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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   5 June [1861]1

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

June 5th

My dear Gray

I have been rather extra busy, so have been slack in answering your note of May 6th2 I hope you have received long ago the 3d. Edit. of Origin.3 Andrew Murray is an Entomologist & Horticulturist & now Secretary to Hort. Soc. of London.— He read a long & hostile & rather weak Review of Origin at the Royal Soc. of Edinburgh.—4

I have heard nothing from Trübner of sale of your Essay;5 hence fear it has not been great: I wrote to say you could supply more.— I sent a copy to Sir J. Herschel; & in his new Edit. of his Physical Geography he has note on the origin of species, & agrees to certain limited extent; but puts in a caution on design, so much like yours that I suspect it is borrowed.—6 I have been led to think more on this subject of late, & grieve to say that I come to differ more from you. It is not that designed variation makes, as it seems to me, my Deity “Natural Selection” superfluous; but rather from studying lately domestic variations & seeing what an enormous field of undesigned variability there is ready for natural selection to appropriate for any purpose useful to each creature.—

I thank you much for sending me your Review of Phillips.—7 I remember once telling you a lot of trades which you ought to have followed;8 but now I am convinced that you are a born Reviewer.— By Jove how well & often you hit the nail on the head. You rank Phillips’ book higher than I do; or than Lyell does, who thinks it fearfully retrograde.— I amused myself by parodying Phillips arguments as applied to domestic varieties; & you might thus prove that the Duck or Pigeon has not varied because the Goose has not, though more anciently domesticated, & no good reason can be assigned why it has not produced many varieties.9 With respect to F. Water, small area, compared with sea or land, I believe comes into play; rate of change & of extinction in F. Water having been much slower, hence Ganoid fishes are all fresh-water.—10

How true what you say about Matthew;11 but I will not run on.—

I have been idling & working at Primula & think my experiments will explain their dimorphism:12 now I much want one piece of information; I know that there are many cases of dimorphic plants; but are not the two forms always borne on same plant? Are there other cases of two forms living mingled in nearly equal numbers?— I have also been working on insect fertilisation of Orchids—beautiful facts—& I want information on Cypripedium. Have you Botanic Garden? Could you cover up a plant with net & leave one uncovered; if it be one which sets seeds, & see whether protected one sets seeds, & whether the pollen of the two after interval of time are in the same state.13 Do not forget Spiranthes— look at flowers just opening: I am curious to know whether same curious structure as in our Spiranthes.—14

But I suppose you are all too overwhelmed with public affairs to care for science.—15 I never knew the newspapers so profoundly interesting. N. America does not do England justice: I have not seen or heard of a soul who is not with the North. Some few, & I am one, even wish to God, though at the loss of millions of lives, that the North would proclaim a crusade against Slavery. In the long run, a million horrid deaths would be amply repaid in the cause of humanity.—16 What wonderful times we live in.— Massachusetts seems to show noble enthusiasm.17 Great God how I shd like to see that greatest curse on Earth Slavery abolished.

Farewell. Hooker has been absorbed with poor dear revered Henslow’saffairs—18 | Farewell | Ever yours | C. Darwin


