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Darwin Correspondence Project

From G. R. Waterhouse   9 August 1843

9th August 1843

My dear Darwin

I cannot move you a bit though I have been immensely wordy— sometimes I have been betrayed into something approaching to a joke, but then you will have definitions— you nail me to the stake and grumble because I wriggle a bit— Well I forgive you— That’s capital say you— “when you have been— “how much does it come to—” ‘thirteen pence Sir—” “theres a shilling, my man, you make keep the odd penny—” — Well, I will explain what I am aiming at when I attempt to arrange a group in a natural manner—or, in other words, when I attempt a Natural Classification—1 I think a number of animals may be so arranged as to display (symbolically by their relative positions) a great many known facts relating to their structure, habits, and geographical distribution; and, in proportion as those facts are thus symbolically represented, so in proportion does the classification approach to my idea of a natural one— But as the term ‘natural’ certainly has a very vague meaning when thus used, I have no objection to apply the word ‘useful’ instead— In using the word natural for a kind of classification I merely follow others— it is no doubt presumptuous— But after all I do not see why we should not set up a kind of artificial standard of perfection in classification—, though we may be puzzled to define what that standard is— we know that some classifications are worse than others, and although we do not know what perfection would be, we may for convenience call the top ‘x’ or ‘natural’:—‘arbitrary’ and ‘artificial’ are the terms applied to the bottom—or to classifications of animals which generalize only trivial characters— we may for an extreme case suppose a grouping of the Carnivora according to the colouring of the species—that would be what I should term an extremely artificial classification since it only teaches one point, & that we know by experience to be a comparatively unimportant one—

Your next question is what do I mean by low groups— Those which are furthest removed from a certain standard of perfection—man, I call the lowest— each animal is, taken by itself, perfect, but it is obvious that one may be further removed from a certain type than another— thus one might say, I believe with truth, that man is composed of millions of monads, & something more—

“Relationship”—by relationship I merely mean resemblance— I use it in a most vague way— Naturalists say one animal may have a relationship of affinity with another, or it may have a relationship of analogy without there being any true affinity—2 I am very much puzzled about this matter & use the term relationship as a ‘go between’ when I find cases of difficulty— When however I say one animal is nearly related to another, I mean that the two agree in several important points, & the relationship is more distant when there are few points of resemblance and those comparatively unimportant—

The Aptera (or Lice) appear to me to be most closely linked to the Diptera by means of the Nycteribiæ — by several authors these parasitic insects have been placed in the Order Aptera but Latreille3 “with that remarkable sagacity (says Westwood) which he so constantly displayed, placed them in the order Diptera, next to Hippobosca”—4

Believe me | Ever sincerely yours | Geo. R. Waterhouse

I will take care of your last letter & others—& return mine— I merely wish to extract the heads or subjects as matters for future consideration—

I am going to see Robert Brown (as he is always called) by desire of Mr Lyell, about the British Museum Question— he yielded a most unwilling consent to Lyell to see me— Mr L. wishes me to take with me a copy of the minutes relating to the my discharge from the Zool. Soc.— The minutes of the Receipt & Expenditure Committee which recommended my discarge are kept locked up by Mr Ogilby5 and have been seen by none of the officers, but I am informed it is put entirely upon grounds of economy— it was thought by the Comee. that Fraser6 (at a lower salary than mine) wd. be enough to take care of the Museum and as regards correspondence & the Transactions &c Mr Ogilby offered his services for nothing— This is now knocked on the head as it should be— I mean to request a copy of the minute from the counsil, but I know Ogilby will do his best to prevent my obtaining it, his offer being refused.

You shall hear about these matters—

CD annotations

1.1 I cannot … penny—”) 1.6] crossed pencil
1.6 Well … instead— 1.14] ‘No way of settling the value of these elements— I think naturalists do strive after some unknown natural system.’ added ink
1.15 But after … one— 1.25] ‘However different another sex or larva is we call it one species, when we know descent.— When we do not hesitate to call Amphioxus Fish.—’ added pencil
End of paragraph 1: ‘Why embryo most important on this veiw??’ added pencil; pencil line drawn across page between paragraphs
2.1 Your … more— 2.5] ‘Takes man as standard.’added pencil
2.1 low] underl pencil
3.1 “Relationship” … unimportant— 3.8] ‘Yet any small external character, as hair or orifice nostril, we consider most important if invariable.— Analogy ought if W. was right, wd be merely slight relationship in outside: now Whale has no relationship to Fish, more than [‘to’ del] any other Mammal.’ added pencil
5.1 Believe … matters— 8.1] crossed pencil
Top of first page: ‘Excellent letter.’pencil


Westwood 1835, p. 276.
William Ogilby, secretary of the Zoological Society, 1840–7.
Louis Fraser succeeded Waterhouse as curator of the museum of the Zoological Society in 1843 (see P. C. Mitchell 1929, p. 98).


Mitchell, P. Chalmers. 1929. Centenary history of the Zoological Society of London. London: Zoological Society.

Waterhouse, George Robert. 1843. Observations on the classification of the Mammalia. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 12: 399–412.

Westwood, John Obadiah. 1835. On Nycteribia, a genus of wingless insects. Transactions of the Zoological Society of London 1: 275–94.


Explains what he means when he attempts a "natural classification", defining his words and using man as a standard; gives examples. Classification of Aptera and Diptera.

Discusses his discharge from the Zoological Society. Is to see Robert Brown about the British Museum position.

Letter details

Letter no.
George Robert Waterhouse
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 181: 13
Physical description
ALS 4pp ††

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 688,” accessed on 23 May 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 2