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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Asa Gray   20 April 1863

Cambridge. Mass.

April 20, 1863

My Dear Darwin

You asked me to tell you—when I had read it, what I thought of Sir Chas. Lyell’s book.1 I have only today finished the perusal of the copy he kindly sent me, i.e. all but half of the matter on Glacial period2—which I reserve till I can read it more attentively. Throughout it is a very interesting and to me a very satisfactory book. It is three books.— 1. a capital resumé and examination of what we know about the evidence of antiquity of man,3—no evidence we had not read of before,—but very clearly presented, of course.—4 2. a treatise on Glacial Per⁠⟨⁠iod.⁠⟩⁠5 Out of this I have m⁠⟨⁠uch to⁠⟩⁠ learn, and must read it all again carefully. Of a part I have not yet cut the leaves.

3. On transmutation-matters.6 That part of the book I can judge somewhat of, and I declare it first-rate. It is just about what I expected, and is characteristic of the man. I think that you, and Hooker, are unreasonable in complaining of Lyell that he does not come out “flat-footed” as we say, as an advocate of natural-selection transmutation.7 For 1. it is evident that tho’ inclined strongly towards ⁠⟨⁠it⁠⟩⁠ he is by no means satis⁠⟨⁠fied⁠⟩⁠ that nat. sel. will do ⁠⟨⁠all the⁠⟩⁠ work you put upon it. 2nd. He very plainly implies nearly all you would have him say. And, 3rd, he serves your cause (supposing it to be well-founded) quite as effectually,—perhaps, by his guarded position,8—by his keeping the position of a judge rather than of an advocate, and by considering still the case as not yet ripe for a decision.9

Very skillfully, too, has he presented the case of transmutation so as to commend it, as much as possible, to us orthodox people. (Huxley, I suppose, whose two books I have not seen, would put it in a way to frighten us off);10 indeed I think he has shown remarkable judgment and taste, & will have much success in disarming prejudice— And this is all you could ask.

The Chapter on language makes the points I supposed would be made,11 or some of them, but only dips in;—leaving more to be said. But this is rather ticklish ground,—for, if we are not careful here, you would get the better of us in this field quoad designs.12

If I had got the book 3 or 4 weeks earlier, I should have worked in some notice of the last chapter into my review of De Candolle &c, on Species—in May no. of Sill. Journal.13

Now please, do not think of being ill this spring, and passing all your valuable time—wasting it—at water-cure.14

I have really—as you see, nothing special to write of this week, & no time to read what I have hurriedly penned. | Ever Yours cordially | Asa Gray


Gray refers to Charles Lyell’s Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a). See letter to Asa Gray, 20 March [1863].
In chapters 12–18 of Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 203–368), Lyell discussed recent research on glaciation and outlined a chronology of the Pleistocene glacial period.
C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 8–205.
For a discussion of this aspect of Antiquity of man, see Van Riper 1993, pp. 139–42.
See n. 2, above.
C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 385–506.
Lyell also suggested to CD that his moderate approach would bring hundreds towards CD’s position, who, if he had treated the matter more dogmatically, ‘would have rebelled’ (see letter from Charles Lyell, 11 March 1863).
The references are to T. H. Huxley 1863a and 1863b.
The reference is to chapter 23 of Antiquity of man, entitled ‘Origin and development of languages and species compared’ (C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 454–70). Gray discussed the possible use of the analogy between the origin of species and the origin of languages in his letters to CD of 4 and 13 October 1862 and 24 November 1862 (Correspondence vol. 10).
Gray and CD had long debated the existence of a preordained design in nature (see Correspondence vols. 8, 9, and 10; see also A. Gray 1861). Gray had already suggested to CD that the analogy between the origin of species and languages might furnish conclusions ‘adverse to special design’ (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter from Asa Gray, 4 and 13 October 1862 and n. 3).
Gray’s review of A. de Candolle 1862b (A. Gray 1863e) appeared in the May 1863 number of the American Journal of Science and Arts, which was known as ‘Silliman’s journal’ after its founding editor, Benjamin Silliman.


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

Van Riper, A. Bowdoin. 1993. Men among the mammoths: Victorian science and the discovery of human prehistory. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.


AG’s opinion of Lyell’s Antiquity of man.

Letter details

Letter no.
Asa Gray
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Cambridge, Mass.
Source of text
DAR 165: 134
Physical description
ALS 4pp damaged

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4112,” accessed on 3 February 2023,

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