skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From James Shaw   17 February 1868

Tynron Thornhill N.B.

17 Feb 1868

Dear Sir,

Modern thought drifting to new lands bursts out in mutiny betimes like Columbus’s sailors.1 Still I scarcely expected the Athenæum to be so infallible this week.

“The reduction of the numbers of so-called Species is the daily business of Zoologists” &c   Then why does it know that “man never originated a species” when it confesses that species are not determined?

It seems you don’t acknowledge “an inherent tendency not to vary” & yet you are a storehouse “on the transmission of peculiarities once acquired through successive generations”.2 Well that seems scarcely “fair fighting” on the critics’ part.

You have your battles & we in this outlandish quarter have our skirmishes. Our antiquarian Soc. was quite hot here one night because I had taken up the Subject of the Right Hand as a specialization of an organ still going on, although it might have commenced thousands on thousands of years ago.3 I had a list of tools made to suit the right hand only— a list of customs requiring the special use of the right hand, as writing. &c &c

Then I had the case of rude people as drivers having far less difference between the value or amount of differentiation of the hands than engravers, &c

I had the ratio of left handed folk given in the book of Judges of the tribe of Benjamin being greater than the ratio now4 & the ratio of elephants left-tusked as we might say greater than that of left-handed men. Then I had the puzzle of left-handedness not well explained by non-symmetrically of lungs &c.5

One gentleman said it was rank Darwinism disguised & therefore I suppose he would know its value.

I am | Dear Sir | Yours most respectfully | Jas. Shaw.

P.S. | I was trying to break a lance on the oft repeated dogma that an impassable gulf exists bet. man & other beings because man alone has mental progress. This was brought up against poor Page.6 I was surprised that the Athenaeum Dec 21 admitted my terrible statement.7

That the advent of a being like man who is protecting angel or most cunning adversary of beasts should modify their instincts so that cunning &c competes best with cunning—intelligence best serves intelligence—seems fair enough reasoning.8 True, parrots & gorillas &c rank high for brain and don’t seem either to serve or fight man, but we don’t know the antecedents of their ancestors. Peru & Mexico had once an immense population to whom parrots feathers were luxuries.9

Excuse me | J. S.


On the threat of mutiny during the first voyage of Christopher Columbus, see Morison 1942, 1: 284–91.
Shaw quotes from the review of Variation published in the Athenaeum ([Robertson] 1868a). The passage reads, in part: “‘If,” says Mr. Darwin, “organic beings had not possessed an inherent tendency to vary, man could have done nothing.” The reply is, that man has done nothing, and that there is an inherent tendency not to vary. Not merely has man never originated a species, he has never permanently varied a species.’
Shaw was a member of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. Shaw presented a paper on ‘Right-handed superiority’ on 7 January 1868 (R. Wallace ed. 1899, pp. xxvi, 382).
Shaw refers to the following passage from Judg. 20:15–16: ‘And the children of Benjamin were numbered at that time out of the cities twenty and six thousand men that drew sword, beside the inhabitants of Gibeah, which were numbered seven hundred chosen men. Among all these people there were seven hundred chosen men lefthanded.’
Shaw discussed an explanation of right-handedness based on the asymmetry of the human body, for example, the right lung being larger than the left (R. Wallace ed. 1899, p. 267).
Shaw may refer to David Page, a Scottish geologist and educationalist (ODNB).
Shaw’s remarks on ‘the intelligence of animals’ were published in the Athenæum, 21 December 1867, p. 858.
Shaw had suggested that the intelligence of animals had increased as a result of their domestication or predation by humans.
The Aztec and Maya civilizations had used parrot feathers in ceremonial dress and other garments as symbols of wealth and status (Berdan 2006).


Mentions review [of Variation] in the Athenæum [15 Feb 1868, pp. 243–4].

Comments on adaptive utility of the right hand, an organ still undergoing specialisation.

Letter details

Letter no.
James Shaw
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 177: 152
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5884,” accessed on 16 June 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 16