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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   21 July [1861]1

2. Hesketch Cresent | Torquay | Devon.

July 21.

My dear Gray

I have been indolent, otherwise I shd. have thanked you heartily for taking trouble about getting me the 3 Hybrid pamphlets,2 which I received just before starting here for the sea for my daughter’s sake who improves a little.— And now I have to thank you for your pleasant & useful note of July 2d.—3

I am now writing my Orchid paper & am glad to hear what you say about Cypripedium4 & that you will have a look at Spiranthes:5 remember that you must look at flower just opened & not visited by moth. I hope Hooker will send me an Arethusa.6

I am astonished at Drosera filiformis misbehaving: my experiments were all tried late in summer.7 Did you expect a rapid or visible movement? that very rarely takes place: the minutest atom of raw meat placed on a single gland, which is covered with viscid secretion, shows motion best.— If gland is dry no movement takes place. I hope to finish my observations on Drosera this Autumn.8 From what I have seen of Cypripedium insigne my difficulty is to know what induces an insect to place its head so far back in flower:9 if you find many plants in flower watch for a little time for bare chance of an insect’s visit.—

This diagram gives, as you know, the structure of the 2 forms of Primula; diagram now if you know of analogous cases, I shd. be particularly obliged if you would name them & allow me to quote you:10 also, if they are hardy plants & good seeders I would experiment on them.— I could not read one name given.—

How I shd. like half-an-hours conversation on Design: nothing else would make us quite understand each other.11 As no one has aided the subject of natural selection & the knowledge of my Book so much as you, I must tell you what has pleased me much after the many attacks on me for neglecting “Induction” “Baconian philosophy” &c. We in England think John Stuart Mill the highest authority on such subjects, & he said lately to a friend, who wrote to me, as follows. “he considers that your reasoning throughout is in the most exact accordance with the strict principles of logic. He also says the method of investigation you have followed is the only one proper to such a subject.”—12 My wife’s remark on reading this, was “why you know nothing about Logic”.— Is it not (I mean Mill’s & not my wife’s sayings) very satisfactory to me?—

I was very glad of your P.S. on the state of your country; one values a private note far more than a dozen public letters. After carefully reading Olmstead’s last Book I never doubted the North would conquer the South.13 But then what is to follow? From Olmstead & Russell’s letters in Times,14 I cannot believe that the South would ever have fellow-feeling enough with the North to allow of government in common. Could the North endure a Southern President? The whole affair is a great misfortune in the progress of the World; but I shd not regret it so much, if I could persuade myself that Slavery would be annihilated. But your president does not even mention the word in his Address.—15 I sometimes wish the contest to grow so desperate that the north would be led to declare freedom as a diversion against the Enemy. In 50 or 100 years your posterity would bless the act.— But Heaven knows why I trouble you with my speculations; I ought to stick to Orchids.

Hooker, I fear, is as usual overworking himself: I seldom hear from him. This place is charming; but I am not as idle, as I ought to be.

