skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From James Shaw   [6–10 February 1866]1

To Dr Darwin | with Mr Shaw’s Compls

The Appreciation of Beauty by Animals.

At a meeting of the Natural History & Antiquarian Society held in Dumfries on Tuesday 6th. Feb. 1866 Mr Shaw of Tynron read a paper on the above topic. Sir Wm. Jardine Bart of Applegirth in the Chair.2

Mr Shaw remarked the subject of beauty in animal and vegetable had, in an Essay by the Duke of Argyll, been called a theological one, not a natural-history one, and that his Grace had thrown it by way of a stumbling block in front of Dr Darwin’s theory.3 The writer had reason to believe that Dr Darwin was not likely to fall over this stumbling block but that he saw his way to at least a partial solution of the problem.

Mr Shaw then attempted to prove that in man from the most civilized to the most barbarous, from the infant to the man of grey hairs, tribute was paid to external loveliness, and that passion was so remarkable in the savage that a great modern thinker had suggested that ornament not comfort was at the origin of clothes.4 At considerable length he adduced striking instances of taste, love of cleanliness, pleasure in personal decoration, courtesy towards their own image in mirror or picture, pride and ostentation, in some of the most lively and loving birds.

He then showed that in certain cases some birds, as the Australian Bower Bird, the Magpie, the Cornish chough, the Raven, the Daw &c went beyond themselves and out of their own species in their appreciation of beauty and their attempts to conserve it—their tastes being, as was to be expected, more similar to those of savages and apes & children in the objects of their selection than to those of civilized men.5

Having quoted Mr Montagu’s observations concerning the manner in which singing birds attract towards them the females at the mating season by means of song, he repelled that naturalist’s conclusion that the ear alone guided the female to its choice, since Nature at the pairing season was at as much pains to please the eye as to delight the ear.6 He then asked if it was merely a coincidence or was it that beauty was attractive to the beautiful that humming-birds & butterflies were so often found hovering over flowers the rivals of themselves in gorgeousness.

Mr. Darwin thought these flowers might be decoys, by which their seed-sower was drawn to its task.7

Allusion was made to the intoxicating effect of light on insects, so like its effects on human babies and to the fact that it was among insects that the fire-flies are found. The fire-flies were attracted into the dwellings in St. Domingo by torches for the purpose of killing mosquitoes, and what more likely than that their own torches should be elements of sexual attraction & an animal having a little more gayety, a little more light, in its organization than its companions of the same species would thus draw more readily towards it a partner and by its beauty secure further perpetuity and extension of the charm. More than one observer has connected this living light with the attractions of sex.

The writer then remarked on the wonderful similarity of the construction of the eye and on the fact that although beauty in animal & vegetable was wide-spread—so in the kingdoms of animated nature was the seeing faculty, and doubtless other eyes, as well as human had preferences in the things that they saw.8

A conversation ensued.

Dr. Dickson9 thought that this paper went to undermine Dr. Darwin’s theory, as it exalted feebleness into a favoured condition by allowing beauty to be an element in the preservation of races or of individuals.

Dr. Grierson10 thought that beauty and health went together—the beauty of a peach-cheek depended on the health of its possessor.

Mr. Shaw thought that Dr. Dickson misconceived Dr. Darwin’s views if he was under the impression that they accounted only for the existence of the strongest. Take the illustration of the wolves, where adaptation, not strength was the favouring circumstance.11

The Chairman, Sir Wm. Jardine, said that more facts ought to be collected before forming such high conclusions.

