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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Asa Gray   4 and 13 October 1862

Cambridge. [Massachusetts]

Oct. 4, 1862

My Dear Darwin

I have just been reading Max Müllers Lectures on the Science of Language, with much interest.1 But perhaps what has interested me most is, after all, his perfect appreciation and happy use of Natural Selection, and the very complete analogy between diversification of species and diversification of language.2

I can hardly think of any publication which in England could be more useful to your cause than this volume is, or should be. I see also with what great effect you may use it in our occasional discussion about design,—indeed I hardly see how to avoid conclusion adverse to special design.—tho’ I think I see indications of a way out.3

Depend on it, Max Müller will be of real service to you.

Oct. 13.

I have been so much occupied that I deferred to the last moment to write out my 2d notice of your Orchid Book for Silliman’s Journal. I wrote out Saturday evening what I could, and to-day have finished and sent of my MSS. to New Haven.4 The greater part consists of a record of some of my observations last summer.—very hurriedly penned, & sent off. I trust you will be pleased, and will think that my little contributions cannot be better hatched than under your wings.5

Hoping that my young correspondent is fast recovering strength, tell him that I have no more stamps for him yet, but shall pick up his desiderata one of these days.6

I have some nice live roots of Cypripedium, 2 or 3 sp. to send you,—and mean to send Mitchella.7

How Hooker does praise up your book,—in Gard. Chron.8

Ever Yours | A. Gray


Max Müller 1861. In his lectures, originally delivered at the Royal Institution in the summer of 1861, Friedrich Max Müller sought to establish the study of language as a science operating according to the same epistemology as the natural sciences (Stocking 1987, pp. 56–62).
In his final lecture, on the ‘theoretical stage’ of the science of language, and on the ‘origin of language’ (Max Müller 1861, pp. 329–78), Max Müller argued that human language originated in the instinctive faculty of giving ‘articulate expression to the rational conceptions’ of the mind (p. 370). Although he considered that the nature of these first ‘phonetic types’ was entirely determined by natural instincts, the ‘almost infinite’ number of them was, he claimed, subsequently reduced by a ‘process of elimination, or natural selection’, so that ‘clusters of roots, more or less synonymous, were gradually reduced to one definite type.’ The combining of the fundamental roots into different languages was, he claimed, ‘the work of man, not in his individual and free, but in his collective and moderating capacity’ (pp. 374–5). He concluded (p. 377): The first natural and instinctive utterances, if sifted differently by different clans, would fully account both for the first origin and for the first divergence of human speech. We can understand not only the origin of language, but likewise the necessary breaking up of one language into many; and we perceive that no amount of variety in the material or the formal elements of speech is incompatible with the admission of one common source. On Max Müller’s views on evolution, see, for instance, Schrempp 1983 and Knoll 1986.
Gray probably refers to Max Müller’s use of natural selection as an analogy for the development of language. Denying that ‘the various forms of development in language must be explained … as necessary evolutions, founded in the essence of human speech’, Max Müller argued that, after its first origin, the evolution of language was entirely a matter of historical contingency (Max Müller 1861, pp. 373–4). This suggestion could be seen as undermining Gray’s view, first given in [A. Gray] 1860, that the variations on which natural selection operated were specially designed. See also Correspondence vol. 11, letter from Asa Gray, 20 April 1863, letter to J. D. Hooker, [9 May 1863], and letter to Asa Gray, 11 May [1863]. Gray and CD had discussed intermittently since 1860 the question of design in nature (see Correspondence vols. 8 and 9).
Having published a review of Orchids in the June number of the American Journal of Science and Arts (A. Gray 1862a), Gray had planned to write a follow-up article (A. Gray 1862b). The American Journal of Science and Arts, founded by Benjamin Silliman, was commonly known as ‘Silliman’s journal’; it was published in New Haven, Connecticut.
In the summer of 1862, Gray had made numerous observations of the mechanisms for effecting pollination in several American species of orchid. CD had initially suggested that Gray might publish some of his observations with his review of Orchids, but subsequently sought to persuade him to publish them separately (see letters to Asa Gray, 10–20 June [1862], 1 July [1862], 23[–4] July [1862], 28 July [1862], and [3–]4 September [1862]).
Gray refers to Leonard Darwin, who had been ill with scarlet fever during the summer. A letter from Leonard, requesting American postage stamps for his collection, was apparently enclosed with the letter to Gray of [3–]4 September [1862] (see letter from Asa Gray, 22 September 1862 and n. 3).
[J. D. Hooker] 1862c. CD was unaware that Joseph Dalton Hooker was the author of this anonymous review (see letter to J. D. Hooker, 3 November [1862], and letter from J. D. Hooker, 7 November 1862).


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

[Gray, Asa.] 1860c. Darwin on the origin of species. Atlantic Monthly 6: 109–16, 229–39; Darwin and his reviewers. Atlantic Monthly 6: 406–25.

Knoll, Elizabeth. 1986. The sciences of language and the evolution of mind: Max Müller’s quarrel with Darwinism. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 22: 3–22.

Max Müller, Friedrich. 1861. Lectures on the science of language delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in April, May, and June, 1861. London: Longman, Green, Longman & Roberts.

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.

Schrempp, Gregory. 1983. The re-education of Friedrich Max Müller: intellectual appropriation and epistemological antinomy in mid-Victorian evolutionary thought. Man n.s. 18: 90–110.

Stocking, George W., Jr. 1987. Victorian anthropology. New York: The Free Press. London: Collier Macmillan.


Thinks Max Müller’s Lectures on the science of language [1861–4] will do a real service to CD and natural selection.

Letter details

Letter no.
Asa Gray
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Cambridge Mass.
Source of text
DAR 165: 120
Physical description
ALS 2pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3752,” accessed on 25 July 2024,

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