skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From H. C. Watson   24 July 1861

Thames Ditton S.W.

24 July 61

My dear Mr Darwin

Tho’ you desire me not to answer your letter of 17th. I will do so after a sort.1 Assume that the quasi-popular monthly botanical journal “The British Botanist” tries its luck next year,—which is likely, not quite certain.2 In such case, could you address a letter to it, much like the one to me, pointing out the observations you deem desirable to be made on the associated or dissevered distribution of allied subspecies. This would not only justify me in citing instances, but probably elicit facts from other botanists, bearing on the same question. In such a matter the knowledge or experience of any one individual should be confirmed or corrected by the eyes & understandings of others, who know what to distinguish, & what names to use.

When you are again within reach of Cybele Britannica Supplt., if you will refer to the middle paragh. of page 45 & examples in sequence,—you will see an allusion to one of the difficulties which prevent an accurate tracing out of the localities & distribution of subspecies; viz the dubiety of the records, arising from the diverse applications of the same name,—to A, to B, to C, or inclusively to ABC.3

Your letter was found here on my return from a day in town, bringing Maw’s review of the ‘Origin’ with me.4 Though aware of his intention to review, & even having recommended him to wait the 3d. edition before printing, I did not know whether he would be in support or opposition. He is more opposed than I had expected to find him. Surely Maw himself misconceives your views where he corrects Bree at the bottom of page 7578?5 As you think that existing species can change into other species, by a very gradual accumulation of slight variations, you do really believe in & contend for transmutation of highly developed forms into some other (more or less different) highly developed forms,—which Maw seems to suppose outside your doctrine.

Is not Mr. D. himself slightly contradictory of himself, in his remarks on Habenaria bifolia & chlorantha?6 If they “deserve to be called distinct species” because fertilized in a different manner by Moths,—a test to separate species & varieties is found or supposed.— Why cannot two varieties be fertilized differently, as well as two species? De facto, however, you are probably right; because by species you really mean only wider varieties or races, and each additional difference helps to widen.

Believe me, very faithfully Yours | Hewett C. Watson

P.S. You must just now be a close neighbour of my cousin Hercules Scott,7 who is likely to look on you as a dreadful person; being something more opposed to your views than Maw is in the paragh. divided between pages 7609 & 7610,8 that is, if he knows them at all.

CD annotations

3.1 Your … likely to 6.2] crossed ink
Top of first page: ‘Keep’ blue crayon, circled blue crayon; ‘(Varieties)’ pencil


Letter to H. C. Watson, [17 July 1861].
Watson had planned since 1857 to launch a monthly journal called the British Botanist. Although two circulars were printed announcing the journal as ‘intended chiefly for records in British Botany, descriptive, critical and topographical’, the plan never came to fruition. See Allen 1986, pp. 71–3.
Watson had sent CD a presentation copy of the privately printed supplement to his four-volume Cybele Britannica (1847–59). There is an annotated copy of Watson 1860 in the Darwin Library–CUL. The reference is to a section giving new data concerning the distribution of British plants throughout 38 sub-provinces defined by Watson. Watson noted that botanists should be aware of whether the species name they were using in their local floras was ‘the less restricted old (aggregate) species’ or ‘the more restricted recent (segregate) species’. One of the examples he gave was the following (Watson 1860, pp. 45–6): Orchis bifolia was long held to be one single species, and by some botanists it is still so regarded. It is treated as a single species in various Floras, local lists, etc. But latterly it has been more usually subdivided into two reputed species, Orchis (Habenaria, or Gymnadenia) biflora and chlorantha, two quasi-species slightly different in technical character. When the name bifolia is found in an old list, it may now be quite impossible to say with confidence which of the two modern semi-species was intended thereby. There is a list in DAR 206 compiled by CD from Watson 1860 that indicates the distribution and range of related species.
Maw 1861a.
The reference is to Charles Robert Bree’s negative critique of Origin (Bree 1860). Bree’s book was one of four books reviewed in Maw 1861a, including the third edition of Origin.
CD had apparently referred to the differences between Habenaria chlorantha and H. bifolia in his letter to Watson of [17 July 1861], of which only a draft and a fragment survive; for a similar reference, see the letter to George Bentham, 22 June [1861]. In Orchids, p. 89, CD stated that the ‘large butterfly orchis’ H. chlorantha and the ‘lesser butterfly orchis’ H. bifolia ‘differ in a great number of characters, not to mention the difference in general aspects and in the stations inhabited’.
The reference is to the botanist Hercules R. Scott.
In this passage of George Maw’s review of Origin, Maw confessed that he was distressed by the apparent conflict between CD’s theory and revelation, and particularly by CD’s inference that the human species was ‘genealogically allied to brute life’ (Maw 1861a).


Allen, David Elliston. 1986. The botanists. A history of the Botanical Society of the British Isles through a hundred and fifty years. Winchester: St Paul’s Bibliographies.

Bree, Charles Robert. 1860. Species not transmutable, nor the result of secondary causes. Being a critical examination of Mr Darwin’s work entitled ‘Origin and variation of species’. London: Groombridge & Sons. Edinburgh: Maclachlan & Stewart.

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.

Watson, Hewett Cottrell. 1860. Part first of a supplement to the Cybele Britannica. London. [Vols. 8,9]


Distribution of varieties and subspecies.

George Maw’s review of the Origin [Zoologist 19 (1861): 7577–611].

Letter details

Letter no.
Hewett Cottrell Watson
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Thames Ditton
Source of text
DAR 181: 38
Physical description
4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3218,” accessed on 3 August 2020,

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