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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Asa Gray   26 May 1863

Cambridge. Mass.

May 26 | 1863.

My Dear Darwin

Here I have a letter of yours a month old to acknowledge—a thing that rarely happens, you must allow.1 On 3 successive post-days I have sat down for it, or endeavored to do so. But a regular whirl of business, of one sort or other has prevented

I counted on 2 or 3 hours this morning; but two of my neighbors have got squabbling over a Report I have to read at the Anniversary Meeting of the American Academy to-day,2 and have wasted my time horribly, and distracted my brain, so that I am quite unfit to write to you. Yet I must drop a line, lest you should think me dead or worse.

From what you & Hooker & Boott had written about the sparring in the Athenæum I was anxious to see the nos.—but did not go to look it up at the Library, &c—as it comes to me thro’ Boott, tho, tardily.3 But the no. which contained Falconers attack on Lyell has failed. I suppose it may have gone down in the Anglo-Saxon.4 And the nos. of April 18 & 25—reached me only 3 or 4 days ago!

I have read Lyell’s reply to Falconer—which appears to dispose of him,— and Prestwich’s letter, and Falconers rejoinder, I believe.5

This all seems to me a miserable business on the part of F. & P. I see no reasonable ground of excuse for their conduct. They appear childish.—

Your letter on Heterogeny is keen & good.6 Owen’s rejoinder ingenious.7 But his dissent from your well-put claims of Nat. Sel. to attention & regard, is good for nothing except on the admission of the view that species are somehow derived genealogically—& this I judge from various of Owen’s statements that he really in his heart believes to be the case,—and was (as I long ago intimated my suspicions) hunting about for some system of derivation, when your book came down upon him like a thunder-clap.8

Carpenter is weak: lacks nerve perhaps.—9

Wyman, here, is greatly pleased with Huxley’s book on Man’s place in Nature.10 I have not even seen it.

Dana is dabbling in “cephalization”.11 I wish he could be cephalized more himself—at least could be made harder-headed. He is far too idealistic to ever make the naturalist he was intended for. He has capital points, but his head runs away with him.

Agassiz is writing very maundering geology & zoology, and worse botany (fossil) in the Atlantic Magazine.12 He tells his readers that the embryology of trilobites (about which not a fact is existant) is better known than that of Crabs!!13 He “is joined to his idols”,14 and I have no expectation that he will ever be of any more direct use in nat. history. I hope better of his son,15 who may do something.

Did you ever notice how prettily Iris is arranged for cross-fertilizing, by bees, &c.?

Your Linum paper has long been here—16 But I have actually not had time to read it. I might have glanced at it. But I find it best to read only when I can do so with some attention.

You must had had Cypripediums out.17

C. arietinum—I had one blossom only—most of my stock was sent to you—is a very clear case—wholly confirming my notion—which is so obvious that nobody could fail to see it. The surface of the stigma is unusually bristly, I think, i.e—the papillæ longer than in the others—in proportion.—18

What you say from Edinb. will whet my curiosity to look into Gymnadenia 3-dentata.19 If the case amounts to anything I will put buds & flowers into spirit for you.

On Cypripediums, you had better print a note, in Gard. Chronicle, when you have seen all the flowers you can.20

It was sly of you to cite Lyell, p. 469—21 I had not seen this before, having only the 1st ed. A very considerable change from the first ed. and one that may well satisfy you.22

Your question Ohio l⁠⟨⁠aw⁠⟩⁠s of marriage I have forgotten to ask about, I will enquire.23

Phyllotaxis   I have no notion in the world why the angular divergence should be of that series of nos. & not of others.24 Opposite leaves give (decussating) the angle 14. My puzzle has been to account for this system in cycles in leaves running into the system of decussating whorls, in flowers, (usually almost universally)   You will see, the question by comparing in my Bot. Text. Book (not Lessons), pp. 236–237, with Chapt. V, sect. 1,—and you see I have drawn an illustration from it apropos to Falconer’s remark.25 But explaining the obscure by the obscure does not amount to much.

As to National affairs, how quarrelsome you English are. Here are we cooly & quietly occupied with our little affairs, never dreaming of harm from you,—and your people are trying their prettiest to pick a quarrel with us,—because we do what Historicus says the English have always done & will do again when the time comes, having Lord Stowell to back them!26 Tell me, who is Historicus in the Times.?27 An able & most influential person, evidently.

The Government of England are now showing sense.28 Do not wonder that some wild talk is given to the air in this rough country, after what you have heard in House of Commons, & read in Times, &c   I am afraid we shall not like each other for a good while—the nations— But all shows I was right. We must carry out our little job, & hold the U.S. complete, & develop material strength at any cost,—or we could not live without eating more dirt than we like.

Boasting nonsense is pretty well knocked out of us, by severe discipline & sad reverses,—but the determination is stronger than ever.

Time up, & paper full. Forgive my maundering—& believe me to be | Ever Your affectionate | A Gray.


