

Göppert, Heinrich Robert. 1842. Beobachtungen über das sogenannte Ueberwallen der Tannenstöcke, für Botaniker und Forstmänner. Bonn.

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.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.

[Wilberforce, Samuel.] 1860. [Review of Origin.] Quarterly Review 108: 225–64.


Returns "excellent" MS in which CD favours hybrid origin of domestic dog, which CL believes strengthens case for common progenitor of wild species.

Doubts CD’s authorities for antiquity of dingo.

Variation will raise many points for investigation.

"Leporine" hare–rabbit hybrid should be investigated.

Has re-read passages in Origin that CD suggested.

Annals of Natural History would probably reprint Gray’s review of Origin at their own expense.

CD’s thought that modern reptiles could not develop into existing Mammalia but only into another high form is a "grand notion" compatible with "the infinite capacity of the creative power".

Comments on New Guinea marsupials.

Still thinks that the Australian genera and species are so well fitted for extraordinary droughts that they would get the better of the dingo.

Suggests that once there were more races of man, though from common stock. Competition and then hybridity checked divergence.

Falconer’s views on elephant classification. CL attaches little value to Falconer’s objection that mastodons and elephants do not come in chronologically, as they should in CD’s view.

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2927A,” accessed on 1 October 2023,

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