skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   6 November [1862]1

Down Bromley Kent

Nov. 6th

My dear Gray

When your note of Oct 4th & 13th, (chiefly about Max Muller) arrived I was nearly at the end of the same book & had intended recommending you to read it!2 I quite agree that it is extremely interesting, but the latter part about first origin of language much the least satisfactory.3 It is a marvellous problem. I have heard, whether truly or not I do not know, but the book has rather given me the same impression, that he is dreadfully afraid of not being thought strictly orthodox. He even hints at truth of Tower of Babel!4 I thus accounted for covert sneers at me, which he seems to get the better of towards the close of the book.—5 I cannot quite see how it will forward “my cause” as you call it; but I can see how anyone with literary talent (I do not feel up to it) could make great use of the subject, in illustration. What pretty metaphors you would make from it!6 I wish some one would keep a lot of the most noisy monkeys, half free, & study their means of communication!

A book has just appeared here, which will, I suppose make a noise, by Bishop Colenso, who, judging from extracts smashes most of the old Testament.—7 Talking of Books, I am in middle of one which pleases me, though it is very innocent food, viz “Miss Cooper’s Journal of Naturalist”. Who is she?8 She seems a very clever woman & gives a capital account of the battle between our & your weeds.9 Does it not hurt your Yankee pride that we thrash you so confoundedly. I am sure Mrs. Gray will stick up for your own weeds. Ask her whether they are not more honest downright good sort of weeds.—10 The Book gives an extremely pretty picture of one of your villages; but I see your autumn, though so much more gorgeous than ours, comes on sooner, & that is one comfort.

I am glad to hear that you have sent off your account of orchids to Newhaven; let me have a copy if you can, for I see no periodicals.—11 I wish you had an active pupil in the country: it would be curious to block up with cotton or something the holes on each side of the sterile anther in Cypripedium; & then if pollen were at all disturbed it would show that little insects had entered by the toe.12 I shall be very glad indeed of Mitchella, & of seed, if possible, of Nessæa. I am more than ever interested in Lythrum; the seed of my 88 crossed flowers prove truth of diagram, if you remember it;13 but there is something more, mid-styled is in addition moderately fertile with half its own stamens, & I must make many more crosses, & shall not publish this year—14 The case, I think, is worth any labour.—

I did not know, & yet doubt, that it was Hooker who reviewed me so gorgeously in Gardeners Chle. but I have asked him.—15

Now for two questions: please give me reference to your notice of Gourds affecting each others fruit;16 & secondly on the movements of the tendrils.—17

Also do you know of any treatise descriptive of all your vars. of Maize, if so give me title.—; if I fail to get here, could you help me to half-a-dozen grains of the most marked varieties of Maize.—18 What a good book “Downing on Fruit” is.—19

I am crawling steadily on & today have been compiling all about peaches & nectarines; & a curious case it is.—20

I shd. like to try a few experiments on your Tendrils;21 I wonder what would be good & easy plant to raise in pot.

Farewell, my dear Gray. God help your poor country, though perhaps you scorn our pity. Farewell, my good friend | C. Darwin


