skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From Charles Lyell   4 October 18591

Oct. 4th 1859

They who never doubted about Creation can by assuming this, explain very plausibly why endemic species in the Galapagos shd. bear the stamp of the S. Amerin type.2 The creative power foreknows not only what range of temperature they must be prepared to withstand & what organic beings they will be in contact with for the next century but what colonists will arrive in the next 100,000 years, & as most of these will be immigrants from S. America, the same motives wh. led to the endowment of the last created mollusk, fish, reptile bird or mammal with peculiar attributes on the mainland, will lead to the originating of some modification of like types for those Galapagan species which will have to struggle with the new Colonists, so that even were there no inorganic conditions, common to the Galapagos & S. America, or common to Africa & other regions, which is very improbable, there wd. still be reasons why the new insular species shd. be gifted with S American characters. Without these they will not last.

This same foreknowledge must alike govern the plans of Nature or this unknown First Cause even if creating nothing directly he endowed a single primeval egg with the germs of all that was to be afterwards developed.

Lamarck’s monads coming daily into being supply a perpetual crop of the simplest forms, so that there is no lack of these last while others are in the lapse of ages improving & rising in grade. Any system wh. begins with fewer & simpler types & ends with Man requires Lamarck’s progression. If it be said that some forms are always degenerating or passing from complex to simple, ought not data to be shown in confirmation & could the simple be so perfectly adapted for their place.3 However long it took to develop an orang into a Boscheman4 or this to a Newton, the period from the newer Pliocene without Man to the Post Pliocene with him is geologically a moment, & is not Man’s appearance in the organic what a cataclysm wd. be in the inorganic world. What cd. Selection do in adding new powers, attributes & forces, were not a creative power assumed as part of the reproductive or variety making natural law.

When once a principle of improvement is added to “Selection” when the Marsupial are supposed to have supervened on a less intelligent set of Vertebrata the Elephant to supersede the marsupial the Negro the Elephant & the White man the Negro some power must be appealed to as mysterious & undefinable as “Creation”

If the present inorganic causes can be held to be the same as those wh. acted in the past we can interpret the past & foresee the future changes but not so if “selection” be coupled with “progression”   In part of a geological epoch a Man may replace the Orang & a being as much higher may supersede Man.

In the Principles I assumed to escape the dilemma that the intellectual & moral world of Man was as difft. as were the animal & vegetable worlds from the spiritual   Man as an animal not higher or more perfect than a Gorilla.5

According to Darwin Lamarcks plan must be adopted to get rid of the intermediate variety between Man & the Apes by the dominant race soon exterminating them.6

It will be necessary to regard man as one of the mammalia, his instincts & reason as differing only in degree & as the human embryo may become a rational & intellectual being in a given number of years so may the first created embryo in a given number of million of years, be developed into a Man. He has merely had to pass thro’ more metamorphoses.

This theory cannot I fear compare scientifically to the verae causae to which you & I can now refer the inorganic changes.7 It resembles more the inventions of the old cosmogonists for altho’ it assumes that all this machinery is now going on & at work & that the changes are not brought about by extinct or unknown causes, yet the power which can superinduce the intelligence of the Elephant into a planet which had nothing above that of a fish at an earlier period & then produce Man in his highest state is not a comprehensible vera causa—or one the mode of working of which we can hope to understand?

What Huxley calls the “laws of morphology” & which he says must be assumed to account for there being no passages between the great classes of organic beings are I presume a part of this mysterious & unknown Creative Power.8 If this power has caused the successive phenomena to appear by the ordinary laws of generation, the proving this is no doubt a grand step, but it would be better to put more broadly & fairly how little it explains, and how much of the mysterious intervention of some other & higher & what we call creative power is required— I do not mean to say that ordinary generative succession does not throw great light in your hands on a vast number of phenomena which you have so well accounted for but it struck me that some sentences here & there to show the subordinate influences which you must feel that such machinery can alone supply would have been useful, not in the style of the Bridgewater Treatise,9 “as per contract”, but as modestly limiting the pretensions of “selection” when all the wonders of organic Nature & the plan of Nature are to be accounted for, & their origin in some degree traced to it’s source.

But it is more easy to recommend than to pen such sentences. In rewriting & recasting my books I have to make up my mind whether I am to embrace not only your views but also “progression” & whether Man coming last is or is not a reason for inferring all the prior steps of development.

