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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Hugh Falconer   14 November [1862]1


Nov. 14th

My dear Falconer

I have read your paper with extreme interest, and I thank you for sending it, though I should certainly have carefully read it, or anything with your name, in the Journal.2 It seems to me a masterpiece of close reasoning: although of course not a judge of such subjects, I cannot feel any doubt that it is conclusive. Will Owen answer you: I expect that from his arrogant view of his own position he will not answer.3 Your paper is dreadfully severe on him; but perfectly courteous and polished as the finest dagger.4 How kind you are towards me: your first sentence has pleased me more than perhaps it ought to do, if I had any modesty in my composition.5 By the way after reading the first whole paragraph, I reread it not for matter, but for style; and then it suddenly occurred to me that a certain man once said to me, when I urged him to publish some of his miscellaneous wealth of knowledge, “Oh, he could not write,—he hated it”, &c.6 You false man, never say that to me again. Your incidental remark on the remarkable specialisation of Plagiaulax (which has stuck in my gizzard ever since I read your first paper7) as bearing on the number of preceding forms is quite new to me, and of course is in accordance to my notions a most impressive argument.8 I was, also, glad to be reminded of teeth of camel and tarsal bones.9 Descent from an intermediate form, Ahem!10

Well, all I can say is that I have not been for a long time more interested with a paper than with yours. It gives me a demoniacal chuckle to think of Owen’s pleasant countenance when he reads it.

I have not been in London since end of September; when I do come I will beat up your quarters if I possibly can;11 but I do not know what has come over me: I am worse than ever in bearing any excitement. Even talking of an evening for less than two hours has twice recently brought on such violent vomiting and trembling;12 that I dread coming up to London. I hear that you came out strong at Cambridge, and am heartily glad you attacked the Australian Mastodon.13 I never did or could believe in him. I wish you would read my little Primula paper in Linn. Journ., Vol. VI. Botany (No. 22), p. 77 (I have no copy which I can spare)14 as I think there is a good chance that you may have observed similar cases. This is my real hobby-horse at present. I have retested this summer the functional difference of the two forms in Primula and find all strictly accurate.15 If you should know of any cases analogous, pray inform me. Farewell my good and kind friend.

Yours very sincerely | Ch. Darwin.

P.S. I am going to send a paper soon to Linn. Soc. on the genus Linum, like Primula.16


