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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Samuel Butler   1 October 1865

15. Clifford’s Inn E.C

Oct. 1. 1865.

Dear Sir,

I knew you were ill and I never meant to give you the fatigue of writing to me—1 Please do not trouble yourself to do so again. As you kindly ask my plans I may say that though I very probably may return to New Zealand in three or four years I have no intention of doing so before that time.

My study is art,2 and any thing else I may indulge in is only by play; it may cause you some little wonder that at my age I should have started as an art student, & I may perhaps be permitted to explain that this was always my wish for years, that I had begun six years ago, as soon as ever I found that I could not conscientiously take orders; my father3 so strongly disapproved of the idea that I gave it up and went out to New Zealand   staid there for five years—worked like a common Servant though on a run of my own and sold out little more than a year ago thinking that prices were going to fall—which they have since done. Being then rather at a loss what to do, and my capital being all locked up, I took the opportunity to return to my old plan and have been studying for the last 12 months unremittingly— I hope that in three or four years more I shall be able to go very well by myself, and then I may go back to N.Z or no as circumstances shall seem to render advisable.

I must apologise for so much detail but hardly knew how to explain myself without it.

I always delighted in your origin of species as soon as I saw it out in N.Z—not as knowing anything whatsoever of natural history, but it enters into so many deeply interesting questions, or rather it suggests so many that it thoroughly fascinated me. I therefore feel all the greater pleasure that my pamphlet should please you however full of errors it may be.4

The first dialogue on the origin which I wrote in the Press called forth a contemptuous rejoinder from (I believe) the Bishop of Wellington—5 (please do not mention the name, though I think that at this distance of space & time I might mention it to yourself)   I answered it with the enclosed which may amuse you.6 I assumed another character because my dialogue was in my hearing very severely criticised by two or three whose opinion I thought worth having, and I deferred to their judgement in my next.7 I do not think I should do so now. I fear you will be shocked at an appeal to the periodicals mentioned in my letter,8 but they form a very staple article of bush diet, and we used to get a good deal of superficial knowledge out of them. I feared to go in too heavy on the side of the origin because I thought that having said my say as well as I could I had better now take a less impassioned tone: but I was really exceedingly angry.

Please do not trouble yourself to answer this and believe me | Your’s most sincerely | S. Butler


To the Editor of The Press. Sir,

In two of your numbers you have already taken notice of Darwin’s theory of the origin of species; I would venture to trespass upon your space in order to criticize briefly both your notices.

The first is evidently the composition of a warm adherent of the theory in question; the writer overlooks all the real difficulties in the way of accepting it, and, caught by the obvious truth of much that Darwin says, has rushed to the conclusion that all is equally true. He writes with the tone of a partisan, of one deficient in scientific caution, and from the frequent repetition of the same ideas manifest in his dialogue one would be led to suspect that he was but little versed in habits of literary composition and philosophical argument. Yet he may fairly claim the merit of having written in earnest. He has treated a serious subject seriously according to his lights; and though his lights are not brilliant ones, yet he has apparently done his best to show the theory on which he is writing in its most favourable aspect. He is rash, evidently well satisfied with himself, very possibly mistaken, and just one of those persons who (without intending it) are more apt to mislead than to lead the few people that put their trust in them. A few will always follow them, for a strong faith is always more or less impressive upon persons who are too weak to have any definite and original faith of their own. The second writer, however, assumes a very different tone. His arguments to all practical intents and purposes run as follows:

Old fallacies are constantly recurring. Therefore Darwin’s theory is a fallacy.

They come again and again, like tunes in a barrel-organ. Therefore Darwin’s theory is a fallacy.

Hallam made a mistake, and in his History of the Middle Ages, p. 398, he corrects himself.9 Therefore Darwin’s theory is wrong.

Dr. Darwin in the last century said the same thing as his son or grandson says now10—will the writer of the article refer to anything bearing on natural selection and the struggle for existence in Dr. Darwin’s work?—and a foolish nobleman said something foolish about monkeys’ tails. Therefore Darwin’s theory is wrong.

Giordano Bruno was burnt in the year 1600 A.D.; he was a Pantheist; therefore Darwin’s theory is wrong.

And finally, as a clinching argument, in one of the neighbouring settlements there is a barrel-organ which plays its psalm tunes in the middle of its jigs and waltzes. After this all lingering doubts concerning the falsehood of Darwin’s theory must be at an end, and any person of ordinary common sense must admit that the theory of development by natural selection is unwarranted by experience and reason.

