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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Charles Lyell   5 May 1869

May 5, 1869.

I am pleased at the impression which the historical part of Wallace’s review made on you.1 It reminds me of Cuvier’s daughter, a charming and intelligent girl, telling me she had been reading my book (vol. i. of ‘Principles’) to her father, and that they had been struck with the complete antagonism of my views to those which he had propounded in his ‘Theory of the Earth.’2

I was always made to feel myself a welcome guest at Cuvier’s soirées, but he never alluded to my book, and but for Mademoiselle Cuvier’s saying she had been reading it to him in their carriage as they drove out, I should never have known he had seen it.

I quite agree with you that Wallace’s sketch of Natural Selection is admirable.3 I wrote to tell him so after I had read the article & in regard to the concluding theory I reminded him that as to the origin of man’s intellectual & moral nature I had allowed in my first edition that its introduction was a real innovation interrupting the uniform course of the causation previously at work on the earth. I was therefore not opposed to his idea, that the Supreme Intelligence might possibly direct variation in a way analogous to that in which even the limited powers of man might guide it in Selection, as in the case of the breeder and horticulturist. In other words as I feel that Progressive Development or Evolution cannot be entirely explained by Natural Selection I rather hail Wallace’s suggestion that there may be a Supreme Will & Power which may not abdicate its functions of interference but may guide the forces & laws of Nature.4 This seems to me the more probable when I consider not without wonder that we should be permitted to give rise to a monstrosity like the pouter pigeon & to cause it to breed true for an indefinite number of generations, certainly not to the advantage of the variety or species so created.

At the same time I told Wallace that I thought his arguments—as to the hand, the voice, the beauty, the symmetry, the naked skin & other attributes of man implying a preparation for his subsequent development—might easily be controverted.5 That a parrot endowed with the powers of Shakspeare might dictate the ‘Midsummer Nights Dream’ & that Michael Angelo if he had no better hand than belongs to some of the higher apes might have executed the statue of Lorenzo di Medici.

In reply to this & other analogous comments Wallace said “It seems to me that if we once admit the necessity of any action beyond ”natural selection“ in developing man we have no reason whatever for confining that action to his brain. On the mere doctrine of chances it seems to me in the highest degree improbable, that so many points of structure all tending to favour his mental developement should concur in man & in man alone of all animals. If the erect posture, the freedom of the anterior limbs from purposes of locomotion the powerful & opposable thumb, the naked skin, the great symmetry of form the perfect organs of speech & his mental faculties—calculations of numbers, ideas of symmetry, of justice, of abstract reasoning of the infinite of a future state & many others can not be shown to be each & all useful to man in the very lowest state of civilization, how are we to explain their coexistence in him alone of the whole series of organized beings? Years ago I saw a Bushman boy and girl in London & the girl played very nicely on the piano. Blind Tom the idiot negro had a musical ear or brain superior perhaps to that of any living man.6 Unless Darwin can shew me how this rudimentary or latent musical faculty in the lowest races can have been developed by survival of the fittest—can have been of use to the individual or the race, so as to cause those who possessed it to win in the struggle for life, I must believe that some other power caused that developement & so on with every other especially human characteristic. It seems to me that the ”onus probandi7 will lie with those who maintain that man, body & mind, could have been developed from a quadrumanous animal by Natural Selection.”

As to the scooping out of lake-basins by glaciers, I have had a long, amicable, but controversial correspondence with Wallace on that subject, and I cannot get over (as, indeed, I have admitted in print) an intimate connection between the number of lakes of modern date and the glaciation of the regions containing them.8 But as we do not know how ice can scoop out Lago Maggiore to a depth of 2,600 feet, of which all but 600 is below the level of the sea, getting rid of the rock supposed to be worn away as if it was salt that had melted, I feel that it is a dangerous causation to admit in explanation of every cavity which we have to account for, including Lake Superior.9 They who use it seem to me to have it always at hand, like the ‘diluvial wave, or the wave of translation,’ or the ‘convulsion of nature or catastrophe’ of the old paroxysmists.

I have just got a letter from Professor Leslie, and an important paper by him in the American ‘Philosophical Society’ for 1862, and another on a projected map, ‘intended to illustrate five types of earth-surface in the United States,’ published in 1866.10 He was formerly a catastrophist, but of late years he seems to have anticipated Geikie and Croll11 in regard to sub-aerial denudation, giving, like them, too little to the sea. But he is a man intimately acquainted with the Appalachians, and he gives his reasons for not believing that the ice-sheet has had any hand in eroding the Appalachians.12 It has polished the surface, and carried erratics so far as mid-Pennsylvania, and no farther; but the surface erosion is just as great in Southern Pennsylvania and Virginia, &c., which was not reached by the ice, and where there is not a single glacial scratch or groove. He says that the large map which he has planned will make the ice-scooping of lakes in the United States appear as absurd as if applied to tropical Africa or the Albert Nyanza Lake.13

Believe me ever affectionately yours, | Charles Lyell.


Lyell evidently misremembered the event. Clémentine Cuvier died in 1827, but the first volume of Principles of geology (C. Lyell 1830–3) only appeared in 1830. Lyell met Clémentine and her half-sister, Miss Duvansel, in 1823 (K. M. Lyell 1881, 1: 125). It may have been Miss Duvansel, who has not been further identified, who later read Lyell’s book to Cuvier. Lyell also refers to Essay on the theory of the earth (Cuvier 1813).
See [Wallace] 1869b, pp. 382–91.
Lyell’s view is similar to that expressed by Wallace in [Wallace] 1869b.
See [Wallace] 1869b, pp. 391–3.
The reference is to Thomas Greene Wiggins (see Southall 1999).
Onus probandi: burden of proof (Latin).
Maggiore is a lake, partly in Novara and Varese provinces, Italy, and partly in Ticino canton, Switzerland. Lake Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake bordering on Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin in the United States and Ontario in Canada (Columbia gazetteer of the world).
Lyell refers to J. Peter Lesley and to Lesley 1862 and Lesley 1866.
See Lesley 1866, pp. 310–12. Lesley concluded that erosion of the Appalachian mountain chain had resulted from sub-aerial denudation alone.
Lake Albert Nyanza borders on the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda in east central Africa (Columbia gazetteer of the world).


Columbia gazetteer of the world: The Columbia gazetteer of the world. Edited by Saul B. Cohen. 3 vols. New York: Columbia University Press. 1998.

Lesley, J. Peter. 1862. Section of coal-measures on the Cape Breton coast. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 9 (1862–3): 93–109.

Lesley, J. Peter. 1866. Notes on a map intended to illustrate five types of earth-surface in the United States, between Cincinnati and the Atlantic seaboard. [Read 4 May 1866.] Transactions of the American Philosophical Society n.s. 13 (1865–9): 305–12.

Lyell, Charles. 1830–3. Principles of geology, being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation. 3 vols. London: John Murray.

Lyell, Katharine Murray, ed. 1881. Life, letters and journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart. 2 vols. London: John Murray.

Southall, Geneva Handy. 1999. Blind Tom, the black pianist-composer (1849–1908): continually enslaved. Lanham, Md., and London: Scarecrow.


Recalls Cuvier’s reaction to Principles of geology.

Comments on Wallace’s article in the Quarterly Review [see 6684].

Not opposed to ARW’s idea that Supreme Will might direct variation.

Quotes passage in letter from ARW arguing for causes other than selection in determining human abilities.

Discusses excavation of lakes by glaciers.

J. P. Lesley does not believe ice-sheets involved in eroding Appalachians.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
Lyell 1881, 2: 441; DAR 85: A100–1
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6728,” accessed on 18 May 2024,

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