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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Charles Lyell   15 March 1863

53 Harley Street:

March 15, 1863.

My dear Darwin,—

Your letter will be very useful. I wish to get such passages so far in the Darwinian direction as not to be inconsistent with my general tone, and what Hooker calls some of my original arguments in favour of natural selection.1 At the same time I am struck by the number of compliments, both in reviews and in conversation with the half-converted, which I receive, because I have left them to draw their own inferences, and have not told them dogmatically that they must turn round with me.2 Hooker admits that in science people do not like to be told too plainly that they must believe, though in religion they wish to have it laid down for them. Yet he may be wrong, for if the ‘Times’ were to write for the next fortnight against the Southern States, and against the Poles,3 nine-tenths of good society would whirl round, and the middle class which would stand firm would be able to do so partly because they read cheaper papers which are not interested in following the lead of the ‘Times.’ ....

I wish I deserved what you say about taking criticism kindly.4 I often think I should be as touchy as anyone if the success of my works did not give me a constant opportunity of profiting immediately by every suggestion as to style and moral tone, and above all as to facts and logic.5 Besides the increased responsibility which I incur by the trusting public, who before they had read a word induced the trade to bid for 3,850 copies, I have the prospect, if I improve my knowledge and my teaching, of future success in new editions with comparatively little labour.6

As to Lamarck I find that Grove, who has been reading him, is wonderfully struck with his book.7 I remember that it was the conclusion he came to about man that fortified me thirty years ago against the great impression which his arguments at first made on my mind,8 all the greater because Constant Prévost, a pupil of Cuvier’s forty year ago, told me his conviction ‘that Cuvier thought species not real, but that science could not advance without assuming that they were so.’9 When I came to the conclusion that after all Lamarck was going to be shown to be right, that we must ‘go the whole orang,’ I re-read his book, and remembering when it was written, I felt I had done him injustice.10

Even as to man’s gradual acquisition of more and more ideas, and then of speech slowly as the ideas multiplied, and then his persecution of the beings most nearly allied and competing with him—all this is very Darwinian.11

The substitution of the variety-making power for ‘volition,’ ‘muscular action,’ &c. (and in plants even volition was not called in) is in some respects only a change of names.12 Call a new variety a new creation, one may say of the former as of the latter, what you say when you observe that the creationist explains nothing, and only affirms ‘it is so because it is so.’

Lamarck’s belief in the slow changes in the organic and inorganic world in the year 1800, was surely above the standard of his times, and he was right about progression in the main, though you have vastly advanced that doctrine.13 As to Owen in his Aye Aye paper, he seems to me a disciple of Pouchet, who converted him at Rouen to ‘spontaneous generation.’14

Have I not at p. 412 put the vast distinction between you and Lamarck as to ‘necessary progression’ strongly enough?15

Huxley’s second thousand is going off well.16 If he had leisure like you and me;—and the vigour and logic of the lectures, and his address to the Geological Society,17 and half a dozen other recent works (letters to the ‘Times’ on Darwin, &c.),18 been all in one book, what a position he would occupy! I entreated him not to undertake the ‘Natural History Review’ before it began. The responsibility all falls on the man of chief energy and talent; it is a quarterly mischief, and will end in knocking him up.19

I am sorry you have to go to Malvern.20 The good of the water-cure is abstinence from work; a tour abroad would do it, I am persuaded, as effectually and more profitably.

I hope my long letter will not task you too much; when I sit down to write to you, I can never stop. Hooker, not having heard from you, is growing anxious, and hopes it is because you are corresponding with me and not because of serious ill-health.21

Ever affectionately yours, | Charles Lyell.


