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Darwin Correspondence Project

From A. R. Wallace   29 May [1864]1

5, Westbourne Grove Terrace, W.

May 29th.

My dear Darwin

You are always so ready to appreciate what others do, & especially to over-estimate my desultory efforts, that I can not be surprised at your very kind & flattering remarks on my papers.2 I am glad however that you have made a few critical observations & am only sorry you were not well enough to make more, as that enables me to say a few words in explanation—

My great fault is haste. An idea strikes me, I think over it for a few days, & then write away with such illustrations as occur to me while going on— I therefore look at the subject almost solely from one point of view. Thus, in my paper on “Man” I aim solely at showing that brutes are modified in a great variety of ways by “Natural Selection”, but that in none of these particular ways can man be modified, because of the superiority of his intellect.—3 I therefore no doubt overlook a few smaller points in which Nat. Selec. may still act on men & brutes alike.4 Colour is one of them & I have alluded to this in correlation to constitution, in an abstract I have made at Sclater’s request for the Nat. Hist. Review.5 At the same time there is so much evidence of migrations & displacements of races of man, & so many cases of peoples of distinct physical characters inhabiting the same or similar regions, & also of races of uniform physical characters inhabiting widely dissimilar regions,—that the external characteristics of the chief races of man must I think be older than his present geographical distribution,—& the modifications produced by correlation to favourable variations of constitution be only a secondary cause of external modification— I hope you may get the returns from the Army.6 They would be very interesting, but I do not expect the results would be favourable to your view.

With regard to the constant battles of savages leading to selection of physical superiority, I think it would be very imprefect & subject to so many exceptions & irregularities that it could produce no definite result.7 For instance,—the strongest & bravest men would lead, & expose themselves most, & would therefore be most subject to wounds & death.— And the physical energy which led to any one tribe delighting in war, might lead to its extermination by inducing quarrels with all surrounding tribes & leading them to combine against it. Again superior cunning, stealth & swiftness of foot, or even better weapons would often lead to victory as well as mere physical strength. Moreover this kind of more or less perpetual war goes on among all savage peoples— It could lead therefore to no differential characters but merely to the keeping up of a certain average standard of bodily & mental health & vigour. So with selection of variations adapted to special habits of life as fishing, paddling, riding, climbing &c. &c. in different races, no doubt it must act to some extent, but will it be ever so rigid as to induce a definite physical modification, & can we imagine it to have had any part in producing the distinct races that now exist?8

The sexual selection you allude to will also I think have been equally uncertain in its results—9 In the very lowest tribes there is rarely much polygamy & women are more or less a matter of purchase— There is also little difference of social condition & I think it rarely happens that any healthy & un-deformed man remains without wife & children.10 I very much doubt the often repeated assertion that our aristocracy are more beautiful than the middle classes.11 I allow that they present specimens of the highest kind of beauty, but I doubt the average.

I have noticed in country places a greater average amount of good looks among the middle classes, & besides we unavoidably combine in our idea of beauty, intellectual expression & refinement of manners, which often make the less appear the more beautiful. Mere physical beauty,—that is, a healthy & regular development of the body & features approaching to the mean or type of European man,—I believe is quite as frequent in one class of society as the other & much more frequent in rural districts than in cities.

With regard to the rank of man in Zoological Classification, I fear I have not made myself intelligible. I never meant to adopt Owen’s or any other such views—but only to point out that from one point of view he was right— I hold that a distinct family for Man, as Huxley allows, is all that can possibly be given him Zoologically.12 But at the same time if my theory is true,—that while the animals which surrounded him have been undergoing modification in all parts of their bodies to a generic or even family degree of difference, he has been changing almost wholly in the brain & head,—then, in geological antiquity the species man may be as old as many mammalian families,—& the origin of the family man may date back to a period when some of the orders first originated—13

As to the theory of “Natural Selection” itself, I shall always maintain it to be actually yours & your’s only.14 You had worked it out in details I had never thought of, years before I had a ray of light on the subject, & my paper would never have convinced anybody or been noticed as more than an ingenious speculation, whereas your book has revolutionized the study of Natural History, & carried away captive the best men of the present Age.15 All the merit I claim is the having been the means of inducing you to write & publish at once.