The year is established by the relationship to the letter from Asa Gray, 4 and 13 October 1862.
Concerning Friedrich Max Müller’s views on the origin of language, see the letter from Asa Gray, 4 and 13 October 1862, n. 3.
Max Müller 1861, p. 125. The city and ‘tower’ of Babel are described in Gen. 11: 1–9 as being the scene of the ‘confusion of languages’ (OED).
CD may refer to Max Müller’s argument that humans and animals are separated by the barrier of language (Max Müller 1861, p. 340): Man speaks, and no brute has ever uttered a word. Language is our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to cross it. This is our matter of fact answer to those who speak of development, who think they discover the rudiments at least of all human faculties in apes, and who would fain keep open the possibility that man is only a more favoured beast, the triumphant conqueror in the primeval struggle for life. Language is something more palpable than a fold of the brain, or an angle of the skull. It admits of no cavilling, and no process of natural selection will ever distill significant words out of the notes of birds or the cries of beasts. Towards the end of the book, however, Max Müller used Darwin’s concept of natural selection to account for the development of human language (p. 371).
CD had been impressed by Gray’s use of metaphor in his three-part review of Origin published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1860 ([A. Gray] 1860), telling him that he was ‘a complex cross of Lawyer, Poet, Naturalist, & Theologian’ (see Correspondence vol. 8, letter to Asa Gray, 10 September [1860]).
The reference is to volume 1 of John William Colenso’s critical examination of the Old Testament (Colenso 1862–79); Colenso was bishop of Natal in southern Africa. Extracts from the volume appeared in a review in the Parthenon, 1 November 1862, pp. 833–4; CD subscribed to the Parthenon at this time (see letter to J. D. Hooker, 4 November [1862]).
Cooper 1855. Susan Augusta Fenimore Cooper was the daughter of the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, and had been his amanuensis in the years before his death; Cooper 1855 was based on a journal she kept during her father’s last years (DAB). On 19 August 1862, the Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener published the first in a series of extracts from this book (Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener n.s. 3 (1862): 400); CD’s annotated copies of this journal are in the Darwin Library–CUL. CD had previously noted an earlier edition of this work (Cooper 1850) in his list of ‘Books to be Read’, 1837–51 (see Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV, *119: 24).
Cooper 1855, 1: 117–23.
CD refers indirectly to Jane Loring Gray’s strong opinions about the attitudes of the British in regard to the American Civil War (see, for example, letter to Asa Gray, 22 January [1862] and n. 8).
CD refers to Gray’s follow-up article to his review of Orchids, which appeared in the November 1862 number of the American Journal of Science and Arts (A. Gray 1862b); the journal was published in New Haven, Connecticut. See letter from Asa Gray, 4 and 13 October 1862.
See letter to J. D. Hooker, 4 November [1862], n. 10. Gray had reiterated a promise to send CD specimens of American species of Cypripedium in his letter of 4 and 13 October 1862.
[J. D. Hooker] 1862c. See letter to J. D. Hooker, 3 November [1862] and n. 4. CD’s annotated copy of the Gardeners’ Chronicle is in the Cory Library, Cambridge Botanic Garden; CD kept in a separate parcel his copies of the numbers in which [J. D. Hooker] 1862c appeared (see DAR 222 and DAR 75: 1–12).
CD refers to Gray’s observations, given before the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on 9 February 1858, which were reported in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 4 (1860): 21–2 (see also n. 17, below). CD was preparing a draft of the part of Variation dealing with ‘Facts of variation of Plants’ (see ‘Journal’ (Correspondence vol. 10, Appendix II)).
A. Gray 1858b. CD’s annotated copy of the volume of the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in which this paper was published is in the Darwin Library–CUL. CD had previously read this article (see Correspondence vol. 9, letter to Asa Gray, 17 February [1861] and n. 15); in his Autobiography, p. 129, he recalled that it was this that led him to study climbing plants. See also n. 21, below.
CD was preparing a draft of the part of Variation dealing with ‘Facts of variation of Plants’ (see ‘Journal’ (Correspondence vol. 10, Appendix II)); he discussed maize in Variation 1: 320–3.
CD frequently cited Downing 1845 in Variation; there is an annotated copy of the work in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 205–7).
CD refers to his draft of Variation 1: 336–44.
In his Autobiography, p. 129, CD recalled of Gray: He sent me seeds, and on raising some plants I was so much fascinated and perplexed by the revolving movements of the tendrils and stems, which movements are really very simple, though appearing at first very complex, that I procured various other kinds of Climbing Plants, and studied the whole subject. CD carried out numerous experiments in 1863 and 1864, and his paper, ‘Climbing plants’, was read before the Linnean Society of London on 2 February 1865.


Autobiography: The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. With original omissions restored. Edited with appendix and notes by Nora Barlow. London: Collins. 1958.

‘Climbing plants’: On the movements and habits of climbing plants. By Charles Darwin. [Read 2 February 1865.] Journal of the Linnean Society (Botany) 9 (1867): 1–118.

Colenso, John William. 1862–79. The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua critically examined. 5 vols. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green.

Cooper, Susan Augusta Fenimore. 1850. Rural hours. 2 vols. London.

Cooper, Susan Fenimore. 1855. Journal of a naturalist in the United States. 2 vols. London: R. Bentley.

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

DAB: Dictionary of American biography. Under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies. 20 vols., index, and 10 supplements. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons; Simon & Schuster Macmillan. London: Oxford University Press; Humphrey Milford. 1928–95.

Downing, Andrew Jackson. 1845. The fruits and fruit trees of America: or the culture, propagation, and management, in the garden and orchard, of fruit trees generally; with descriptions of all the finest varieties of fruit, native and foreign, cultivated in this country. London: Wiley & Putman.

[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.

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.

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.

OED: The Oxford English dictionary. Being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement and bibliography of a new English dictionary. Edited by James A. H. Murray, et al. 12 vols. and supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1970. A supplement to the Oxford English dictionary. 4 vols. Edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1972–86. The Oxford English dictionary. 2d edition. 20 vols. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. Oxford English dictionary additional series. 3 vols. Edited by John Simpson et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1993–7.

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.

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.


Agrees Max Müller’s book [see 3752] is interesting but cannot see how it will further his "cause".

A book by J. W. Colenso [The Pentateuch and book of Joshua critically examined, pt 1 (1862)] has just appeared and will "make a noise".

Would like some observations made on Cypripedium.

Will not publish yet on Lythrum as he must make many more crosses; the mid-styled is fertile with half of its own stamens.

Would like to try a few experiments on tendrils.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Source of text
Gray Herbarium of Harvard University (78)
Physical description
ALS 6pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3796,” accessed on 20 May 2024,

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