skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From John Scott   6 December [1862]1

Botanic Gardens [Edinburgh]

Decr. 6th.


I should have been glad to publish—as you desire me, a paper on the Primulas, had my materials for such been sufficient.2 This however is not the case. My observations have been entirely confined to the examination of the relative length of the sexual organs, and I have never tested their comparative fertility. In regard to this point in the few non-dimorphic forms, I have given in my list, one only—P. Scotica—is cultivated here.3 The plants of this—as you suppose—have not been raised from seeds with us, but introduced from their native habitats. It—non-dimorphism—cannot therefore, in these cases as in P. Sinensis which you mention,—be an effect of Cultivation, as I find it the same in native specimens of P. Scotica, and the few others similarly conditioned were native specimens likewise.4

I have just heard of a young M.D. who intends bringing forward some objections to your views on Primula.5 I have not been able to ascertain what these are, but I shall make it a point to do so on Thursday first when I expect to meet him at the Botanical Society’s Meeting. I am fully anticipating that they are founded on the conditions of P. Scotica—as he has frequently been North and gathered it. if so, however, your case of Linum may meet all the difficulties he will urge.—6

By the way, I may here state that I intend to read a short paper, on the Irritability &c. of Drosera to the Society on Thursday.7 I am very much puzzled with the capricious appearance of this phenomena in such widely different parts of the Vegetable Kingdom. So far as I remember in my overhasty perusal of your ‘Origin’, you do not refer to this point. May I be permitted to ask you, if you explain its isolated appearances, in the same manner as the electric phenomena of fishes? of which I have taken a note.—8

When I first observed the difference in the length of styles in Siphocampylus, I thought it might be analogous to Lobelia, and that the shorter styled flowers were not yet fully developed. This I find is not the case. I now enclose a few withered flowers showing stigma expanded with styles scarcely longer than stamens. In referring to this case, however, it was merely in analogical illustration of those forms of Primula, where the length of stigma varies, which as I hinted might in them as in Siphocampylus, be the first indication of dimorphism.9 The existence—on the authority of Lindley, and of which you may perhaps be aware, as I have not yet ascertained the species—of a structurally dioecious Lobelia,10 furthermore induced me to mention Siphocampylus, as I supposed such a state consequent on analogous changes, to those you have demonstrated in Primula. I may, however, after all be in an error about it, and I now merely state these points; which I thought justified my inference. I have made no notice of Clivia, nor have I counted the seeds.11 This I will now, have an opportunity of doing, as the hybrid & one of its parents are at present in flower

You kindly ask me if there is any of your books I would like.12 I can assure you Sir, that any of them would be a highly valued boon, but since you ask me to mention one, I will indeed feel deeply obliged and honoured of your presenting me with a copy of your Journal, which I have less frequently seen than the Origin.

The experiments you suggest on Cattleya shall be attended to as soon as an opportunity presents itself.13 At present, unfortunately there are none of them in flower. Lælia anceps, however, will be in flower shortly, and I will experiment upon it. It shall indeed afford me a pleasure to make any experiments you may be pleased to suggest. I will be glad to here of many more.

I will try and state my difficulties with Natural Selection in some future letter.14 I may here state, however, that it is not the mere question of variability, but the reproductive inheritance which presents difficulties to me. I send, by post a copy of my paper treating upon the reproduction of varieties of Ferns, on which I will be glad to hear any remarks, as I believe the relations of the sexual organs in the higher plants greatly infacilitates the reproduction of individual variations.15 That—in fact—the facilities for such are inversely proportionate, to the more or less intimate association of these organs. The most favourable condition for such being presented by Ferns, where the genitalia are the products of a single organ, and the least favourable by the diœcious Phænogams where these are produced by distinct individuals.

This subject I may state has engaged me for sometime back, and I now am inclined to think, that the views you advocate in your Orchid Book, are directly opposed to those I have adopted in my paper on the Ferns, where I apply it to like phenomena in the Higher Plants. That in short—all unfavourable to your views of variation, might—according to mine—regard that unknown great good derived from the union of distinct individuals which you speak of;16 as a natural institution for the prevention of any continuous flux in the forms of Vegetative Life. Inasmuch, as in this kingdom—it will rarely happen that two individuals having like differences will fertilise each other. And thus though each may individually present a departure from the normal specific type, the resultant of this combined action, will not blend their idyosyncrasies—if I may so speak. This immediate change in the genitive conditions, having a tendency to call into energetic action the somewhat latent specific formative power, and so efface the individual tendencies of both.

