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Darwin Correspondence Project

To T. H. Huxley   16 November [1860]

Down Bromley Kent

Nov 16

My dear Huxley

Many thanks for your kind note & Lecture.1 The latter seems to me excellent—the best expose & classification of the higher objects of Natural History that I have ever read. It is really admirable. I like much your bit about the Roman school-boy.—2 I think you are a little too emphatic against reading, for how the deuce is a poor schoolmaster to learn anything except by reading & comparing with what he sees.3 Your remarks on absolute necessity of observation are capital. When my son was at Rugby4 there was a Botanical prize, which he won, by merely getting up Henslow’s Botany,5 & he never actually looked at a single flower!!

My daughter keeps in much the same state.

I had a letter today from R. Mc.Donnell of Dubline6 (I wonder whether he is the bearded man one sees at B. Assocn.    if so I fear he is rash & wild) & he says owing to passage in my Book on Electric fishes he has been dissecting Rays, & believes he finds in same fish the homologues of both the anterior & posterior proper electric organs of fish: which, if true, seems to me an interesting fact.—7

By the way I hear that Agassiz is coming out in next Part of his Contributions, with heavy thunder against the Origin.8 On other hand, I hear from L. Horner9 that Dubois-Reymond10 expresses strong approbation. I suppose you have heard nothing more from Von Siebold;11 what a trump-card he would be on our side.

Owing to all the illness of my poor child & constant change of place I make no progress with my work.—

I shall be very curious to see the 1st nor. of the Review.—   Long may you live as “a buttered angel”.

Ever yours most truly | C. Darwin

I suppose we shall have dear old Hooker back soon.—12


Huxley apparently sent CD an offprint of a lecture he had delivered at the South Kensington Museum on 14 May 1860. The lecture was entitled ‘On the study of zoology’ and was the fourth in the series ‘Lectures addressed to teachers on preparation for obtaining science certificates and the method of teaching a science class’ (1860–1). Neither CD’s copy of the lecture nor the note CD mentions has been found in the Darwin Archive.
Huxley maintained that a fourth-century Roman boy, ‘transplanted into one of our public schools … would not meet with a single unfamiliar line of thought; amidst all the new facts he would have to learn, not one would suggest a different mode of regarding the universe from that current in his own time.’ (T. H. Huxley 1860c; reprinted in T. H. Huxley 1870, p. 129). CD had long felt that schools focused too much on classical learning (see Correspondence vol. 5, letter to W. D. Fox, 7 March [1852], and J. R. Moore 1977).
Huxley stated that ‘real knowledge in science means personal acquaintance with the facts, be they few or many’ (T. H. Huxley 1860c; reprinted in T. H. Huxley 1870, p. 131). When Huxley edited this essay for re-publication in 1870, he added a footnote addressing the point raised by CD (T. H. Huxley 1870, p. 131 n. 1): ‘It has been suggested to me that these words may be taken to imply a discouragement on my part of any sort of scientific instruction which does not give an acquaintance with the facts at first hand. But this is not my meaning … The system which I repudiate is that which allows teachers who have not come into direct contact with the leading facts of a science to pass their second-hand information on.’
William Erasmus Darwin attended Rugby School from 1852 to 1858.
Henslow 1837. William began to study botany seriously in 1858 before leaving Rugby (see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to W. E. Darwin, [3 May 1858]).
The letter has not been found. Robert M’Donnell was an Irish surgeon and naturalist and co-editor with Huxley of the Natural History Review. His name was variously spelled M’Donnell or McDonnell.
In Origin, p. 192, CD referred to the origin of electric organs in fish as a ‘special difficulty’. The rays, he stated, possessed organs closely analogous to the electric apparatus that did not discharge electricity (ibid., p. 193). M’Donnell’s information about a second organ that was the real homologue of the electric battery in the torpedo, published in M’Donnell 1861, was included in the fourth edition of Origin (Peckham ed. 1959, p. 350).
Louis Agassiz’s critique of Origin was published towards the end of 1860 in Agassiz 1857–62, 2 (pt 1): 89–99. The section was entitled ‘On Acalephs in general’ and discussed CD’s views in relation to the definition of species and their classification. The same text had already been printed in the July number of the American Journal of Science and Arts and in the September issue of Annals and Magazine of Natural History (Agassiz 1860).
Leonard Horner was acquainted with many German naturalists and scholars. His daughter Leonora was married to the noted historian Georg Heinrich Pertz, chief librarian and privy councillor in Berlin. Horner was at the time president of the Geological Society of London.
Emil Heinrich Du Bois-Reymond was professor of physiology at Berlin University. Famous for wide-ranging researches into animal electricity, Du Bois-Reymond was also a noted free-thinker, greatly interested in questions relating to the origin of life. In the 1870s, he delivered a series of lectures on Darwinism, the manuscripts of which are in the Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin.
Huxley corresponded with Karl Theodor Ernst von Siebold, professor of zoology and comparative anatomy in Munich, whose work on parthenogenesis CD had studied closely (see Correspondence vol. 6). However, CD confused Siebold with Karl Ernst von Baer (see letter from T. H. Huxley, 6 August 1860, and letter to T. H. Huxley, 8 August [1860]).
Joseph Dalton Hooker left Beirut en route for London on 5 November 1860 (L. Huxley ed. 1918, 1: 528).


Agassiz, Louis. 1857–62. Contributions to the natural history of the United States of America. 4 vols. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown & Company. London: Trübner.

Agassiz, Louis. 1860. On the origin of species. American Journal of Science and Arts 2d ser. 30: 142–54. [Reprinted in Annals and Magazine of Natural History 3d ser. 6 (1860): 219–32.]

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

M’Donnell, Robert. 1861. On an organ in the skate which appears to be the homologue of the electrical organ of the torpedo. Natural History Review n.s. 1: 57–60. [Vols. 8,9]

Moore, James Richard. 1977. On the education of Darwin’s sons: the correspondence between Charles Darwin and the Reverend G. V. Reed, 1857–1864. Notes and Records of the Royal Society 32 (1977–8): 51–70.

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.


Thanks THH for his lecture ["On the study of zoology", Lay sermons, addresses and reviews (1870), pp. 104–31]. Best exposé and classification of the higher objects of natural history he has ever read. On reading and observation.

Henrietta’s lack of improvement.

R. McDonnell’s work on rays and electric organs of fishes.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Thomas Henry Huxley
Sent from
Source of text
Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine Archives (Huxley 5: 145)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2986,” accessed on 23 June 2024,

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