The year is established by the relationship to the letter from Hugh Falconer, 12 November [1862].
Falconer sent CD a copy of Falconer 1862 with his letter of 12 November [1862]; it was published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London.
In R. Owen 1859 (republished as R. Owen 1860a), Richard Owen had disputed Falconer’s identification of two fossil species of the marsupial genus Plagiaulax as herbivorous rodents (Falconer 1857), arguing instead that they were predatory carnivores. Falconer’s paper was a forthright critique of Owen’s position, in which he claimed to have answered ‘seriatim’ all Owen’s objections to his own view of the affinities of Plagiaulax (Falconer 1862, pp. 363, 365).
In his paper, Falconer personalised the dispute between Owen and himself, emphasising that it arose ‘from different methods having been followed by the observers in dealing with the evidence’ (Falconer 1862, p. 350). He stated that he considered himself ‘bound, in the interest of science,’ either to support his previous interpretation, ‘or frankly to admit the correction, if … found to be in error’. He continued: I am further impelled by my sense of self-respect, as an observer, to consider whether—apart from the conclusions—I have fallen into such errors of observation and description as would necessarily be implied, should Professor Owen’s manner of viewing the objects prove correct In his conclusion (p. 365), having countered Owen’s arguments, Falconer again contrasted his own and Owen’s methodology, stating: ‘The case is of sufficient interest and importance to test the sufficiency of the respective modes of analysis.’
Referring to Origin in a footnote (Falconer 1862, p. 348 n.), Falconer’s opening sentence reads: ‘One of the most accurate observers and original thinkers of our time has discoursed with emphatic eloquence on the imperfection of the geological record.’
The occasion has not been identified.
In his former paper (Falconer 1857, p. 276), Falconer had suggested that Plagiaulax furnished a ‘crucial test’ of the generalisations made by Owen, William Benjamin Carpenter, and others, that the degree of specialisation within a group like the Mammalia increased over geological time. In particular, he noted, these naturalists argued that the earliest Mammalia 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 herbivourous 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.’ This argument had implications for CD’s view that natural selection led to a constant tendency to specialisation of function (see Bowler 1976 and Ospovat 1981). In his abstract of the number of the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London in which Falconer 1857 appeared (DAR 75: 21), CD noted: ‘Falconer on Plagiaulax … p 276 a most specialized form.’ See also letter to Hugh Falconer, [7 March 1857?] (Calendar no. 3791).
In his conclusion (Falconer 1862, p. 365), Falconer stated: If … Plagiaulax be regarded through the medium of the view advocated with such power by Darwin, through what a number of intermediate forms must not the genus have passed before it attained the specialized condition in which the fossils come before us! See also n. 9, below.
See Falconer 1862, p. 353. CD refers to the functional correlation, established by Georges Cuvier, between the upper canine-shaped incisors of the camel and the bones of the ankle or tarsus (Cuvier 1812, 1: 64). In his abstract of the number of the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London in which Falconer 1862 appeared (DAR 75: 24), CD noted: Falconer p. 353. Excellent on connection (by Descent) of canines & bones of leg in camels. p. 365. on antiquity of plagiaullax, judged by *its specialization[above del ‘antiquity of’]
CD apparently refers to the fact that Falconer, who had previously been opposed to the theory of the transmutation of species, appeared to give countenance to such a view by writing of Plagiaulax passing through ‘intermediate forms’ (see n. 8, above). See also letter to J. D. Hooker, 24 [November 1862] and n. 12.
See letter from Hugh Falconer, 12 November [1862]. Falconer had regretted not seeing CD when he visited London on 29 and 30 September (see letter from Hugh Falconer, 4 October 1862).
At the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Cambridge in October 1862, Owen read a paper entitled ‘On a tooth of Mastodon from Tertiary marls, near Shanghai, China’, in which he made reference to Mastodon Australis, a species he had proposed in 1844 on the basis of a single fossil molar tooth. The report of the meeting in the Parthenon, 11 October 1862, p. 754, stated that, following Owen’s presentation, Falconer, who was an authority on fossil elephants, disputed the possible or even probable former existence of the elephant in Australia, contending, in an elaborate argument, that the data of its asserted discovery were worthless, and strongly protesting against the third repetition of a statement which rested on so slight a foundation. The report concluded: Professor Owen gracefully acknowledged the loose and possibly inaccurate data upon which the discovery was claimed, and as, during the twenty years which had elapsed … no other specimens or corroborative facts had been offered, he must consent to abandon the Mastodon Australis as indefensible, and its former existence in Australia as an unsupported proposition. No abstract of Owen’s paper appeared in the Report of the 32d meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held at Cambridge (Transactions of the sections), nor was it included on the ‘List of papers of which abstracts have not been received’ (pp. 195–6).
CD wrote his paper, ‘Two forms in species of Linum, between 11 and 21 December 1862 (see ‘Journal’ (Correspondence vol. 10, Appendix II)); it was read before the Linnean Society of London on 5 February 1863.


Bowler, Peter John. 1976. Fossils and progress. Palaeontology and the idea of progressive evolution in the nineteenth century. New York: Science History Publications.

Calendar: A calendar of the correspondence of Charles Darwin, 1821–1882. With supplement. 2d edition. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1994.

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

Cuvier, Georges. 1812. Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupèdes, où l’on rétablit les caractères de plusieurs espèces d’animaux que les révolutions du globe paroissent avoir détruites. 4 vols. Paris: Deterville.

‘Dimorphic condition in Primula’: On the two forms, or dimorphic condition, in the species of Primula, and on their remarkable sexual relations. By Charles Darwin. [Read 21 November 1861.] Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society (Botany) 6 (1862): 77–96. [Collected papers 2: 45–63.]

Falconer, Hugh. 1862. On the disputed affinity of the mammalian genus Plagiaulax, from the Purbeck beds. [Read 4 June 1862.] Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 18: 348–69. [Vols. 10,11]

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.

Ospovat, Dov. 1981. The development of Darwin’s theory. Natural history, natural theology, and natural selection, 1838–1859. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Owen, Richard. 1860a. Palæontology or a systematic summary of extinct animals and their geological relations. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black.

‘Two forms in species of Linum’: On the existence of two forms, and on their reciprocal sexual relation, in several species of the genus Linum. By Charles Darwin. [Read 5 February 1863.] Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society (Botany) 7 (1864): 69–83. [Collected papers 2: 93–105.]


Comments on HF’s paper on Plagiaulax from the Purbeck beds. Paper "dreadfully severe" on Owen.

"I am worse than ever in bearing any excitement."

Glad HF attacked Australian Mastodon. Never did believe in him.

Mentions Primula paper [Collected papers 2: 45–63].

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Hugh Falconer
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 144: 27
Physical description
C 3pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3806,” accessed on 31 March 2023,

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