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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   22 August [1862]

1. Carlton Terrace | Southampton

Aug 22d.

My dear Lyell

I thank Lady Lyell (whose kind note to William I answer) & yourself for all your sympathy.1 Emma is going on very well, but she has had a sharpish attack.2 Lenny has been fearfully ill, but is perhaps as strong as one could expect; he now gets up for some hours every day.3 We long to get to Bournemouth, where though in a separate house, we shall be close to our other children;4 & Horace is far from strong.5 The last two months misery has been enough to try anyone; but I suppose better times will come.— The Lubbocks have had for nearly a year (& have enjoyed) a separate house, “Lamas, Chiselhurst.”6

I am glad Glen Roy is settled;7 the moraines opposite L. Treig are obviously very important: if the slope inland can be proved, it will indeed be an important fact.— I heartily hope that you will be out in October;8 I fancy Huxley will be out sooner;9 Hooker speaks as if the book would be very interesting.10 You say that the Bishop & Owen will be down on you;11 the latter hardly can, for I was assured that Owen in his Lectures this Spring, advanced as a new idea that wingless Birds had lost their wings by disuse.12 Also that magpies stole spoons &c from a remnant of some instinct like that of the Bower-bird, which ornaments its playing passages with pretty feathers.13 Indeed I am told that he hinted plainly that all Birds are descended from one. What an unblushing man he must be to lecture thus after abusing me so & never to have openly retracted or alluded to my Book.14

Your P.S. touches on, as it seems to me, very difficult points.15 I am glad to see in Origin, I only say that naturalists generally consider that low organisms vary more than high;16 & this I think certainly is the general opinion. I put the statement this way to show that I considered it only an opinion probably true. I must own that I do not at all trust even Hooker’s contrary opinion, as I feel pretty sure that he has not tabulated any result.17 I have some materials at home, & think I attempted to make this point out, but cannot remember result.18

Mere variability, though the necessary foundation of all modifications, I believe to be almost always present enough to allow of any amount of selected change; so that it does not seem to me at all incompatible, that a group which at any one period (or during all successive periods) varies less, should in the long course of time have undergone more modification than a group which is generally more variable. Placental mammals e.g. might be at each period less variable than Marsupials, & nevertheless have undergone more differentiation & development than marsupials, owing to some advantage, probably Brain development.—

I am surprised, but do not pretend to form an opinion, at Hooker’s statement that higher species, genera &c are best limited.—19 It seems to me a bold statement.

Looking to the Origin I see that I state that the productions of the land seem to change quicker than those of the sea (Ch X. p. 339 3d. Edit) & I add there is some reason to believe that organisms considered high in the scale change quicker than those that are low. I remember writing these sentences after much deliberation; but cannot now remember why I did not more fully adopt & quote your axiom of 1832.—20 I remember well feeling much hesitation about putting in even the guarded sentences which I did. My doubts, I remember related to the rate of change of the Radiata in the Secondary formation & of the Foraminifera in the oldest Tertiary beds.

I daresay, however, your axiom may be quite true: I only remember considerable perplexity on subject; I shd. think mammals & molluscs rather too remote from each other for fair comparison.

I am tired with writing this long letter (though it has amused me writing it) & I fear that you will be tired with reading it, & that it will be much too vague to be of any service—

I was very glad to get your note.— I hope to goodness your Book won’t be delayed—

