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Darwin Correspondence Project

From James Leask Sinclair to John Murray   22 December 1869

Auckland New Zealand

22 Decr. 1869.

To Mr Murray Esq


I beg to enclose some memoranda containing scientific theories that I wish brought before the notice of Dr. Darwin, and, if considered of any value, reviewed in an early number of the “Academy”.—1

Oblige me by sending a number of this periodical by post to my address, and say by letter if you desire to have any colonial contributors. I should also like to have your Catalogue, as most of my information concerning new books is taken from the advertisements in the “Saturday Review,” and “Notes on Books” that I regularly receive from the Messrs. Longman.2

In literature we have done nothing, in fact, the colony is too young to do much in this way, but we certainly excel in science, for you have nothing to compare with our earthquakes. On the strong and healthy their effect seems to be exhilarating, on the weak and sickly most depressing, but here in the South we have so much more sunshine, that it would be very difficult to dishearten us for any length of time.—

I am Sir | Your obedient Servant | J. L. Sinclair.


Memoranda from James L. Sinclair to Dr. Darwin.

The following are extracts from some letters of my wife3 to a literary friend in the Scottish Metropolis and are little else than an amplification of some notes sent through Professor Fotheringham of Paris to the French Institute in 1866.—4 She considers the theories extremely problematical and the practical illustrations as ridiculously common yet I consider they may be at least suggestive to you and Professor Huxley.—5 The dates of her letters I cannot give but I think the earliest is July 1869.—

‘xxxx When his apprenticeship expired in 1847 he went to Glasgow and armed with a letter of introduction attempted to secure a place in harmony with his tastes by getting into the St. Rollox Works.6 But Mr. Sinclair was of a shy retiring disposition and Mr. Gibbs being of opinion he wished a place in the counting-room— he was told that Mr. Lennart filled all these places with his own friends.7 Thus disappointed in pursuing his scientific researches he thought of entering the artillery but not receiving permission and some of his friends being decidedly opposed to it he took various places as a clerk and went to America in 1848.—

Returning in the winter of 1849 he went to Kirkwall and resided with his father8 and here early in 1850 he resumed his scientific researches. In the spring of 1850 he came to the conclusion that the story of The Fall in Genesis was merely a veiled description of some of the effects of the law of reproduction on the human race. Soon after Hugh Miller’s Footprints of the Creator9 fell in his way and he testifies his admiration in his usual way by copious notes. Lying before me are 15 folio pages of extracts closely written but Mr. Sinclair maintained that Hugh’s Theory of Degradation was altogether wrong and Sceptic in Religion though he happened to be at the time he clung to Genesis against the Great Geologist. God he says looked upon every thing he had made and he thought them ‘very good’   Hugh Miller looks upon every thing and finds them very bad and this peculiar view Mr. Sinclair was disposed to attribute to Mr. Miller’s theological education.10 And he could never be induced to believe that the flat fish he had speared so often in Stromness Harbour and Kirkwall basin were degraded fish. Taking Birds his favourites among the animal creation and considered by him the most symetrical and spending much of his leisure in shooting he carefully dissected them small and large in the endeavour to find what this so called degradation meant. In 1854 he arrived at the following conclusion: That in every healthy organism there is a perfect physiological equilibrium maintained under the law of Growth till the Law of Reproduction begins to act when the physiological equilibrium is destroyed though Mr. Sinclair believed that this organic disturbance like the perturbations of the planets in Astronomy had certain limits. Among his papers it appears as Lex Lapsus or Law of the Fall Lex Avium or Law of Birds The Fall of Man (Genesis) Animal Degradation (Hugh Miller) Lex Animalis or Law of the Animal Lex Vitalis or Law of the Living Lex Vitalitatis or Law of Life and finally in 1866 as Lex Animalium or Law of Animals though properly speaking it is merely a Theory of Organic Disturbance.