I may possibly some day go a little more into this subject (of “Man”) & if I do will accept the kind offer of your notes.16

I am now however beginning to write the “Narrative of my travels” which will occupy me a long time as I hate writing narrative, & after Bates’ brilliant success rather fear to fail.17

I shall introduce a few chapters on Geog. Distribution & other such topics.18 Sir C. Lyell while agreeing with my main argument on “man”, thinks I am wrong in wanting to put him back into Miocene times, & thinks I do not appreciate the immense interval even to the later Pliocene.19 But I still maintain my view, which in fact is a logical result of my theory; for if man originated in later Pliocene when almost all mammalia were of closely allied species to those now living & many even identical,—then man has not been stationary in bodily structure while animals have been varying, & my theory will be proved to be all wrong.20

In Murchison’s address to the Geographical Soc. just delivered he points out Africa as being the oldest existing land. He says there is no evidence of its having been ever submerged during the tertiary epoch. Here then is evidently the place to find Early man.21 I hope something good may be found in Borneo & that then means may be found to explore the still more promising regions of tropical Africa,22 for we can expect nothing of man very early in Europe.

It has given me great pleasure to find that there are symptoms of improvement in your health. I hope you will not exert yourself too soon or write more than is quite agreeable to you.

I think I made out every word of your letter though it was not always easy.

Believe me | My dear Darwin | Yours very Sincerely | Alfred R. Wallace

Charles Darwin Esq.