Any hints as to the subject would be welcome   perhaps I had better evade it as much as possible but I wish to break ground because my protest against the “finality men” or the extent to which men such as Agassiz & Owen often assume that the first appearance of each being as at present ascertained, is really the date of it’s origin (I was very nearly saying creation, it is growth by natural selection I mean)   my continued protest, I say has been skilfully misinterpreted by some antagonists as a positive denial on my part of progression.10 I have purposely been very reserved on the point, & so have you, but I incline to believe in progress provided (as you wd require) they give us as many ages before as since the Lower Silurian epoch.

In a letter of Gaudins some months ago he told me of Heer of Zurich having made out a fine Miocene Flora in Iceland & many species common to Swiss Miocene beds which throws light on your migration theory—11 I suspect that when this Miocene vegetation flourished so far north there may have been more species in the world not only than in the subsequent Glacial Period but also than in our ⁠⟨⁠own⁠⟩⁠ epoch—12

p—315. Ch. X. old copy

Each formn marks only an “occasional scene”   this is quite my idea, and Agassiz has no idea how true this is to a practical geologist.13

327. old copy

“The forms which are beaten &c inheriting some inferiority in common”—14 This inferiority seems to me too often put without guarding the expression. A species may last 100,000 years or more having lungs fitted for a tropical & nearly uniform temperature & able to resist the then existing assemblage of enemies & to flourish on the food then at hand. The climate becomes extreme & other species then immigrate being superior merely in reference to the new conditions. But these invaders though victorious may not endure half as long as the older & extinct ones did. If the white man in Liberia gives way before the black or the mulatto, it is only because of inferiority 15 in that climate.

What you say in Ch. X of intermediate form between extinct ones & why not exactly intermediate is very good & original.16 The Summary of the 10th Ch is very striking.17

Ch. XI   I have been always in the habit of considering the dis⁠⟨⁠si⁠⟩⁠milarity of African & American species as the necessary resu⁠⟨⁠lt⁠⟩⁠ of “Creation” adapting new species to the preexisting ones— Granting this unknown & if you please miraculous power acting as steadily as does extinction and all the consequences are the same as those of “natural selection.” It is as necessary to give species certain endowments to do battle against living enemies, & to hold a place amidst contemporary organisms as to give them for aquatic aerial terrestrial or subterranean conditions.

But if once the variety-making power is accepted as a vera causa & as the mode & form under which the creative force manifests itself on earth then of course the difference of the plants & animals in the Old & New World are referable to a better understood mode of creation, which was in no small degree guessed at by Lamarck & others & wh. you are establishing by the facts of domestication breeding &c. I was afraid you wd. have had to shake my faith in specific centres more than you do. It is not exactly that we have a single pair as progenitors, but the manufacturing goes on in a limited area as in Porto Santo, which if joined to the main Island of Madeira or to the Continent would be a centre of 60 or more species of land-shells.—18

Are there no intermediate or transitional forms between the primrose & the cowslip? when they are from the seed of one plant.19

Did not the Lamarckians appeal to Man’s Coccygean vertebræ in proof of his origin from a tailed ancestor.20 Which came first the tailed or tailless monkeys?

Grove once suggested to me that rudimentary organs may be quite as often the germs of organs about to be enjoyed by descendants as the remains of organs became abortive. What say you to this?21

Before an Apteryx can grow into a flying bird must there not be thousands of generations with rudimentary wings? In that case instead of the rudiment being genealogical, it becomes as Agassiz might say prophetic.22

I expect your book to form an era in geological literature. If people cd. favor the Vestiges,23 why shd they be shocked by yr views. Subversive of old ideas they no doubt are, & like every great truth hitherto unfolded by Geoly. they will be unpopular to a vast majority. In reality the out & out progressionists are quite as subversive of received dogmas & the popularity they enjoy is under false pretences of supposed agreement with endowed opinions with which properly understood they do not by any means accord.

CD annotations

13.1 In a … epoch— 13.6] ‘20 Glacial’24 brown crayon
18.1 What you … preexisting ones 19.3] crossed pencil
19.1 Ch. XI … acting 19.4] scored pencil; ‘No’ pencil


