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Darwin Correspondence Project

From George Bentham   21 May 1863

25 Wilton Place, | S.W.

May 21/63

My dear Darwin

I return you with a thousand thanks (pr Bookpost) your pamphlets—1 I have read them all—with several others—till I got quite bewildered. My object was to say a few words in my address on the present state of the question and on some logical confusion in the arguments it has given rise to and my wish has been to do you full justice but not being gifted with your powers of expressing thoughts I fear I have only talked nonsense especially as age is beginning to tell upon me— you must look upon it however with an indulgent eye—and I sincerely trust you will find nothing in it really to annoy you.— I will send you a copy when printed2

I had intended saying something of what I considered the weak points of your hypothesis (not in its principle but in the generality of its application) but I found I could not give the necessary time and thought to it. There is one thing that I would wish you would further work out— What is that principle to a certain degree counteracting divergent variation which keeps certain species immutable for periods which further researches only lengthen— Not to speak of the Antiquity of Man   How to account for the absolute identity (I mean identity within present small limits of variation) of species of plants of the temperate northern hemisphere and of Tasmania and the Victorian Alps when first discovered—plants that must have gone through so many thousand generations in both hemispheres unaltered3   It is too much for me to suppose that Natural Selection has had no opportunity for acting upon these when others which appear to have been in similar circumstances have by her agency altered so much that the common origin of northern and southern representatives is difficult to recognise

The observed immutability of a large number of species (if taken within extended limits) which I had so long maintained continually haunts me although at the same time I feel the full force of your principle of Natural Selection the moment I divest it of that figurative personification which leads Asa Gray to say that your book on Orchids introduces the doctrine of final causes into the vegetable kingdom.4 I feel that I am one of your converts but I cannot satisfy myself that I am right at all points, and therefore cannot go all lengths with you.

I agree with your notes on the merits of some of your reviewers except that I cannot see much to approve either in Hopkins or Maw.5 I am amused by Huxley’s publications, admire his raciness of style engrafted upon solidity of thought and correctness of views6   I cordially agree in his opinions of your works but I have a great dislike to personal controversy and knock-down arguments. I have it is true been unable myself to refrain from a word or to on the unfairness of the Athenæum reviewer who quotes as authorities Pouchet and Co and ignores Pasteur but that is supposed to be anonymous and anonymous misrepresentations delivered ex cathedra ought I think to be put down by facts authenticated by a signature7

I shall endeavour as I get on with the Australian Flora to put together some notes on the comparative distribution of Australian British and other plants which I have specially worked upon—although Hooker has really done so much as to discourage one from pursuing the subject and some of my own ideas for instance as the connection between Europe and America through NE Asia have been taken up and worked out by more competent hands—so that I may after all be left to my old plodding task of systematic description which I have now carried on for nearly 40 years8