With kindest remembrances to Lady Lyell— Good Night— | C. Darwin


The note from Mary Elizabeth Lyell to William Erasmus Darwin, which may have been enclosed with the letter from Charles Lyell, 20 August 1862, has not been found.
According to her diary (DAR 242), Emma Darwin became ill with scarlet fever on 13 August 1862.
Leonard Darwin had been suffering from scarlet fever (see letters to W. E. Darwin, 13 [June 1862] and 9 July [1862], and letter to A. R. Wallace, 20 August [1862]).
In consequence of their illnesses, Emma and Leonard, together with CD, were staying at William Erasmus Darwin’s house (see letter to A. R. Wallace, 20 August [1862] and n. 3); CD’s ‘Journal’ (Correspondence vol. 10, Appendix II) records that on 1 September, they joined the rest of the family on holiday in Bournemouth.
Horace Darwin had been ill earlier in the year (see letter to W. E. Darwin, 14 February [1862]).
John and Ellen Frances Lubbock had lived with John Lubbock’s father (John William Lubbock) at High Elms, near Down, until August 1861, when they moved to a separate house, which they called ‘Lamas’, at Chislehurst, a village about five miles north of Down (John Lubbock’s diary (British Library, Add. Ms. 62679: 64 r.)).
CD refers to Lyell’s Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a), which was not published until 6 February 1863 (C. Lyell 1863b, p. [vii]).
Huxley’s Evidence as to man’s place in nature (T. H. Huxley 1863a) was also published in February 1863 (Publishers’ Circular 26 (1863): 112).
Lyell mentioned the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, in his letter of 20 August 1862. Wilberforce and Richard Owen had opposed CD’s views (see especially Correspondence vol. 8).
CD probably refers to Richard Owen’s lectures at the Museum of Practical Geology, London, on the ‘Characters, Organisation, Geographical Distribution, and Geological Relations of Birds’. The series of six lectures ran from 14 to 30 May 1862 (Athenæum, 10 May 1862, p. 613). See also letter to Armand de Quatrefages, 11 July [1862], and letter to Asa Gray, 23[–4] July [1862].
Owen’s observations on this point, made in his third lecture, were reported in the Medical Times and Gazette (1862), pt 1: 563–4.
Owen had written a critical review of Origin, which was published anonymously in the Edinburgh Review in April 1860 ([R. Owen] 1860b). For CD’s reaction to Owen’s review, see Correspondence vol. 8.
In the postscript to his letter of 20 August 1862, Lyell discussed the differences in the longevity of species exhibited by different groups of organism (see C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 441–3).
Origin 3d ed., p. 167. See also Origin, p. 149, and Origin 2d ed., p. 149.
In J. D. Hooker 1859, p. vii n., Joseph Dalton Hooker stated that the higher plants manifested their physical superiority in a ‘greater extent of variation’. Lyell cited Hooker’s observation in C. Lyell 1863a, p. 442. CD’s annotated copies of both works are in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 394–8, 525–7).
CD’s notes on this subject have not been found. However, a single sheet of his discussion of this question in the ‘Big book’ on species, survives in DAR 47: 95; it is transcribed in Natural selection, pp. 567–8.
CD refers to Hooker’s statement in J. D. Hooker 1859, pp. v–vi, that in the vegetable kingdom, as a general rule, the varying species are relatively most numerous in those classes, orders, and genera which are the simplest in structure. Complexity of structure is generally accompanied with a greater tendency to permanence in form: thus Acotyledons, Monocotyledons, and Dicotyledons are an ascending series in complexity and in constancy of form.
CD refers to a passage in the third volume of Lyell’s Principles of geology (C. Lyell 1830–3, 3: 140), which states that: the longevity of species in the mammalia is, upon the whole, inferior to that of the testacea … Their more limited duration depends, in all probability, on physiological laws which render warm-blooded quadrupeds less capable, in general, of accommodating themselves to a great variety of circumstances, and consequently, of surviving the vicissitudes to which the earth’s surface is exposed in a great lapse of ages. See also C. Lyell 1830–3, 3: 48. CD had presented evidence in support of this statement, which he described in Journal of researches, p. 97, as ‘the remarkable law so often insisted on by Mr. Lyell’; see also Correspondence vol. 2, letter to Charles Lyell, 30 July 1837 and nn. 1 and 6. The third volume of C. Lyell 1830–3 was published in 1833; CD wrote ‘1832’ in error. Lyell referred to his earlier statement in C. Lyell 1863a, p. 441: It has since been found that this generalisation can be carried much farther, and that, in fact, the law which governs the changes in organic beings is such, that the lower their place in a graduated scale, or the simpler their structure, the more persistent are they in form and organisation.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1859. On the flora of Australia, its origin, affinities, and distribution; being an introductory essay to the flora of Tasmania. London: Lovell Reeve.

Journal of researches: Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain FitzRoy, RN, from 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Henry Colburn. 1839.

Lyell, Charles. 1830–3. Principles of geology, being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation. 3 vols. London: John Murray.

Marginalia: Charles Darwin’s marginalia. Edited by Mario A. Di Gregorio with the assistance of Nicholas W. Gill. Vol. 1. New York and London: Garland Publishing. 1990.

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 2d ed.: 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. 1860.

Origin 3d ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 3d edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1861.

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.


Relates personal news about family members.

CD is "glad Glen Roy is settled".

Mentions evolutionary remarks on birds by Owen.

Compares variability among lower and higher organisms. Comments on Hooker’s view of the subject.

Forthcoming publication of Huxley’s book [Evidence as to man’s place in nature (1863)] and Lyell’s [Antiquity of man (1863)].

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
AU 23 62
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.281)
Physical description
ALS 9pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3695,” accessed on 1 June 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 10