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Darwin Correspondence Project

From B. O’Neile Wilson1   22 December 1861

No 2 Elizabeth St | Hobartown Tasmania

Decr 22nd 1861


As in a work like yours on the Origin of Species may derive some arguments from authenticated facts and the subject is one which causes considerable interest your theory much controversy I have thought it just possible that a few facts might compensate the trouble of perusing a note from an unknown correspondent

At page 209 of the edition marked (Fith thousand)2 you say, “If it can be shewn that instincts do vary ever so little”. Again at page 243. “I have briefly endeavoured to shew that the mental qualities of our domestic animals vary”—that instincts vary slightly in a state of nature”

Now there are some subjects on which we colonists have far more experience than most others and especially where horses and cattle are concerned. I mean experience of a peculiar kind arising out of our commerce with great numbers of both. Instead of varying slightly there is the greatest possible variation in the instinct of horses and as I have frequently ridden three or four in a day and sometimes twenty or thirty in a month as these horses were many of them bred in what are colonially termed mobs and quite in a state of nature until backed and very nearly so after being ridden until tired or worked down and then turned loose perhaps for months to recruit theirs is a very natural state indeed. I speak particularly of the horses bred on the large cattle stations. Now we find every kind of instinct and mental quality in such horses. I had one an Arab that never lost his way or rather his direction if he had once gone in the direction before. The darkest night the wildest country, without path or track he would find a way and the best way to where we were going

A horse belonging to my brother in law who lived a mile from Sale in Gipp’s Land the road being perfectly well beaten and defined nearly straight but open at the sides never could be got along that road after dark though travelled by him hundreds of times without losing his way. Between the two extremes I have known every gradation. Again part instinct part habit. In riding in cattle some horses will take after a stray beast or one that attempts to break from the herd with unerring sagacity   another is nearly useless for this purpose   another will do it if his rider requires him. Some do do it from training, others seemingly by what I call instinctive imitation. Taken in wild backed in a day or two, before the first day on which they are ridden after cattle is over one now and then will dash after a runaway and seem to feel a delight in doing so. Again the vice of the New South Wales and Victoria horses called buck jumping seems partly instinctive, it quickly becomes hereditary. The Tasmanian horses do not Buck or very rarely indeed. At least one half their descendants in Victoria do. Of our Kangaroo dogs a powerful kind of Greyhound many will come back after having killed and take their masters to the dead Kangaroo. some taught others either instinctively or following the example of an older dog, taught perhaps you will call it. Some will not shew 〈bottom of page excised

You civilised people have no idea of and note shades of character which if you once set an Australian squatter talking of he will give you no end of information which may be of use to supplement your own experiences on other subjects.

At page 254, you say, “So again there is reason to believe that 〈bottom of page excised

CD annotations

0.3 Sir … nature” 2.4] crossed pencil
3.1 Now … experience ] underl brown crayon
3.4 Instead … variation] underl brown crayon
3.7 quite in a state of nature ] underl brown crayon
3.9 I speak … stations. 3.10] underl brown crayon
3.12 The … way 3.13] underl brown crayon
4.1 A … him. 4.8] scored brown crayon
4.8 others … imitation. 4.9] underl brown crayon
4.12 buck jumping] underl brown crayon
4.12 it quickly becomes hereditary. 4.13] underl brown crayon
4.13 Buck … Victoria do. 4.14] double scored brown crayon
4.15 after having … shew 4.17] scored brown crayon
4.17 Some will not shew] ‘at all.’ added ink
5.1 You … subjects. 5.3] crossed pencil
6.1 At … that] crossed ink
Top of first page: ‘B. O’Neile Wilson.—’3 ink, circled ink; ‘Ch X’4 brown crayon


The correspondent is identified by CD’s annotation.
The second edition of Origin was published in January 1860.
This is the only letter from Wilson that has been found. In Variation 1: 83, CD cited Wilson on the fertility of species of cattle when crossed. This topic may have been discussed in the missing portion of the letter or in another communication.
The annotation refers to the chapter in CD’s ‘big book’ on species that discusses the mental powers and instincts of animals (see Natural selection, pp. 463–527.)


Natural selection: Charles Darwin’s Natural selection: being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. Edited by R. C. Stauffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1975.

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.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Variation in instincts among domestic animals.

Letter details

Letter no.
Benjamin O’Neile Wilson
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Hobart, Tasmania
Source of text
DAR 181: 118
Physical description
6pp inc †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3348,” accessed on 20 April 2021,

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