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Darwin Correspondence Project

From T. H. Farrer   1 March 1871

B of T

1 March/71

My dear Mr Darwin

I called this morning to mention an interesting parallel which struck me in reading your chapters on “Morality” last night1

You say—not only with Hume, that the social instinct did not arise from and is not resolvable into selfishness—but that in point of time it originated earlier than the selfish virtues.2 This is a very striking idea

The parallel which occurred to me is in the history of law— A generation since any lawyer who speculated at all on the origin of law would have said with Blackstone that law began with the rights of individuals; and especially that the notions of property arose from the “special occupancy” of some article or piece of land by individual savages.—3 But Maine has shewn in his excellent book on Ancient Law,4 that the first notions of property which we find in the actual history of different nations are notions of the property of a community, not of an individual—of the property belonging to the tribe, the clan, the village, the family—that in early systems of laws each persons good as compared with that of the family or community went for comparatively little—and that our present notions of the personal rights & property of individuals as one of the principal, if not the principal—or, as some people have said—the sole proper objects of law—are quite modern notions.

It is an interesting speculation to consider whether there is not at the present moment, a tendency to rebel against the ascendancy of these modern notions

I have no doubt that this, like every thing else, has occurred to you—but as it interests me, I jot it down

Sincerely yours | T H Farrer ⁠⟨⁠C⁠⟩⁠ Darwin Esq FRS

CD annotations

Top of letter: ‘3 Gloucester Terrace’ pencil5


Farrer refers to Descent 1: 70–106. CD was in London from 23 February to 2 March 1871 (see ‘Journal’ (Appendix II)).
See Descent 1: 85 n. 19 for CD’s reference to David Hume. In the context of Hume’s philosophy, a ‘selfish virtue’ is one which is useful to its possessor, such as frugality (see Hume 1751, pp. 124–5).
William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the laws of England (Blackstone 1765–9), argued that the art of agriculture established the idea of permanent individual property and further that, in order to insure that property, laws and government were established (see also Blackstone 1973, pp. 123–4).
Farrer’s London address was 3 Gloucester Terrace (Post Office London directory 1870). This letter was written from the Board of Trade, where Farrer was permanent secretary.


Blackstone, William. 1765–9. Commentaries on the laws of England. 4 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Blackstone, William. 1973. The sovereignty of the law: selections from Blackstone’s Commentaries on the laws of England. Edited by Gareth Jones. London: Macmillan.

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

Hume, David. 1751. An enquiry concerning the principles of morals. London: A. Millar.

Maine, Henry James Sumner. 1861. Ancient law: its connection with the early history of society, and its relation to modern ideas. London: John Murray.

Post Office London directory: Post-Office annual directory. … A list of the principal merchants, traders of eminence, &c. in the cities of London and Westminster, the borough of Southwark, and parts adjacent … general and special information relating to the Post Office. Post Office London directory. London: His Majesty’s Postmaster-General [and others]. 1802–1967.


Parallel between CD’s account of morality [in Descent], of social instinct preceding selfishness, and Henry Maine’s account of notions of property of a community preceding individual property [in Ancient law (1861)].

Letter details

Letter no.
Thomas Henry Farrer, 1st baronet and 1st Baron Farrer
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Board of Trade
Source of text
DAR 164: 68
Physical description
ALS 4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7528,” accessed on 23 July 2024,

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