In his letter to Lyell of 12–13 March [1863], CD offered suggestions regarding the text of Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a), particularly with respect to Lyell’s treatment of natural selection. Joseph Dalton Hooker had sent Lyell a ‘deflagrating … yarn’, concerning his failure publicly to endorse natural selection in the book (see letter from J. D. Hooker, [15 March 1863]).
The references are to the Confederate forces in the American Civil War, and to the Polish uprising against Russian rule in 1863 (EB).
Lyell refers to Principles of geology (C. Lyell 1830–3), which passed through nine editions between 1830 and 1853, and Elements of geology (C. Lyell 1838), which passed through five editions between 1838 and 1855.
Lyell refers to the sale of copies of C. Lyell 1863a to book-dealers at John Murray’s sale in November 1862 (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter to J. D. Hooker, [10–]12 November [1862] and n. 25). A second edition of the book was published in April 1863, only two months after the first, and by 19 May, Lyell reported that 5000 copies had been sold (K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 375). A third edition was published in November 1863, and a fourth in 1874. Some of the changes in the second and third editions are detailed in Grayson 1985.
On Lyell’s concerns about the implications of Jean Baptiste de Lamarck’s theory of transmutation for the status of the human species, see Bartholomew 1973.
The French geologist Louis-Constant Prévost studied medicine before turning to geology under the influence of Georges Cuvier; from 1823 to 1824, he and Lyell collaborated in comparing Secondary and Tertiary strata on either side of the English Channel (DSB).
Lyell refers to his famous critical discussion of Lamarck’s theory of the transmutation of species in Principles of geology (C. Lyell 1830–3, 2: 1–35).
Lamarck 1809, 1: 349–57. Lamarck’s account of the origin of the higher mental faculties was particularly innovative in that it posited the progressive development of such faculties, linked to the structural development of the nervous system (DSB).
Lamarck’s theory of species transmutation was based on two linked factors; namely, a natural tendency toward organic complexity, and the direct influence of the environment on the organism, causing heritable variations from this natural progression. In higher animals, however, Lamarck posited that there also existed a ‘sentiment intérieur [inner feeling]’, which, like the external environment, could affect the organism’s form. Lamarck argued that this feeling, corresponding to agitations of the nervous fluid, resulted in muscular motion that, through repetition, could create new organs (DSB).
Lamarck first publicly expounded his theory of transmutation in a preliminary discourse to his series of lectures on invertebrates at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, in 1800; the discourse is reproduced in Lamarck 1801 (see also n. 12, above). In Antiquity of man, Lyell introduced the section relating to theories of species transmutation and progression with a preliminary chapter that first described Lamarck’s theory, and then discussed subsequent debates (C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 385–406). Lyell had long been an outspoken critic of the progressivist palaeontology common in Britain during the mid-nineteenth century (see Bartholomew 1976). For CD’s observations on progression, see the letter to Charles Lyell, 12–13 March [1863]; see also n. 15, below, and Correspondence vol. 3, letter to J. D. Hooker [11 January 1844].
Lyell refers to Owen 1862c, in which Owen allegedly claimed the ‘whole credit of making out the derivation or origin of species’ (see letter to J. D. Hooker, 5 March [1863] and n. 19, and letters to Charles Lyell, 6 March [1863] and 12–13 March [1863]). In the paper, Owen committed himself to ‘creation by law’ while refusing to endorse any of the mechanisms currently proposed (Owen 1862c, p. 96). However, he gave most positive treatment to what he called the ‘derivative hypothesis’ of organisms, meaning the continual spontaneous generation and law-like transmutation of species, which, he considered, provided ‘a kind of vantage-ground artificially raised to expand the view of the outlooker for the road to truth’ (ibid., p. 92 and n.). Félix Archimède Pouchet, director of the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle at Rouen, was a prominent advocate of spontaneous generation and was involved in a major controversy on the subject with Louis Pasteur (see Farley 1977). Owen had given Pouchet’s work qualified support on several occasions since 1859 (see Rupke 1994, pp. 239–40, 251–2). On Owen’s views regarding spontaneous generation, see also Appendix VII.
See letter to Charles Lyell, 12–13 March [1863], n. 9. In C. Lyell 1863a, p. 412, Lyell observed: One of the principal claims of Mr. Darwin’s theory to acceptance is, that it enables us to dispense with a law of progression as a necessary accompaniment of variation. It will account equally well for what is called degradation, or retrograde movement towards a simpler structure
T. H. Huxley 1863a and 1862a.
No letter from Thomas Henry Huxley to The Times relating to CD has been found; Lyell may refer to Huxley’s anonymous review of Origin, ‘The Darwinian hypothesis’, which appeared in The Times, 26 November 1859, p. 8.
In July 1860, Huxley had been offered ‘effectual control’ of the new series of the Natural History Review, due to start publication in January 1861, if he became one of the editors. Huxley had organised a ‘commissariat’ comprising eleven co-editors, but by June 1861 he was increasingly taking editorial responsibility on himself, writing: ‘It is no use letting other people look after the journal. I find unless I revise every page of it, it goes wrong’ (L. Huxley ed. 1900, 1: 209–10). CD had also warned Huxley that the editorship would consume much time that might otherwise have been spent on ‘original research’ (see Correspondence vol. 8, letter to T. H. Huxley, 20 July [1860]).
Lyell refers to James Manby Gully’s hydropathic establishment at Great Malvern, Worcestershire (see letter to Charles Lyell, 12–13 March [1863]).
CD wrote a letter to Hooker on 13 [March 1863], the first since his letter of 5 March [1863]; Lyell refers to CD’s letters to him of 6 March [1863] and 12–13 March [1863].


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.

Bartholomew, Michael J. 1976. The non-progress of non-progression: two responses to Lyell’s doctrine. British Journal for the History of Science 9: 166–74.

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

DSB: Dictionary of scientific biography. Edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie and Frederic L. Holmes. 18 vols. including index and supplements. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1970–90.

EB: The Encyclopædia Britannica. A dictionary of arts, sciences, literature and general information. 11th edition. 29 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1910–11.

Farley, John. 1977. The spontaneous generation controversy from Descartes to Oparin. Baltimore, Md., and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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.

Lamarck, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet de. 1801. Système des animaux sans vertèbres: ou tableau général des classes, des ordres et des genres de ces animaux; … Précédé du discours d’ouverture du cours de zoologie, donné dans le Muséum national d’histoire naturelle l’an 8 de la République. Paris: Deterville.

Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre-Antoine. 1809. Philosophie zoologique; ou exposition des considérations relatives à l’histoire naturelle des animaux; à la diversité de leur organisation … et les autres l’intelligence de ceux qui en sont doués. 2 vols. Paris: Dentu; the author.

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.

Lyell, Charles. 1838. Elements of geology. 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.

Rupke, Nicolaas A. 1994. Richard Owen, Victorian naturalist. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press.


Lyell has received compliments for letting readers draw own inferences [on species question]. Now feels he earlier did Lamarck injustice. [CD’s] substitution of variety-making power for volition [as in Lamarck] in some respects only a change of names.

Thinks Huxley taking on too many responsibilities.

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: 364–6

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4041,” accessed on 28 May 2024,

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