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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. D. Dana   5 February 1863

New Haven,

Feby 5. 1863.

My dear Mr Darwin—

The arrival of your photograph has given me great pleasure, and I thank you warmly for it.1 I value it all the more that it was made by your son. He must be a proficient in the photographic art; for I have never seen a finer black tint on such a picture.—

I hope that ere this you have the copy of the Geology** (and without any charge of expenses, as was my intention)2   I have still to report your book unread; for my head has all it can now do in my college duties.3

I have thought that I ought to state to you the ground for my assertion on page 602, that Geology has not afforded facts that sustain the view that the system of life has been evolved through a method of development from species to Species.—4 There are three difficulties that weigh on my mind, and I will mention them.

1. The absence, in the great majority of cases, of those transitions by small differences required by such a theory.— As the life of America & Europe has been with few exceptions independent, one of the other, it is right to look for the transitions on each Continent separately.— The reply to this difficulty is that the Science of Geology is comparatively new and facts are daily multiplying. But this admits the proposition that Geology does not yet afford the facts required.—5

2. The fact of the commencement of types in some cases by their higher groups of species instead of the lower.— As fishes began with the Selachians or Sharks (the highest order of fishes & the Ganoids, which are above the true level of the fish between fishes & Reptiles. In the introduction of land plants, there were Acrogens & Conifers and intermediate types, but not the lower grade of mosses—seemingly the natural stepping-stone from the Seaweeds. The fishes, Lepidodendron, Sigillarids, are examples of those intermediate or comprehensive types, with which great groups often began, and seem to explain the true relations of such types:—that they were not transitional forms in the system of life, but rather the commencing forms of a type.— If I advocated your theory, I think I should take the ground that there were certain original points of divergence from time to time introduced into the System, as indicated by the Comprehensive types.6

3. The fact that with the transitions in the strata & formations, the exterminations of species often cut the threads of genera, families & tribes, and sometimes, also, of the higher groups of Orders, classes and even Subkingdoms; and yet the threads have been started again in new species. The transition after the Carboniferous age was one apparently of complete extermination both in America & Europe, where all threads were cut; & yet life was reinstated and partly by renewing with species old genera in all the classes & subkingdoms, besides adding new types.7

You thus see that I have not spoken positively on page 602, without thinking I had some foundation for it. I speak merely of the geological facts that bear on the or any theory of development, not of facts from other Sources.—

You say in your letter that according to Mr Falconer, Prof. Owen has not done his work well with the Reptilian bird.8 I should be very glad to know what are Mr Falconer’s views.9 I should like also to have his present opinions with respect to the Mesozoic mammals of England, or at least, to be informed whether he sustains the conclusions he first published on the subject. I have quoted from Owen in my book because his publications were more recent, not that I have greater confidence in his opinions or knowledge.—10

With earnest wishes for your health and happiness, I remain | Sincerely yours | James D. Dana

** It was sent through Trubner & Co. 60 Paternoster Row11

CD annotations

8.1 You say … bird. 8.2] scored


CD enclosed a photograph of himself, made by William Erasmus Darwin in April 1861, with his letter to Dana of 7 January [1863].
The reference is to Dana’s Manual of geology (Dana 1863a; see letter to J. D. Dana, 7 January [1863] and n. 3). CD did not receive the book until later in the month (see letter to J. D. Dana, 20 February [1863]). There is a copy of Dana 1863a in the Darwin Library–Down.
CD had sent Dana a presentation copy of Origin in November 1859 (see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to JDDana, 11 November [1859], and Correspondence vol. 8, Appendix III). Dana, who was professor of geology at Yale University, had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1859 (see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to Charles Lyell, 29 [December 1859] and n. 10).
Dana had briefly stated his objections to ‘a theory that derives species from others’, concluding that geology led to ‘no other solution of the great problem of creation, whether of kinds of matter or of species of life, than this:— DEUS FECIT [God made it]’ (Dana 1863a, p. 602).
CD had attempted to address the problem of the absence of transitional forms in the geological record in Origin, admitting that ‘Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory’ (Origin, p. 280; see also pp. 172–9, 279–82, 292–302, and letter to J. D. Dana, 20 February [1863]).
Dana defined ‘comprehensive types’ as ‘types comprehending, along with their own characteristics, some of those of other tribes which were yet uncreated, but which were to exist in the future unfolding of the system of life’ (Dana 1863a, p. 203).
In Origin, p. 316, CD argued that genera and families did not reappear once they had disappeared, adding: ‘I am aware that there are some apparent exceptions to this rule, but the exceptions are surprisingly few … and the rule strictly accords with my theory.’
See letter to J. D. Dana, 7 January [1863]. The references are to the paper on Archaeopteryx read by Richard Owen before the Royal Society of London on 20 November 1862 (later published as Owen 1862a), and to remarks made by Hugh Falconer in a letter to CD of 3 January [1863]. Falconer criticised Owen for understating the transitional character of the Archaeopteryx fossil, and for overlooking the cast of the interior of the skull.
Following a résumé of the reports made by Johann Andreas Wagner and Hermann von Meyer on the Archaeopteryx fossil, published in the January 1863 issue of the American Journal of Science and Arts, Dana provided a commentary on the interpretation of the fossil’s avian and reptilian characteristics (‘Discovery of remains of vertebrated animals provided with feathers, in a deposit of Jurassic age’, American Journal of Science and Arts 35 (1863): 129–33).
Falconer had described two Mesozoic fossil mammal species of the genus Plagiaulax, concluding that they were herbivorous marsupials (Falconer 1857b). Owen, however, argued that the structure of the lower jaw and teeth of Plagiaulax indicated that it was a carnivorous marsupial (Owen 1860b, p. 321). Dana had followed Owen’s interpretation in his Manual of geology (Dana 1863a, p. 463), and was apparently unaware of Falconer’s subsequent refutation of Owen’s deductions (Falconer 1862).
The London publisher and bookseller Nicholas Trübner specialised in American literature (DNB).


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

DNB: Dictionary of national biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. 63 vols. and 2 supplements (6 vols.). London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1912. Dictionary of national biography 1912–90. Edited by H. W. C. Davis et al. 9 vols. London: Oxford University Press. 1927–96.

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.

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


Hopes CD has received a copy of his [Manual of] Geology [1862]; justifies his assertion that geology provides no evidence to support the view that life has evolved through a method of development from species to species.

Letter details

Letter no.
James Dwight Dana
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
New Haven
Source of text
Yale University Library: Manuscripts and Archives (Dana Family Papers (MS 164) Series 1, Box 2, folder 44)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3969,” accessed on 2 October 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 11