This letter continues Lyell’s remarks in his letter of 3 October 1859 (Correspondence vol. 7) on the proof-sheets of the second half (chapters 8 to 14) of Origin (see also Correspondence vol. 7, letter to Charles Lyell, 30 September [1859], and letter from Charles Lyell, 3 October 1859, n. 2). Most of the text is taken from a contemporary copy in Lyell’s notebooks. However, there is a damaged scrap of part of the original in DAR 170: 81 (see nn. 12, 15, and 17, below).
In Origin, pp. 397–9, CD pointed out that the species of the Galápagos Islands resembled (but were not identical with) species in South America, and were dissimilar from those of the Cape Verde Islands, despite the fact that the terrain and climate of the Galápagos were more like that of the Cape Verde Islands than like that of South America. He argued that this could not be accounted for ‘on the ordinary view of independent creation’, but was to be explained by the fact that the Galápagos were more likely to receive colonists from South America, and the Cape Verde Islands from Africa. For CD’s response to Lyell’s point, see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to Charles Lyell, 11 October [1859].
In his discussion of Jean Baptiste de Lamarck’s theory of the transmutation of species (C. Lyell 1853, p. 567–77), Lyell explained Lamarck’s hypothesis that ‘Nature’ was continually creating monads, the ‘elementary rudiments of animal and vegetable existence’, corresponding to ‘what the ancients termed spontaneous generation’ (ibid., p. 574). This continual creation was necessary, in Lamarck’s theory, to explain the wide range of simple and complex organisms presently existing, in the context of the progressive development of organic life that could be inferred from geological observations (ibid., p. 573); otherwise, Lyell asked, ‘Why have the majority of existing creatures remained stationary throughout this long succession of epochs, while others have made such prodigious advances?’ (ibid., p. 574). For CD’s response, see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to Charles Lyell, 11 October [1859]; for further comments by Lyell in his scientific journal, see L. G. Wilson ed. 1970, pp. 294–5.
Bosch-man or bushman: ‘a member of an aboriginal people of Southern Africa’ (OED). Lyell discussed Lamarck’s account of how the orang-utan developed into the human species in C. Lyell 1853, pp. 575–7.
In C. Lyell 1853, pp. 148–9, Lyell argued that the human race was distinguished from other animals by its intellectual and moral qualities, and that the physical organisation of humans did not alone make them pre-eminent. He continued: ‘the sudden passage from an irrational to a rational animal, is a phenomenon of a distinct kind from the passage from the more simple to the more perfect forms of animal organization and instinct. To pretend that such a step, or rather leap, can be part of a regular series of changes in the animal world, is to strain analogy beyond all reasonable bounds.’ Lyell seems in this letter to doubt further the power of natural selection alone to yield progressive advances in intelligence throughout the animal kingdom. CD replied that he entirely rejected as ‘quite unnecessary any subsequent addition “of new powers, & attributes & forces”; or of any “principle of improvement”’, except in so far as every character that was naturally selected or preserved was in some way an advantage or improvement, ‘otherwise it would not have been selected’ (Correspondence vol. 7, letter to Charles Lyell, 11 October [1859]). See also L. G. Wilson ed. 1970, pp. 249–51, for earlier remarks on this subject in Lyell’s scientific journals, and Bartholomew 1973.
In his account of Lamarck’s theory about how the orang-utan developed into the human race, Lyell described how the new race of humans, inspired by the ‘desire of ruling’, drove out their nearest competitors, confining them to unfavourable habitats where their development was checked, while humans themselves, lived in large groups and developed new desires and the industries needed to satisfy them, ‘perfecting their means and faculties’ (C. Lyell 1853, p. 576).
Verae causae: true conditions. Lyell refers to his theory, accepted by CD, of the uniformity of the laws of inorganic nature (see C. Lyell 1853, pp. 71–2, 181).
Thomas Henry Huxley at this time supported Karl Ernst von Baer’s theory of embryological types; see, for example, T. H. Huxley 1856, p. 189 (M. Foster and Lankaster 1898–1903, 1: 306), where Huxley asserts: ‘morphology demonstrates that the innumerable varieties of the forms of living beings are modelled upon a very small number of common plans or types’. See also Di Gregorio 1984, p. 30.
The Bridgewater Treatises were eight works of natural theology published between 1833 and 1836 under the terms of a bequest made to the Royal Society of London by Francis Henry Egerton, the eighth earl of Bridgewater. Each author was to write on ‘the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation’. (EB.)
