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Darwin Correspondence Project

From John Gould   10 May 1866

26, Charlotte Street, | Bedford Square, W.C.

10th. May 66

My Dear Darwin

The singular Humming bird with the four central tail feathers tipped with white is the type of my genus urosticte and its specific name is benjamini. This term was given to it by a Frenchman (Bourcier)1

How absurd it is that so beautiful and singular a creature should be hereafter distinguished by by such a soubriquet but so it must be according to the now received laws of Scientific nomenclature with regard to specific names2

You will find a short remark of mine on this bird at page 110 of the octavo introduction to the Trochilidae commencing with words “I must now ask those”3

In the Folio work there are some about the female4

Believe me | My dear Darwin | Yours Very Sincerely | John Gould

Chas Darwin Esq—

CD annotations

Top of letter: ‘Case like Pigeon   quote—tail feather’5 pencil


Gould refers to a humming-bird species found in Ecuador and first described as Trochilus benjamini by the French ornithologist, Jules Bourcier (see Bourcier 1851). Gould placed the species within a new genus, Urosticte; only the males of the species had white tips on their central tail-feathers (see J. Gould 1861a, pp. 110–11, and 1861b, 3: 190). CD may have discussed the bird with Gould during his recent stay in London from 21 April to 1 May. See also nn. 3 and 4, below.
CD had served on a committee appointed by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1842 to report on zoological nomenclature (see Correspondence vol. 2, letter to H. E. Strickland, 17 February [1842]). The committee drew up rules for the naming of species and genera that were widely accepted as standard by zoologists in most countries until the 1890s (Stresemann 1975, pp. 264–7). One of the rules stipulated that ‘the name originally given by the founder of a group or the describer of a species should be permanently retained’ (Strickland et al. 1842, p. 109). See also Correspondence vol. 2, letter to HEStrickland, 31 May [1842], and Correspondence vol. 4, letters to HEStrickland, 29 January [1849] and [4 February 1849].
Gould described the white-tipped central tail-feathers of Urosticte benjamini in An introduction to the Trochilidæ, or family of humming-birds (J. Gould 1861a, pp. 110–11). Although Gould remarked that the coloured feathers were displayed by males of the species to attract females, he concluded: ‘that ornament and variety is the sole object [of such markings], I have myself little doubt’ (J. Gould 1861a, p. 110). CD’s annotated presentation copy of J. Gould 1861a is in the Darwin Library–CUL; Gould’s description and remarks are underlined (see Marginalia 1: 342–4). The question of beauty in humming-birds had recently been raised by George Douglas Campbell, the Duke of Argyll, in a series of articles critical of CD’s theory of descent by natural selection (G. D. Campbell 1865, pp. 230–2; see letter from James Shaw, [6–10 February 1866] and n. 3). CD discussed Gould’s description of U. benjamini, and Campbell’s criticisms, in Descent 2: 151–2. CD argued that the white-tipped central feathers could be explained by the theory of sexual selection.
Gould refers to A monograph of the Trochilidae, or family of humming-birds, in which he noted that females of the species Urosticte benjamini had all but their two central tail-feathers tipped with white (J. Gould 1861b, 3: 190).
CD may refer to a pigeon breed in which the males alone had black striations. The breed is described in Chapuis 1865, which CD had recently consulted for his work on pigeons in Variation (see Correspondence vol. 13, letter to W. B. Tegetmeier, 2 June [1865], and this volume, letter to W. B. Tegetmeier, 16 January [1866] and n. 4). CD cited the case from Chapuis 1865 in Variation 2: 74, and Descent 1: 285, 293–4, 2: 157.


Bourcier, Jules. 1851. Note sur onze espèces nouvelles de Trochilidées. Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’académie des sciences 32: 186–8.

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

Chapuis, Félicien. 1865. Le pigeon voyageur belge. Verviers: Imprimerie de Ch. Vinche.

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.

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.

Stresemann, Erwin. 1975. Ornithology: from Aristotle to the present. Translated by Hans J. and Cathleen Epstein. Edited by G. William Cottrell. With foreword and epilogue by Ernst Mayr. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press.

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


Gives CD genus and species names of the singular humming-bird; distressed by specific name made necessary by revised laws of nomenclature.

Letter details

Letter no.
John Gould
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Charlotte St, 26
Source of text
DAR 84.1: 20–1
Physical description
ALS 3pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5086,” accessed on 7 December 2023,

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