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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Francis Darwin   [after 21 January 1871]1

[letter written in response to the attack on him in St. George Mivart’s Genesis of Species: Darwin confesses himself annoyed that he is accused of being dogmatic through the use of a quotation from Variation under Domestication (Vol. II, p. 414), which Mivart does not give in its entirety:2 … I complain of his incessantly speaking as if I trusted exclusively to natural selection (see for instance Genesis p. 67):3 now I maintain that no one has taken such pains as I have to show what use and disuse have actually done …4

he then discusses in some detail supposed problems raised by Mivart, which he believes either do not exist, or are answered already in The Origin of Species and Variation under Domestication, or are answered in his “new book” (The Descent of Man), for example the development of whale-bone5 … In an isolated group with the gradations unknown it wd be madness to pretend to indicate how any strange structure has been gained. But such cases as swim-bladders & our lungs … & scores of others ought to show anyone that he must be very cautious in saying what transformations are at least possible— Mivart cannot see how the lamina of whale-bone could have been started, but a ducks-beak wd show how this is possible— The young fishes believed to be nurtured in the abdominal sack of the marsupial Fishes by excreted mucus, shows how possibly mammary glands might have been developed.—6 I indirectly & by chance try to answer some points in my new book …

he also expresses his astonishment that Mivart should raise the issue of the giraffe’s long neck7 (“ … It is extraordinary that Mivart in speaking of neck of Giraffe shd not have seen that when one of the already largest animals, in a country bearing nutritious leaf-bearing trees, had its neck elongated, it would be absolutely useless & impossible for any other animal to acquire an elongated neck, for it could not reach so high as the already large animal with moderately elongated neck …”) and urges his son to discuss with Pryor the larynx of the kangaroo.8 … At p. 60 Mivart says “I change my whole front.” which is hardly fair: he does not give my whole sentence from Origin 5th Edit p. 1059—nor does he allude to my having always insisted on monstrosities not being preserved, & on importance of unconscious selection which implies selection of slight changes in many individuals … Mivart speaks in many places as if I entirely ignored the direct action of external conditions; & in other places all the cases are taken from Dom. Animals under variation!10

At the end Darwin writes: “But I shall weary Pryor & yourself & I have wearied myself … You must read this to Pryor if you can—he will never be able”.11]


The date is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter to St G. J. Mivart, 21 January [1871].
In Mivart 1871a, pp. 23–4, St George Jackson Mivart discussed CD’s belief that natural selection worked on very slight variations; he wrote, ‘And again, after mentioning the frequent sudden appearances of domestic varieties, he speaks of “the false belief as to the similarity of natural species in this respect.’” See also Mivart 1871a, p. 102. What CD actually wrote in Variation 2: 214 was: ‘The frequency of these cases is likely to lead to the false belief that natural species have often originated in the same abrupt manner.’ For Mivart’s accusation of dogmatism, see also the letter to St G. J. Mivart, 23 January [1871] and n. 3.
In Mivart 1871a, p. 67, Mivart wrote, ‘The difficulty asserted applies, however, only to pure Darwinism, which makes use only of indirect modifications through the survival of the fittest’, and contrasted Darwinism with ‘other theories’ that admitted the ‘direct action of conditions upon animals and plants’.
See, for example, Variation 2: 293–318 (Laws of variation— use and disuse, etc.).
In Mivart 1871a, pp. 40–2, Mivart argued that the baleen sieve in the mouth of the whale could not have evolved by natural selection since an incipient sieve would not perform a useful function, and, moreover, existing animals that apparently had such incipient structures belonged to a different order from whales.
CD refers to pipefishes (family Syngnathidae), a group in which the males incubate the eggs. In Notebooks, Notebook D, 169, CD wrote, ‘Notice the Syngnathus, or Pipe fish the male of which receives eggs in belly.— analogous to men having mammæ’; and in Notebook E, 57, ‘The Pipe-fish is instance of part of the hermaphrodite structure being retained in the male.—’ See also Pauly 2004, pp. 159–61.
In Mivart 1871a, pp. 24–9, Mivart argued that if natural selection favoured the development of long necks in giraffes, many other ungulates in the same region should have developed long necks; also that the disadvantages of developing a long neck might outweigh the advantages.
In Mivart 1871a, p. 42, Mivart described how the elongation of the young kangaroo’s larynx prevented it from being choked when it suckled. CD referred to Marlborough Robert Pryor, a friend of Francis.
In Mivart 1871a, p. 60, Mivart quoted CD’s comments from Origin 5th ed., pp. 104–5, on [Jenkin] 1867. Henry Charles Fleeming Jenkin had argued that in time favourable variations would be swamped as organisms with the variation bred with those without. Mivart quoted CD’s comment, ‘If, for instance, a bird of some kind could procure its food more easily by having its beak curved, and if one were born with its beak strongly curved, and which consequently flourished, nevertheless there would be a very poor chance of this one individual perpetuating its kind to the exclusion of the common form’, but omitted his continuation, ‘but there can hardly be a doubt, judging by what we see taking place under domestication, that this result would follow from the preservation during many generations of a large number of individuals with more or less curved beaks, and from the destruction of a still larger number with the straightest beaks.’
According to the sale catalogue, this letter was written for Pryor’s benefit; ‘from the opening of the letter, it appears that he was seeking a refutation of Mivart from Darwin’. Pryor may have been planning to write a review of Mivart 1871a; see letter to Francis Darwin, 21 May [1871].


[Jenkin, Henry Charles Fleeming.] 1867. The origin of species. North British Review 46: 277–318.

Notebooks: Charles Darwin’s notebooks, 1836–1844. Geology, transmutation of species, metaphysical enquiries. Transcribed and edited by Paul H. Barrett et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the British Museum (Natural History). 1987.

Origin 5th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 5th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1869.

Pauly, Daniel. 2004. Darwin’s fishes. An encyclopedia of ichthyology, ecology, and evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Responds to Mivart’s Genesis of species. "I complain of his incessently speaking as if I trusted exclusively to natural selection … Mivart speaks in many places as if I entirely ignored the direct action of external conditions". Answers some of Mivart’s particular criticisms. Suggests FD read the letter to Marlborough Robert Pryor, as Pryor will never be able to read it himself.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Francis Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
Sotheby’s (dealers) (28 March 1983)
Physical description
ALS ** 5pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7425,” accessed on 10 December 2022,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 19