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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Hugh Falconer   [7 March 1857]1


My dear Falconer

I have been thinking over the remarkable paragraph you read to me out of your paper;2 and it occurs to me (though hardly worth mentioning to you) that what Owen might say in answer (and I think truly) is, that, according to his belief all the Purbeck Mammals are Marsupials and that it is not right to compare the teeth in two such distinct groups.3 He might maintain that for the Placentata, or for his still more restricted group of Gyroencephala (or some such name)4 that the law of the more general type of teeth held for the older mammals. I cannot remember whether the law was enunciated for all mammals; but if so, I should think in my ignorance that he might uphold it for a more restricted group.5

My dear Falconer | Yours most truly | C. Darwin


The date is established by the reference to Falconer 1857, and the reference to CD and Falconer having met (see n. 2, below). In 1857, 7 March was a Saturday.
The reference is to the manuscript of Falconer 1857; the paragraph referred to probably corresponds to that on page 276 of the published paper (see n. 3, below). Falconer’s paper was read before the Geological Society of London on 11 March 1857; it was published later in the year. According to Emma Darwin’s diary (DAR 242), CD visited London from 4 to 7 March 1857; he apparently saw Falconer during his visit (see Correspondence vol. 6, letter to J. D. Dana, 5 April [1857] and n. 8).
In his published paper (Falconer 1857, p. 276), Falconer suggested that Plagiaulax, a fossil marsupial found in Purbeck, Dorset, furnished a ‘crucial test’ of the generalisation made by Richard Owen, William Benjamin Carpenter, and others, that the degree of specialisation within a group such as the Mammalia increased over geological time. In particular, he noted, these naturalists argued that the earliest Eocene mammals usually possessed the full complement of teeth, while forms characteristic of later times were ‘remarkable for the special suppression of these organs’. In opposition to this view, Falconer argued that, while Plagiaulax was ‘the oldest well-ascertained herbivorous mammal yet discovered’, it represented ‘the most specialized exception … from the rule to be met with in the whole range of the Marsupialia, fossil or recent’. CD evidently thought that Owen might distinguish between placental mammals, to which his rule definitely applied, and marsupials (see n. 5, below).
CD refers to Owen’s classification of the Mammalia, in which the Gyrencephala included the placental mammals with more highly developed brains, except for humans (R. Owen 1857, p. 19). Owen’s classification was announced in a paper read before the Linnean Society on 17 February and 21 April 1857; CD’s letter to J. D. Dana, 5 April [1857] (Correspondence vol. 6), suggests that he had doubts about classifications based upon a single feature, in this case, brain structure.
In R. Owen 1852, cited in Falconer 1857, p. 276, Owen wrote (pp. 904–5): Examples of the typical dentition are exceptions in the actual creation; but it was the rule in the forms of Mammalia first introduced into this planet.... The Chæropotamus … and other ancient (eocene and miocene) tertiary mammalian genera presented the forty-four teeth, in number and kind according to that which is here propounded as the typical or normal dentition of the placental Mammalia. R. Owen 1850, also cited by Falconer, is similarly ambiguous about whether the progressive specialisation of the typical mammalian dentition applies to marsupials or not: see p. 495.


Thinking about HF’s paper on Plagiaulax [Q. J. Geol. Soc. Lond. 13 (1857): 261–82]. Owen might answer that all Purbeck mammals are marsupials.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Hugh Falconer
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 144: 26
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3791,” accessed on 18 September 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 13 (Supplement)