skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   17 September [1861]1


Sept 17th

Read First 2 My dear Gray.—

I thank you sincerely for your very long & interesting letter, political & scientific, of Augt 27th & 29th & Sept 2d, received this morning.—3 I agree with much of what you say & I hope to God we English are utterly wrong in doubting (1) whether the N. can conquer the S. (2) whether the N. has many friends in the South & (3) whether your noble men of Massachussetts are right in transferring your own good feelings to the men of Washington. Again I say I hope to God we are wrong in doubting on these points. It is number (3) which alone causes England not to be enthusiastic with you. What it may be in Lancashire I know not, but in S. England cotton has nothing whatever to do with our doubts.— If abolition does follow with your victory, the whole world will look brighter in my eyes & in many eyes. It would be a great gain even to stop the spread of Slavery into the Territories:—if that be possible without abolition, which I shd. have doubted. You ought not to wonder so much at England’s coldness, when you recollect at the commencement of the war how many propositions were made to get things back to the old state with the old line of Latitude.—4 But enough of this: all I can say is that Massachussetts & the adjoining States have the full sympathy of every good man whom I see; & this sympathy would be extended to whole Federal states, if we could be persuaded that your feelings were at all common to them.— But enough of this. It is out of my line, though I read every word of news & formerly well studied Olmsted.5

My other letter enclosed was unfortunately written last night:6 I send it because I am yet not sure that you understand what I want. (I have just looked at your “Manual” & now see that the case of the Rubiaceæ is exactly the same as in Primula & Linum).7 Did you know that in any case the pollen of the one form was not fitted to fully fertilise its own stigma?,—that sterility ensued of about the same degree as when allied species are crossed? This fact seems to me to make the case very interesting. I shd. be very grateful for any other cases in other Orders: I have found an old note of yours in which you say cases abound in “Rubiaceæ, Borragineæ Labiatæ &c.” Could you send me seed of any such Rubiaceæ? though these would be bad plants to experiment on; yet I could to certain extent. I was looking at Galium criniatum this summer & found many flowers exclusively male: but I did not think of looking at pollen of the hermaphrodite flowers.

I fear I shall weary you; but I must write a little about Spiranthes.8 At Torquay I was able to examine (& cover up) growing plants; before I had examined only cut flowers. In my note to you I blundered somewhat.—9 I probably spoke of the “canoe” as being embedded within the rostellum; so it is in early bud, in so far as that the back of “canoe” is covered with large cells with viscid matter, which burst & thus attach to pollinia,—a process which I could never before understand.— Just as you say, when flower first opens only a hair or needle can be passed down & this, though straight, surely removes the pollinia; in this early condition of the flower you will never find pollen on stigma; but after 24–48 hours, the Labellum moves a little away & then position of nectar & oblique projecting stigma, allow the tips of pollen-masses beautifully to strike stigma.— If pollen-masses have not been removed in early period, the bowing of the proboscis is necessary for their removal.— The Bees which I saw at work (one had 5 canoes stuck to its proboscis, one over the other) alight at base of spike & go spirally up it; when they get to upper flowers the pollinia are attached to proboscis; they then fly to another plant & always alighting at base, they insert the pollinia in the lower & more expanded flowers & leave masses of pollen on stigma as I saw. You do not seem to have noticed the rupturing of the front of rostellum, with the most delicate touch, which seemed to me a vital action for the requisite touch was too delicate for mechanical action.—

I assure you that I tried D. rotundifolia & longifolia so often & showed the leaves to so many persons, that there can be no mistake in my observations.—10 For some time (I cannot say how long without looking to my notes) after catching a fly the leaf cannot act. This is incidentally of use to plant for whilst the greater number of glands are dry, any useless object like bit of moss or cinder which has been clasped gets easily jerked or blown off.— I long to complete my work on Drosera; but must out of virtue defer it till next year; otherwise I shall never, with my small power of work, get even one volume of my larger work finished.—11 I wish you would observe D. filiformis; I can hardly believe that any Drosera does not digest animal food.— I have found best plan is to try leaves which have opened after plants have been planted in Soup-Plate. Heaven forgive me, if you cannot, for scribbling at such length.—

Your question what would convince me of Design is a poser. If I saw an angel come down to teach us good, & I was convinced, from others seeing him, that I was not mad, I shd. believe in design.— If I could be convinced thoroughily that life & mind was in an unknown way a function of other imponderable forces, I shd. be convinced.— If man was made of brass or iron & no way connected with any other organism which had ever lived, I shd perhaps be convinced. But this is childish writing.—

