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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Henry Wentworth Acland   8 December [1865]1

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

Dec 8

My dear Professor Acland

I am much obliged for your kind note & present.2 I remember perfectly & with much pleasure our short acquaintance at Oxford.3

I have read your Oration with great interest, & much in it about Hervey &c was new to me.4 I believe we entirely agree that purpose or design is one of the surest & simplest roads to discovery in Natural History.5

I have been the more interested in your Oration from having a few years ago corresponded a good deal on the subject with Professor Asa Gray but I confess I finished in hopeless confusion of mind.6 On the one hand it grates against one’s common sense to look at this world with all its inhabitants especially man as originating without express design. On the other hand I cannot believe that any one structure is expressly designed, in the common meaning of the word. Asa Gray, who believes in Nat. Selection, believes that the initial variations are designed, but he could not maintain that the variations of domestic animals, such as those by which the Pouter pigeon has been formed, were expressly designed; nor did he dispute that the variations under domestication & under nature are of the same order & follow the same laws.7 So that looking at the subject from two opposite points of view, I am driven to two opposite conclusions.

I send by this post a little book on climbing plants which wd only be worth your looking at as shewing how much power of movement, both spontaneous & from various stimuli, there is in plants of all kinds.8

With very sincere thanks believe me yours very faithfully

My health continues so bad that I have done no work for the last 8 months.

Ch. Darwin


The year is established by the reference to Acland 1865 (see n. 4, below).
The letter from Acland has not been found. The gift was probably a copy of Acland 1865 (see n. 4, below).
In a letter to Jeffries Wyman, 3 December [1860] (Correspondence vol. 8), CD wrote that he had seen Acland ‘several years ago … & was charmed with him’. No other record of their meeting has been found. CD’s only known visit to Oxford, where Acland was regius professor of medicine, was for the 1847 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (see Correspondence vol. 4).
In 1865, Acland delivered the Harveian Oration, an annual address given in commemoration of William Harvey and other benefactors of the Royal College of Physicians (Acland 1865; DNB). CD’s lightly annotated copy of Acland 1865 is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
Using the work of Harvey on the circulation of the blood, Acland defended the principle of design in nature as a guiding assumption of scientific discovery, concluding: ‘All science goes to prove the existence of Order; and in Order there is nothing that we know to exclude Design’ (Acland 1865, p. 51). Acland also criticised at length the claims of the French philosopher, Auguste Comte, that the results of modern science provided evidence against belief in the operation of final causes, and that natural productions such as the lens of the eye were inferior to the works of human artifice, and best explained as the result of chance (ibid., pp. 5–7, 20–1, 26–8, 39–40). Arguing against Comte, Acland cited a passage from Origin, p. 186, on the development of the eye by natural selection (Acland 1865, p. 25). He also quoted a passage from Orchids, p. 351, in which CD remarked on the superiority of nature’s ‘contrivances and beautiful adaptations’ to those ‘which the most fertile imagination of the most imaginative man could suggest with unlimited time at his disposal’ (Acland 1865, p. 40). On the relationship between CD’s work and the tradition of natural theology in Britain, see Brooke 1991, pp. 219–25, 275–317.
CD had discussed of design in nature at length with Asa Gray (see especially Correspondence vol. 8, letters to Asa Gray, 22 May [1860], 3 July [1860], and 26 November [1860]). In 1860, Gray wrote a series of articles that presented CD’s theory of natural selection as compatible with belief in the operation of divine providence, suggesting that new species could develop from variations that were themselves designed ([A. Gray 1860], pp. 413–14). CD financed the publication of a pamphlet version of the articles under the title Natural selection not inconsistent with natural theology (A. Gray 1861; see Correspondence vol. 9, Appendix III). See also n. 7, below. CD’s annotated copies of [A. Gray] 1860 and A. Gray 1861 are in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
The source of Gray’s views on variation in domestic animals has not been identified; a number of Gray’s letters to CD in 1860 and 1861 are missing or incomplete. In his letter to Gray of 26 November [1860] (Correspondence vol. 8), CD stated that he could not believe, as Gray’s theory of designed variability seemed to suggest, that variations in domestic animals, such as fan-tail pigeons, had been brought about ‘in order to gratify the caprice of a few men’. In a letter to Gray of 5 June [1861] (Correspondence vol. 9), he wrote that he had come to differ more from Gray on the subject of design: ‘from studying lately domestic variations & seeing what an enormous field of undesigned variability there is ready for natural selection to appropriate for any purpose useful to each creature’. See also Correspondence vol. 9, letter to Charles Lyell, [1 August 1861], and Correspondence vol. 11, letter to Asa Gray, 4 August [1863]. CD expressed his disagreement with Gray’s view that variation had been ‘led along certain beneficial lines’ in Variation 2: 432.


Acland, Henry Wentworth. 1865. The Harveian oration, 1865. London: Macmillan and Co.

Brooke, John Hedley. 1991. Science and religion: some historical perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

‘Climbing plants’: On the movements and habits of climbing plants. By Charles Darwin. [Read 2 February 1865.] Journal of the Linnean Society (Botany) 9 (1867): 1–118.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 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.

[Gray, Asa.] 1860c. Darwin on the origin of species. Atlantic Monthly 6: 109–16, 229–39; Darwin and his reviewers. Atlantic Monthly 6: 406–25.

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.

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


Acknowledges HWA’s oration.

Discusses design in nature, Asa Gray’s views, and his own confusion.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Henry Wentworth Acland
Sent from
Source of text
Bodleian Library (MS.Acland.d. 81 ff. 63–4)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4948,” accessed on 22 February 2020,

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