The year is given by the references to the publication of the third edition of Origin and to A. Gray 1861a and 1861b.
Gray’s letter has not been found.
The third edition of Origin was published in April 1861. Gray’s name appears on CD’s list of presentation copies for this work (see Correspondence vol. 9, Appendix VII).
Murray 1860. This paper was read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 20 February 1860. Before it was published, Murray sent CD a draft copy. For CD’s comments on the paper, see Correspondence vol. 8, letters to Andrew Murray, 28 April [1860] and 5 May [1860], and to Charles Lyell, 1 [June 1860], and letter from Andrew Murray, 3 May 1860.
A. Gray 1861a (see Correspondence vol. 9, Appendix III).
See letter to J. F. W. Herschel, 23 May [1861] and n. 3. In Herschel 1861, p. 12 n., Herschel stated that he could not accept ‘the principle of arbitrary and casual variation and natural selection as a sufficient account, per se, of the past and present organic world’; instead he argued that ‘an intelligence, guided by a purpose, must be continually in action to bias the direction of the steps of change’. All three of Gray’s reviews of Origin ([A. Gray] 1860a, A. Gray 1860b, and 1860c) advocated the view that the acceptance of CD’s theory of natural selection was compatible with a belief in design in nature. He stated, for example (A. Gray 1860b, p. 183): that if by successive origination of species and organs through natural agencies, the author means a series of events which succeed each other irrespective of a continued directing intelligence,— events which mind does not order and shape to destined ends,—then he … has accumulated improbabilities beyond all belief.
Gray’s review of Phillips 1860 (A. Gray 1861b) was published in the American Journal of Science and Arts. John Phillips had sent CD a copy of this work (see Correspondence vol. 8, letter to John Phillips, 14 November [1860]). An annotated copy of Phillips 1860, inscribed ‘From the Author’, is in the Darwin Library–CUL. The book, which was the substance of the Rede Lecture delivered by Phillips at the University of Cambridge in 1860, addressed the question of the origin of species and criticised the account provided by CD in Origin.
CD on another occasion described Gray as ‘a hybrid, a complex cross of Lawyer, Poet, Naturalist, & Theologian!’ (Correspondence vol. 8, letter to Asa Gray, 10 September [1860]).
Phillips argued that the fossil record, rather than indicating species change as CD’s views required, provided evidence of species continuity. As an illustration, he pointed to the brachiopod Lingula, which ‘recurs in all the systems of strata, and is still living’ and yet ‘gives no generic branches’ (Phillips 1860, p. 212).
Phillips 1860, pp. 108–14. Phillips argued that ‘the comparative fewness of the freshwater races, and their great affinity over large tracts of the earth’ counted against CD’s views and concluded (ibid., pp. 110, 113–14): Circumstances have varied, ages have passed away, and yet every generic group exhibits at every step the same essential characters, and many of the little peculiarities … which cannot be consistent with accumulated tendencies to change. Phillips cited ganoid fishes as an example of a group that had persisted unchanged since the Silurian era (ibid., p. 103).
The reference may be to Patrick Matthew, who had claimed that he anticipated CD’s concept of natural selection in his work on naval timber and arboriculture (Matthew 1831). CD conceded Matthew’s priority (see Correspondence vol. 8, letters to J. D. Hooker, 13 [April 1860], and to Gardeners’ Chronicle, [before 13 April 1860]).
CD saw the dimorphic condition of Primula as inhibiting self-fertilisation and thus favouring the sexual union of distinct individuals of the same species. CD published the results of his study in 1862 (Collected papers 2: 45–63).
Gray is cited in Orchids as having observed insects visiting Cypripedium, but no mention is made of the experiment suggested by CD.
See Correspondence vol. 8, letter to Asa Gray, 31 October [1860]. See also letter to Asa Gray, 11 April [1861]. Gray’s observations on Spiranthes are cited in Orchids, p. 123 n.
The reference is to the outbreak in the United States of hostilities that marked the beginning of the Civil War. After the fall of Fort Sumter on 14 April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation asking for volunteers for the Union Army, and the Confederate government also began mobilising its volunteer force (EB).
CD had been a staunch opponent of slavery since his youth. This conviction had intensified as a result of his having observed first-hand the inhumanity of slavery in South America during the Beagle voyage. See, for example, Correspondence vol. 1, letter to Catherine Darwin, 22 May – 14 July 1833, and Barlow ed. 1933, p. 55.
The first bloodshed of the war occurred on 19 April 1861, when troops from Massachusetts on their way to defend Washington, DC, were attacked by a mob in Baltimore (EB).
Joseph Dalton Hooker’s father-in-law, John Stevens Henslow, had died on 16 May 1861.


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–.

EB: The Encyclopædia Britannica. A dictionary of arts, sciences, literature and general information. 11th edition. 29 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1910–11.

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

Matthew, Patrick. 1831. On naval timber and arboriculture; with critical notes on authors who have recently treated the subject of planting. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, & Green. Edinburgh: Adam Black.

Orchids: On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1862.

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.

Phillips, John. 1860. Life on the earth, its origin and succession. Cambridge and London: Macmillan and Co.


AG’s review of John Phillips’ book [Life on earth (1860), in Am. J. Sci. 2d ser. 31 (1861): 444–9].

Thinks his experiments will explain Primula dimorphism.

Insect fertilisation of orchids.

Wishes that the "greatest curse on Earth", slavery, were abolished.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Source of text
Gray Herbarium of Harvard University (60)
Physical description
ALS 6pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3176,” accessed on 19 July 2024,

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