Time, however, does not at present permit me to enter fully and clearly, into these matters, which in fact are the basis of my difficulties with Natural Selection. With many thanks for the attention you have been pleased to honour me with, I remain

Sir | Your obedient Servt. | John Scott

CD annotations

0.1 Botanic … fertility. 1.4] crossed brown crayon
1.4 In … are, 2.2] crossed red crayon
1.7 from seeds … mention, 1.9] scored brown crayon
1.9 as I … likewise. 1.11] scored brown crayon
2.2 I shall … note.— 3.7] crossed ink
3.5 May I … fishes? 3.6] cross in margin, brown crayon
4.3 now enclose] underl brown crayon; cross brown crayon
6.3 I will … more. 6.5] cross brown crayon
7.10 and the … individuals. 7.11] scored brown crayon; cross in margin, brown crayon
Top of letter: ‘John Scottink


The year is provided by the reference to Scott 1862b (see n. 7, below).
Scott apparently sent CD a list containing information on several species of Primula with his letter of [20 November – 2 December 1862]. CD refers to such a list in a note, dated 3 December 1862, discussing the origins of dimorphism (DAR 205.7: 162). The list has not been found; however, Scott included a list of dimorphic and non-dimorphic species of Primula in Scott 1864c, p. 80.
This individual has not been identified. See also letter from John Scott, 17 December [1862].
Scott read his paper, ‘On the propagation and irritability of Drosera and Dionaea’, before the Botanical Society of Edinburgh on 11 December 1862 (Scott 1862b).
In Origin 3d ed., pp. 212–13, CD discussed the ‘serious difficulty’ presented to his theory by the presence of electric organs in only a small number of species of fish, several of which were ‘widely remote in their affinities’. He observed that in such cases of ‘two very distinct species furnished with apparently the same anomalous organ’, some ‘fundamental difference’ could generally be found, and continued: I am inclined to believe that … natural selection, working for the good of each being and taking advantage of analogous variations, has sometimes modified in very nearly the same manner two parts in two organic beings, which beings owe but little of their structure in common to inheritance from the same ancestor.
Scott had apparently mentioned this point in the missing portion of his letter of [20 November – 2 December 1862] (see letter to John Scott, 3 December [1862] and n. 8). Scott omitted to enclose the flowers with this letter (see letter to John Scott, 11 December [1862], and letter from John Scott, 17 December [1862]).
See, for instance, Lindley 1853, p. 692.
See Scott 1862a, p. 357. There is an annotated copy of this paper in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection– CUL. See also letter from John Scott, 15 November [1862].
One of CD’s objects in Orchids had been to show that the flowers of orchids were adapted for cross-pollination (p. 1). CD concluded the volume (p. 360) by referring to the probability that ‘some unknown great good is derived from the union of individuals which have been kept distinct for many generations’.


Lindley, John. 1853. The vegetable kingdom; or, the structure, classification, and uses of plants, illustrated upon the natural system. 3d edition with corrections and additional genera. London: Bradbury & Evans.

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 3d ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 3d edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1861.


JS not ready to publish on Primula.

Some of his objections to natural selection are based on belief that plants with separate sexes are less variable than those in which sexes are confluent (as in ferns).

Sends his paper on fern varieties [Edinburgh New Philos. J. 2d ser. 16 (1862): 209–27].

Will soon read paper on Drosera irritability [Edinburgh New Philos. J. 2d ser. 17 (1863): 317–18].

How does CD explain capricious distribution of irritability among plants?

P. scotica’s non-dimorphism is native.

Beginning Laelia experiments shortly.

Letter details

Letter no.
John Scott
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Edinburgh Botanic Gardens
Source of text
DAR 108: 182a–d
Physical description
ALS 7pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3847,” accessed on 22 April 2024,

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