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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   22 January [1865]1

Down. | Bromley. | Kent. S.E.

Jan 22

My dear Lyell

I thank you for your very interesting letter.2 I have the true English instinctive reverence for rank & therefore liked to hear about the Princess Royal.3 You ask what I think of the Duke’s address4 & I shall be glad to tell you.

It seems to me extremely clever like every thing that I have read of his; but I am not shaken; perhaps you will say that neither gods nor men could shake me. I demur to the Duke reiterating his objection that the brilliant plumage of the male humming bird could not have been acquired through selection, at the same time entirely ignoring my discussion (p. 93 3rd Edition) on beautiful plumage being acquired thro’ sexual selection.5 The Duke may think this insufficient, but that is another question. All analogy makes me quite disagree with the Duke that the differences in the beak, wing & tail are not of importance to the several species.6 In the only two species which I have watched, the difference in flight & in the use of the tail was conspicuously great.7

The Duke who knows my orchis book so well might have learnt a lesson of caution from it, with respect to his doctrine of differences for mere variety or beauty.8 It may be confidently said that no tribe of plants presents such grotesque & beautiful differences which no one until lately conjectured were of any use; but now in almost every case, I have been able to shew their important service.

It should be remembered that with humming birds or orchids a modification in one part will cause correlated changes in other parts.9 I agree with what you say about beauty. I formerly thought a good deal on the subject & was led quite to repudiate the doctrine of beauty being created for beauty’s sake.10 I demur also to the Duke’s expression of “new births”:11 that may be a very good theory but it is not mine,—unless indeed he calls a bird born with a beak 1100 th of an inch longer than usual “a new birth”; but this is not the sense in which the term wd usually be understood.

The more I work the more I feel convinced that it is by the accumulation of such extremely slight variations that new species arise. I do not plead guilty to the Duke’s charge that I forget that natural selection means only the preservation of variations which independently arise.12 I have expressed this in as strong language as I could use; but it wd have been infinitely tedious had I on every occasion thus guarded myself. I will cry “peccavi”13 when I hear of the Duke or you attacking Breeders for saying that man has made his improved Shorthorns or Pouter-pigeons or Bantams. And I cd quote still stronger expressions used by agricuturalists. Man does make his artificial breeds, for his selective power is of such importance relatively to that of the slight spontaneous variations. But no one will attack Breeders for using such expressions, & the rising generation will not blame me.14

Many thanks for your offer of sending me the Elements;15 I hope to read it all, but unfortunately reading makes my head whiz more than any thing else. I am able most days to work for 2 or 3 hours & this makes all the difference in my happiness.16 I have resolved not to be tempted astray, & to publish nothing till my Vol. on Variation is completed.17

You gave me excellent advice about the foot-notes in my Dog chapter,18 but their alteration gave me infinite trouble, & I often wished all the Dogs & I fear sometimes you yourself in the nether regions.

We (dictater & writer) send our best love to Lady Lyell19 | yours affectionately | Charles Darwin

If ever you shd. speak with the Duke on the subject please say how much interested I was with his Address & tell him about Sexual Selection.