I have lately been corresponding with Lyell, who, I think, adopts your idea of the stream of variation having been led or designed. I have asked him (& he says he will herafter reflect & answer me) whether he believes that the shape of my nose was designed.12 If he does, I have nothing more to say. If not, seeing what Fanciers have done by selecting individual differences in the nasal bones of Pigeons, I must think that it is illogical to suppose that the variations, which Nat. Selection, preserves for the good of any being, have been designed. But I know that I am in the same sort of muddle (as I have said before) as all the world seems to be in with respect to free will, yet with every supposed to have been foreseen or preordained.

Farewell my dear Gray, with many thanks for your interesting letter— Your unmerciful correspondent | C. Darwin

Our English Holly (& all the cultivated vars.) are absolutely dioicous: I have just been looking at your Manual: Could I anywhere find out a fuller account of the state of some of the species of your Ilex?? for instance whether the female flowers have any pollen; (ours has anther but no pollen) & whether the male flowers ever set seeds. Our male trees never bear a berry. This would make a good case of gradation.— Having observed our Holly years ago I have always felt curious about the steps by which it became dioicous.13


Dated by the reference to the letter from Asa Gray, [27 and 29 August] and 2 September [1861], only part of which is extant. The year is further confirmed by CD’s reference to his letter ‘written last night’ (see letter to Asa Gray, 16 September [1861]).
CD sent this letter in the same envelope as the letter to Asa Gray, 16 September [1861].
Throughout 1861, both parties of belligerents in the American Civil War refrained from avowing that the war had anything to do with slavery and rather focused on the issue of states’ rights versus the preservation of the union. See McPherson 1988, pp. 311–12.
CD was an avid reader of the ‘Foreign intelligence’ columns of The Times, which carried regular reports on the political and military developments in the United States. The special correspondent covering the American Civil War for The Times was William Howard Russell. CD also refers to Frederick Law Olmsted, whose books describing conditions in the southern slave states (Olmsted 1856, 1857, and 1860) CD had read. See Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV, 128: 23, 25; and vol. 8, letter to Asa Gray, 26 November [1860]. In his reminiscences of his father, read at the banquet of the 1909 Darwin Centenary celebrations in Cambridge, William Erasmus Darwin recalled CD’s ‘hatred of slavery’ (Emma Darwin (1915) 2: 169): I remember his talking with horror of his sleepless nights when he could not keep out of his mind some incidents from Olmsted’s Journeys in the Slave States [Olmsted 1856], a book he had lately been reading; and in his many letters to Professor Asa Gray he alludes to slavery with the utmost detestation.
A. Gray 1856, p. 80. The passage is marked in CD’s copy in the Darwin Library–CUL. Gray had told CD in his letter of [27 and 29 August] and 2 September [1861] that the ‘most marked diœcio-dimorphous flowers I know are in Rubiaceæ’.
CD had asked Gray to ‘have a look at Spiranthes’ in the letter to Asa Gray, 21 July [1861]. Gray had apparently done so and failed to confirm CD’s observations. The portion of Gray’s letter that discusses the details of his observations is missing (letter from Asa Gray, [27 and 29 August] and 2 September [1861]).
CD had begun studying Drosera and other insectivorous plants during the summer of 1860. See Correspondence vol. 8.
The reference is to CD’s work on the variation of plants and animals under domestication, which was published in two volumes in 1868.
A note in DAR 47: 75 reads: ‘Asa Gray Manual p. 263 Ilex. it seems that the N. American species have not their sexes nearly so much separated.—’ CD only briefly mentioned this case when he published a full account of his study of dimorphism (Forms of flowers, pp. 297–8). For Gray’s response to CD’s query about American species of holly, see the letter from Asa Gray, 11 October 1861.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Emma Darwin (1915): Emma Darwin: a century of family letters, 1792–1896. Edited by Henrietta Litchfield. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1915.

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

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

Olmsted, Frederick Law. 1856. A journey in the seaboard slave states, with remarks on their economy. New York: Dix & Edwards. London: S. Low.


U. S. politics and relations with England.

Wants examples of dimorphism similar to Primula.

Structure and function of Spiranthes flower.

Observations and experiments on Drosera.

CD’s views on design.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Source of text
Gray Herbarium of Harvard University (72)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3256,” accessed on 27 January 2022,

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