Ever yours most sincerely | George Bentham

CD annotations

3.1 The observed … haunts me 3.2] double scored brown crayon


See letter to George Bentham, 15 April [1863] and nn. 3–5 and 7–10.
As president of the Linnean Society, Bentham was obliged to present an address to the society at its anniversary meeting, which in 1863 was held on 25 May. Bentham’s address dealt in part with the reception of Origin and the influence of CD’s hypotheses on the progress of natural history (Bentham 1863). Bentham sent CD a preprint copy of his address in June 1863 (see letter to George Bentham, 19 June [1863]; it was not published until 29 October 1863 (General index to the Journal of the Linnean Society).
Joseph Dalton Hooker had drawn attention to the number of European genera and species found in Tasmania and the Australian Alps, Victoria, in his introductory essay to the flora of Tasmania (J. D. Hooker 1859, pp. lxxxiv–lxxxv). Bentham had been preparing the first volume of his seven-volume Flora Australiensis (Bentham 1863–78; see n. 8, below), and thus had specialist knowledge of the distribution of European species in the region.
Bentham refers to Origin and to A. Gray 1862b, pp. 428–9. See also Correspondence vol. 10, letter to Asa Gray, 26[–7] November [1862], n. 32, and Bentham 1863, p. xvii.
T. H. Huxley 1863a and 1863b.
See Bentham 1863, pp. xxv–xxvi. Bentham refers to Richard Owen’s anonymous review of William Benjamin Carpenter’s Introduction to the study of Foraminifera (Carpenter 1862), and his anonymous reply to CD’s letter to the Athenæum, 18 April 1863, published in the Athenæum on 28 March 1863 and 2 May 1863, respectively (see Correspondence vol. 11, Appendix VII). Owen commented favourably on the work of the French biologist Félix Archimède Pouchet (Pouchet 1858 and 1859), which purported to demonstrate the existence of spontaneous generation, or the appearance of living forms directly from non-living matter. Pouchet’s work was refuted by the experiments of Louis Pasteur (Pasteur 1861), which, in showing that contaminated mercury in the experimental apparatus was the source of the micro-organisms detected by Pouchet, appeared to close the spontaneous generation debate in France (see Farley 1974).
The first volume of Bentham’s Flora Australiensis (Bentham 1863–78) was published on 30 May 1863 (Taxonomic literature). Bentham refers to Hooker’s essay on the flora of Australia (J. D. Hooker 1859; see n. 3, above), and to Asa Gray’s study of the relationship between the plants of Japan and North America (A. Gray 1858–9). Gray’s hypothesis was that an ancient connection between western North America and Eastern Asia enabled the passage of North American plants across Asia to Western Europe. The evidence in support of this hypothesis had recently been reviewed by Daniel Oliver (Oliver 1862c). See Bentham 1863, p. xxiii.


Bentham, George. 1863. [Anniversary address, 25 May 1863.] Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society (Botany) 7 (1864): xi–xxix.

Bentham, George and Mueller, Ferdinand von. 1863–78. Flora Australiensis: a description of the plants of the Australian territory. 7 vols. London: Lovell Reeve and Company.

Carpenter, William Benjamin. 1862. Introduction to the study of the Foraminifera. Assisted by W. K. Parker and T. R. Jones. London: Ray Society.

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

Farley, John. 1974. The initial reactions of French biologists to Darwin’s Origin of Species. Journal of the history of biology 7: 275–300.

General index to the Journal of the Linnean Society: General index to the first twenty volumes of the Journal (Botany), and the botanical portion of the Proceedings, November 1838 to June 1886, of the Linnean Society. London: Linnean Society of London. 1888.

Gray, Asa. 1858–9. Diagnostic characters of new species of phænogamous plants, collected in Japan by Charles Wright, botanist of the US North Pacific Exploring Expedition … With observations upon the relations of the Japanese flora to that of North America, and of other parts of the northern temperate zone. [Read 14 December 1858 and 11 January 1859.] Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences n.s. 6: 377–452.

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1859. On the flora of Australia, its origin, affinities, and distribution; being an introductory essay to the flora of Tasmania. London: Lovell Reeve.

Hopkins, William. 1860. Physical theories of the phenomena of life. Fraser’s Magazine 61: 739–52; 62: 74–90.

[Maw, George.] 1861. [Review of Origin & other works.] Zoologist 19: 7577–611.

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.

Pasteur, Louis. 1861. Mémoire sur les corpuscules organisés qui existent dans l’atmosphère, examen de la doctrine des générations spontanées. Annales des Sciences Naturelles (Zoologie) 4th ser. 16: 5–98. [Vols. 10,11]

Pouchet, Félix Archimède. 1858. Note sur des proto-organismes végétaux et animaux, nés spontanément dans l’air artificiel et dans le gaz oxygène. Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des Séances de l’Académie des Sciences 47: 979–84. [Vols. 10,11]

Taxonomic literature: Taxonomic literature. A selective guide to botanical publications and collections with dates, commentaries and types. By Frans A. Stafleu and Richard S. Cowan. 2d edition. 7 vols. Utrecht, Netherlands: Bohn, Scheltema & Holkema. The Hague, Netherlands: W. Junk. 1976–88.


Returns CD’s pamphlets.

Wishes CD would work out further what keeps certain species immutable for great periods.

Feels himself a convert, but cannot go all lengths with CD.

Feels some reviewers distort CD’s argument.

Letter details

Letter no.
George Bentham
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Wilton Place, 25
Source of text
DAR 160: 157
Physical description
ALS 6pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4172,” accessed on 4 October 2023,

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