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Darwin Correspondence Project

To H. T. Stainton   2 March [1868]1

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

Mar 2

My dear Mr Stainton

Your letter has been wonderfully interesting to me, & what immense trouble you have taken in writing so many letters, the answers to which I have been very glad to see.2 The subject is extremely complex, & to me very important. I am having domesticated animals tabulated, & by patient enquiry, I hope to arrive at some degree of probability; certainty I fear is out of the question.3 With man alone we know positively that males are born in excess. Dr Wallace thinks that with B. Cynthia he certainly breeds more males than females.4

He seems to think that in collecting caterpillars any one wd be more likely to collect those which wd turn into females than those which wd turn into males, from the former being some what larger & thus more likely to be chosen, or unconsciously to strike the eye.5 This certainly seems not improbable; & if you are not wearied out, I shd like to have your opinion on this head; for it is a most uncomfortable anomaly that more free males shd be captured & more females bred under confinement.

I am sorry that my last note about the protective colouring of the brimstone & Orange-tip butterflies did not reach you in time; but my query, as far as the appearance of the Brimstone is concerned is incidentally answered by Mr Doubleday.6

I think I shall write to him about the courtship of butterflies.7 In the case of moths Dr Wallace seems positive that there is no courtship, & that the female receives the first male which comes.8 If I am not mistaken I have seen several male Butterflies pursuing one female, & I cannot but think that something more than mere chance must decide which shall be successful. So with the crowding Lasiocampas—9

In truth I do not know how to thank you enough; & I will not give any more trouble.

Believe me Yours sincerely obliged | Ch. Darwin

I think I will write to Quatrefages about silk-moths in France.—10


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from H. T. Stainton, 29 February 1868.
Stainton enclosed copies of letters from Henry Doubleday and John Hellins with his letter to CD of 29 February 1868. The subject of the ratio of sexes in Lepidoptera had also been discussed at a meeting of the Entomological Society on 17 February 1868; both Stainton and Henry Walter Bates reported on the meeting to CD (see letter from H. W. Bates, 18 February 1868, and letter from H. T. Stainton, 20 February 1868).
In a letter to W. B. Tegetmeier, 11 February [1868], CD had asked for records on proportions of sexes in ‘as many domestic animals as possible’; Tegetmeier offered to tabulate results of his investigation (letter from W. B. Tegetmeier, [before 15 February 1868]). See also letter to H. T. Stainton, 21 February [1868].
Alexander Wallace discussed the ailanthus silk moth, Bombyx cynthia (now Samia cynthia), in his letter to CD of 25 February 1868.
Wallace had not, in fact, written that a collector would be more likely to choose female caterpillars and later corrected CD on this point (see letter from Alexander Wallace, 14 March 1868).
In his letter to Stainton of 28 February [1868], CD had asked whether the colouring of female brimstone and orange-tip butterflies (Gonepteryx rhamni and Anthocharis cardamines) might mimic that of cabbage butterflies (Pieris brassicae) for protection. In a letter to Stainton of 26 February 1868, Henry Doubleday mentioned that when males of G. rhamni appeared in spring, none of the common white butterflies were out (see enclosure to letter from H. T. Stainton, 29 February 1868). In Descent 1: 409, CD argued there was no evidence that the resemblance was beneficial, but that it was more probable that females retained the primordial colours of the group (all these butterflies belong to the family Pieridae, commonly referred to as whites and yellows).
CD refers to the behaviour of Lasiocampa quercus (see letter from Roland Trimen, 20 February 1868, and letter to H. T. Stainton, 21 February [1868]).
CD’s letter to Armand de Quatrefages has not been found, but see the letter from Armand de Quatrefages, 4 March 1868. Quatrefages had written treatises on diseases of silkworms (Quatrefages 1859 and 1860) and had supplied CD with information on silkworm varieties (see Correspondence vol. 11, letter from Armand de Quatrefages, 25 March 1863 and n. 2).


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.

Quatrefages, Armand de. 1859. Études sur les maladies actuelles du ver à soie. Paris: Victor Masson.


Thanks HTS for his valuable information. Hopes to arrive at probable answer to question of proportion of males to females in the progeny of butterflies bred in domestication.

On courtship of butterflies, CD believes something more than chance is involved in determining which male is successful.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Henry Tibbats Stainton
Sent from
Source of text
Natural History Museum, Library and Archives (General Manuscripts MSS DAR 23)
Physical description
LS(A) 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5967,” accessed on 1 October 2023,

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