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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Alexander Shaw to E. A. Darwin   22 March 1867

40, West Abbey Road, | (Kilburn) N.W.

22nd March 1867

Dear Mr Darwin

I send you by my Sister Lady Bell’s wish, a copy of this Essay, written now some years ago. It is avowedly on the Nervous System: but it contains a view of the development of the Animal Kingdom, in illustration of Sir Charles Bell’s Classification of the Nerves, which she seems to desire to commend to your notice.1

From observing the distinctions in the origins and course of the Nerves, in Man, Sir Charles Bell was led to divide all those of the Brain and Spinal Cord into two Classes—one common to the lowest and highest animals—the other gradually introduced in correspondence with the successive changes of structure that the Respiratory organs—confined, at first, to the simple office of oxygenating the blood— undergoes in adapting it, in the highest animals, to the perfectly distinct office of producing Vocal Sounds.2

The way in which I have traced, through the Animal Series, the rise and progress of the different sets of parts subject to the two classes of nerves, had not been thought of by Sir Charles Bell. But the train of observation has conducted me to the conclusion—that the supremacy of the organization of Man depends on the Structure of his Mouth, rather than on the perfection of his Hands: or, otherwise, that the nobility of his frame is derived from his possessing, in his Face, a perfect organ of Voice, Speech, and Expression, in correspondence with his great endowment, his Mind.3

I am | Very faithfully Yrs | Alex. Shaw.

Erasmus Darwin Esqr.


Shaw refers to Marion Bell, the widow of Charles Bell. Alexander Shaw wrote several essays related to the work of his brother-in-law, Charles Bell; the book sent by Shaw may have been An account of Sir Charles Bell’s classification of the nervous system (Shaw 1844). Shaw 1844 was also published as an appendix (‘On the nervous system’) to The anatomy and philosophy of expression as connected with the fine arts (Bell 1844, pp. 231–58). See also letter from E. A. Darwin, 22 [March 1867], n. 3.
Shaw discussed Bell’s designation of two classes of nerves, the ‘original class’ that served the oxygenation of the blood, and the ‘respiratory class’ in Bell 1844, pp. 256–8. For CD’s opposition to Bell’s views on expression, see the letter to A. R. Wallace, [12–17] March [1867] and n. 8.
Bell’s The hand: its mechanism and vital endowments as evincing design (Bell 1833) was written as the fourth Bridgewater Treatise; the Bridgewater Treatises were eight works on natural theology published between 1833 and 1836 under the terms of a bequest by Francis Henry Egerton, the eighth earl of Bridgewater (EB and Topham 1998). CD had read Bell 1833 in 1839 (see CD’s reading notebooks, Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV). For Shaw’s discussion of the significance of the mouth in human development from lower animals, see Shaw 1844 or Bell 1844, pp. 256–8.


Bell, Charles. 1833. The hand: its mechanism and vital endowments as evincing design. Fourth Bridgewater treatise. London: William Pickering.

Bell, Charles. 1844. The anatomy and philosophy of expression as connected with the fine arts. Preface by George Bell, and an appendix on the nervous system by Alexander Shaw. 3d edition, enlarged. London: John Murray.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 26 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

EB: The Encyclopædia Britannica. A dictionary of arts, sciences, literature and general information. 11th edition. 29 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1910–11.

Shaw, Alexander. 1844. An account of Sir Charles Bell’s classification of the nervous system. London: Moyes and Barclay.

Topham, Jonathan Richard. 1998. Beyond the ‘common context’: the production and reading of the Bridgewater Treatises. Isis 89: 233–62.


At the request of his sister, Marion Bell, he sends a copy of his essay on the nervous system. It contains a view of the development of the animal kingdom in illustration of Charles Bell’s classification of the nerves. Human powers are held to be more dependent upon the structure of the mouth than that of the hand.

Letter details

Letter no.
Alexander Shaw
Erasmus Alvey Darwin
Source of text
DAR 177: 145
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5454A,” accessed on 24 January 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 15