In reply to a question Mr. Shaw said that it seemed to him that nature had placed its spangles and glowing colours just where they were most readily seen. Birds and some other beasts had got their crowns and their coronets, their breast-knots & shoulder-knots their trains and painted eyes and ornamented cheeks and ears like Kings and Queens. In cases where the animal ornaments were not patent at once powerful muscles were provided for erection and display.12

CD annotations

1.1 The Appreciation of Beauty by Animals] enclosed in square brackets, pencil; ‘(Sexual Selection’ added below, pencil, square bracket in original MS


The date range is established by the date on which Shaw read his paper (see n. 2, below) and by CD’s reply to Shaw of 11 February [1866].
The text, which is handwritten, is that of a newspaper report of the paper Shaw read to the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society on 6 February 1866 (see R. Wallace ed. 1899, p. lvi); the newspaper in which it was published has not been identified. A fuller account of Shaw’s paper later appeared in the Transactions and Journal of the Proceedings of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society for the session 1864–5 (Shaw 1866a).
Shaw’s paper referred to ‘The reign of law’, by George Douglas Campbell, eighth duke of Argyll (G. D. Campbell 1865, pp. 229–31). Campbell accepted that the development of natural processes could be accounted for by CD’s transmutation theory but maintained that their origination was under divine control; he also challenged CD’s belief in the functional origin of beauty as expressed in, for example, Orchids, pp. 351–2 (G. D. Campbell 1862, pp. 394–5). For further discussion on the natural or divine origins of beauty, see Correspondence vol. 13, letter to Charles Lyell, 22 January [1865], and letter from James Shaw, 20 November 1865 and n. 7. For a commentary on the tensions between religion and science in CD’s philosophy of nature, see Sloan 2001; for a Christian perspective on beauty as a product of the evolutionary process, see, for example, Haught 2000, pp. 126–37.
Shaw refers to Thomas Carlyle and to Sartor resartus ([Carlyle] 1838). See also R. Wallace ed. 1899, p. lviii, and Correspondence vol. 13, letter from James Shaw, 20 November 1865.
In the full published version (Shaw 1866a, see n. 2 above), Shaw suggested that an interest in shiny objects was common to Africans, children, and many other human groups.
The writer refers to a passage on birdsong in Montagu 1831, pp. 475–80; George Montagu wrote that male songbirds did not in general search for females but attracted them by song (ibid., p. 475). Montagu was later cited on this point by CD (Descent 2: 52 and n.). Montagu also wrote, ‘we cannot suppose birds discriminate the colours … because some distinct species are so exactly alike that a mixture might take place’ (Montagu 1831, p. 475).
In Shaw 1866a, the flower of the bee orchis (or ophrys) is cited as CD’s example of a decoy. However, the bee ophrys, Ophrys apifera, is frequently self-pollinated and rarely attracts insects (Orchids, pp. 63–72). Shaw was apparently mistaken in citing this example, although CD gave examples of various mechanisms by which many other species of orchid lured pollinators to their flowers (Orchids, pp. 346–60 and passim).
CD discussed the development of the eye by natural selection in Origin, pp. 186–90.
John Dickson was a co-founder and secretary of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society (Gladstone 1913, pp. 9–10, 34).
Thomas Boyle Grierson was a co-founder and vice-president of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society (Gladstone 1913, p. 10).
Shaw’s reference was to Origin, pp. 90–1, where CD used the example of wolves to argue that different environments would lead to the selection of different adaptations and ultimately to the emergence of distinct varieties.
Shaw’s point about beauty in animals being prominently positioned, such as on the head, is developed further in Shaw 1866b. See also Descent 2: 71 and n.


Campbell, George Douglas. 1865. The reign of law. Good Words (1865): 52–8, 126–33, 227–32, 269–74.

[Carlyle, Thomas.] 1838. Sartor resartus: the life and opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh. London: Saunders and Otley.

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

Gladstone, Hugh S. 1913. The history of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. Dumfries: Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society.

Haught, John F. 2000. God after Darwin: a theology of evolution. Oxford and Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Montagu, George. 1831. Ornithological dictionary of British birds by Colonel G. Montagu, F.L.S. 2d edition by James Rennie. London: Hurst, Chance, and Co.

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.

Sloan, Phillip R. 2001. ‘The sense of sublimity’: Darwin on nature and divinity. Osiris 2d ser. 16: 251–69.


Memorandum of a meeting of the Natural History & Antiquarian Society held in Dumfries on Tuesday 6 February 1866.

Letter details

Letter no.
James Shaw
Charles Robert Darwin
Source of text
DAR 84.1: 14–17

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5003F,” accessed on 8 December 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 14