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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. D. Hooker   18 January 1869

Royal Gardens Kew

Jany 18/69.

My dear Darwin

I do not see either how you can avoid using the term “Morphological”, but can you not use it, without leaving the reader to suppose that it has no definite sense: a very slight modification of what you say when alluding to Nægelis limitation of it would effect this I think.1

I am writing to Scott who has writ a clever & good paper on fern cultivation in Calcutta about Viola nana.2

I should not have implied that variations in leaf divergence were transmitted, but that they might be inherited (like any other variation)—that they are there to be acted upon by N.S. (ie to be propagated but that if such a variation occurs, there is no reason why it should not be transmitted, & if transmitted why N.S. should not determine its prevalence & subsequent constancy as a specific mark.—3 If you have kept my letter please look & let me know if I have implied more than this.— I should extremely like to graft a Chesnut branch in such a variation from the normal leaf divergence occurred, & sow the seed a similar branch produced.

I know no case of ovules differing in position in the different flowers of one plant, except perhaps in monsters— I think Henslow gave me a Primrose in which the ovules were basal (as normally they should be) in most flowers, & they were parietal in others.—4 it was otherwise monstrous.

I was much struck with your conclusion that the near approach to uniformity in an organ throughout a group, implied it’s functional inutility— it is no doubt true.5 I had a sort of gleam of this truth when considering the fact you once pointed out to me, that the calli of Oncidium though so essential to the plant for physiological purpose—are still very variable—6 it then suggested the converse, which you have so well evolved. But what an apparent contradiction it involves—or paradox at least—that classification & system is founded on the least useful modifications:—& this explains a very common observation, that physiology i.e. the operations of active plant life, does not much help the systematist. And yet there is something uncomfortable in the idea that system is based on modifications the active exigencies of which are no longer in play. It seems frightfully paradoxical to say that the quinary arrangement of Dicotyledons is a matter of no moment to the Dicotyledons as such;—& yet that this is true is proved by the fact that such Dicots: as are ternary or quaternary are as good Dicots: as their quinary brethren. It is a tremendous upset to Owen’s doctrines, or rather his writings, for these in no way rise to the dignity of doctrines. The “law of necessary correlation” is—nowheres.—7

Have you seen Herbert’ Spencers “Appendix”— it appears to me to be astonishingly able, & the wriggle out of Materialism to be worthy of — — (i.e you or me)—8 But how dreadfully difficult he is to read mark or digest, (for no human creature ever did or ever will do all three)— The subtlety of his reasoning is to me wonderful—

I have got tremendously pitched into for quoting him in my address as I expected: & for declaring the power above us to be inscrutable.9 My last flagellation is from Pritchard the Astronomer who blames me for not being—complimentary enough to the Almighty— I have answered him that I think the concluding 3 Verses of Palgrave’s poem is enough for the occasion—10 He says I have quoted you Erroneously about Lythrum pollen— I have no time to look— I hope not—& it is too late if I have.11

Ever yrs affec | J D Hooker

CD annotations

1.1 can you … I think. 1.4] scored blue crayon; ‘(Origin)’ added pencil, square brackets in original
2.1 I am … monstrous. 4.4] crossed pencil
3.1 I should … produced. 3.8] scored pencil
3.2 that they … propagated 3.3] crossed ink
5.7 this explains … systematist. 5.9] double scored pencil
5.9 And yet … brethren. 5.14] scored pencil
5.14 It is … nowheres.— 5.16] scored pencil
6.1 Have you … Almighty— 7.4] crossed pencil
7.5 He says … I have. 7.7] scored pencil
Top of letter: ‘Keep for Classification’ pencil


