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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Hugh Falconer   1 October [1862]1


Oct. 1,

My dear Falconer

On my return home yesterday I found your letter and MS. which I have read with extreme interest.2 Your note and every word in your paper are expressed with the same kind feeling which I have experienced from you, ever since I have had the happiness of knowing you.3 I value scientific praise, but I value incomparably higher such kind feeling as yours. There is not a single word in your paper to which I could possibly object: I should be mad to do so; its only fault is perhaps its too great kindness. Your case seems the most striking one which I have met with of the persistence of specific characters. It is very much the more striking as it relates to the molar teeth, which differ so much in the species of the genus, and in which consequently I should have expected variation. As I read on, I felt not a little dumb-founded, and thought to myself that whenever I came to this subject, I should have to be savage against myself; and I wondered how savage you would be. I trembled a little. My only hope was that something could be made out of the B-o-g N. American forms, which you rank as a geographical race;4 and possibly hereafter out of the Sicilian species.5 Guess then my satisfaction when I found that you yourself made a loophole which I never of course could have guessed at; and imagine my still greater satisfaction at your expressing yourself as an unbeliever in the eternal immutability of species.6 Your final remarks on my work are too generous; but have given me not a little pleasure.7 As for criticisms, I have only small ones: when you speak of “moderate range of variation”,8 I cannot but think that you ought to remind your readers (though I daresay previously given) what the amount is, including case of the American Bog Mammoth. You speak of these animals as having been exposed to vast range of climatal changes from before to after the Glacial period;9 I should have thought from analogy of sea-shells, that by migration (or local extinction when migration not possible) these animals might and would have kept under nearly the same climate.

A rather more important consideration, as it seems to me, is that the whole Proboscidean Group may, I presume, be looked at as verging towards extinction: anyhow the extinction has been complete as far as Europe and America are concerned. Numerous considerations and facts have led me in the Origin to conclude that it is the flourishing or dominant members of each order which generally give rise to new races, sub-species and species;10 and under this point of view I am not at all surprised at the constancy of your species. This leads me to remark that the sentence at the bottom of p. 60 is not applicable to my views, though quite applicable to those who attribute modification to the direct action of the conditions of life.11 An elephant might be more individually variable than any known quadruped (from the effects of the conditions of life or other innate unknown causes), but if these variations did not aid the animal in better resisting all hostile influences, and therefore making it increase in numbers, there would be no tendency to the preservation and accumulation of such variations, i.e., to the formation of a new race. As the proboscidean group seems to be from utterly unknown causes a failing group in many parts of the world, I should not have anticipated the formation of new races.

You make important remarks versus natural selection,12 and you will perhaps be surprised that I do to a large extent agree with you. I could show you many passages, written as strongly as I could in the Origin, declaring that Natural Selection can do nothing without previous variability; and I have tried to put equally strongly that variability is governed by many laws, mostly quite unknown. My title deceives people, and I wish I had made it rather different.13 Your phyllotaxis will serve as example; for I quite agree that the spiral arrangement of a certain number of whorls of leaves (however that may have primordially arisen; (and whether quite as invariable as you state?)) governs the limits of variability, and therefore governs what natural selection can do.14 Let me explain how it arose that I laid so much stress on Natural Selection, and I still think justly: I came to think from Geographical Distribution &c. &c. that species probably change; but for years I was stopped dead by my utter incapability of seeing how every part of each creature (a wood-pecker or swallow for instance) had become adapted to its conditions of life. This seemed to me and does still seem the problem to solve, and I think natural selection solves it, as artificial selection solves the adaptation of domestic races for man’s use. But I suspect that you mean something further,—that there is some unknown law of evolution by which species necessarily change; and if this be so, I cannot agree.15 This, however, is too large a question even for so unreasonably long a letter as this.

Nevertheless just to explain by mere valueless conjectures how I imagine the teeth of your elephants change; I should look at the change, as indirectly resulting from changes in the form of the jaws, or from development of tusks, or in case of the “primigenius” even from correlation with the woolly covering; in all cases natural selection checking the variation. If indeed an elephant could succeed better by feeding on some new kinds of food, then any variation of any kind in the teeth, which favoured their grinding power would be preserved. Now I can fancy you holding up your hands and crying out what bosh! To return to your concluding sentence; far from being surprised, I look at it as absolutely certain that very much in the Origin will be proved rubbish; but I expect and hope that the frame-work will stand.16

I had hoped to have called on you on Monday evening, but was quite knocked up.17 I saw Lyell yesterday morning; he was very curious about your views, and as I had to write to him this morning I could not help telling him a few words on your views.18 I suppose you are tired of the Origin and will never read it again; otherwise I should like you to have the 3rd edit., and would gladly send it rather than you should look at the 1st or 2nd editions.19