The articles conclude with an implied statement that Darwin supposes the Polar bear to swim about catching flies for so long a period that at last it gets the fins it wishes for.

Now, however sceptical I may yet feel about the truth of all Darwin’s theory, I cannot sit quietly by and see him misrepresented in such a scandalously slovenly manner. What Darwin does say is that sometimes diversified and changed habits may be observed in individuals of the same species; that is, that there are eccentric animals just as there are eccentric men. He adduces a few instances and winds up by saying that “in North America the black bear was seen by Hearne swimming for hours with widely open mouth, thus catching—almost like a whale—insects in the water.” This and nothing more. (See pp. 201 and 202.)11

Because Darwin says that a bear of rather eccentric habits happened to be seen by Hearne swimming for hours and catching insects almost like a whale, your writer (with a carelessness hardly to be reprehended in sufficiently strong terms) asserts by implication that Darwin supposes the whale to be developed from the bear by the latter having had a strong desire to possess fins. This is disgraceful.

I can hardly be mistaken in supposing that I have quoted the passage your writer alludes to. Should I be in error, I trust he will give the reference to the place in which Darwin is guilty of the nonsense that is fathered upon him in your article.

It must be remembered that there have been few great inventions in physics or discoveries in science which have not been foreshadowed to a certain extent by speculators who were indeed mistaken, but were yet more or less on the right scent. Day is heralded by dawn, Apollo by Aurora, and thus it often happens that a real discovery may wear to the careless observer much the same appearance as an exploded fallacy, whereas in fact it is widely different. As much caution is due in the rejection of a theory as in the acceptation of it. The first of your writers is too hasty in accepting, the second in refusing even a candid examination.

Now, when The Saturday Review, The Cornhill Magazine, Once a Week, and Macmillan’s Magazine, not to mention other periodicals, have either actually and completely as in the case of the first two, provisionally as in the last mentioned, given their adherence to the theory in question,12 it may be taken for granted that the arguments in its favour are sufficiently specious to have attracted the attention and approbation of a considerable number of well-educated men in England. Three months ago the theory of development by natural selection was openly supported by Professor Huxley before the British Association at Cambridge.13 I am not adducing Professor Huxley’s advocacy as a proof that Darwin is right (indeed, Owen opposed him tooth and nail),14 but as a proof that there is sufficient to be said on Darwin’s side to demand more respectful attention than your last writer has thought it worth while to give it. A theory which the British Association is discussing with great care in England is not to be set down by offhand nicknames in Canterbury.

To those, however, who do feel an interest in the question, I would venture to give a word or two of advice. I would strongly deprecate forming a hurried opinion for or against the theory. Naturalists in Europe are canvassing the matter with the utmost diligence, and a few years must show whether they will accept the theory or no. It is plausible; that can be decided by any one. Whether it is true or no can be decided only among naturalists themselves. We are outsiders, and most of us must be content to sit on the stairs till the great men come forth and give us the benefit of their opinion.

I am, Sir, | Your obedient servant, | A.M.