See letter from J. D. Hooker, 15 January 1869 and nn. 1 and 2, and letter to J. D. Hooker, 16 January [1869]. Hooker refers to Carl Wilhelm von Nägeli and Nägeli’s concept of a morphological character as given in Nägeli 1865 (see especially pp. 27–8).
John Scott’s ‘List of the higher cryptogams cultivated in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Calcutta’ (Scott 1869) was published in the Journal of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India. In his letter of 16 January [1869], CD mentioned that he had received seeds of Viola nana from Scott (see also letter from J. D. Hooker, 15 January 1869 and n. 5).
In his letter of 16 January [1869], CD had asked Hooker whether he knew of cases where a variation in the angle of leaf divergence had been transmitted. See also letter from J. D. Hooker, 15 January 1869 and n. 4.
See letter to J. D. Hooker, 16 January [1869] and n. 8. Hooker refers to John Stevens Henslow. For more on Henslow’s work on primroses, see Walters and Stow 2001, pp. 163–6.
In orchid terminology, ‘callus’ refers to the crest or fleshy outgrowth of the lip or ‘labellum’ as CD called it (see Dressler 1981, p. 307). CD never used the term ‘callus’ in publication. In Orchids, p. 283, CD had noted that the labellum of Oncidium was characterised by ‘all sorts of singular protuberances’, and speculated that insects might be attracted to food within the labellum. In Orchids 2d ed., p. 271, CD added Fritz Müller’s observation that prominences on the labellum of Oncidium often appeared ‘gnawed’.
Hooker refers to Richard Owen’s support for the concept of ‘correlation of parts’ first developed by Georges Cuvier. For more on Owen’s understanding and defence of the concept, see Rupke 1994, pp. 136–7.
Hooker refers to a letter written by Herbert Spencer to the editor of the North American Review, 5 December 1868, and appended to the first volume of Principles of biology (Spencer 1864–7, 1: 479–92) with the title, ‘On alleged “spontaneous generation,” and on the hypothesis of physiological units’. CD’s annotated copy is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. Most bound copies of Spencer 1864–7 lack this appendix, which evidently was sent only to subscribers such as CD and Hooker, who had received the book in instalments. The appendix appears in later editions at the end of the first volume. For Spencer’s rejection of the allegation that his system was ‘materialistic’, see pp. 490–2.
In his presidential address to the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held at Norwich in August 1868 (J. D. Hooker 1868, p. lxxiv), Hooker quoted from Spencer’s First principles (Spencer 1860–2), ‘If religion and science are to be reconciled, the basis of the reconciliation must be this deepest, widest, and most certain of facts, that the power which the universe manifests to us is utterly inscrutable.’
Hooker refers to Charles Pritchard. Hooker had ended his address with a long quotation from a poem ‘The reign of law’ by Francis Turner Palgrave (see J. D. Hooker 1868, p. lxxv).
For Hooker’s description of CD’s paper ‘Three forms of Lythrum salicaria, see J. D. Hooker 1868, p. lxvii. Hooker reported correctly that CD had identified six forms of pollen, but his statement that ‘five at least are essential to complete fertility’ may be compared with CD’s claim that ‘regularly five kinds of pollen are elaborated by this one species of Lythrum’ (‘Three forms of Lythrum salicaria, p. 189; Collected papers 2: 123).


Collected papers: The collected papers of Charles Darwin. Edited by Paul H. Barrett. 2 vols. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 1977.

Dressler, Robert L. 1981. The orchids: natural history and classification. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press.

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1868. Address of the president. Report of the thirty-eighth meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at Norwich, pp. lviii–lxxv.

Nägeli, Carl Wilhelm von. 1865. Entstehung und Begriff der naturhistorischen Art. 2d edition. Munich: Verlag der königl. Akademie.

Orchids 2d ed.: The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition, revised. London: John Murray. 1877.

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.

Rupke, Nicolaas A. 1994. Richard Owen, Victorian naturalist. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press.

Scott, John. 1869. A list of the higher cryptogams cultivated in the Royal Botanical Gardens, Calcutta. Journal of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India n.s. 1 (1869): 200–64.

Spencer, Herbert. 1860–2. First principles. London: George Manwaring; Williams & Norgate.

Spencer, Herbert. 1864–7. The principles of biology. 2 vols. London: Williams & Norgate.

‘Three forms of Lythrum salicaria’: On the sexual relations of the three forms of Lythrum salicaria. By Charles Darwin. [Read 16 June 1864.] Journal of the Linnean Society (Botany) 8 (1865): 169–96. [Collected papers 2: 106–31.]


Replies to CD’s questions. Advice on use of term "morphology". Is much struck by CD’s idea that uniformity of an organ throughout a group implies functional inutility; the paradox of this position for classification.

Letter details

Letter no.
Joseph Dalton Hooker
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 103: 4–7
Physical description
ALS 8pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6560,” accessed on 6 October 2022,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 17