The ‘neighbors’ have not been identified. Gray was corresponding secretary of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; at the 26 May 1863 meeting, he read the annual report on behalf of the council (Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 6 (1866): 128–40). At this meeting, Gray was elected president of the academy.
In his letter of 20 April [1863], CD referred to two disputes recently aired in the Athenæum: a letter highly critical of C. Lyell 1863a by Hugh Falconer (Athenæum, 4 April 1863, pp. 459–60), and a dispute over heterogeny, or spontaneous generation, occasioned by Richard Owen’s anonymous review of Carpenter 1862 in the Athenæum, 28 March 1863, pp. 417–19. For Falconer’s dispute with Charles Lyell, see letter to Charles Lyell, 18 April [1863] and nn. 7–9. For an account of the dispute on spontaneous generation, see Correspondence vol.11, Appendix VII. Joseph Dalton Hooker and Francis Boott also corresponded regularly with Gray.
On 27 April 1863, the passenger steamship Anglo Saxon was wrecked on the rocks off Cape Race, Newfoundland, Canada, with the loss of almost 300 lives (Annual Register 1863, pt 2: 74–5).
Gray refers to Lyell’s letter in the Athenæum, 18 April 1863, pp. 523–5, in reply to Falconer’s criticisms of C. Lyell 1863a (see n. 3, above). Lyell’s letter was answered by Joseph Prestwich (Athenæum, 25 April 1863, p. 555) and by Falconer (Athenæum, 2 May 1863, p. 586).
Letter to Athenæum, 18 April [1863]. See also Appendix VII.
Gray refers to Owen’s anonymous letter to the Athenæum, 2 May 1863, pp. 586–7 (see Correspondence vol. 11, Appendix VII).
Gray refers to his statement, in his review of Origin in the Atlantic Monthly, that Owen was ‘apparently in travail with some transmutation theory of his own conceiving, which may yet see the light, although Darwin’s came first to birth’ ([A. Gray] 1860b, p. 115). For a discussion of Owen’s views on evolution, prior to and immediately after the publication of Origin, see Rupke 1994, pp. 220–48.
The reference is to William Benjamin Carpenter’s letter in the Athenæum, 4 April 1863, p. 461 (see Correspondence vol. 11, Appendix VII), which replied to Owen’s anonymous review of Carpenter 1862 (see n. 3, above).
The references are to Jeffries Wyman, Hersey Professor of anatomy at Harvard University, and to T. H. Huxley 1863b.
In January 1863, James Dwight Dana published a paper on zoological classification, using ‘cephalization’ as a fundamental principle of classification (Dana 1863c, p. 66). As both he and Gray were editors of the American Journal of Science and Arts, Gray may have known that Dana was working on a further paper on cephalisation, which was published in the journal in July 1863 (Dana 1863b). For CD’s opinion of Dana 1863c and a definition of cephalisation, see the letter to Charles Lyell, 17 [February 1863].
Gray refers to a series of articles by Louis Agassiz on natural history that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862 and 1863; the articles, which continued into 1864, were based on notes taken by members of the audience at a popular series of lectures delivered by Agassiz at the Lowell Institute in Boston. The articles were afterwards collected and published as Methods of study in natural history, which Agassiz described as his ‘opportunity to enter my earnest protest against the transmutation theory’ (Agassiz 1863a, p. iii).
Agassiz 1863b, p. 468.
‘Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone’ (Hos. 4:17). Agassiz adhered to a belief in special creation and was opposed to evolutionary theory (DSB). See also n. 12, above.
Alexander Agassiz was a zoologist, and since 1859 had been employed as an assistant in the United States Coastal Survey (EB).
An offprint of ‘Two forms in species of Linum was sent to Gray on 18 April 1863; Gray’s name appears on CD’s presentation list for the paper (see letter to Asa Gray, 20 April [1863], and Appendix IV).
Gray had sent CD live roots of the North American species of the orchid genus Cypripedium in December 1862 (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter from Asa Gray, 9 December 1862). There are notes on C. acaule ‘sent by Asa Gray’, dated 22 May 1863, in DAR 70: 121. See also n. 18, below.
Gray believed that if CD had the opportunity of examining North American species of Cypripedium, he would modify his conclusions on the manner in which pollination is effected in the genus. CD had suggested that the genus was pollinated by large insects inserting their probosces into either of the lateral orifices at the base of the labellum (Orchids, pp. 274–6). Gray, however, was convinced that pollination was effected by insects, probably flies, crawling bodily into the flower. Gray also pointed out that the rigid papillae on the stigma were well adapted to brushing the pollen from the insect’s head or back (A. Gray 1862a, p. 428). See also Correspondence vol. 10, letters to Asa Gray, 10–20 June [1862] and n. 16, and 26[–7] November [1862].
In the letter to Asa Gray, 20 April [1863], CD informed Gray of John Scott’s findings on the rostellum and the growth of pollen-tubes in some orchid genera observed at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. See also the letter from John Scott, [1–11] April [1863]. CD and Gray discussed the structure and pollination mechanism of Gymnadenia tridentata (a synonym of Platanthera clavellata, the small green wood orchid) on several occasions in 1862 (see Correspondence vol. 10), and Gray published his observations in A. Gray 1862a, p. 426, and A. Gray 1862c, p. 260 n. When Gray published further observations in the September 1863 issue of the American Journal of Science and Arts (A. Gray 1863b, pp. 293–4), he confirmed his earlier observation that the rostellum was penetrated by pollen-tubes. CD cited Gray’s findings in ‘Fertilization of orchids’, p. 147 (Collected papers 2: 144).
After investigating Gray’s observations on Cypripedium (see nn. 17 and 18, above), CD published a note on the genus in ‘Fertilization of orchids’, pp. 155–6 (Collected papers 2: 152–3), stating that Gray’s hypothesis that the pollinating insects crawled into the flower through the overlapped edges of the labellum and out through the orifices near the anthers was correct. CD also included Gray’s observations in Orchids 2d ed., p. 229. CD’s observational notes on C. pubescens and C. acaule, dated April and May 1863, are in DAR 70: 112–13 and 121.
The reference is to C. Lyell 1863b, p. 469, which CD cited in his letter to the Athenæum, 18 April [1863]. See letter to Asa Gray, 20 April [1863] and Appendix VII.
In C. Lyell 1863a, p. 469, the passage read: Yet we ought by no means to undervalue the importance of the step which will have been made, should it ever become highly probable that the past changes of the organic world have been brought about by the subordinate agency of such causes as ‘Variation’ and ‘Natural Selection.’ C. Lyell 1863a was published on 9 February 1863 (Athenæum, 7 February 1863, p. 176) and the second edition was published in April (see C. Lyell 1863b, p. vii, and letter to Charles Lyell, 18 April [1863]).
See letter to Asa Gray, 20 April [1863]; CD had asked whether the state of Ohio had legislated against the marriage of cousins.
CD had asked why the angles of leaves in a spiral up a stem were in the order of 12, 13, 25, 38, and so on; see letters to Asa Gray, 20 April [1863] and 11 May [1863].
The reference is to Introduction to structural and systematic botany and vegetable physiology (A. Gray 1858a, pp. 236–7 and 133–41), which formed the fifth revised edition of The botanical text-book. Hitherto, CD had been consulting First lessons in botany (A. Gray 1857) for information on phyllotaxy, following Hugh Falconer’s claim that the angles of leaves in a spiral up a stem ‘go by as fixed a law as that of Gravity & never vary’ (see letter to Asa Gray, 20 April [1863] and n. 14, and Falconer 1863a, p. 80). In A. Gray 1858a, p. 236, Gray had remarked regarding phyllotaxy: in living bodies, endowed as they are with plasticity and a certain power of adaptation to circumstances, the positions assumed are not mathematically accurate; and the effects of unequal pressure in the bud in throwing the smaller parts more or less out of their normal position may be observed in almost any irregular flower.
The reference has not been identified. The maritime and international lawyer William Scott, from 1821 Baron Stowell, was a judge of the high court of admiralty between 1798 and 1828, and on many maritime points his judgments were the only source of law; they were often unfavourable to and unpopular with Americans (DNB).
From 1861, the lawyer and statesman William Vernon Harcourt wrote numerous letters to The Times under the name Historicus, defending the British policy of neutrality in the American Civil War on the basis of precedents in international law. In 1863, some of his letters to The Times were republished in book form ([Harcourt] 1863).
Gray probably refers to the British Government’s decision that it was their duty as a neutral power to enforce clause 7 of the Foreign Enlistment Act, which made illegal the equipping of a ship for war in the service of a foreign belligerent (Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates 3d ser. 170: 90–4, 703–59). It was claimed that enforcement of this law would be to the disadvantage of the Confederates (The Times, 27 April 1863, p. 8).


