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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Charles Lyell   11 March 1863

53 Harley Street:

March 11, 1863.

My dear Darwin,—

I see the ‘Saturday Review’ calls my book ‘Lyell’s Trilogy on the Antiquity of Man, Ice, and Darwin.’1

As to my having the authority you suppose to lead a public who up to this time have regarded me as the advocate of the other side (as in the ‘Principles’) you much overrate my influence.2 In the new ‘Year Book of Facts’ for 1863, of Timbs, you will see my portrait, and a sketch of my career, and how I am the champion of anti-transmutation.3 I find myself after reasoning through a whole chapter in favour of man’s coming from the animals, relapsing to my old views whenever I read again a few pages of the ‘Principles,’ or yearn for fossil types of intermediate grade.4 Truly I ought to be charitable to Sedgwick and others.5 Hundreds who have bought my book in the hope that I should demolish heresy, will be awfully confounded and disappointed. As it is, they will at best say with Crawfurd, who still stands out, ‘You have put the case with such moderation that one cannot complain.’ But when he read Huxley, he was up in arms again.6

My feelings, however, more than any thought about policy or expediency, prevent me from dogmatising as to the descent of man from the brutes, which, though I am prepared to accept it, takes away much of the charm from my speculations on the past relating to such matters.

I cannot admit that my leap at p. 505, which makes you ‘groan,’ is more than a legitimate deduction from ‘the thing that is’ applied to ‘the thing that has been,’ as Asa Gray would say, and I have only put it moderately, and as a speculation.7

I cannot go Huxley’s length in thinking that natural selection and variation account for so much,8 and not so far as you, if I take some passages of your book separately.

I think the old ‘creation’ is almost as much required as ever, but of course it takes a new form if Lamarck’s views improved by yours are adopted.9

What I am anxious to effect is to avoid positive inconsistencies in different parts of my book, owing probably to the old trains of thought, the old ruts, interfering with the new course.

But you ought to be satisfied, as I shall bring hundreds towards you, who if I treated the matter more dogmatically would have rebelled.

I have spoken out to the utmost extent of my tether, so far as my reason goes, and farther than my imagination and sentiment can follow, which I suppose has caused occasional incongruities.

Woodward is the best arguer I have met with against natural selection and variation. He puts conchological difficulties against it very forcibly. He is at the same time an out-and-out progressionist.10

I am glad that both you and Hooker like the ‘ice’ part of the Trilogy.11 You are the first to allude to my remarks on Ramsay, who says ‘I shall come round to his views in good time.’12

Falconer, whom I referred to oftener than to any other author, says I have not done justice to the part he took in resuscitating the cave question, and says he shall come out with a separate paper to prove this. I offered to alter anything in the new edition, but this he declined.13 Pray write any criticism that occurs to you; you cannot put them too strongly or plainly.

Ever yours sincerely, | Charles Lyell.


