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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   12 April [1861]

Down Bromley Kent

Ap. 12th

My dear Lyell

I have been most deeply interested by your letter. You seem to have done the grandest work & made the greatest step of anyone with respect to man.—1 It is an especial relief to hear that you think the French superficial, deposits are deltoid & semi-marine.2 But two days ago I was saying to a friend, that the unknown manner of accumulation of these deposits seemed the great blot in all the work done. I could not stomach debacles or lacustrine beds.— It is grand.— I remember Falconer told me that he thought some of the remains in the Devonshire Caverns were preglacial;3 & this I presume is now your conclusion for the older celts with Cyrena & Hippopotamus.4 It is grand. What a fine long pedigree you have given the Human Race!

I am sure I never thought of parallel Roads having been accumulated during Subsidence.—5 I think I see some difficulties on this view; though at first reading your note I jumped at idea.— But I will think over all I saw there. I am (stomacho volente) coming up to London on Tuesday to work on Cocks & Hens & on Wednesday morning about 14 before 10 I will call on you, (unless I hear to contrary); for I long to see you.—6 I congratulate you on your grand work

Ever yours | C. Darwin

P.S. Tell Lady Lyell that I was unable to digest the funerial ceremonies of the ants;7 notwithstanding that Erasmus8 has often told me that I shall find some day that they have their Bishops. After a battle, I have always seen the ants carry away the dead for food. Ants display the utmost economy & always carry away a dead fellow creature as food.— But I have just forwarded two most extraordinary Letters to Busk, from a back-woodsman in Texas, who has evidently watched ants carefully & declares most positively that they plant & cultivate a kind of grass for store-food, & plant other bushes for shelter! I do not know what to think, except that the old Gentleman is not fibbing intentionally. I have left the responsibility with Busk whether or no to read the letters.9


Lyell’s letter has not been found. Since 1859 he had been actively investigating the geological evidence that pertained to the antiquity of man to include in a revised edition of his Principles of geology. In the event, Lyell published his findings in a separate volume (C. Lyell 1863). For CD’s comments on some of Lyell’s earlier findings, see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to Charles Lyell, 2 September [1859].
Lyell had for several months been evaluating the notes he had made and specimens he had collected during visits to Amiens and Abbeville, France, in 1859 and to Abbeville again in 1860 (K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 341, 344). By determining more precisely the nature of the drift deposits of the valley of the Somme, in which large numbers of flint implements had been discovered, Lyell hoped to resolve some of the conflicting geological interpretations of these deposits, which provided critical evidence concerning the antiquity of man. For Lyell’s determination that the Abbeville deposits were ‘fluvio-marine’ rather than lacustrine, see ibid., p. 344. On the cover, Lyell wrote in part: ‘C. Darwin Apr. 13 | 1861  Somme valley beds whether preglacial’.
Hugh Falconer and other naturalists had been engaged since 1858 in a study of the fossil remains of a cave near Brixham in Devon (C. Murchison ed. 1868, 2: 486, 491–7). CD had been much interested in their finding flint implements beneath deposits containing the bones of extinct mammalian species. See Correspondence vol. 7, letters to J. D. Hooker, 6 October [1858] and 20 [October 1858].
Lyell had found the extinct freshwater bivalve Cyrena fluminalis above a bed containing flint implements at Abbeville (K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 344), just as Falconer had discovered the bones of hippotomuses associated with worked flints in the caves of southern England. Lyell, however, was unclear about how these finds related chronologically to the glacial period. As he stated in a letter to Charles James Fox Bunbury of 26 April 1861 (ibid., p. 344): The relation of man to the close of the glacial period is a point on which I have not yet made up my mind, but I suspect those beds in France may have begun before the northern drift of England was finished.
The reference is to the so-called ‘parallel roads’ of Glen Roy, in Scotland. In 1839, CD published a paper in which he concluded that the roads were the remnants of former beaches formed successively as a result of the periodic elevation of the land (see Collected papers 1: 89–137). Lyell was reviewing the geological evidence to explain the phenomena of Glen Roy in connection with revisions he intended to make to his Principles of geology.
According to Emma Darwin’s diary, CD went to London on 16 April 1861 and returned to Down on 20 April.
Mary Elizabeth Lyell had apparently drawn CD’s attention to an account of ‘funerial ceremonies’ in Australian ants. See letter to George Busk, 5 April [1861] and n. 2.
See letter to George Busk, 5 April [1861]. On the cover, Lyell wrote in part: ‘Ants in Texas planting’.


Collected papers: The collected papers of Charles Darwin. Edited by Paul H. Barrett. 2 vols. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 1977.

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


Discusses progress of CL’s work [on Antiquity of man (1863)].

CD had not thought of subsidence in connection with "roads" of Glen Roy.

Discusses habits of ants.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
AP 13 61
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.244)
Physical description
ALS 6pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3117,” accessed on 8 June 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 9