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

Collected papers: The collected papers of Charles Darwin. Edited by Paul H. Barrett. 2 vols. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 1977.

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

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.

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.

‘Fertilization of orchids’: Notes on the fertilization of orchids. By Charles Darwin. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 4th ser. 4 (1869): 141–59. [Collected papers 2: 138–56.]

[Harcourt, William Vernon.] 1863. Letters by Historicus or some questions of international law. Reprinted from ‘The Times’ with considerable additions. London and Cambridge: Macmillan.

Orchids 2d ed.: The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition, revised. London: John Murray. 1877.

Orchids: On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1862.

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.

‘Two forms in species of Linum’: On the existence of two forms, and on their reciprocal sexual relation, in several species of the genus Linum. By Charles Darwin. [Read 5 February 1863.] Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society (Botany) 7 (1864): 69–83. [Collected papers 2: 93–105.]


Discusses recent correspondence in the Athenæum: the disagreement between Lyell and Hugh Falconer and Owen’s remarks on heterogeny [see 4110].

Briefly discusses orchids and some problems in phyllotaxy.

Mentions the political situation and the quarrelsome behaviour of the English.

Letter details

Letter no.
Asa Gray
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Cambridge, Mass.
Source of text
DAR 165: 135
Physical description
ALS 8pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4186,” accessed on 19 June 2024,

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