By ‘finality men’, Lyell possibly means teleologists, that is, those who believed that each species had been created to fulfil a particular purpose (cf. OED, and Correspondence vol. 7, letter to J. D. Hooker, 23 [December 1859]); however, there are thought to have been elements of teleology in Lyell’s own thinking (see Bartholomew 1973, p. 287). Louis Agassiz believed in progressive development, that is, that ever more complex species were successively and independently brought into being by a creator or superior intelligence (Lurie 1960, p. 85). Lyell disagreed with this view on the ground that the fossil record, which had appeared to support such a progression, was imperfect (see Bartholomew 1973, p. 274; see also Origin, p. 302); in the light of his uniformitarian theory of the earth’s development, he argued that organisms as physiologically complex as those of the present day may have and probably had existed in past ages despite the lack or paucity of fossil evidence for them, and that the fossil succession could not be used as evidence for progression (see Bartholomew 1973). Richard Owen also supported the view of a progressive succession of fossil types (Rupke 1994, p. 238). On Lyell’s manoeuvrings on the question of progression and transmutation, see Bartholomew 1973.
Lyell refers to a letter from Charles Théophile Gaudin dated 18 May 1859 (Lyell papers, University of Edinburgh library). Gaudin translated Oswald Heer’s book on the climate and vegetation of the Tertiary period (Heer 1860) into French (Heer 1861). There are copies of both works in the Darwin Library–CUL; Heer 1860 is annotated (see Marginalia 1: 364–5). The Miocene flora of Iceland was discussed in Heer 1860, pp. 115–20. These pages are annotated in CD’s copy of this work, and a note on one of the back pages on which an abstract is pinned reads: ‘Read from P 115 to end’. On page 120, CD wrote in the margin: ‘Tertiary Vegetation of Iceland, like rest of Europe a decidedly American character.’ For CD’s discussion of the migration of plants between the Old and New Worlds during the worldwide glacial period, see Origin, pp. 365–72.
The text of this paragraph was taken from the part of the original letter in DAR 170: 81.
The published statement was, ‘Each formation, on this view, does not mark a new and complete act of creation, but only an occasional scene, taken almost at hazard, in a slowly changing drama’ (Origin, p. 315). See n. 10, above.
The published statement was, ‘The forms which are beaten and which yield their places to the new and victorious forms, will generally be allied in groups, from inheriting some inferiority in common’ (Origin, p. 327). For CD’s response to Lyell, see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to Charles Lyell, 11 October [1859].
The phrase ‘is only … inferiority’ is taken from the part of the original letter in DAR 170: 81. In the contemporary copy the text reads: ‘it is only because he is inferior in that climate’.
Origin, pp. 334–5.
This paragraph, taken from the part of the original letter in DAR 170: 81, is not included in the contemporary copy. The published summary is in Origin, pp. 341–5.
Porto Santo is a smaller island about twenty-five miles north-east of Madeira in the eastern Atlantic Ocean (EB). Lyell visited Madeira and Porto Santo in 1853 and 1854 (L. G. Wilson ed. 1970, p. xxxviii). It had been discovered in 1833 that of seventy-one species of land shell from the Madeiran group, only two were common to both Madeira and Porto Santo (ibid.). See Origin, pp. 352–6; in Origin, pp. 402–3, CD discussed land shells on Madeira and Porto Santo, citing Lyell.
For CD’s response, see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to Charles Lyell, 11 October [1859].
The reference has not been identified. CD replied: ‘I believe os coccyx gives attachment to certain muscles, but I cannot doubt that it is a rudimentary tail’ (Correspondence vol. 7, letter to Charles Lyell, 11 October [1859]). CD discussed rudimentary organs in Origin, pp. 450–6.
The reference is to William Robert Grove. For CD’s response, see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to Charles Lyell, 11 October [1859].
On Agassiz’s theory of prophetic types, see Lurie 1960, p. 290. In Agassiz’s view, the existence of such features indicated that the whole plan of creation was premeditated.
Lyell refers to Vestiges of the natural history of creation ([Chambers] 1844), an anonymous evolutionary work.
The annotation refers to a portfolio of notes on geographical distribution. CD kept a number of such portfolios, amassed over a long period of time and since dispersed. The likely contents of some portfolios were reconstructed when some of CD’s papers were catalogued in 1932 (see DAR 220: 113).


Bartholomew, Michael J. 1973. Lyell and evolution: an account of Lyell’s response to the prospect of an evolutionary ancestry for man. British Journal for the History of Science 6 (1972–3): 261–303.

Di Gregorio, Mario A. 1984. T. H. Huxley’s place in natural science. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Heer, Oswald. 1860. Untersuchungen über das Klima und die Vegetationsverhältnisse des Tertiärlandes. Winterthur, Switzerland: Anstalt von Wurster.

Lurie, Edward. 1960. Louis Agassiz: a life in science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rupke, Nicolaas A. 1994. Richard Owen, Victorian naturalist. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press.


Response to Origin. Praise for summary of chapter 10 and chapter 11.

The dissimilarity of African and American species is ‘necessary result of “Creation” adapting new species to the pre-existing ones. Granting this unknown & if you please miraculous power acting’.

C. T. Gaudin writes of Oswald Heer’s finding many species common between Miocene floras of Iceland and Switzerland. Interesting for CD’s migration theory.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 170: 81; The University of Edinburgh Centre for Research Collections (Notebook 241, pp. 75–90)
Physical description
AL inc † CC 16pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3132,” accessed on 24 September 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 13 (Supplement)