With cordial thanks for your generous kindness, believe me | My dear Falconer | Very truly yours | Ch. Darwin


The year is established by the reference to the manuscript of Falconer 1863 (see n. 2, below).
CD refers to the portion of a manuscript paper on fossil and living species of elephant that Falconer had enclosed with his letter to CD of 24–7 September [1862]. The paper was published in the January 1863 number of the Natural History Review (Falconer 1863); in his letter to CD of 3 January [1863] (Correspondence vol. 11), Falconer told CD that although he had made some additions to the manuscript in response to CD’s comments, he had not altered the existing text.
CD had known Falconer since at least November 1845 (see Correspondence vol. 3, letters to J. D. Hooker, [21 November 1845] and [25 November 1845]). See also Correspondence vol. 2, letter to Richard Owen, [March 1843 – 15 May 1846].
Falconer 1863, p. 79.
In his account of the ‘persistence in time of the distinctive characters of the European fossil elephants’, Falconer excluded from consideration the fossil elephants of Sicily or Italy (Elephas Armeniacus), ‘in order to relieve the argument of any elements, which may not be considered as being at present established on sufficient evidence’ (Falconer 1863, p. 78 n.).
In the conclusion to this section of his paper (Falconer 1863, p. 80), Falconer stated: The inferences which I draw from these facts, are not opposed to one of the leading propositions of Darwin’s theory. With him I have no faith in the opinion, that the Mammoth and other extinct Elephants made their appearance suddenly, after the type in which their fossil remains are presented to us. The most rational views seem to be, that they are in some shape the modified descendants of earlier progenitors. But if the asserted facts be correct, they seem clearly to indicate that the older Elephants of Europe … were not the stocks from which the later species … sprung, and that we must look elsewhere for their origin.
Falconer concluded the section by stating (Falconer 1863, pp. 80–1): By his admirable researches and earnest writings, Darwin has, beyond all his cotemporaries, given an impulse to the philosophical investigation of the most backward and obscure branch of the Biological Sciences of his day; he has laid the foundations of a great edifice; but he need not be surprised, if, in the progress of erection, the superstructure is altered by his successors … to a different style of architecture.
Falconer 1863, p. 79.
Falconer 1863, p. 79.
See especially Origin, pp. 52–5, 116–7, and 325–9.
The reference is to the manuscript pagination; CD probably refers to the following statement, which appeared on p. 80 of the published paper (Falconer 1863): The whole range of the Mammalia, fossil and recent, cannot furnish a species, which has had a wider geographical distribution, and at the same time passed through a longer term of time, and through more extreme changes of climatal conditions, than the Mammoth. If species are so unstable, and so susceptible of mutation through such influences, why does that extinct form stand out so signally a monument of stability?
Having stated that he accepted CD’s proposition of the evolution of species by modified descent, Falconer continued: ‘Another reflexion is equally strong in my mind, that the means which have been adduced to explain the origin of species by ’Natural Selection,‘ or a process of variation from external influences, is inadequate to account for the phenomena’ (Falconer 1863, p. 80). Noting the regular laws limiting or determining the variation in form of plants and animals, he concluded: ‘it is difficult to believe, that there is not in nature, a deeper seated and innate principle, to the operation of which ’Natural Selection‘ is merely an adjunct’.
On the title-page of Origin, CD defined ‘Natural Selection’ as the ‘preservation of favoured races in the struggle for existence’. In the text of the work he defined it as the ‘preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations’ (Origin, p. 81). The laws of variation are the subject of chapter 5 of Origin.
One of Falconer’s examples of the laws of variation (see n. 12, above) was ‘the law of Phyllotaxis, which governs the evolution of leaves around the axis of a plant’, which he considered ‘nearly as constant in its manifestation, as any of the physical laws connected with the material world’ (Falconer 1863, p. 80).
See n. 12, above.
See n. 7, above.
See letter from Hugh Falconer, 24–7 September [1862]. Emma Darwin’s diary (DAR 242) records that CD spent the night of Monday 29 September 1862 at the London home of his brother, Erasmus Alvey Darwin.
The third edition of Origin was published in March 1861.


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

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.


Extreme interest in MS of HF’s paper on the American fossil elephant [Nat. Hist. Rev. n.s. 3 (1863): 43–114].

Pleased HF does not believe in immutable species. Significance of proboscidean group verging towards extinction. Comments on natural selection preserving type despite variability. Natural selection solves problem of how every part of each creature has become adapted.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Hugh Falconer
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 144: 25
Physical description
C 6pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3746,” accessed on 27 March 2023,

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