Butler studied painting at the School of Art, Bloomsbury, London. From 1867 he continued his art education at Heatherley’s School of Art, Newman Street, London (DNB, Butler 1923, p. xl).
Thomas Butler. CD had known Thomas since they were both at Shrewsbury school. Thomas shared CD’s early interest in beetles and, in the summer of 1828, they collected insects at Barmouth (see Correspondence vol. 1, letter to W. D. Fox, [30 June 1828], and Appendix I).
Butler refers to his anonymous article ‘Darwin on the origin of species: a dialogue’, which appeared in the Press of Christchurch, New Zealand, on 20 December 1862. CD had been sent a copy of the article anonymously and had sent it to an unidentified periodical for possible publication (see Correspondence vol. 11, letter to an editor, 24 March [1863?] and n. 3). CD’s Scrapbook of reviews contains an annotated copy of the article (DAR 226.1: 131–2). The article is reprinted in Butler 1923, pp. 188–95. Charles John Abraham became the first bishop of Wellington, New Zealand, in 1858. The unsigned article, ‘Barrel-organs’, a response to Butler’s article of 20 December 1862, was printed in the Press, 17 January 1863. It is not certain that Abraham was, in fact, the author (see Butler 1923, p. 188).
The enclosure was returned to Butler (see letter to Samuel Butler, 6 October [1865]); the letter printed in the Press, 21 February 1863, is reproduced here.
See enclosure. Butler, writing as ‘A.M.’, ostensibly criticises both himself as the author of the original article of 20 December 1862 and the writer of the critical response of 17 January 1863. A response to this letter, signed ‘The Savoyard’ appeared on 14 March 1863. Further letters appeared in the Press on 18 March, 11 April, and 22 June 1863, the first and last of which were signed ‘A.M.’, while the April letter was signed ““The Savoyard,” or player on Barrel-organs” (all the letters are reprinted in Butler 1923, pp. 198–207).
See the enclosure and n. 12, below, for the names of the periodicals.
The reference is to Hallam 1818. In the article of 17 January 1863, the author, in fact, refers to a separately published supplement which appeared after the fourth edition of the book was published (Hallam 1848).
Erasmus Darwin, CD’s grandfather, discussed transmutation in Zoonomia (E. Darwin 1794–6; see King-Hele 1999, pp. 297–301, for a synopsis of the theory).
Samuel Hearne was an explorer and Canadian administrator. The observation CD cited was recorded in Hearne 1795, p. 370. In the first edition of Origin, CD had written ‘like a whale’ but changed it to ‘almost like a whale’ in the second edition. He also deleted a qualifying sentence in which he wrote, ‘I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits.’ For more on the change to this passage, see the letter from E. P. Wright, 24 March 1865, n. 6. The passage appears on page 184 in the first two editions, but on page 202 in the third edition, which appeared in April 1861 (Freeman 1977).
For publication details of the reviews of Origin in Saturday Review, Cornhill Magazine, and Macmillan’s Magazine, see Correspondence vol. 8, Appendix VII. No review has been found in Once a Week. For more on the review in Saturday Review, see Bevington 1941, pp. 283–5.
Thomas Henry Huxley was the president of section D, zoology and botany, at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held in Cambridge from 1 to 8 October 1862. He delivered an inaugural address to the section entitled ‘On the conditions and prospects of biological science’ (Parthenon 1 (1862): 749). The Times, 3 October 1862, p. 7, reported that Huxley had ‘emphatically affirmed that Mr. Darwin’s work was as perfect in its logical method as it was accurate in its scientific facts’ (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter from T. H. Huxley, 9 October 1862 and n. 1).
Richard Owen had presented a paper at the British Association meeting, ‘On the characters of the Aye-aye, as a test of the Lamarckian and Darwinian hypothesis of the transmutation and origin of species’, in which he argued against CD’s theory (R. Owen 1862; see Correspondence vol. 10, letter from T. H. Huxley, 9 October 1862 and n. 6).


Bevington, M. M. 1941. The Saturday Review, 1855–68. New York: Columbia University Press.

[Butler, Samuel.] 1865. The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ as given by the four evangelists, critically examined. London: [the author].

Butler, Samuel. 1923. A first year in Canterbury Settlement and other early essays. Vol. 1 of The Shrewsbury edition of the works of Samuel Butler, edited by Henry Festing Jones and Augustus Theodore Bartholomew. London: Jonathan Cape. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 28 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Darwin, Erasmus. 1794–6. Zoonomia; or, the laws of organic life. 2 vols. London: J. Johnson.

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.

Freeman, Richard Broke. 1977. The works of Charles Darwin: an annotated bibliographical handlist. 2d edition. Folkestone, Kent: William Dawson & Sons. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, Shoe String Press.

Hallam, Henry. 1818. View of the state of Europe during the Middle Ages. London: John Murray.

Hallam, Henry. 1848. Supplemental notes to the view of the state of Europe during the Middle Ages. London: John Murray.

Hearne, Samuel. 1795. A journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort, in Hudson’s Bay, to the Northern Ocean … in the years 1769, 1770, 1771, & 1772. London: A. Strahan and T. Cadell.

King-Hele, Desmond. 1999. Erasmus Darwin. A life of unequalled achievement. London: Giles de la Mare Publishers.

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.


Autobiographical letter describing how, when he could not conscientiously take orders, he went to New Zealand and has now returned to England to study art.

Fascinated and delighted by Origin

and is pleased that his pamphlet [Evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ] pleases CD.

Letter details

Letter no.
Samuel Butler
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Clifford’s Inn, 15
Source of text
DAR 106: A1–2; Butler 1923, pp. 198–201
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4904,” accessed on 19 May 2022,

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