Farewell | My good & kind friend | Yours most truly | Ch. Darwin

I am trying to make out the good of two forms of Thyme.16


We shall be here about 4 weeks more


The year is provided by the Darwins’ stay in Torquay in 1861.
CD had asked Gray to send him a copy of S. G. Morton 1850a (see letter to Asa Gray, 12 March [1861]). There is an annotated copy of this paper and a copy of S. G. Morton 1850b in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. The third pamphlet has not been identified.
The letter from Gray has not been found.
For the information CD sought from Gray concerning American species of Cypripedium, see the letter to Asa Gray, 5 June [1861]. For Gray’s response, see Correspondence vol. 10, letter from Asa Gray, 10 November 1862. Gray sent long notes in May 1862 (see letter to Gray, 10–20 June [1862]).
Gray’s observations of Spiranthes gracilis (a synonym of Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis) and S. cernua (common ladies’ tresses) are mentioned in Orchids, p. 123 n. When he came to review Orchids in 1862, Gray mentioned his examination of Spiranthes and demurred somewhat to CD’s view of the implications of the flower’s structure (see A. Gray 1862, p. 427).
See letter to J. D. Hooker, 17 [July 1861]. CD was unable to examine any ‘living flowers’ of the Arethuseae before the publication of his study (see Orchids, pp. 269–70).
CD carried out many experiments on various species of Drosera and other insectivorous plants during the summer of 1860 (see Correspondence vol. 8); he continued to study these plants well into the next decade. His notes on the sensitivity of the leaf hairs to nitrogenous substances are in DAR 54, DAR 60.1, and DAR 60.2.
For a description of the experiments CD had suggested Gray might carry out on Drosera, see the letter to Asa Gray, 17 February [1861]. Having given a preliminary report on his study of insectivorous plants to the Philosophical Club of the Royal Society in February 1861, CD hoped to complete his researches in the autumn and write a complete account. However, Insectivorous plants was not published until 1875. CD’s description of D. filiformis is given on p. 281.
In Orchids, pp. 270–6, CD described the morphology of the flower parts of Cypripedium. This orchid is commonly known as the lady’s-slipper orchid owing to the slipper-like appearance of the lip or lower-most petal of the flower (the labellum). CD proposed, on the basis of inserting a bristle into the labellum and noting where the pollen adhered, the probable means whereby insects could effect self- or cross-fertilisation (ibid., pp. 274–6).
CD intended to draw up an account of his study of heterostyly in primroses and other plant genera. His paper, ‘On the two forms, or dimorphic condition, in the species of Primula, and on their remarkable sexual relations’, was read to the Linnean Society in November 1861 and published the following year in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society (Botany) 6 (1862): 77–96. See also Collected papers 2: 62. Gray supplied CD with a number of analogous cases included in this paper (see letters from Asa Gray, [27 and 29 August] and 2 September [1861], and 11 October 1861).
CD and Gray had been corresponding over the past year about their differing views on natural selection and, in particular, whether such a mechanism could be reconciled with a belief in design in nature. In his pamphlet on this subject (A. Gray 1861a), Gray suggested that natural selection could be merged with natural theology if one assumed that variations were themselves ‘guided’ or ‘designed’. CD, however, told Gray that he himself could not ‘look at each separate thing as the result of Design’ (Correspondence vol. 8, letter to Asa Gray, 26 November [1860]).
Olmsted 1860. CD had read Frederick Law Olmsted’s A journey in the back country late in 1860 and found it to be ‘a remarkably interesting Book.—’ (Correspondence vol. 8, letter to Asa Gray, 26 November [1860]). Olmsted was highly critical of Southern society, arguing that the system of slavery on which it was based led to an inefficient economic order as well as a morally corrupt social order. Further, he denigrated the ability of the South to defeat the North, basing his argument on the problems faced by the South with regard to its military strength and economic resources.
William Howard Russell served as the special war correspondent for The Times, contributing, beginning in April 1861, a regular column entitled ‘The Civil War in America’. Although The Times was sympathetic towards the Southern cause, Russell’s own sympathies were strongly with the North owing to his extreme opposition to the institution of slavery (DNB). See also Brogan ed. 1975.
In his address before a special session of the United States Congress on 4 July 1861, President Abraham Lincoln stated that the administration had no intention, either ‘directly or indirectly, to interfere with Slavery in the States where it exists.’ This position was consistent with the Republican platform in the election of 1860, which opposed on constitutional grounds the right of southern states to secede from the union, but did not seek to interfere with existing institutions in those states. See McPherson 1988, p. 312.
CD’s notes on observations made on thyme, dated ‘1861. June 5’, are in his Experimental book (DAR 157a, p. 72). CD summarised some of the results of his study of Thymus in Forms of flowers, pp. 298–305.


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–.

DNB: Dictionary of national biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. 63 vols. and 2 supplements (6 vols.). London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1912. Dictionary of national biography 1912–90. Edited by H. W. C. Davis et al. 9 vols. London: Oxford University Press. 1927–96.

Forms of flowers: The different forms of flowers on plants of the same species. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1877.

Insectivorous plants. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1875.

McPherson, James M. 1988. Battle cry of freedom: the Civil War era. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Olmsted, Frederick Law. 1860. A journey in the back country in the winter of 1853–4. London: Sampson, Low, Son & Co.

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.


Is writing his paper on orchids.

Is surprised that AG gets little or no response with Drosera.

Describes the two forms of Primula and asks whether AG knows any analogous cases of dimorphism.

Reports that John Stuart Mill approves of CD’s scientific method.

Discusses American politics.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Source of text
Gray Herbarium of Harvard University (61)
Physical description
ALS 8pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3216,” accessed on 23 May 2024,

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