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Darwin Correspondence Project

To St G. J. Mivart   13 June [1870]1

Down. | Beckenham | Kent. S.E.

June 13th

My dear Sir

I have often reflected over the two cases to which you refer. When working on Orchids, I have often & long watched the species of Ophrys, because R. Brown thought that their supposed likeness to insects served to keep them away.2 This might possibly be advantageous to the Bee Ophrys; but certainly not to the others, as they absolutely require the aid of insects for fertilisation, though they get this aid but rarely or rather rarely.—

I believe (& Dr Hooker3 who happens to be here agrees with me) that the resemblance is fanciful;4 the flowers are odd looking & insects are the most natural standard of comparison. Who ever saw a Bee with violet wings like the petals of the Bee Ophrys? The Fly Ophrys is more like. Hooker believes that the Spider ophrys is so called simply from the curved marks on the Labellum like the marks on the backs of some Epeiræ. The Butterfly orchis has hardly any resemblance to a butterfly, & so with some foreign orchids which have received all kinds of fanciful names.—5

Your second case seems to me much more difficult: for my own part I believe the beauty of shells is altogether incidental on other causes & of no service whatever to the animals. The form depending on manner & symmetry of growth, & the colour being incidental on the chemical nature of the constituent element of the shell.6 To explain what I mean,—nothing is more beautiful than arterial blood, yet no one supposes that the colour has been gained for the sake of colour or beauty, though it gives beauty to the cheeks of Caucasian maidens. Or again, & this is a better illustration; the extreme beauty of the Eolidæ is due to their biliary secretions & organs being seen through their transparent tissues; but no one will suppose that their bile has been coloured for beauty, but is incidental on its chemical nature, as much as the recently discovered aniline colours.7 Nothing in this note can, I think, be of the least service to you, but you are welcome to use it as [illeg] from me, if you think fit. I have introduced these illustrations in my M.S. on sexual selection.—8

Pray believe me | My dear Sir | Yours sincerely | Ch. Darwin

Pray forgive this untidy & ill-expressed letter from want of time.—

Bearing in mind the magnificent colours of many artificial organic substances made by elements, it wd be wonderful if such had not been produced under nature, without being of any special use: if there had been no such beautiful colours, this fact wd. have had been to have been accounted for—

I think of the beauty & splendour of the withering leaves in an American forest.—


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from St G. J. Mivart, 11 June 1870.
See Brown 1831, pp. 740–1. CD cited Robert Brown on this point in Orchids, pp. 68–9.
Mivart quoted CD’s suggestion, without mentioning his name, in Mivart 1871, p. 55 n. 2. Mivart objected, ‘The denial, however, of the fact of a resemblance which has struck so many observers, reminds one of the French philosopher’s estimate of facts hostile to his theory— “Tant pis pour les faits!’” (That is, ‘So much the worse for the facts!’)
On the bee, fly, and spider ophrys, see the letter from St G. J. Mivart, 11 June 1870 and n. 1. The large butterfly orchis is, in CD’s Orchids, Habenaria chlorantha, now Platanthera chlorantha. The lesser butterfly orchis, CD’s H. bifolia, is now P. bifolia.
Mivart quoted CD’s suggestion about the shells of bivalves, without mentioning his name, in Mivart 1871, p. 55 n. 2. Mivart objected, ‘But surely beauty depends on some such matters in all cases!’
The Eolidae (naked sea-slugs), are now the Aeolidiidae, a family in the order Nudibranchia. The first aniline dye, aniline purple or mauveine, was discovered accidentally by William Henry Perkin when he was attempting to synthesise quinine. It was patented in 1856; in 1869, an economical process for synthesising alazarin (red dye) was developed (see ODNB s.v. Perkin, William Henry; see also Garfield 2000 and Christie 2001, pp. 3–7).
See Descent 1: 323.


Christie, Robert M. 2001. Colour chemistry. Cambridge: Royal Society of Cambridge.

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

Garfield, Simon. 2000. Mauve: how one man invented a colour that changed the world. London: Faber and Faber.

ODNB: Oxford dictionary of national biography: from the earliest times to the year 2000. (Revised edition.) Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. 60 vols. and index. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.

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.


In his reply to [7227] CD questions the significance of the supposed likeness of the bee, spider, and fly orchids to their presumed namesakes.

He thinks that the beauty of shells is altogether incidental and of no use to the animals.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
St George Jackson Mivart
Sent from
Source of text
Sotheby’s (20–1 July 1988)
Physical description
ALS 7pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7228A,” accessed on 20 May 2022,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 18