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from Charles Lyell, 16 January 1865.
Victoria Adelaide Mary Louise, Queen Victoria’s daughter. Lyell had written about her interest in CD’s theory in his letter of 16 January 1865.
Lyell had discussed the opening address delivered to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 5 December 1864 by George Douglas Campbell, eighth duke of Argyll (G. D. Campbell 1864); see letter from Charles Lyell, 16 January 1865.
See letter from Charles Lyell, 16 January 1865 and nn. 10 and 11. CD’s discussion of sexual selection in Origin 3d ed., pp. 92–5, was unchanged from that of the first edition. CD addressed Campbell’s views on humming-birds in Descent 2: 151–3. CD’s notes on G. D. Campbell 1864, dated December 1864, are in DAR 47: 20.
Campbell argued that the variations in bills, wings, and tails of humming-birds were not such as to give competitive advantage in the struggle for existence (G. D. Campbell 1864, p. 281): ‘It seems rather to have been a rule having for its object the mere multiplying of life, and the fitting of new forms for new spheres of enjoyment, according as these might arise out of corresponding changes in other departments of the organic world’.
CD described the manner of flight of two species of humming-birds, Trochilus forficatus (the fork-tailed hummingbird) and T. gigas (a synonym of Patagona gigas, the giant hummingbird) which he saw in Chile, in Zoology 3: 110–12. See also Journal of researches, pp. 330–2, in which Trochilus forficatus is identified as Mellisuga Kingii, and R. D. Keynes ed. 2000, pp. 235–6, 245–6, 279.
Against the view that natural structures were created for the sake of beauty or variety, CD argued in Orchids, pp. 346–60, that the unusual or beautiful forms of the orchid flowers facilitated pollination by insects. Campbell had reviewed Orchids in the October 1862 issue of the Edinburgh Review ([G. D. Campbell] 1862).
CD discussed the principle of correlation of growth in Origin, pp. 11–12 and 143–50. According to this principle, when slight variations occur in one part of an organism, and are accumulated through natural selection, other parts of the organism are modified.
In Origin, p. 199, CD briefly discussed the question of beauty in relation to selection, stating: ‘[some naturalists] believe that very many structures have been created for beauty in the eyes of man, or for mere variety. This doctrine, if true, would be absolutely fatal to my theory.’ The discussion of beauty is expanded in Origin 4th ed., pp. 238–41. CD began to make notes on differing ideals of beauty in humans and on mate selection between 1838 and 1840 (see Notebooks, Notebook D, 99; Notebook M, 32; Notebook N, 26–9; and Old and useless notes, 8, 14, 22–4; see also Barrett 1980). See also Correspondence vol. 8, letter to G. H. K. Thwaites, 21 March [1860], and Correspondence vol. 12, letter to A. R. Wallace, 28 [May 1864] and n. 18.
According to Campbell, CD’s theory implied ‘the possibility of new births being the means of introducing new species’. Campbell emphasised, however, that CD offered no explanation of such births (G. D. Campbell 1864, p. 286).
Peccavi: ‘I have sinned’.
In Origin, p. 30, CD discussed the predominance of human selection in the production of domestic breeds, relative to the direct action of external conditions of life, habit, and simple variability: ‘We cannot suppose that all the breeds were suddenly produced as perfect and as useful as we now see them. … The key is man’s power of accumulative selection: nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him. In this sense he may be said to make for himself useful breeds.’ He also gave numerous examples of animal breeders who habitually spoke of an animal’s organisation as something they could ‘model almost as they please’ (ibid., p. 31).
After a period of improvement in the spring and summer of 1864, CD had a return to ill health toward the end of 1864 (see Correspondence vol. 12). See letter to J. D. Hooker, 7 January [1865].
CD had begun Variation in 1860; after several interruptions, he most recently resumed work in September 1864 (see Correspondence vol. 12). Variation was published in 1868.
CD sent Lyell the draft of his chapter on dogs for Variation in August or September 1860 (see Correspondence vol. 8, letter to Charles Lyell, 11 August [1860], and letter from Charles Lyell, 18 September 1860). Lyell had had difficulties accepting CD’s view, first expressed in Origin, p. 17, that the various breeds of dogs had descended from several distinct species rather than from a single progenitor (see Correspondence vol. 7). Lyell returned CD’s manuscript at the end of September, and remarked in his letter of 25 September 1860 (Correspondence vol. 8): ‘The case you make out seems very strong’. In his letter of 26 [September 1860] (Correspondence vol. 8), CD wrote that he was ‘grieved’ to hear from Lyell that material from the footnotes should be worked into the text, but would ‘obey’. The manuscript has not been found. See Variation 1: 15–45.
Mary Elizabeth Lyell. The letter is in Emma Darwin’s hand.


Barrett, Paul H. 1980. Metaphysics, materialism, and the evolution of mind. Early writings of Charles Darwin. With a commentary by Howard E. Gruber. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[Campbell, George Douglas.] 1862. [Review of Orchids and other works.] Edinburgh Review 116: 378–97.

Campbell, George Douglas. 1864. Opening address, 1864–5 session. [Read 5 December 1864.] Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 5 (1862–6): 264–92.

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

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

Journal of researches: Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain FitzRoy, RN, from 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Henry Colburn. 1839.

Lyell, Charles. 1865. Elements of geology, or the ancient changes of the earth and its inhabitants as illustrated by geological monuments. 6th edition, revised. London: John Murray.

Notebooks: Charles Darwin’s notebooks, 1836–1844. Geology, transmutation of species, metaphysical enquiries. Transcribed and edited by Paul H. Barrett et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the British Museum (Natural History). 1987.

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 3d ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 3d edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1861.

Origin 4th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 4th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1866.

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.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.

Zoology: The zoology of the voyage of HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain FitzRoy RN, during the years 1832 to 1836. Edited and superintended by Charles Darwin. 5 pts. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1838–43.


Criticises Duke of Argyll’s address [to the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1864)] and demurs on Argyll’s "new birth" theory.

Agrees with CL on beauty.

Enjoyed hearing of Princess Royal’s discussion [on Darwinism].

CD’s illness.

CL’s advice on chapter [of Variation] on dogs was excellent.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.304)
Physical description
LS(A) 8pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4752,” accessed on 4 June 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 13