The anonymous review of C. Lyell 1863a in the Saturday Review, 7 March 1863, p. 311, stated that, strictly speaking, the work was ‘a trilogy, the constituent elements of which should be headed respectively, Prehistoric Man, Ice, and Darwin.’
CD was ‘greatly disappointed’ that Lyell had not written more positively in support of the transmutation of species in Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a; see letter to Charles Lyell, 6 March [1863]). Lyell was a leading figure in the British scientific establishment, whose earlier critical views of transmutation, first enunciated in his Principles of geology (C. Lyell 1830–3), had played an important role in the British debate on the subject.
The Year-book of facts in science and art was an annual started in 1839 by John Timbs (DNB); the volume for 1863 began with a four-page biography of Lyell, including an engraved portrait as the frontispiece (Year-book of facts in science and art (1863): 3–6). The article stated (p. 6): With regard to ‘the Origin of Species’ … Sir Charles Lyell not only opposes this theory, but denies that in the history of the strata there is any evidence that the lowest forms of animals were created first. The only fact he admits favouring the hypothesis of development is the late appearence of man on the earth.
One of Lyell’s chief concerns about transmutation theories had been their implications for the status of the human species (see L. G. Wilson ed. 1970, Bartholomew 1973, and Correspondence vols. 6–8). In the final chapter of Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 471–506), entitled ‘Bearing of the doctrine of transmutation on the origin of man, and his place in the creation’, Lyell relied heavily on quotations from other authors, leaving his own position on the subject unclear. See also n. 2, above.
Adam Sedgwick, one of CD’s former mentors, was critical of Origin (see Correspondence vol. 7, letter from Adam Sedgwick, 24 November 1859).
The orientalist John Crawfurd, to whom CD sent a presentation copy of Origin, published one of the first negative reviews of the book ([Crawfurd] 1859; see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to Charles Lyell, 2 December [1859], and Correspondence vol. 8, Appendix III). Lyell discussed Crawfurd’s views on the origin of languages in C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 455–6. The reference is to T. H. Huxley 1863b. Crawfurd discussed Lyell’s Antiquity of man and Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evidence as to man’s place in nature in a paper read before the Ethnological Society on 14 April 1863 (Crawfurd 1863).
See letter to Charles Lyell, 6 March [1863] and n. 43. In a letter to J. D. Hooker of 9 March 1863, Lyell had written (K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 361): Asa Gray says that Lyell’s doctrine is ‘that the thing that is, is the thing that has been, and shall be.’ Now if the thing that is, in the case of a man of genius born of ordinary parents and with ordinary brethren of the same parentage imply a slight leap, I do not see why Darwin should complain of my leap, given only as a speculation, for the highest unprogressive to the lowest progressive.
T. H. Huxley 1863b, pp. 105–8. See also K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 361.
The reference is to Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, whose evolutionary theory Lyell had opposed in his Principles of geology (C. Lyell 1830–3; see also Bartholomew 1973).
The reference is to Samuel Pickworth Woodward, whose opposition to species transmutation was well known to CD (see Correspondence vol. 6, letter to S. P. Woodward, 18 July 1856). Although Woodward did not review Origin, he had written critically about CD’s theory on a number of occasions (see Woodward 1881, pp. 303–6). See also letter from S. P. Woodward, 5 June 1863 and n. 3. Most naturalists in mid-nineteenth-century Britain believed that the fossil record indicated a gradual progression from lower to higher forms of life, while at the same time rejecting species transmutation (see C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 395–406). Lyell had long been an outspoken critic of progressionism (see Bartholemew 1973).
See n. 1, above. See also letter to Charles Lyell, 6 March [1863] and n. 20.
In a letter published in the Athenæum, 4 April 1863, pp. 459–60, Hugh Falconer objected to several aspects of Lyell’s Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a). He claimed that Lyell had not properly acknowledged his role in ‘the events which led to the re-agitation and proof of the question of primeval man’, and particularly in the excavation of human artefacts from Pleistocene deposits in Brixham Cave in Devon. For discussions of Falconer’s attack on Lyell, see Bynum 1984, Grayson 1985, and L. G. Wilson 1996a. Falconer never published the planned paper; however, he drafted a historical essay to affirm his role in the researches on the prehistory of the human species in 1863, intending it as an introduction to a book on the subject. The essay was published in Falconer 1868, 2: 570–600.


Bartholomew, Michael J. 1973. Lyell and evolution: an account of Lyell’s response to the prospect of an evolutionary ancestry for man. British Journal for the History of Science 6 (1972–3): 261–303.

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

[Crawfurd, John.] 1859. [Review of Origin.] Examiner, 3 December 1859, pp. 772–3.

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. 1868. Palæontological memoirs and notes of the late Hugh Falconer … with a biographical sketch of the author. Compiled and edited by Charles Murchison. 2 vols. London: Robert Hardwicke.

Grayson, Donald K. 1985. The first three editions of Charles Lyell’s The geological evidences of the antiquity of man. Archives of Natural History 13: 105–21.

Lyell, Charles. 1830–3. Principles of geology, being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation. 3 vols. London: John Murray.

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.

Woodward, Horace B. 1881. A memoir of Dr S. P. Woodward ALS, FGS, &c., with a list of his published papers. [Read 26 April 1881.] Transactions of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society 3 (1879–84): 279–312.


Defends position he takes on species [in Antiquity of man]. CD overestimates CL’s capacity to influence public. Will not dogmatise on descent of man; prepared to accept it, but it "takes away much of the charm from my speculations on the past". Cannot go to Huxley’s length with regard to natural selection. Responds to CD’s comments on Antiquity of man.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Harley St, 53
Source of text
K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 362–4

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4035,” accessed on 13 July 2024,

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