The year is established by the discussion of Wallace 1864b, and by the relationship between this letter and the letter to A. R. Wallace, 28 [May 1864].
In his letter to Wallace of 28 [May 1864], CD commented on Wallace 1864a and 1864b.
Wallace refers to Wallace 1864b. See letter from A. R. Wallace, 10 May 1864 and n. 6.
Philip Lutley Sclater was a zoological editor and one of the two editors-in-chief of the Natural History Review (see Correspondence vol. 11, letter from J. D. Hooker, 15 September 1863 and n. 27). Wallace 1864c, which appeared in the July issue of the Natural History Review, included a number of changes from Wallace 1864b. The following addition in Wallace 1864c, p. 333, pertained to CD’s example of a ‘dusky’ individual with a particular constitution escaping disease (see letter to A. R. Wallace, 28 [May 1864] and n. 16): Peculiarites of constitution, such as capacity of resisting miasma and adaptation to peculiar climates must always have been induced in man by ‘Natural Selection,’ as he spread over the earth; and a certain amount of external physical modification would probably have accompanied such internal change, but the author thinks these could hardly account for the marked and constant differences of existing races, and which seem in many cases independent of climate.
Wallace had spent time with different groups of indigenous people during his travels in South America from 1848 to 1852, and on the Malay Archipelago from 1854 to 1862 (Fichman 1981).
In Wallace 1864b, Wallace appeared to support Richard Owen’s classification of humans in a sub-class (see letter to A. R. Wallace, 28 [May 1864] and n. 14). Thomas Henry Huxley, after a debate with Owen on the resemblances between the brains of apes and humans (see, for example, T. H. Huxley 1861, and Correspondence vol. 10, letter from T. H. Huxley, 9 October 1862 and n. 4), argued that humans comprised a family (see, for example, T. H. Huxley 1863b, pp. 104–5). In Wallace 1864c, p. 335, Wallace qualified his statements in Wallace 1864b, writing that he thought there was something to be said for making humans an order, class, or sub-kingdom; ‘though in a true zoological classification’ humans could not be ranked higher than a family. Wallace 1864c ended (p. 336) with Wallace’s statement that his theory ‘harmonised’ Owen’s ‘two main facts’: the singularity of the human brain, and the anatomical similarities between humans and the anthropoid apes.
See letter from A. R. Wallace, 10 May 1864 and n. 6. See also n. 20, below.
Wallace refers to his portion of C. Darwin and Wallace 1858, and to Origin. See also Correspondence vol. 7.
See letter to A. R. Wallace, 28 [May 1864] and n. 19. Wallace’s next publication on the topic was a revision of his 1864 paper, including some new conclusions, in the essay ‘The limits of natural selection as applied to man’, published in Wallace 1870, pp. 332–71; the essay in CD’s inscribed copy of Wallace 1870 in the Darwin Archive–CUL is annotated (see Marginalia 1: 837). See also letter to A. R. Wallace, 28 [May 1864] and n. 11.
In 1869, Wallace published The Malay Archipelago (Wallace 1869), an account of his travels from 1854 to 1862. Henry Walter Bates had earlier published The naturalist on the River Amazons (Bates 1863); for CD’s praise of Bates 1863, see Correspondence vol. 11, letter to H. W. Bates, 18 April [1863].
Wallace divided his book (Wallace 1869) by his travels to five different sets of islands in the Malay Archipelago, including a chapter on natural history for each group; however, he noted that the chapters on natural history, and other passages, had ‘been written in the hope of exciting an interest in the various questions connected with the origin of species and their geographical distribution’ (ibid. 1: xii). Wallace later continued contributing work on geographical distribution (see, for example, Wallace 1876).
For portions of Charles Lyell’s letter to Wallace of 22 May 1864, see Wallace 1905, 1: 418–19, and Marchant ed. 1916, 2: 18–19. In Antiquity of man, Lyell argued that humans had existed in post-Pliocene Europe: ‘we cannot expect to meet with human bones in the Miocene formations, where all the species and nearly all the genera of mammalia belong to types widely differing from those now living’ (C. Lyell 1863a, p. 399). See also letter from A. R. Wallace, 10 May 1864 and n. 6.
In the abstract written for the July issue of Natural History Review (Wallace 1864c, pp. 329), Wallace added to his argument that physical characteristics in humans had remained fixed since the Miocene or Eocene while mental characteristics changed; this strengthened his presentation on pp. 335–6, and in Wallace 1864b, pp. clxvi–clxvii. See letter from A. R. Wallace, 10 May 1864 and n. 6. See also Wallace 1905, 2: 419–20.
Roderick Impey Murchison delivered the presidential address to the Royal Geographical Society on 23 May 1864 (Murchison 1864a). Murchison believed that the interior of southern Africa was ‘unquestionably a grand type of a region which has preserved its ancient terrestrial conditions during a very long period’ (ibid., p. 248); he speculated that the human inhabitants might also be of great antiquity. See also Wallace 1864b, p. clxvii.


Bates, Henry Walter. 1863. The naturalist on the River Amazons. A record of adventures, habits of animals, sketches of Brazilian and Indian life, and aspects of nature under the equator, during eleven years of travel. 2 vols. London: John Murray.

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

Fichman, Martin. 1981. Alfred Russel Wallace. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

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.

Wallace, Alfred Russel. 1905. My life: a record of events and opinions. 2 vols. London: Chapman & Hall.


Argues the antiquity of the human species because natural selection acts differently with respect to men. Changes in man are largely confined to head and brain. Warfare and sex are very uncertain as means of selection.

Gives CD complete credit for theory of natural selection.

Is beginning his narrative of his travels.

Lyell argues against tracing man as far back as Miocene times. R. I. Murchison’s argument that Africa is the oldest existing land implies that Africa is the place to look for early man.

Letter details

Letter no.
Alfred Russel Wallace
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Westbourne Grove Terrace, 5
Source of text
DAR 106: B14–19
Physical description
ALS 12pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4514,” accessed on 28 May 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 12