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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   11 May [1863]1

Down Bromley Kent [Leith Hill Place]2

May 11th

My dear Gray

I have to thank you for 2 or 3 little notes.3 The last I was glad to receive on Lyell, & will tell him, when I write, what you say on Species-portion.4 I am pleased at it; but cannot quite agree. You speak of Lyell as a Judge; now what I complain of is that he declines to be Judge. It put me into despair, when I see such men as Lyell & you incapable (as you think) of deciding: I have sometimes almost wished that Lyell had pronounced against me.5 When I say “me”; I mean only change of species by descent. That seems to me the turning point. Personally, of course, I care much about Natural Selection; but that seems to me utterly unimportant compared to question of Creation or Modification.— Like a huge Ass I have written two stupid letters to Athenæum:6 the latter to above effect.— How clever & original & candid your remark about Language & Design.—7

Your little discussion on Angles of Divergence of leaves in a Spire has almost driven me mad.8 My 2d Boy George is a good mathematician, & when I showed him the fractions, he said they formed a converging series;9 & I see when protracted, they do all crowd round one point.


I have been drawing all the real angles & unreal angles on a spire, & I see the angles which do not occur in nature, are just as symmetrical in position as the real angles.10 If you wish to save me from a miserable death, do tell me why the angles of 12 13 25 38 &c series occur, & no other angles.—11 It is enough to drive the quietest man mad.—

Did you & some mathematician publish some paper on subject; Hooker says you did.12 Where is it? I have been visiting for a fortnight houses of relation to try to get a little health for my youngest Boy (the Natural Selection Hero) & self;13 with very poor success. This has led me to muddle my brains over the angles of leaves.— Do you know of any plant in which angle is fluctuating or variable? I often bless science; for when observing I forget my discomfort & at no other time am I comfortable for two successive hours.— Remembering your statements I have been looking at Plantago lanceolata—14 it is a Female Dichogam which is rather rare (ie pistil mature & fertilised long before anthers of same flower mature); fertilised by the wind; and a few plants have imperfect anthers, containing little pollen & a part of this imperfect.—

Euphorbia amygdaloides I find, is also a female dichogamous monoœcious plant, & which is diœcious in function at any one period.15 But why I bother you with these trifling facts, I know not, except that I have nothing to do, & writing to you makes me forget my own odious self.—

Farewell my kind & good friend. If you can spare copy, send me one on De Candolle.16

Farewell— Yours most truly | C. Darwin


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from Asa Gray, 20 April 1863.
According to Emma Darwin’s diary (DAR 242), the Darwins stayed at Leith Hill Place, near Dorking, Surrey, the home of Josiah Wedgwood III, between 6 and 13 May 1863.
In his letter of 20 April 1863, Gray commented favourably on Charles Lyell’s discussion of transmutation in C. Lyell 1863a.
CD refers to C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 385–453; CD expressed his disappointment with Lyell’s cautious tone regarding his views on transmutation in the letter to Asa Gray, 23 February [1863], the letter to J. D. Hooker, 24[–5] February [1863], and the letter to Charles Lyell, 6 March [1863]. See also letter from Charles Lyell, 11 March 1863 and n. 2, and Bartholomew 1973, pp. 296–301.
Letters to Athenæum, 18 April [1863] and 5 May [1863]. See also Appendix VII.
CD had been reading Gray’s account of the arrangement of leaves in a spire in First lessons in Botany (A. Gray 1857, pp. 72–5); an annotated copy of A. Gray 1857 is preserved in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 347). See also letter to Asa Gray, 20 April [1863]. In DAR 51: A30 there is a note, dated 10 May 1863, in which CD declared himself ‘utterly confounded’ by phyllotaxy.
George Howard Darwin’s notes on phyllotaxy are in DAR 192: 1–7. See also memorandum from G. H. Darwin, [before 11 May 1863].
These diagrams are in DAR 51: A8–32.
This is known as a Fibonacci series, in which any term is the sum of the two preceding terms (Chambers). CD had recently begun a series of observations on phyllotaxy (see letter to J. D. Hooker, [9 May 1863] and n. 10, and memorandum from G. H. Darwin, [before 11 May 1863]). See also letter from Asa Gray, 26 May 1863.
Joseph Dalton Hooker could not recall having made this statement (see letter from J. D. Hooker, [13 May 1863]); however, Gray had read a paper on phyllotaxy at the second meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (A. Gray 1849). In the Proceedings of the association for 1849, Gray’s paper preceded a paper discussing the fractions occuring in phyllotaxy given by the Perkins Professor of astronomy and mathematics at Harvard University, Benjamin Peirce (Peirce 1849). See letter from Asa Gray, [10–16] June [1863].
According to Emma Darwin’s diary (DAR 242), the Darwin family visited Hartfield Grove, Hartfield, Sussex and Leith Hill Place, near Dorking, Surrey, the homes of Charles Langton and Josiah Wedgwood III, from 27 April to 13 May 1863. Horace Darwin had been unwell since January 1862 (see Correspondence vol. 10). Horace is referred to as the ‘Natural Selection Hero’ in recognition of a remark he had made on the future evolution of adders, which applied the principles of natural selection (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter to Asa Gray, [3–]4 September [1862]).
CD refers to Gray’s observations on the pollination mechanisms of heterostyled species of Plantago in A. Gray 1862d, p. 419. There is an annotated copy of A. Gray 1862d in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. CD had sought clarification of Gray’s description of the apparent fertilisation of the short-stamened flowers while still closed (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter to Asa Gray, 26[–7] November [1862], and letter from Asa Gray, 29 December 1862), and made a series of observational notes on ‘dichogamy’ (the maturation of anthers and stigmas at different times in the same flower) between 19 March 1863 and 24 August 1863 (DAR 49: 83–100). CD’s notes on P. lanceolata, dated 28 April and 9 May 1863, are in DAR 109: A27 and DAR 49: 91.
CD’s notes on Euphorbia amygdaloides, which formed part of his work on dimorphism and dichogamy (see n. 14, above) are in DAR 49: 91.
Gray had recently reviewed two works by Alphonse de Candolle (A. de Candolle 1862a and 1862b) for the American Journal of Science and Arts (A. Gray 1863d and 1863e, respectively). CD probably refers to A. Gray 1863d, of which there is a heavily annotated copy in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.


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.

Chambers: The Chambers dictionary. Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap Publishers. 1998.

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

Gray, Asa. 1849. On the composition of the plant by phytons, and some applications of phyllotaxis. Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; second meeting, held at Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 1849, pp. 438–44.

Marginalia: Charles Darwin’s marginalia. Edited by Mario A. Di Gregorio with the assistance of Nicholas W. Gill. Vol. 1. New York and London: Garland Publishing. 1990.

Peirce, Benjamin. 1849. Mathematical investigation of the fractions which occur in phyllotaxis. Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; second meeting, held at Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 1849, pp. 444–7.


CD despairs when men like AG and Lyell consider themselves incapable of judging on change of species by descent.

Is confused over phyllotaxy.

Has been looking at Plantago lanceolata.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Leith Hill Place Down letterhead
Source of text
Gray Herbarium of Harvard University (59)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4153,” accessed on 21 June 2024,

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