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Darwin Correspondence Project

To J. F. W. Herschel   23 May [1861]1

Down. | Bromley. | Kent. S.E.

May 23d

Dear Sir John Herschel

You must permit me to have the pleasure to thank you for your kind present of your Physical Geography.2 I feel honoured by your gift, & shall prize this Book with your autograph. I am pleased with your note on my book on species, though apparently you go but a little way with me.3 The point which you raise on intelligent Design has perplexed me beyond measure; & has been ably discussed by Prof. Asa Gray, with whom I have had much correspondence on the subject.—4 I am in a complete jumble on the point. One cannot look at this Universe with all living productions & man without believing that all has been intelligently designed; yet when I look to each individual organism, I can see no evidence of this. For, I am not prepared to admit that God designed the feathers in the tail of the rock-pigeon to vary in a highly peculiar manner in order that man might select such variations & make a Fan-tail; & if this be not admitted (I know it would be admitted by many persons), then I cannot see design in the variations of structure in animals in a state of nature,—those variations which were useful to the animal being preserved & those useless or injurious being destroyed. But I ought to apologise for thus troubling you.—

You will think me very conceited when I say I feel quite easy about the ultimate success of my views, (with much error, as yet unseen by me, to be no doubt eliminated); & I feel this confidence, because I find so many young & middle-aged truly good workers in different branches, either partially or wholly accepting my views, because they find that they can thus group & understand many scattered facts. This has occurred with those who have chiefly or almost exclusively studied morphology, geographical Distribution, systematic Botany, simple geology & palæontology. Forgive me boasting, if you can; I do so because I shd. value your partial acquiescence in my views, more than that of almost any other human being.—5

Believe me with much respect | Yours, sincerely & obliged | Charles Darwin


The year is provided by the reference to Herschel 1861.
Herschel 1861 was one of a series of articles that Herschel wrote for the eighth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (Edinburgh, 1853–60), slightly revised and published as a single volume. A copy is in the Darwin Library–Down.
In Herschel 1861, p. 12, Herschel stated his belief that species change had not taken place either by gradual, progressive variation or by the sudden extinction of one race followed by the introduction of a new one; rather he believed that change had occurred ‘by a series of overlappings, leaving the last portion of each in co-existence with the earlier members of the newer series’. To this discussion he appended the following note: This was written previous to the publication of Mr. Darwin’s work on the Origin of Species, a work which, whatever its merit or ingenuity, we cannot, however, consider as having disproved the view taken in the text. Having argued for the necessity for ‘intelligent direction’ behind species change, Herschel ended the note: ‘with some demur as to the genesis of man, we are far from disposed to repudiate the view taken of this mysterious subject in Mr. Darwin’s work’. Soon after the publication of Origin, a copy of which was presented to Herschel, CD heard that Herschel had referred to natural selection as the ‘law of higgledy-piggelty’. See Correspondence vol. 7, letters to J. F. W. Herschel, 11 November [1859], and to Charles Lyell, 23 November [1859] and [10 December 1859].
CD had greatly admired Asa Gray’s attempt to reconcile natural selection with design in nature and arranged to have the series of articles in which Gray discussed his views reprinted and distributed in Britain. CD had sent a copy of A. Gray 1861a to Herschel (see Correspondence vol. 9, Appendix III).
In his Autobiography, CD stated that Herschel’s Introduction to the study of natural philosophy (Herschel 1831) was one of the two books that had most influenced him, the other one being Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal narrative (Humboldt 1814–29). He recalled that the two ‘stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science. No one or a dozen other books influenced me nearly so much as these two.’ (Autobiography, p. 68). On the importance of Herschel’s philosophical writings for CD’s methodology, see Ruse 1975.


Autobiography: The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. With original omissions restored. Edited with appendix and notes by Nora Barlow. London: Collins. 1958.

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

Herschel, John Frederick William. 1831. A preliminary discourse on the study of natural philosophy. In Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet cyclopædia. London. [Vols. 1,2,6,7,8,9]

Herschel, John Frederick William. 1861. Physical geography. From the Encyclopædia Britannica. Edinburgh.

Humboldt, Alexander von. 1814–29. Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of the New Continent, during the years 1799–1804. By Alexander de Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland. Translated into English by Helen Maria Williams. 7 vols. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown; J. Murray; H. Colburn.

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 JFWH for his "Physical geography" [from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1861)]

and for what he says about Origin, though JFWH goes but a little way with CD. Gives reasons why he cannot accept "Design" in nature, though he is in a "complete jumble" on the point. Is confident of his views because they have aided good workers in several fields to "group and understand many scattered facts".

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
John Frederick William Herschel, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
The Royal Society (HS 6:17)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3154,” accessed on 27 February 2024,

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