He then began a series of researches as to whether the disturbance was heightened or lessened by particular parts of the body the unequal size of the lobes of the lungs the different motions of the two sides of the body the expansion of the right lung at the right side and the expansion of the left lung and pulsation of the heart at the left side the greater weight of the left side of the brain— and he arrived at the conclusion that malformation of the brain exercised a prodigious influence over the physiological disturbance caused by the Law of Reproduction and that a parent by carelessly or thoughtlessly keeping a child sucking at one breast or even laying it down to sleep always on the same side might seriously affect its future happiness or misery.— Professor Owen11 believes there is an innate tendency to change   Mr. Sinclair maintains that under the Law of Growth there is no tendency to change till the Law of Reproduction begins to operate and the physiological disturbance caused by this law is heightened or lessened by the malformation or symmetry of other parts of the body and especially of the brain”.—

Extract from Second Letter.—

“xx The Chevalier de Lamarck12 was the first I believe who promulgated the idea that changes in the organic world are as much the result of law as those that take place among inorganic substances.— But Mr. Sinclair went a step farther for he suggests that combinations in the organic world follow Dalton’s Famous Law of definite proportion13 and that sex is merely the union of the male and female elements or germs in different combining proportions.—

During his researches on this important subject he wrote to Professor Fotheringham to ascertain if there were any well authenticated instances in the records of the Jardin Des Plantes14 of the Continuance of a race by means of hybrids but receiving no reply he was obliged to prosecute his enquiries by means of Books and personal observation. As the result of his investigations I gather from his memoranda that in the case of the human family he considers the offspring to be affected by the physical social intellectual & moral condition of the parents and also by the season of the year at which the birth may take place. Not only he says are general and individual characteristics transmitted from parent to progeny but temporary tastes are liable to be inherited. He has also some remarks on what he calls mental atavism or atavism as increased or heightened by hearing or reading of particular personal traits of one’s ancestry. What he says is much wanted among civilized communities is a Register of the average vitality of individuals showing what description of constitution they entered the world with the conditions of life to which they were subject and the result of the struggle for existence. He admits however that the data would be very complicated and materially affected by the influence of Temperance and Christianity. In the very remarkable case of the Longevity of the Jews he seems to be of opinion that it may be owing to the greater care taken of the Jewish children by their parents and not from any superior potency of race as many have supposed. In the case of the Inferior animals his opinion is altogether unfavourable to the transmission of a race by means of hybrids. Here however his views are not so definite. For instance the asinine appearance of the mule and hinny he first ascribes to the greater plasticity of the horse but after he tries to make out that it is owing to the greater combining proportion of the element of the ass. He seems to doubt also that domestication can eliminate the sterility of hybrids.— All he says that domestication can do in these cases is to modify and make more uniform the conditions of life. But these he continues cannot cause great or sudden alterations in the animal economy.” M.M.15

30 September 1869.


Murray recently started publishing the monthly Academy; see letter from John Murray, 18 September [1869].
Sinclair refers to the Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art (North 1997, 6: 425), and to the quarterly Notes on Books, published by Longman (North 1997, 5: 3565).
Mary Sinclair.
Professor Fotheringham and the literary friend have not been further identified.
Thomas Henry Huxley.
Sinclair was apprenticed as a clerk to a tea merchant in Leith (Saint-Clair 1898). Mary Sinclair also refers either to the St Rollox chemical works or to the St Rollox railway works in Springburn, north-east Glasgow.
Mr Gibbs and Mr Lennart have not been identified.
William Sinclair resided on Broad Street, Kirkwall, Orkney (Census returns 1851 (General Register Office for Scotland, Kirkwall and St Ola 4/5)).
For more on Miller and his work, see Shortland ed. 1996.
Richard Owen.
Jean Baptiste Lamarck.
The reference is to John Dalton and his law of constant composition, which was one of the strongest evidences for Dalton’s atomic theory.
The Jardin des Plantes was part of the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.
Mary Sinclair’s surname was Mowat before she married (Saint-Clair 1898).


Miller, Hugh. 1849. Footprints of the Creator: or, the Asterolepis of Stromness. London: Johnstone and Hunter.

North, John S. 1997. The Waterloo directory of English newspapers and periodicals, 1800–1900. 10 vols. Waterloo, Ontario: North Waterloo Academic Press.

Saint-Clair, Roland William. 1898. The Saint-Clairs of the Isles. Auckland: H. Brett.


Encloses memorandum for CD concerning JLS’s career and the development of his transformist views.

Letter details

Letter no.
James Leask Sinclair
John Murray
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 177: 172
Physical description
1p, encl Amem 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7031,” accessed on 29 March 2020,

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